Questions from Faculty Meetings and Discussions

The following are some of the questions about edX and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses) which were raised in faculty meetings and faculty discussions in the fall.

Intellectual Property
Amherst College-Specific Questions
Impact on Campus Resources
The Role of Certificates
Financial Concerns
Online Courses 
MOOCs and The Future of Higher Education

Intellectual Property

Q: Who owns the intellectual property for an edX course? 

A: edX has made it clear that it does not own the IP or the materials for the course. This is covered by Amherst College policies.

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Amherst College-specific questions

Q: Why is it important for Amherst to influence the future of MOOCs?

A: The importance of this moment in time is the opportunity to work with people at MIT, Harvard, and Berkeley who are creating courses and learning from the experience.  What is learned from offering a science or engineering course will be different from what is learned from offering a humanities or qualitative social science course.  We have something special to bring to the table, and edX is looking to us as a leader in effective teaching.

Q: Will this devalue Amherst's name? 

A: Colleges and universities have been experimenting with online education for some time, with varied degrees of success. It has not damaged their reputations or discouraged them from continuing to explore the opportunities offered by the use of technology. "Columbia University introduced Fathom, a 2001 commercial venture that involved the University of Chicago, the University of Michigan and others. It lost money and folded in 2003. Yale, Princeton and Stanford collaborated on AllLearn, a nonprofit effort that collapsed in 2006." New York Times, 5/3/12.

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Impact on campus resources

Q: What is the anticipated impact of this pilot on College resources?

A: Participating in a pilot with edX would require oversight and a $2 million outlay.  The Dean of the Faculty and the governing committees of the college would need to select courses and monitor the process. Approximately three to five faculty would commit to the equivalent of teaching an overload for a minimum of two semesters (or a summer and semester) and would be compensated. Students who have taken the course previously may be hired as TAs. Information Technology staff would support faculty work with edX and would create a test environment so faculty who are not using edX could experiment with the platform and this innovative use of technology.  

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The role of Certificates

Q: Will certificates be offered for individual courses?

A: This is under discussion. Certificates come in two formats:  honor code certificates (free) and proctored certificates which may be offered for passing a test taken in a test center (for a fee). edX strongly encourages member institutions to offer certificates, however Amherst would be given the necessary time to consider this question and develop our own criteria.

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Financial concerns

Q: What is the edX business model?

A: This is still being developed. edX began with significant endowments of $30 million from both Harvard and MIT. Subsequent consortium members have made either monetary contributions, or provided in-kind technical expertise, as was the case with UC Berkeley. edX has also received funding from foundations, such as the Gates Foundation, who granted $1 million on June 20, 2012. 

Q: What are the financial details?

A: For the pilot, Amherst College could offer any combination of new and repeat courses that totals $2 million, at $250,000 per new course and $100,000 per repeat course. 

Q: What happens to the $2 million if there is little enthusiasm for mounting courses?

A: If no faculty are interested, there will be no expense, as funds will only be spent when courses are developed or offered. 

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Online Courses

Q: How do we know online courses work? 

MOOCs are new enough that formal assessment programs are only now under development.  However, the effectiveness of online learning has been studied for many years.

Separating the question of how acquisition of knowledge relates to getting an education, or the question of the range of quality of education received at different colleges and universities, many studies conducted over the years have found that online and blended courses can be very successful in the acquisition and retention of course content.

  1. A recent government meta-analysis found that online education can equal in-person instruction in the acquisition and retention of course content, while a blended approach is even more successful for some students.  (see below)
  2. Ithaka, a Mellon-funded consulting and research firm focused on education, recently released the results of a study showing that students enrolled in hybrid (or 'blended') courses had "essentially the same" outcome as students in traditional courses. Ithaka S+R
  3. The 2011 EDUCAUSE ECAR study of student use of technology: "More students (36 percent) prefer a blended learning environment of seminars and other smaller classes with some online components to any other configuration of face-to-face and online options." (p. 27)
  4. "A February 2013 Columbia University study of 500,000 courses taken by more than 40,000 community and technical college students in Washington State found that students in demographic groups that typically struggle in traditional classrooms are finding their troubles exacerbated in online courses. The study found that all students who take more online courses, no matter the demographic, are less likely to attain a degree. However, some groups—including black students, male students, younger students, and students with lower grade-point averages—are particularly susceptible to this pattern. Shanna Smith Jaggars, who is assistant director of the Community College Research Center and one of the paper’s authors, said the widening gap is troubling, as it could imply that online learning is weakening—not strengthening—education equality. 'We found that the gap is stronger in the underrepresented and underprepared students,' Ms. Jaggars said. 'They’re falling farther behind than if they were taking face-to-face courses.'" - Adam Sitze

Q: Why offer a MOOC rather than another method of online learning?

A: Participating in a MOOC pilot does not preclude considering other forms of online learning.  However, MOOCs may offer a unique opportunity to share some of what makes Amherst special with the world. Using a MOOC instead of, for example, a for-credit model, allows us to focus specifically and exclusively on teaching. There is no admissions process, no registration, no review of transfer credit, no academic skills center. 

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Moocs and the future of higher education

Q: What effect will MOOCs have in the long term on higher education?

A: This is an open question which has triggered much discussion, such as in The Chronicle of Higher Education article, "5 Ways edX Could Change Education," 10/1/12. The Chronicle of Higher Education

Q: What potential effects will MOOCs have on community colleges?

  1. Community colleges face unprecedented demand, coupled with decreases in government funding,and many working to find creative solutions to the question of educating people who currently have no access to higher education. The New York Times 3/29/12
  2. edX has partnered with Bunker Hill Community College, to create the blended course Practical Python Programming.

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Summary of Research Findings

Means, B., et al. (2010). Evaluation of evidence-based practices in online learning: A meta-analysis and review of online learning studies. U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved from:

A systematic search of the research literature from 1996 through July 2008 identified more than a thousand empirical studies of online learning. Analysts screened these studies to find those that (a) contrasted an online to a face-to-face condition, (b) measured student learning outcomes, (c) used a rigorous research design, and (d) provided adequate information to calculate an effect size. As a result of this screening, 50 independent effects were identified that could be subjected to meta-analysis. 

Blended Learning > Purely Online Instruction = Classroom Instruction


  • The overall finding of the meta-analysis is that classes with online learning (whether taught completely online or blended) on average produce stronger student learning outcomes than do classes with solely face-to-face instruction.
  • Students in online conditions performed modestly better, on average, than those learning the same material through traditional face-to-face instruction.
  • Instruction combining online and face-to-face elements (aka. blended learning) had a larger advantage relative to purely face-to-face instruction than did purely online instruction.
  • Online learning can be enhanced by giving learners control of their interactions with media and prompting learner reflection.

"Despite what appears to be strong support for blended learning applications, the studies in this meta-analysis do not demonstrate that online learning is superior as a medium, In many of the studies showing an advantage for blended learning, the online and classroom conditions differed in terms of time spent, curriculum and pedagogy. It was the combination of elements in the treatment conditions (which was likely to have included additional learning time and materials as well as additional opportunities for collaboration) that produced the observed learning advantages. At the same time, one should note that online learning is much more conducive to the expansion of learning time than is face-to-face instruction." (p. xviii)

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