Why I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

Because the undergraduate education I received at Wellesley College has been so important in my life, and because I believe all college students deserve the intellectual engagement Wellesley gave me, I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

The education Wellesley College gave me has been central to how I understand what it is to learn and to participate fully in the world. It helped me see knowledge as more than a fixed list of things-to-know but rather as a body that was always in flux, always under construction, always in contact with the wider world. It engaged me seriously, as an individual and as a member of a coordinated learning community with my Wellesley classmates, with professors who were building knowledge, not just describing knowledge others had built.

As a professor at San José State University, a teaching-focused institution in the California State University system, I am teaching a very different student population than Wellesley's. Approximately half of our students are first-generation college students. Many of our full-time students work 40 hours a week or more to pay for college (and, frequently, to support their families). A heartbreakingly large proportion of our students arrive at our university with the expectation that a college degree will be of merely instrumental value (to help them get a job, to secure them a better salary at the job they have), having never encountered a teacher who believed in their ability to learn broadly and deeply -- or who believed that they were entitled to learning for its own sake, for their own enjoyment.

These are students who need an educational experience like the one Wellesley provided for me. My mission as a professor is to give them as much of this experience as I can.

This is not an easy task, when budget crises have meant ballooning class sizes and dwindling resources to support instruction. It is even harder when administrators, looking to cut costs, decide it it appropriate to replace live, engaged, expert instruction in the classroom with packaged massive online courses from private vendors like edX.

Courses like those Wellesley College has created and licensed to edX.

I recognize that the faculty involved in creating these courses probably did so with the best of intentions, hoping to share their enthusiasm and expertise with people in the world with no access to college courses other than the internet.

However, the MOOCs they have created have become tools for other purposes, used to "save money" (by eliminating faculty) and to replace meaningful classroom instruction that is working for our student populations.

This serves not to increase access to higher education but to reduce it, at least for the students served by public university systems like mine. At this point in the grand disruptive online experiment, all indications are that MOOCs "work" for self-directed learners, the "ambitious autodidacts" who seems always to be the prime beneficiaries of educational innovations, but that they don't work well for "students from difficult neighborhoods, without good access to computers, and with all kinds of challenges in their lives" -- that is, for students like mine.

Private entities like edX are distributing MOOCs that are being used to replace classroom instruction that strives to give students just a taste of Wellesley's intellectual engagement with an online experience that Wellesley faculty would (I hope) never dream of substituting for their own classroom engagement with their students.

A hallmark of my education at Wellesley was that the subject matter was never just confined to the classroom. Whatever the subject, we were challenged to think hard about its real impact in the world. I implore Wellesley's faculty and administration to think hard about the real context in which the MOOCs they are creating are deployed, about the effects, intended and unintended, that follow upon their use.

By participating in edX without attaching conditions to their MOOCs that prevent their use to replace classroom education that is working and to undermine meaningful educational access, Wellesley College is hurting my students and my ability as a professor to give them some of what Wellesley gave me.

So long as Wellesley College continues to participate in the weaponization of education through edX, I cannot in good conscience contribute another dollar to Wellesley College.

Janet D. Stemwedel
Class of 1989

25 responses so far

  • stunned and confused says:

    Wait, you're angry because Wellesley is helping to buld the MOOC system, rather than keeping knowledge behind oft-insurmountable paywalls and other cyphers of power? That seems, like, super confused and ill-thought.

    Like, sure, autodadicts are the first to benefit from innovation in education, because they're the ones who will seek it out. Disadvantaged people will only benefit when the changes become part of the larger degree-granting structure. But benefit they will, because removing the overhead of professors and buildings will dramatically lower the cost - in money and time - of getting a degree that certifies you as employable.

    I'm not sure how you can view this movement as anything but an improvement on the status quo. Your argument that disadvantaged students won't benefit seems like a flimsy rationalization for the real motivation: you're afraid to lose your job.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      So, the failed experiments with MOOCs that harm actual students are things we should overlook due to the promise of the glorious future? Why is that? Why should my students be sacrificed for a promise on which none of the MOOC vendors has found a way to deliver?

