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Duke University faculty members, frustrated with their administration and skeptical of the degrees to be awarded, have forced the institution to back out of a deal with nine other universities and 2U to create a pool of for-credit online classes for undergraduates.

Duke’s Arts & Sciences Council, which represents faculty from Duke’s largest undergraduate college, voted 16-14 on Thursday against plans to grant credits to Duke students who would have taken online courses from the pool. The vote effectively killed Duke's participation in the effort, and it immediately withdrew.

The courses were to be offered by Duke and other top-tier universities in a partnership organized by 2U, formerly known as 2tor. Unlike massive open online courses, or MOOCs, only a few hundred students were expected to enroll in each course – which would feature a mix of recorded lectures and live discussions – but each course would be divided into sections of no more than 20 students led by an instructor, perhaps a graduate student. The effort, known as Semester Online, will go on without Duke and offer its first classes this fall, 2U's CEO said.

Duke remains a member of MOOC provider Coursera and many of its faculty members are leaders in the push to use technology to teach in new ways, so the vote does not represent an outright rejection of online education but rather specific concerns about for-credit online education offered by third-parties. Faculty also expressed concern about the administration's handling of the deal and 2U's cut of the revenue.

While there has been considerable hype in the last year about leading colleges and universities embracing partnerships that redefine the way education is delivered, the Duke faculty vote marks the second time in a month that professors at an elite institution have studied one of these partnerships and turned it down. Amherst College's faculty this month voted down a proposal to join the MOOC provider edX.

At Duke, Provost Peter Lange said that "a small majority of those voting at the meeting decided the time was not right for this proposal to go forward. They had some concerns about what the governance processes had been leading up to the proposal.”

In particular, faculty are still unhappy with Duke’s plans to open a campus in Kunshan, China later this year.  They have long expressed worries about the China project's costs, academic freedom, Internet access, and faculty involvement and buy-in.

Thomas Pfau, a professor of English and German, who spoke publicly against the 2U effort during the faculty meeting, said there were many ironic elements of Duke’s online push. “There we are believing in a brick and mortar framework in our pedagogical mission 8,000 miles away,” he said referring to the new campus in China, “but here where the students are actually in place, we seem to want to encourage them to take classes online – the absurdity of that was noted by a number of faculty.”

Another irony opponents seized on: Duke would be granting credit to students who were not admitted to Duke and allowing Duke students to receive credit for online courses from institutions that Duke presumably markets itself as better than.

“There was some fear that the overall quality of the student body taking any such course would not be on the same level as the student body when we teach our Duke students,” said Steffen A. Bass, a physics professor who supported the partnership with 2U.

Pfau, who is not a member of the faculty council, also said the administration’s approach kept faculty in the dark.

“It’s symptomatic of the top-down approach to managing the intellectual fortunes of this university and it’s produced – certainly among faculty in the humanities and social sciences over the last few years -- intense discontent,” he said.

In an interview, Lange said there had been nearly three dozen meetings of various faculty groups about the issue over the past year, but “obviously they had not touched some constituencies.” He also said the issue came before the full council just before the end of the semester, which created a time crunch that prevented issues from being ironed out by the fall when Duke was supposed to begin offering its Semester Online courses.

“The general objections to sort of doing this at all emerged only in a vocal and widespread way fairly late,” Lange said. “That may well be our responsibility for not tapping into those constituencies earlier. The result was that we got kind of squeezed.”

Even the proposal the faculty considered had safeguards: Duke students could only have received credit for four Semester Online courses during their entire time at Duke.

Bass argued that “politics got in the way of good sense” when the faculty voted last week.  Bass said faculty argued they had not been consulted enough by Lange and the administration, though faculty committees have been working on the issue for nearly a year.

“This had more to do with the politics of telling the provost he didn’t consult enough with the faculty, which I feel was bologna,” Bass said. “But, yeah, that’s how it went.”

One professor circulated a document opposing the Semester Online plan that suggested only proponents of the effort had been involved in those early faculty discussions.

Whatever its cause, Duke’s decision raises new questions about a burst of online ventures.

Pfau said the effort would have represented an “intensification of the view that all courses are commodities” and worried the Semester Online effort would stifle hiring by allowing universities to send students to online for-credit classes offered by other universities rather than hiring faculty to teach those subjects on their own campuses. Pfau argued courses are “zero sum game” and if a student can take a class from elsewhere it won’t be offered at Duke.

Bass said the partnership could have allowed faculty to teach classes they would not have otherwise taught. At Duke, he said there is a “rule of eight,” meaning if eight students don’t sign up for a course it gets canceled.

Provost Lange said the goal was to allow Duke students to take courses Duke did not offer or that were only offered occasionally.

“We thought that working with a limited number of high quality universities, we could provide a supplement to the curricular experience our students already had,” he said.

Chip Paucek, the CEO of 2U, said the effort “isn’t about replacing anything on campus.”

He downplayed Duke’s exit from the partnership.

“The practical matter is we were launching on Wednesday 12 courses for the fall, now we’re launching 11,” Paucek said.

Duke eventually planned to offer two courses in the pool. 

Thomas Metzloff, a professor at Duke's law school, was developing a contemporary constitutional law course for the 2U partnership. He said he was working with other top scholars to offer guest lectures that would not be possible to do regularly in a traditional class.

"This is not second class teaching," Metzloff said. "In fact, in many ways, I think it is superior."

Lange said Duke will continue to explore online offerings.

“I don’t take this as a, 'Let’s not do this,'" he said. "I take this as a, 'Let’s figure out what the best way to do this is.'"


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