The provosts of Big 10 universities and the University of Chicago are in high-level talks to create an online education network across their campuses, which collectively enroll more than 500,000 students a year.
And these provosts from some of America’s top research universities have concluded that they – not corporate entrepreneurs and investors -- must drive online education efforts.
The plans and concerns are outlined in a position paper  that comes just as education technology companies, including Coursera  and 2U, are working to expand or deepen their ties to universities, including universities in the Big 10-related group of provosts known as the Committee on Institutional Cooperation.
The CIC provosts' idea to develop a cross-campus network is prompted by an increase in technological capabilities they believe could improve learning, but their effort is also infused with skepticism regarding whether ed tech companies are creating desirable products for faculty and students.
The provosts’ paper directly challenges the hype about massive open online courses, or MOOCs. The provosts said the ability to offer a course to a large number of people “is not, in and of itself, a means for extending educational opportunity to millions of potential ‘students.’ ”
CIC institutions are by no means shying away from online education or MOOCs. The campuses offer 112 online master's degrees. About a sixth of MOOC provider Coursera’s courses are created by faculty at CIC member institutions, including the University of Michigan, which is a member of the CIC and a founding member of Coursera.
But the provosts are now questioning universities' need to partner with external providers in the first place.
“While new and cost effective technological capabilities make certain changes in higher education possible, 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 wrote. “Nor does it mean that we fully grasp the costs and business models that might surround new strategies for broadly disseminating course content.”
Paul DeLuca Jr., provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, said there is worry that universities who partner with private companies will be unable to control their products. “The loss of control, if you will, of going to a commercial supplier is of concern, of course,” he said.
This worry could prompt the universities to work on a platform of their own, said University of Minnesota Provost Karen Hanson, who is currently the chairwoman of the CIC.
She said the CIC universities have the expertise to build their own infrastructure and a history of working together. “The CIC has had a history of cooperation here as well, so the idea that we might seize this moment to begin to build a shared infrastructure for online offerings has definitely elicited interest from some of our members,” Hanson said in an e-mail.
In the long run, she said, an in-house system could be “much more cost-effective” than relying on outside providers and would jibe with the provosts’ interest in “keeping higher education in control of higher education.”
One of the CIC’s first steps will likely be to expand its CourseShare  program, which is mostly used by the member universities to share 50 less commonly taught languages courses among 800 students across its campuses.
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign Provost Ilesanmi Adesida said the universities are looking to see if the languages program can be expanded among the institutions or even nationally.
“The main thing for us is... how can the CIC schools be proactive in terms of innovation and learning?” he said. “How can we be of more benefit to students jointly?”
CIC provosts are also looking to add other subjects to CourseShare's pool of courses. That effort that could pair universities up with ed tech companies, creating a potentially lucrative market. Or, as Hanson suggested, it could prompt the institutions to develop a platform of their own.
Purdue University Provost Timothy Sands said the provosts' dream is to extend universities’ current cooperation into a large number of fields. While that could allow universities to reach new audiences, he said the first priority would be for residential students.
He mentioned nanotechnology and veterinary medicine, for instance, as two fields where different campuses have different expertise and cannot afford to be good at everything on their own.
Specialized efforts of that sort are likely to attract upper-division or graduate students. But DeLuca said a future consortium could also work to improve lower-division courses using online courses to create so-called flipped classrooms.
Sands said the provosts’ talks have been primarily driven by a desire to improve education using technology. But there are also secondary concerns about partnerships with companies and what those deals mean for student data and for faculty intellectual property rights.
“There is a sense amongst the institutions in the CIC -- and I think it’s across the nation – that we have to be careful that we protect our data and we protect the intellectual property that we generate,” Sands said.
He said partnerships with third-party providers may be useful, like Purdue’s own work with Deltak to create master's-degree programs.
“We’re not in those kind of discussions yet seriously, but I think those third-party potential partners could be very valuable,” Sands said.
The implications of the provosts’ new thinking on individual companies or efforts are by no means clear, but some university officials consider existing deals with private companies to be experiments rather than permanent partnerships.
University agreements with Coursera, for instance, are non-exclusive and revenue generation for universities has so far been minimal or non-existent. DeLuca called Wisconsin’s work with the company a “loss leader.”
Northwestern University, likewise, is part of an incipient consortium of universities offering for-credit classes amongst themselves along with 2U, though some universities have dropped out  citing concerns, such as Vanderbilt University's worries that the effort would not expand students' access to courses in niche subjects.
Barbara Allen, the CIC’s executive director, said MOOCs and new public-private partnerships are wonderful phenomena or models but the provosts’ goal is to create a coherent posture and strategy.
“Obviously [the companies] have been able to get out in front in a lot of ways, but I think the provosts are saying the values of the private sector shouldn’t be driving us in making decisions as a university or group of universities,” she said.
Right now, the high-level talks among administrators has yet to trickle down to faculty. Provost Adesida said the Illinois faculty will play a big role in deciding whatever comes next.
“We don’t move without consulting with faculty,” Adesida said.