Amherst College biology professor Steve George talks in his lab. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)
At Amherst College in Western Massachusetts, students and professors walk slowly through a bright neuroscience lab filled floor-to-ceiling with fish tanks.
On a tiny microscope sits a zebrafish larva, which is being stimulated with a water jet. Biology professors Steve George and Joe Trapani discuss the complicated experiment.
For a handful of students at Amherst, this biology lab is a hands-on experience to interact in small groups and eventually to earn credit on their way to becoming doctors and scientists. George says that's something that just can't be replicated online for mass consumption and for certification.
"It's very hard for me — and I think other faculty — to see that 100,000 people together with no interaction with a professor at all , not even to be able to exchange an email, that that is a course, that constitutes a real course."
Back in April, faculty at Amherst made that view official. With just more than 100 professors, Amherst College is a small enough school that the whole faculty met in a town-hall style. They debated whether to join Harvard and MIT's online-learning platform called EdX, which offers courses to tens of thousands of students for free.
A few faculty members wanted in, but most, including Steve George, were against it.
"We're all in favor of using the Internet, obviously, and even putting courses online, but we're not in favor of joining a MOOC organization that purports to offer whole courses," he said.
Since Amherst decided not to join EdX, more and more colleges and universities have signed up, hoping to put their own courses online. But bubbling under this debate are questions about the quality of online learning and whether credits should be issued.
Fueling the debate is a recent survey produced by The Chronicle of Higher Education: Nearly three quarters of professors who teach these free online courses don't think their students should get credit as they would in a face-to-face class.
Computer science professor Daphne Koller disagrees. She's co-founder of Stanford¹s for-profit online education platform Coursera. She thinks students should get credit for taking a MOOC if they can pass a test, something not every online course requires.
"I actually think the MOOCs are more interactive, more engaging because they do offer every student an opportunity to respond and interact with the material in a way that doesn't just let the few loudest voices sitting in the front row engage," Koller said.
To get a better handle on where MOOCs are heading, I went to the Aspen Institute in Colorado, where Koller and other higher-ed leaders discuss big ideas.
Koller sees how MOOCs can change the world.
"I think that is probably their biggest promise because there are so many people around the world for whom that opportunity of a high-quality education just is not available to them for whatever reason — for financial reasons, family reasons, health reasons — and this is a much more accessible way for the vast majority of the potential students in the world," she said.
It's one thing to start an online course, but very few finish. Completion rates are generally poor. For every ten people who sign up, only one completes the course. But Koller says that shouldn't be seen as a failure of the new technology.
"Most of the students who sign up for a MOOC have no intent to complete the course," she said. "They're viewing it as taking a book out from the library. In the same way that if you take a book out and you don't read it beginning to end by the time the loan period is over and you return it, that is not a failure of the book."
If MOOCs emerge as the textbooks, there will be growing demand to find teachers who know how to teach online classes.
A report by the Association of Public and Land Grant Universities found that only 30 percent of faculty members have experience teaching online courses; and most prefer traditional classrooms because they enjoy personally interacting with students, like in the neuroscience lab at Amherst College.
While the faculty here voted to not join EdX, Amherst President Biddy Martin hopes professors will reconsider. I asked her if she felt Amherst was missing the boat.
"No," she said. "No, it will either be a short tour on the boat, in which case that would mean not being on the boat didn't matter. I think it will be a very long-sailing boat and there will be plenty of opportunities to get on."
Martin points out that Amherst is developing online tools and following the debate over MOOCs from the sidelines. A small percentage of professors offer hybrid courses, ones where students divide their time between the classroom and online.
Northeastern University President Joseph Aoun talks to students on campus. (Kirk Carapezza/WGBH)
On a recent sunny afternoon at Northeastern University, President Joseph Aoun mingles with incoming freshmen. As a member of the American Council on Education, Aoun is urging higher-education institutions to embrace disruptive technologies such as MOOCs to expand their reach. He says Northeastern is already taking the lead.
"We are in Charlotte, we are in Seattle," he said. "We are with some corporate partners in China and India and the Phillipines. Even in Vietnam, we are there. So the technology doesn't drive you. You have to decide how you are going to master technology in order to further the mission of the school. Technology can be used to enhance the reach of the professor and the interaction between the professor and the student."
As he walks Northeastern's brick-covered pathways, Aoun pauses to reflect on the idea of a college campus defined by its boundaries in the 21st century.
"That's obsolete," he said. "The notion of ivory towers is obsolete. And from this perspective there's an opportunity to embrace faculty worldwide, to embrace students worldwide and to embrace experiences worldwide."
Experiences that offer a certain promise to find new and effective paths for higher education.