Some faculty leaders were surprised this week when state systems and flagship universities in nine states announced a series of new business partnerships with Coursera, the Silicon Valley-based ed tech company.
The universities plan to work with Coursera, a provider of massive open online courses, to try out a variety of new teaching methods and business models, including MOOCs and things that are not MOOCs. Administrators and the company hailed the effort as new way to improve education. Some administrators said the faculty were involved or were part of the effort and the contracts themselves make clear faculty have some decision-making authority.
But some faculty leaders were nevertheless caught off-guard by the deals that were widely reported Thursday in national and local media. Some faculty accused Coursera and the state-funded universities of working together to experiment on students.
On the other end of the spectrum, some faculty had talked beforehand with administrators about the deal and were cautiously optimistic the arrangements could create new opportunities for students. Still, even they warned, there were lines both the company and the universities should not cross without further faculty involvement.
“We are concerned that there is an experiment being done on students and we don’t know the outcome but it could jeopardize their higher education,” said Eileen Landy, the elected secretary of United University Professions, the bargaining union for faculty at 30 of the State University of New York’s 64 campuses. She said union leaders were left in the dark until the deal was announced and said there could be collective bargaining implications of the new arrangements.
SUNY hopes to use Coursera to help with an effort to enroll 100,000 more students over the next several years. Administrators portrayed that effort, known as Open SUNY, as having faculty support.
Ken O'Brien, the president of the SUNY system's University Faculty Senate, which has a less contentious relationship with administrators than the union, said there was not broad consultation with system faculty before SUNY signed with Cousera.
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In Georgia, Christine Ziegler, the president of the state's conference of the American Association of University Professors and professor at Kennesaw State University, said she was unaware of significant faculty consultation in advance of the state system's plan to partner with Coursera.
"As an individual faculty person I am personally opposed to the MOOC concept as are many of my colleagues but as to whether faculty have been consulted, that has not occurred as far as I know," she said in an e-mail.
The four-campus University of Colorado system has a 30-person task force -- including faculty -- looking at technology, but the head of the Boulder campus’s Faculty Assembly said he was surprised by the announcement.
Assembly Chairman Jerry Peterson said faculty had been kept in the loop earlier this year when the Boulder campus began working with Coursera to offer MOOCs. But he learned about the new and broader deal between Coursera and the system on the day before the agreement was made public on Thursday.
“We don’t understand what the role of the faculty was in making this decision – yet,” Peterson said Thursday.
He said faculty at Boulder were comfortable with the four massive open online courses the university is offering with Coursera this fall, but he said Boulder professors were unsure what to make of the systemwide deal.
“The faculty accept those four as representative experiments,” Peterson said of the already planned effort. “Not all experiments are successful.”
Kathleen Bollard, the Colorado system’s vice president and academic affairs officer, worked with Coursera to put together the systemwide deal. During an interview ahead of the official announcement, she portrayed the effort as bubbling up from faculty demands. Peterson was not so sure.
“There are bubbles but I’m not sure how broad and large the bubbles are,” Peterson said. “There is a range of enthusiasm certainly and a willingness to do this, but there is a lot of skepticism.”
Michael Lightner, chair of electrical and computer engineering at Boulder, is a member of the task force. He said the new Coursera contract was not vetted carefully with most faculty beforehand, but he does believe it provides safeguards, in part because the contract itself "requires nothing" and leaves decisions in the hands of faculty.
"The faculty on the various campuses will be able to, if they wish, offer the courses and vet it and offer all the quality control and do everything they do now," he said. "The combination of those two, I think, leave faculty in complete control of what goes on, which I think is the best case scenario of what we could have had."
At West Virginia University, Faculty Senate Chairman Michael Mays talked with the university's administration ahead of time but said faculty have mixed feelings.
“As far as this announcement goes, I see that as something that is immediately positive, but as far as the rest of it, we’ll see how it goes,” he said.
For WVU and other universities, this week’s partnerships with Coursera meant they joined a once-elite club, at least as junior members. Coursera had a contractual obligations to primarily offer courses from members of the Association of American Universities or “top five” universities in countries outside of North America. (For instance, the Boulder campus was already working with Coursera because it is an AAU member, but the three other Colorado campuses were not allowed to until this week.) The company now has a different part of its website to house material from the less-than-elite state universities.
Mays compared this gradual rollout to other tech companies' expansions, particularly Facebook, which began as an exclusive social network for students at elite colleges and then expanded its reach. “It was only after it was pretty well-established at the college level that it became open to my mother,” Mays said of Facebook. He said being asked to join Coursera at this stage was a compliment.
Amy Neel, the Faculty Senate president at the University of New Mexico, said she had met with her university’s provost before the deal with Coursera was announced, though the senate itself never got a chance to look at the deal.
Still, the New Mexico faculty did vote earlier this year to create a framework for dealing with MOOCs.
Neel said some departments may hope to use online courses to replace in-person courses, while others are more cautious. For instance, she said the computer science department had trouble finding adjuncts to teach the entry-level computer science course. The regular course could be replaced with a MOOC or some other type of online course.
Neel also hopes the university can use Coursera's online platform to reach students in New Mexico high schools who don't have access to good teachers in certain subjects. This could create chances for students to take dual credit courses.
“We’ve got a lot of rural high schools where kids don’t have access to good math and science education and I think this would be a fabulous way to ensure access to math and science in New Mexico,” she said.
Still, Neel hopes the university is deliberate in its dealings with Coursera.
“I hope we use them in a judicious and useful way, that we’re not just going after something shiny and new,” she said.
Gary Rhoades leads the department of education policy studies at the University of Arizona’s Center for the Study of Higher Education. He said chasing the latest shiny thing is exactly what is happening in central offices across the country as presidents, under the gun to appear innovative, are signing deals with Coursera without consulting faculty.
“An ounce of deliberation is worth a pound of faddish imitation,” Rhoades said.
Indeed, it’s not clear that administrators were even deliberating with their own governing boards -- at least not in public. Ahead of this week’s coordinated announcement between Coursera and 10 systems or universities in nine states, a review of online agendas and meeting minutes from the 10 governing boards gave no indication the governing boards had publicly voted on whether or not to deal with Coursera, even though the contracts with Coursera could result in untold thousands of dollars changing hands.
“What is happening is a total failure to deliberate and a lack of consideration about not whether to do stuff but about whether it’s going to work and why are you doing it,” Rhoades said.
He said a good example of deliberation was a months-long process at Amherst College, which resulted in the faculty ultimately rejecting the chance to partner with edX, another major American MOOC provider.
While Coursera co-founder Daphne Koller has portrayed the company's entry into the non-elite market this week as a way to “move the needle” on higher education outcomes in America, Rhoades said he thinks it’s nothing more than an attempt by the venture capital-backed company to find revenue.
“Now they say, well, actually since there is so much money to be made in the bigger places, we ought to consider them too,” Rhoades said, referring to Coursera's previous aim to only work with elite institutions.