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Online classes fuel a campus debate

By Tamar Lewin

The announcement in May that Coursera, which offers free college classes online, had signed agreements with state universities enrolling more than a million students made it plain that such courses, virtually unheard-of two years ago, are now part of the higher education mainstream.

But along the way, a rancorous debate has emerged over whether such courses will lead to better learning, lower costs and higher graduation rates — or to the dismantling of public universities, downgraded or eliminated faculty jobs, and a second-class education for most students.

Many universities have been quick to sign up with outside providers to offer the “massive open online courses,” known as MOOCs, either as stand-alone courses or in a hybrid format, with the online materials supplemented by a local faculty member. While they portray their online offerings as exploratory, many administrators hope the courses will help them expand their reach, rein in tuition and offer better instruction.

Now a new discussion has begun about whether universities should collaborate to develop and share their courses and technology, rather than working with outside providers. This week, the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a group of provosts from Big 10 universities, issued a position paper saying that higher education must take advantage of new education technology — but perhaps on its own. On a small scale, CIC members’ CourseShare program already does that, with members sharing classes in less commonly taught languages.

“Many of us feel more comfortable building our own infrastructure, rather than relying on a for-profit company,” said Karen Hanson, provost of the University of Minnesota and the committee’s chairwoman. “We think we want to remain in control of our own intellectual property.”

Like most of the universities in the group, the University of Minnesota currently is a partner with Coursera, with five courses being offered and five more in the works. “Coursera shares a lot of our values, and the faculty members involved have keen interest in experimenting with that format,” the provost said.

Daphne Koller, the Stanford computer science professor who is a founder of Coursera, said she thought the CIC paper represented an exploratory discussion driven by anxieties about how online education would change higher education. Coursera’s contract with its CIC partners, she said, leaves them full control over their content, including all rights and usage. In addition, most universities’ software infrastructure is provided by technology companies.

“Tech companies generally produce better code,” she said. “And I think when they consider it, most universities will not see any advantage in duplicating that work.”

On many campuses, faculty oppose the spread of MOOCs, angry that their universities joined in with little consultation, undercutting the tradition of shared governance. Others argue that MOOCs will shortchange students, replacing the personal relationships that encourage learning.

In April, Duke University pulled out of Semester Online, a consortium of universities sharing online courses, hosted by 2U, the online education platform, after the faculty voted down the project.

At San Jose State University, which has led the way in allowing the MOOCs to be used for credit, the philosophy department last month wrote an open letter to Michael Sandel, a Harvard professor whose online justice course it refused to use, laying out its concerns about the impact of such courses.

“Let us not kid ourselves,” the letter said, “administrators at CSU are beginning a process of replacing faculty with cheap online education.”

Last week, San Jose State suspended its online courses after more than half of the students failed the final exams.

This spring, the Amherst faculty voted against joining edX, the nonprofit Harvard-MIT collaboration, and 58 Harvard faculty members sought the creation of a new committee to consider the effect online courses will have on higher education.

Jonathan Rees, a history professor at Colorado State University at Pueblo, who has written critically about MOOCs, said their spread is likely to lead to a three-tiered world, with a few high-status “super professors” for whom the courses provide both status and royalties; a larger pool of tenured professors who continue to teach their regular in-person classes until they retire; and “a huge army of adjuncts and teaching assistants,” whose jobs will be vulnerable to online competition.

“The problem with this MOOC-as-labor-issue argument is that it has no place for students and learning,” said Phil Hill, an education technology consultant. “Our starting point ought to be what students need and whether this is an effective form of learning.”

Many educators say that high-quality online materials can help students learn, just like a high-quality textbook.

“The issue in higher education is how we get to scale,” said M. Peter McPherson, president of the Association of Public and Land-Grant Universities. “The question now is how long it’s going to take for faculty members to stop saying they can use the same textbooks as others at other institutions, but they can’t use the same lectures.”

All three of the leading MOOC providers — Coursera, edX and Udacity, another Stanford spinoff — started by offering courses free but with no credit, attracting millions of learners around the world. But all three are now adapting those courses, often in blended form, for use in public universities that will offer students credit and extra support — and bring the MOOC providers a steady revenue stream.

Coursera, which initially worked only with elite research universities, shifted gears after finding that most students enrolled in its courses already had college degrees. Koller said she realized that to “move the needle” on the basic problems of American higher education — access and affordability — the company would have to work with the public universities that educate most college students.

New York Times News Service

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