  • Anzel says:

    While I'm sympathetic with the issue, wouldn't this really lie mostly at SJSU's (or other institutions in similar situations') feet? How exactly would you propose Wellesley address the issue? Through specific course licensing?

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      I expect Wellesley to be aware of the real-world climate in which things it creates are put to use.

      I expect Wellesley not to enter into business agreements with organizations that allow their products to be used to undermine education for the people in our society who are already most marginalized in terms of educational and employment prospects.

      I expect Wellesley to actively participate in the world, to take responsibility for its institutional choices, and yes, to put legal constraints on ways that their products can be used, so that they are not used in unethical ways in the world.

      I also expect SJSU to act responsibly here, but that does not mean Wellesley bears no responsibility. Moreover, SJSU's alumnae association has not been asking me, on a weekly basis, to donate money; Wellesley's has.

      • Anzel says:

        But to stop participating in a technology because some people are using it irresponsibility? That's your solution? What if we apply that logic elsewhere? Should we stop prescribing high-power prescription drugs due to their great potential for addition? Is birth control irredeemable due to the times it's been used towards eugenic ends (after all, forced sterilization was kind of a thing back in the day)?

        Honestly, I see MOOCs as simply distance learning with an internet connection--that's been around for some decades now (my mother took a program in German before I was born). What would your response be in Wellesley had simply packaged up a bunch of video lectures and sold them next to all the other "Great Lectures in Physics" video series ads I've seen in Science News for well over 20 years?

        How about books? I've had some courses where the amount of teaching was minimal and we were forced to rely on our textbooks to get anything. I'd have happily just read the books on my own time and spared the wasted time in the lecture hall.

        It's fairly clear that if you're taking a MOOC instead of having direct interaction with professors and students--yes, that's a problem. We've known for years that the best pedagogical results come in small classes where the teachers are able to interact with students individually.

        However, these things can make excellent supplementary material to a main course. As a replacement towards textbook reading (which, honestly, how much do we all do?) they can work very well. In a number of cases, where you have the MOOC as a side lecture and then spend class time directly interacting with students on their questions and helping clear up misconceptions, this can be a positive thing. I'll note that Dean Dad came to a similar conclusion for their utility for remedial courses (http://suburbdad.blogspot.com/2013/05/moocs-and-remediation.html) - a field where you particularly need hands-on interaction to bring students up to speed.

        Again, I fail to see how the responsibility does not entirely lie on SJSU's shoulders. There's a potentially positive technology available and they're dramatically misusing it.

        • Anzel says:

          I'll also comment that I'm TAing an 800 person course in Mechanical Engineering that my advisor is teaching. It's so big that half the class in shunted into a different lecture hall and has to watch it on a video feed. At that point, you might as well turn the course into a MOOC and let students watch the lectures from the comfort of their own home.

          • Cynric says:

            The reason that is happening, and I took this as Janet's point, is because universities are cutting faculty and increasing student numbers for financial reasons, at a substantial cost in terms of quality of learning experience. MOOCs are giving those institutions/administrators another tool for degrading the experience of already disadvantaged learners, with the unwelcome additional effect of further enriching elite institutions.

          • Anzel says:

            Yes, universities are cutting faculty and increasing student numbers. However, in this case MOOCs are merely a tangential issue--the same financial constraints would be there whether or not some professors had some video lectures somewhere. If it wasn't MOOCs, it will be sages on stages with their mondo lecture halls.

            One should talk to the California Legislature about their dramatic reduction in financial support for public education, in this case.

        • Julian Frost says:


          But to stop participating in a technology because some people are using it irresponsibility? That's your solution?

          Where does Janet say she's going to "stop participating" in MOOC's? You have totally misread her. She is angry at Wellesley for not putting in safeguards to prevent abuse of the MOOC system. Universities are (mis)using them not as supplements, but as cheap substitutes to lecturing.

  • becca says:

    It seems to me that creators of MOOCs are about as responsible for the dismantling of the professional class of workers at universities/denying access to quality education to the unwashed masses as are creators of free textbooks, blogs, in depth informative websites, open access journal publishers, and public scientific information repositories (like NCBI).
    The problem isn't the technology. The problem is the people who think the technology can replace the people.

