In Colleges' Rush to Try MOOC's, Faculty Are Not Always in the Conversation

Purdue U.

J. Paul Robinson, a professor of biomedical engineering at Purdue U., is skeptical of the promise of MOOC's: "We know that leading institutions want to be seen at the leading edge of everything, but it's very unclear to me and many other faculty how this is going to translate into something valuable and useful."
September 26, 2012

As colleges scramble to offer so-called massive open online courses, or MOOC's, faculty members have found themselves struggling to keep up with those plans and to make sure their views are heard.

A dozen colleges, including Duke University and the California Institute of Technology, announced partnerships with the MOOC-platform company Coursera in July, and 17 more signed up this month. In some of those cases, faculty members had little input in the fast-moving negotiations, which took place over the summer. Many professors are now asking questions about what free online courses mean for their institution's future.

Meanwhile, other universities are taking a slower road, and are involving faculty leaders more closely as they consider whether to pursue MOOC's.

Yale University, for instance, announced last week that a committee had been formed to consider the future of online courses, "given what is happening around the country," said Mary Miller, dean of Yale College. The committee's co-chairs, Paul Bloom and Craig M. Wright, declined to discuss it with The Chronicle, saying by e-mail that they did not yet have "anything substantive to say about these issues" because the panel had been formed so recently.

The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is an example of a campus that moved swiftly. As soon as Phyllis M. Wise, the university's chancellor, heard about Coursera from other administrators who had signed on, she wanted to follow suit. She asked the executive committee of the university's Academic Senate for a recommendation on whether to work toward a Coursera deal, and a faculty task force quickly issued a report giving a green light for such a partnership.

The task force devised a list of questions about how a Coursera partnership would work, said Nicholas C. Burbules, a former chair of the Academic Senate and a professor of educational-policy studies. For example, how would potential revenues from Coursera be divided within the university, and how would faculty members be compensated for teaching Coursera courses?

"I don't think anyone knows exactly where this is going," Mr. Burbules said. "We're on a very fast train right now, and we're jumping on board and seeing where it ends up."

'Continued Surprise'

At an Academic Senate meeting this month, several faculty members voiced concern over the quick decision to team up with Coursera without consulting the full Senate.

"I'd like to express some continued surprise that the initiative got as far as we've heard today with the Academic Senate as a body not having discussed its implications so far," said Kathryn J. Oberdeck, an associate professor of history. "I'd like to have some idea of what plans are going forward for consultation regarding the implications of Coursera for shared-governance issues, and why there haven't been efforts to engage Academic Senate members in the discussions leading up to a partnership with such broad implications for education at the University of Illinois."

Ms. Wise said at the meeting that striking a deal at the same time as institutions like Caltech would give a greater boost to the university's recognition. "I believe these are the kinds of universities we want to be associated with—I pushed being in this cohort more than anyone else," she said.

Like the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Rice University signed a deal with Coursera over the summer. An ad hoc faculty group on online education formed within a week of the deal's announcement in order to recommend how MOOC's would work, said Peter C. Caldwell, a history professor at Rice and speaker of the Faculty Senate.

"A bunch of issues are going to hit us—we have a number of professors doing things related to online education across the university, with our own little modules here and there," he said. "We need to ask hard questions about how that works with what the university is doing." Mr. Caldwell said the university had felt pressure to follow the lead of universities like Stanford, which was one of the first to offer MOOC's, but did take the time to discuss whether to work with Coursera. The decision "wasn't a leap," he said.

At many colleges, the faculty itself is divided over whether to embrace MOOC's. "You have a division between some faculty members who are very excited about the potential of technology and really running with this, and people who are just trying to explore it" more cautiously, said Mark F. Smith, a senior higher-education policy analyst at the National Education Association.

The U. of Virginia's Example

The University of Virginia board's decision to dismiss Teresa A. Sullivan as president in June illustrated the pressure on universities to strike MOOC deals quickly to keep up with peer institutions, said Martin D. Snyder, senior associate general secretary and director of the department of external relations for the American Association of University Professors.

"She was perceived to not be on the cutting edge and going where Stanford and Harvard were going," he said of Ms. Sullivan, who was later reinstated as president. "There's a lot of pressure from boards and politicians, and some overlap between those two, particularly at public universities, to do that."

But even faculty members at Stanford haven't had much formal discussion of the future of MOOC's. The free online courses will be one of the first topics the Senate of the Academic Council will tackle this fall, said Raymond E. Levitt, a professor of civil engineering and chair of the Senate. He said he expects the faculty to "weigh in very strongly" on the issue.

Purdue University's administration is among those that are taking a more-cautious route as the campus awaits a new president, Gov. Mitch Daniels of Indiana, who will take office in January 2013.

The Republican governor has expressed interest in MOOC's, but the campus has not solidified its plans, said Michael Eddy, assistant dean for administration and planning at the Purdue Extended Campus.

J. Paul Robinson, chairman of Purdue's University Senate and a professor of biomedical engineering, said faculty members preferred to be cautious before signing a deal with a company that offers MOOC's. "We know that leading institutions want to be seen at the leading edge of everything, but it's very unclear to me and many other faculty how this is going to translate into something valuable and useful," he said. "There's very little evidence that what they're doing is delivering quality learning."

Some administrators are not interested in jumping onto the MOOC bandwagon at all. On August 27, the University of Southern California's president, C.L. Max Nikias, outlined the university's goals for online education in a message to the campus. It noted that MOOC's were off the table.

"Other universities are increasingly offering online courses for free, with scant concern for whether enrollees ever complete a course," he wrote. "Our goal, by contrast, is to ensure that the educational experience is reserved for only those students with the requisite interest and ability to meet our faculty's high expectations." He added that Southern Cal "does not intend to join the growing ranks of institutions that seek to franchise undergraduate education through the Internet or through smaller satellite campuses abroad."

The university hopes to continue expanding its online graduate programs instead of focusing on MOOC's, said Patricia Riley, president of the university's Academic Senate and a professor at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. "It was a fire-starter at some places," she said, "and it just didn't have a reaction at a place with such a strong online presence."