Duke U.'s Undergraduate Faculty Derails Plan for Online Courses for Credit

April 30, 2013

The faculty of Duke University's undergraduate college drew a line in the sand last week on online education: Massive online experiments are fine, but there will be no credit-bearing online courses at Duke in the near future.

The university's Arts & Sciences Council, the governing arm of the undergraduate faculty, voted down a proposal to join a consortium of top colleges offering for-credit online courses through 2U, a company that specializes in real-time, small-format online education.

2U's defeat at Duke marked the second time in a month that undergraduate faculty members at a top liberal-arts college had struck down a proposed deal with an online-teaching consortium. On April 16, professors at Amherst College rejected an invitation to join edX, a nonprofit provider of massive open online courses.

Like the Amherst faculty, members of the faculty council at Duke passed an alternative resolution affirming that they intended to pursue online education—just not like this one, right now.

Duke signed a contract last year with 2U pledging to develop online courses, the first of which would be offered on the 2U platform in September. But a late push by skeptical faculty members, many of whom resented the Duke administration for not consulting with them before entering into a preliminary agreement with 2U, set the stage for a close vote.

In a letter published in the student newspaper one day before the vote, 75 professors came out against the proposed partnership.

"While paying Duke tuition," the authors wrote, "students will watch recorded lectures and participate in sections via Webcam—enjoying neither the advantages of self-paced learning nor the responsiveness of a professor who teaches to the passions and curiosities of students."

Taking the Plunge

The next day their representatives on the Arts & Sciences Council killed the proposal by a 16-to-14 vote, with two abstentions.

While noncredit MOOCs have dominated headlines, 2U has been ushering top institutions into online education at a more modest pace and scale. The company, formerly called 2tor, has developed fully online graduate programs for several high-profile universities since 2008, including Georgetown University and the University of Southern California.

More recently, the company has been making inroads at undergraduate colleges. In November it announced that it would work with undergraduate faculty members at 10 institutions, including Duke, and rebranded itself "2U" in the process.

The idea was to get a whole group of colleges to take the plunge into online, credit-bearing courses together. Colleges in the consortium would offer online courses that resembled those they were accustomed to teaching on their campuses.

Students would log in to virtual classrooms at designated times, along with their professors. They would be able to see and hear one another well enough to have group discussions. Courses would be small and would be restricted to tuition-paying students enrolled at member colleges. Those included Emory University, the University of Notre Dame, and Washington University in St. Louis, among others.

At Duke, after it was announced that the university would be part of 2U's consortium, several faculty committees spent months refining a proposal that would eventually have to pass a vote by the Arts & Sciences Council for the plan to proceed, said Thomas W. Robisheaux, a professor of history and chair of the council.

Limits were placed on the number of credits students could earn online. Caveats were created to ensure that Duke's on-campus offerings would not be cannibalized. Individual academic departments would be allowed to opt out of the program, and the university as a whole would commit to only three years of involvement.

In all, the proposal was reviewed and modified by three standing faculty committees in addition to the ad hoc committee appointed to draft it, said Mr. Robisheaux.

"Those of us who serve the council," he said, "were taken aback by the argument that there wasn't adequate faculty input."

Taking Umbrage

But many professors had taken umbrage at the notion that Duke's provost, Peter Lange, had signed a contract with 2U with little faculty input.

In an interview with The Chronicle, Mr. Lange said that the faculty council's vote did indeed supersede the contract, and that Duke would not be part of the 2U consortium. Chancellor Patterson, a spokesman for 2U, said the company had no objection to the university's reneging on the agreement.

Chip Paucek, chief executive officer at 2U, said he did not worry that the loss of Duke would imperil the future of the company's undergraduate consortium.

"Schools have different processes and procedures, and it's just really not appropriate for me to comment on those procedures," said Mr. Paucek. "I do believe there is very strong interest in this level of institution to continue to experiment with online education."

The company still plans to offer 11 courses from other top colleges in the fall, he said.

Only one Duke course, according to Mr. Paucek, had been planned for the fall—an adapted version of a course in behavioral finance, taught by Emma B. Rasiel, an associate professor of economics.

In an e-mail interview, Ms. Rasiel said she was disappointed that the partnership had been derailed.

"Far from having to make compromises, I would argue that, with 2U's expertise and support, we would have produced just as rigorous and pedagogically valid an educational experience as those I aspire to provide in a regular classroom setting," said Ms. Rasiel.

However, she added, "I understand that there are many different points of view among my colleagues, and respect their right to express their perspectives."

Members of the faculty council concluded last week's meeting by passing a different resolution, to "remain committed to continuing their current practice of exploring and adopting a variety of online platforms with which to deliver the highest quality liberal-arts education."

But Mr. Robisheaux said there was "no specific other project that we in Arts & Sciences have identified" that would satisfy the criteria of the faculty.