    That said... I am (on one level) deeply cynical about higher education. Much as it pains me to tell you this, I do not think the subjective reality of the experience of most of the students at your institution is that they are learners who are encouraged to participate fully in the world. The reason you got that at Wellesley was *because* it is an elite institution. We are not, as a society, desirous of an engaged fully-actualized population. Being able to reach a few individuals, and tell them that their views really matter to you, does not unmake a lifetime of experiences of being dismissed.

    Education is already a weapon. MOOCs are just one more arrow in the quiver of the ossified class system. Those in power use schooling as a fig leaf, the better to berate the poor for not having sufficient bootstrap-i-ness. As someone who helping to promote the noble idea that education is a higher path to self-actualization, I sincerely hope you are aware of the real world use of that myth.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      There's a difference with MOOCs, though. Authors of free textbooks and writers of blogs are not holding joint press conferences with university presidents supporting the substitution of their product for live, engaged classroom instruction. CEOs of the companies distributing MOOCs have done just that. So yes, administrators who want to use technology to replace people are a big part of the problem, but the companies providing the MOOCs are actively supporting this use.

      And I agree, there are big problems with how education is used (as a figleaf or worse) in our society as it is right now. I think you know that I'm committed to trying to combat those uses, and that I'm gambling that I'm more effective in doing so from inside the belly of the beast. Maybe it's a quixotic battle, but I'm all in.

  • Anonymous says:

    I had the privilege of attending an elite school for undergrad. When I decided to go back to school later in life, I was constrained geographically and went to a school more like SJSU. Based on my experience and those of the classmates that I got to know well (admittedly far from a statistically significant sample), I say give me a MOOC with a great Wellesley prof over some of the classes I had to endure. Honestly, Janet, how many of your colleagues routinely deliver to their students the kind of learning experience considered normal at Wellesley? And don't bother to answer unless you have actually sat in on several of their classes and talked at length with their students about their experiences.

    Live is only better if the prof is worth it. Sadly, at many schools like yours, this is usually not the case. All modesty aside, you do understand that you are an exception and hardly representative, no?

    • tribble says:

      Do you understand that you're the exception when it comes to benefiting more from a MOOC than a traditional class?

      • Anonymous says:

        If you notice, I said: "Based on my experience *and those of the classmates that I got to know well*." These classmates were not graduates of elite colleges. Most of them worked full-time jobs while getting their undergrad degrees at a variety of places. A couple were only able to get their degrees due to the flexibility of distance learning programs -- the precursors to MOOCs and lower in quality. So I don't think that I'm so exceptional when it comes to my ability to benefit from a MOOC.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:

      A couple things here:

      First, students who can handle an elite school like Wellesley are often the ones who do well in MOOCs. On the other hand, student populations of the sort we serve at SJSU so not generally do well in MOOCs. Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun has admitted as much. Thus, replacing live instruction with MOOCs leaves a wide swath of our students without instruction that meets their needs. I do not believe this is an acceptable loss.

      Second, as it happens, I have sat in on classes taught by nearly all of my colleagues in Philosophy (owing to regular peer reviewing and general interest), and have talked at length with their students. Excellent teaching is the rule, not the exception, which is what you'd hope for at a teaching focused university and, perhaps, what you'd expect in times when PhDs are plentiful and academic jobs are scarce. Maybe things are different in other departments (though that is not the impression I get talking to students in other majors when I encounter them in the general education courses I teach). However, it was Philosophy on which our administration tried to force an edX MOOC last year. And, tellingly, none of the administrators trying to force this MOOC on us sat in on any of our classes. So to claim they were driven by teaching quality is implausible.

      • AcademicLurker says:

        Udacity CEO Sebastian Thrun has admitted as much.

        I admire him for his honesty, but unfortunately he seems to be one of the few among the initial MOOC pushers who is willing to look at the evidence.

        It's been depressingly predictable how stubbornly the MOOCmeisters have simply ignored the consistent results from SJSU and elsewhere when it comes to the(in)effectiveness of MOOCs for mass undergraduate education (as opposed to continuing professional or adult education for people who already have undergraduate degrees).

