Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings

June 19, 2013

Colleges looking to expand their online course offerings have often enlisted help from education-technology companies. A college might buy a learning-management system from Blackboard, e-tutoring software from Pearson, and so on.

Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based company that specializes in massive open online courses, recently became the latest technology firm to offer services aimed at credit-bearing online programs at large universities.

Now the provosts in a consortium of major research universities are considering whether their group should build its own online infrastructure that would enable the universities to share courses, digital resources, and data without ceding control to outsiders.

In a position paper, a task force of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation—a consortium of 13 research universities, mostly in the Big Ten Conference—this month proposed that its members figure out if they can work together on a common "framework" for their online offerings.

The authors of the paper do not rule out working with technology vendors on such a project. However, they do imply that, when it comes to technology in higher education, the hype around certain technologies—MOOCs, for example—creates the danger of allowing the cart to lead the horse.

"The ability to project a course online such that hundreds, thousands, or hundreds of thousands can tune in is not, in and itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential 'students,'" write the authors.

"While new and cost-effective technological capabilities make certain changes in higher education possible," they continue, "it does not necessarily follow that such changes are desirable, or would be endorsed or utilized by our existing students, faculty, or community members."

The provosts who led the task force told The Chronicle that the paper is not meant as an outright refutation of MOOCs—or any other vendor-supplied technology, for that matter. Two of the task-force leaders serve as provosts at institutions (Ohio State University and the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign) that offer MOOCs through Coursera. In fact, most universities in the Committee on Institutional Cooperation have partnerships with that company, as well as numerous other technology vendors.

The consortium is interested, however, in how its members might avail themselves of sophisticated online tools while limiting their reliance on the education-technology industry, said Lauren Kay Robel, provost of Indiana University at Bloomington.

"There is a rather widespread concern about the notion that the core of our academic mission, on the teaching side, is being essentially developed by for-profit companies," Ms. Robel said in an interview.

"The hope is that we can collaborate around a set of principles for infrastructure that might allow us to take back control over that part of our mission," she said.

As online learning and its associated technologies become more integrated into traditional university curricula, the provosts would prefer to retain, where possible, ownership over the intellectual property and distribution channels, she said. And a consortium-based approach might give them the best shot at that.

"This, for me, is the beginning of a discussion of where we should go together, or separately," said Ilesanmi Adesida, provost at Illinois.

The Big Ten group's call for collaboration comes at a time when Coursera has begun marketing its MOOC-bred technology as a platform for consortium-like activity at public universities. In May the company announced deals with 10 public institutions that envision Coursera as a common platform for sharing credit-bearing online courses across campuses.

While the authors of the Committee on Institutional Cooperation's paper seem enthusiastic about the possibility of a home-grown platform, the paper leaves the matter of contracting with an outside vendor, or not, as an open question.

The consortium's provosts met on June 15 to discuss the task force's report, said Ms. Robel. The meeting did not produce any concrete plans, she said, but there was "interest in moving forward with discussions."