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Fifty-eight faculty members have called for Harvard University to create a new faculty committee to consider ethical issues related to edX, the entity created by the university and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to provide massive open online courses.

The letter urges the creation of the committee to consider "critical questions" about edX and its impact on Harvard and also on "the higher education system as a whole." And the letter calls for the new committee -- unlike two faculty panels that now exist -- to come entirely from the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. That faculty, which has primary responsibility not only for teaching undergraduates but also for training Ph.D.s in a wide range of disciplines, is the largest at the university. The letter was sent Thursday and published Friday by The Harvard Crimson.

"Some faculty are tremendously excited about the potential" for MOOCs provided by edX and HarvardX (a related Harvard operation), the letter says. But it adds that "others are deeply concerned about the program's cost and consequences."

The letter was sent to Michael D. Smith, dean of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences. Signatories came from a range of arts and sciences disciplines. Among the big names signing the letter were Robert Darnton (the university librarian),  Stephen Greenblatt (English), Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham (history and African-American studies), Jill Lepore (history), Harry R. Lewis (computer science), Louis Menand (English), Steven Pinker (psychology) and Christopher Winship (sociology).

The MOOC Moment

A free, print-on-demand booklet of Inside Higher Ed articles and essays about MOOCs may be found here.

The new committee the professors want to see created would be charged with drafting "a set of ethical and educational principles" for edX, and bringing those principles to the faculty for a vote of adoption.

A spokesman from Harvard on Friday issued a statement that -- while polite about the faculty letter -- suggested that the administration does not intend to create the faculty committee the professors want.

"Dean Smith looks forward to continuing the ongoing dialogue with these and other members of the FAS faculty. Free inquiry and spirited debate is at the heart of any university's mission. Indeed, Harvard's faculty have been debating innovations in pedagogy for 375 years and will continue to do so," said the statement.

"Dean Smith wants to ensure that every individual member of the faculty continues to have the academic freedom to structure their courses and their pedagogy as they deem appropriate, and the institutional support those efforts require. HarvardX is a university initiative that supports faculty innovation in online and blended models of teaching. Ultimately, HarvardX consists of the faculty members -- from FAS and across the university -- who have chosen to undertake these innovative efforts," he added. "The dean will continue to work with the two existing HarvardX faculty committees -- on both of which FAS faculty represent approximately a third of the membership -- and with faculty members across the FAS to support innovation in teaching and learning and to promote ongoing dialogue and debate of these important issues."

The Harvard letter comes at a time when faculty members at some colleges and universities are pushing for a bigger role in overseeing MOOCs and college strategy about MOOCs. The philosophy department at San Jose State University in April released a letter to a Harvard professor about the use of one of his MOOC courses, raising questions about the impact of the course on the ability of San Jose State to meet student needs that go beyond good lectures. In April, the faculty at Amherst College voted down a proposal to affiliate with edX.

As college and universities have rushed to affiliate with top MOOC providers such as edX and Coursera, many college presidents have said that they consulted with faculty leaders, but didn't necessarily let the faculty hold a vote on whether to start offering MOOCs. And those college presidents -- especially at leading MOOC providers, which tend to be elite institutions -- have stressed that no faculty members are forced to offer MOOCs or grant credit for MOOC work done by students.

What may be notable about the Harvard letter (like the San Jose State letter and the statements of MOOC skeptics at Amherst) is its request that a faculty committee study edX not just for its implications for Harvard, but for higher education broadly. If such a standard is applied, it may be possible for an institution like Harvard to conclude that edX provides the university with many benefits, and still to raise concerns about the role of MOOCs.

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