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Professor Khosrow Ghadiri teaches the EE98 Introduction to Circuits class at San Jose State University in San Jose, Calif. on Wednesday, April 10, 2013. (LiPo Ching/Staff)

In a nationwide push to experiment with online university courses, San Jose State stands at the forefront, making deals with private sector startups to package lectures from Ivy League professors and opening some for-credit classes to the masses.

Now, a counterrevolution is underway.

In recent weeks, humanities professors -- feeling the withering of their departments and fearing virtual demotions -- have begun to resist calls to abandon traditional teaching methods. In an open letter to a Harvard University professor who offered San Jose State his online social justice course, Cal State philosophy professors argue that momentum is building to dismantle college as we know it, a concern echoing through academic halls nationwide.

"Let's not kid ourselves; administrators at the CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education," the philosophy faculty wrote in a letter to Harvard professor Michael Sandel.

The widely circulated letter expressed a deep anxiety of faculties everywhere as colleges experiment with new technology: Is the push for online courses meant to improve college educations or is it driven by the pressure to educate more students using less money and fewer professors?

"The thought of the exact same social justice course being taught ... across the country is downright scary -- something out of a dystopian novel," the professors wrote.

The letter resonated with Bruce Reynolds, a San Jose State history professor nearing retirement. He said he and his colleagues are frustrated that traditional teaching methods have been dismissed as passe.

"The philosophy department letter was what woke people up, I think," he said.

The letter followed two other high-profile rejections of online education initiatives. Faculty members at Amherst College and Duke University decided this spring against participating in for-credit offerings their administrations planned.

So far, the innovations on San Jose State's campus have been far less dramatic than the letter suggests, and faculty members control what they teach and how. Still, the department's concerns are worth discussing, said Ellen Junn, SJSU provost.

"This is all uncharted territory, so the big question for me is to say, does this work?" she said.

This spring, San Jose State announced it would soon become one of the first campuses in the nation to combine traditional classes with online courses from elite universities such as Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Through a handshake deal with the nonprofit online education startup edX, the university gained access to lectures and interactive quizzes that professors could assign to their students. The professors would see the students in person and they would be able to check their online assignments.

The decision to use such material is up to the faculty, though -- and so far, there have been few takers.

"Asking us to outsource our expertise, it was insulting," said Karin Brown, one of the philosophy professors who wrote the letter. "It was actually very humiliating."

After the philosophy department said no, the English department also declined to use the Harvard social justice course.

Junn said she only knew of one department, engineering, that plans to participate in the edX agreement in the fall -- a pilot class featuring electrical circuits content from MIT that has shown encouraging results. With added teaching assistants, it had a 91 percent pass rate last semester, compared with 59 and 55 percent in the traditional classes.

San Jose is also experimenting with offering online-only courses for credit to the public through Udacity.

Traditional classes are just fine with Ryan Brewer, a philosophy minor at San Jose State who said the interaction with his professor and classmates is what college is about.

Online lectures feel "like a hand-me-down education," he said. "'Here, watch this video.'"

Proponents of online education say it's widely misunderstood. They note that some online-only courses create opportunities for students who would otherwise not take college classes at all. The new technology, they say, promises to give teachers powerful new tools and more time to work with their students.

"Just because I use another faculty member's textbook doesn't mean I'm turning over my course," said Armando Fox, a computer science professor and academic director of the Berkeley Resource Center for Online Education. UC Berkeley is developing online courses with edX for its professors and others, he said.

Still, the pressure for universities to make do with less state support than they enjoyed five years ago understandably has people on edge, Fox said, as does overheated rhetoric about technology's disruptive potential.

"The climate has pushed people to the opposite corners of the ring, and it's too bad," he said.

And Fox, like Junn, noted that the results of the online education experiment are not yet in. It's important to have that information before adopting any sweeping measures, he said, "so that when we inflict it on our students we know what it is we're getting them into."

Follow Katy Murphy at Twitter.com/katymurphy.