As more schools begin to adopt massive open online courses as part of their curricula, administrators and faculty from across the nation seek to put the courses and their providers under the microscope.

Southern New Hampshire University President Paul LeBlanc posits that the rise of online courses and companies that provide “bundled services” to universities will result in a watered-down version of higher education. “If non-profit Institution X contracts for a [bundled services provider], what is then left for Institution X to provide?” asks LeBlanc. “Its name, accreditation, Title IV approval, and intellectual property in the form of the syllabuses and program.” He argues that institutions would effectively serve as conduits for federal and state financial aid money to pass directly into the coffers of for-profit companies.

Avoiding commitment

Universities have been actively considering the role they will allow MOOCs to play. The CIC, in particular, created a task force to explore their options, and compiled their findings and questions in a report.

The report questions the ability of massive online open courses to educate in a significant way on their own. In a particularly scathing introduction, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation(CIC) Ad Hoc Committee for Online Learning wrote, “The ability to project a course online such that hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands can tune in is not, in and of itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential ‘students.’” The committee does not identify MOOCs as a threat to the current educational model, and instead refers to them as “emerging instructional technologies” that the universities can harness as well as, if perhaps better than, any upstart organization.

Despite this belief, the CIC committee admits that their member schools produce over 16 percent of MOOCs on Coursera, and have no plans to stop for the time being. However, the 15 member universities of the CIC look forward to expanding their exclusive cache of shared online curricula to supplant MOOCs in the future.

For now, professors from these institutions provide the third-party organizations with their courses, sometimes gleefully, and sometimes with reservations.

The ethicality of a MOOC

The edX course Justice originally galvanized millions as a PBS program with concurrent availability on YouTube and supplementary materials on its own website. Being that the course was ready-made for the MOOC platform, the professor behind the course, Michael Sandel of Harvard, now gets yet another chance to introduce his material to new audiences.

Some professors, such as Peter Kenez, emeritus, of the University of California at Santa Cruz, agree with Sandel’s approach. Kenez’s Coursera course, The Holocaust, will launch at the end of July. On that subject, he stated, “I willingly give this value to anybody who wants [it].” His peers at UC Santa Cruz disagree. Their union, The Santa Cruz Faculty Association, has expressed concern with the way school faculty must sign away their intellectual property rights to the university in order to host a massively open online course.

In a spirited open letter to Michael Sandel, the philosophy department at San Jose State Unviersity took exception to the idea that a pre-packaged course could provide the same level of student engagement as a real professor. Their letter sought to ignite a debate, but received a tepid three-paragraph response from Sandel. The rest of the academic community remains divided, and continues to entertain questions about the imminent changes facing higher education.