      • Anonymous says:

        Well, if it is truly the case that the teaching at SJSU rivals that of Wellesley, where is the outcry from all of the SJSU alums to whom this experience has undoubtedly meant so much? They are the ones that should be writing things like "Why I Will Not Donate to SJSU." Perhaps it is easier for you to lash out at Wellesley, but in the end, it is not Wellesley that owes anything to your students, it is you and the rest of the administrators and faculty of SJSU.

        And despite the situation in your department, anyone who thinks that plentiful PhDs and scarce academic jobs leads to excellent teaching all around is in for a rude awakening at most places (even the teaching-focused schools).

  • Anonymous says:

    This page that you linked to is all about Wellesley *and its students.* I see nothing on here that says that the mission of Wellesley is to best serve *all students,* including those at SJSU. It also suggests that the last thing it wants its students/alums to do is to tilt at windmills.

    I don't see how railing at Wellesley or Harvard or whomever is going to get you anywhere. Again, if SJSU does what you claim it does for its students, it seems to me a more effective strategy would be precisely to mobilize the school's own alums/donors. Surely their pockets, in general, may not be as deep as those of Wellesley alums, but someone somewhere must have made it big in Silicon Valley, so go talk to them.

    • Janet D. Stemwedel says:


      Why is it so important to you that I not hold my alma mater to the standards that it led me (both as a student and as an alumna) to believe it held itself to?

      (Note that no part of holding Wellesley to account means I'm letting SJSU administrators off the hook.)

  • Julia Ticona says:

    Have really enjoyed this post and the author's responses! As a Wellesley alum and aspiring prof myself, I wrote a response (in support!) to your great piece here: http://onthe5thfloor.wordpress.com/2014/06/05/not-mere-tools-part-ii-moocs-and-their-discontents/

    Thanks for speaking up on an important issue and continuing the conversation with those who've posted in response.

  • Zuska says:

    As a first-gen college student it is maddening and depressing to read some of these comments. The pretense that MOOCs would be just dandy or even better than live instructors for first gen students is insulting. The notion that it's okay for elite private institutions to be complicit in eliminating live instruction at public institutions because, hey, they aren't responsible to/for those students - that's utter bullshit. It's ok for them to profit off degrading those students' learning opportunities but they have no responsibility to them? Well, I guess that's how elitism works.

    And yeah, education is a weapon, and our society does not want everyone to be self-actualized thinkers, and that's still no good reason to throw up our hands and say well, let them eat MOOCs.

  • Peter Zimmerman says:

    When I was an undergrad 55 years ago at an "elite selective" university just up Bayshore from SJSU, we used to complain that too much teaching was done by grad student teaching assistants, and that we got little attention from the famous profs whose presence lured us to the school except in gigantic lecture classes. The TAs ran discussions for the profs, about the only place where we got to ask questions.

    MOOC modules mean that TAs will be running discussion sessions to fill in for videotaped robots. I think this shortchanges students. The desired situation is to be in the same room with a live prof and a small class. Next best is seeing the prof in a lecture and having human follow-up. I think it's disgraceful that universities are turning to just running images of human teachers. Since I retired a few years back, I miss the classroom. But given the realities of 2014 I am really glad I'm Emeritus.

    Is there a use for MOOCs? Yes. A splendid way to deliver continuing education at the community college level for retired folks who want to keep their brains sharp. I might even take one some day.

  • dsks says:

    Faculty that get involved with these might want to first check what their intellectual property rights fall on the material they produce. From what I gather, compensation for converting courses to online compatibility are universally risible, so making sure you own most of what you produce is important.

    If possible, it might be worthwhile for instructors looking to tape courses to either do it themselves with their own equipment or hire someone privately, because, as MIT have already determined, the institution will likely have ownership of any recordings it has bankrolled (regardless of how much work you put into it on the other end of the camera), and thus use them even after you've left the institution.

    Faculty need to get wise about the legal side of intellectual property rights in re MOOCS because there's a lot of untested ground there, and thus ripe opportunity for institutions to shaft their faculty members.