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

Crossposted at Adventures in Ethics and Science

4 thoughts on “Why I can no longer donate to Wellesley College.

  1. This is a terrific post–a very cogent overview of many of the problems related to MOOCs and other adaptations of technology to teaching and, more broadly, a very succinct appraisal of the ways in which all sorts of initially well-intentioned innovations have been inexorably turned into mechanisms to reduce the cost, as well as the value, of a college education.

    Thus the first question one now needs to ask about every digital innovation is how some transient administrator is going to try to use it to replace some of our colleagues, or at the very least to erase faculty budget lines when the positions become open.

    It’s not that most of us are Luddites. Many of us teach some courses online and use digital technologies to great effect in all sorts of way related to our professional service and research and scholarship.

    But although we are not Luddites, we are also not such fools that we unaware of and unconcerned about how all of this is playing out–and if not immediately at our own institutions, then elsewhere.

  2. Thank you very much for your post, Professor Stemwedel, and I agree completely! I was not well-served by a course I recently took in grad school that leaned heavily on edX. I am lucky enough to have gone to Wellesley, smart enough to now attend Harvard, and diligent enough to work 40+ hours a week to pay my way through grad school, yet I felt I didn’t learn anything at all through the MOOC. I can’t imagine following along, much less being engaged by a MOOC, if I didn’t also have relatively few responsibilities and a generally privileged existence. My high school sends hundreds of students into the CSU system every year, so I’m not unfamiliar with the struggles of my peers, particularly first-generation college students. If I had to help my family financially, or had a family of my own to support, there would be no way I could manage the attention span demanded by a course of so little engagement.

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