Friday, May 10, 2013

Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State

Many universities are looking to massive open online courses (MOOCs) as part of the technology infused future of education.  Penn State, for example, has partnered with Coursera, to develop and deliver these courses, and the programs which may inevitably be built around these. (See also MOOCs at Penn State; An Update; (List of Penn State MOOCs HERE). "Looking to the future, Penn State’s MOOC professors are optimistic about the benefits that teaching the courses will have for both the university and their fields of study." (Stephen Shiflett, Penn State Professors Excited About Possibilities of Massive Open Online Courses, Centre Daily Times, April 6, 2013).

("Sign me up;" Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

But faculties across the country are increasingly raising doubts, and organizing opposition to MOOCs. (e.g., Dan Berrett, Debate Over MOOCs Reaches Harvard, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 10, 2013).  There are two distinct bases for this opposition.  The first goers to shared governance--faculties have raised serious objections to the introduction of MOOCs as an administration initiative, usually with little or no faculty consultation, viewing this as a way of end-running faculty authority.  The second goes to substance--that MOOCs do not deliver quality or substance to a necessary minimum extent.  This post looks to recent oppositional statements by faculty governance organizations at Harvard, Duke, American, and San Jose State

Harvard:  The discussion at Harvard appears the most straightforward in terms of the power dynamics between faculty and administration.
Gathered Tuesday for their final meeting of the semester, members of Harvard’s Faculty of Arts and Sciences complained that their voices are not being heard on a number of important issues affecting the University and the way it is governed. . . . . 

“The common question that we all have is this: how effectively do the forums that we have available to us achieve the consultation and communication that we need?” said history professor and vice-chair of the Faculty Docket Committee Maya R. Jasanoff ’96, who initiated Tuesday's discussion.

The docketed exchange comes at the end of an academic year rife with administrative decisions that have angered faculty and left administrators, professors, and students struggling to communicate. But the unusual move to dedicate a portion of the faculty’s monthly meeting to the subject came only after news that administrators had authorized secret searches of resident deans’ email accounts—a revelation that intensified concerns about faculty-administration relations. . . . 

The conversation over Faculty Council quickly shifted to HarvardX, an initiative about which faculty said their opinions have largely been ignored. HarvardX is Harvard’s segment of EdX, an online learning platform launched by Harvard and MIT one year ago.

FAS Dean Michael D. Smith disagreed, saying that faculty have been included at various points along the way. The University, he said, is actively working with professors to determine how they can best use edX to complement their work.

“The world is moving in this way, and we should be part of this conversation because we are looked at as a leader in higher education and our voice matters,” Smith said, adding that the faculty has had and will continue to have chances to offer input.

But faculty pushed back, suggesting that they should have a hand in influencing not just the EdX curriculum but also its intellectual infrastructure. Philosophy professor Edward J. Hall, who serves as chair of the Committee on General Education, said that he hears from many professors worried about the implications of EdX.

“Within [certain groups] there is widespread concern about how HarvardX is proceeding,” Hall said. “And many of my colleagues notice that meetings happen that are devoted to implementing HarvardX, but not meetings where faculty are consulted.” (Nicholas P. Fandos, At Meeting, Faculty Question Relationship With Administrators, Harvard Crimson, May 8, 2013).

This is the sort of conversation that many universities ought to be sensitive to.  There is a temptation is great to treat MOOCs and related programs as ministerial and thus needing only peripheral faculty involvement.  The reason is simple--administrators can make faster decisions and can conform these decisions to specific purposes--in this case perhaps increasing both the revenue margins of offering courses and the targeting of courses more quickly "to market."  But these decisions do lie at the heart of the core role of the faculty--in the construction and delivery of knowledge dissemination.  That knowledge dissemination may no longer be delivered solely as courses does not change the character of the function--and thus to eliminate or reduce faculty participation effectively constitutes a potentially serious attack on shared governance.  

Duke: Duke faculty raised similar issues to those raised by the Harvard faculty.  But there was an additional wrinkle--the potentially adverse effects of outsourcing course development and delivery to outside venders, something that a number of universities are now contemplating.
At Duke University a week earlier, an undergraduate-faculty council voted down a push by the provost's office to offer small online courses for credit through 2U, a company that sells an online platform and support services to colleges.

 While paying Duke tuition," wrote the authors of a letter to the student newspaper, signed by 75 professors, students would "watch recorded lectures and participate in sections via Web cam—enjoying neither the advantages of self-paced learning nor the responsiveness of a professor who teaches to the passions and curiosities of students."
Those rebuttals followed closely the decision by the Amherst College faculty to reject an invitation to produce massive open online courses through edX.

In each case, the professors were careful to make clear that they oppose not online technology, but rather the notion of collaborating with an outside vendor that might pose a threat, in the long term, to their principles. The professors said they had no problem climbing aboard the online train, as long as they get to help plan the route. (Steve Kolowich, Faculty Backlash Grows Against Online Partnerships, Chronicle of Higher Education,  May 6, 2013).
What is particularly worthy of attention in the Duke context--beyond the important issue of robust faculty engagement, was the issue of outsourcing.   Critical to that issue, and one that has not been studied with any sort of rigor, is that of the effect of outsourcing on control of pedagogy traditionally at the core of the discretion of faculty. To the extent that outside venders can begin to control the deliuverfy of education--usually obliquely through determination of issues of delivery mechanism and other technical issues that may affect content and pedagogy from a functional perspective, it may well cut into the ability of faculty to control the quality and delivery principles of education. 

American University:  American University presents a more interesting case.  There administrators have exercised caution in embracing MOOCs, but at the same time they have, with the collusion of their Faculty Senate, moved aggresively to forbid faculty efforts to develop MOOCs on their own time.  It appears that at American, as at other universities, faculty are increasingly viewed as having sold all of their time and atlents to the university, thus permitting thses institutions to control the use of faculty time even when not engaged in university activity.  While the justification is usually something like avoiding competition, or ensuring full time and attention to the job, the heavy handedness of these efforts seems to be increasing.

Meanwhile, at American University, the provost sent a memo on Wednesday to the entire faculty and staff reiterating a "moratorium on MOOCs" while the university, in Washington, D.C., continues to draft a policy on how the massive courses would operate there.

The university is taking its time in deciding whether it wants to pursue institutional partnerships with edX or Coursera, another MOOC provider; or whether it wants to allow professors to teach MOOCs on their own, through Udacity or some other platform.

Contrary to institutions that have eagerly embraced MOOCs, American is purposely avoiding experimentation before it decides exactly how it wants to relate to the new breed of online courses. "I need a policy before we jump into something," said Scott A. Bass, the provost, in an interview.

In his memo, Mr. Bass assures the faculty that American will not pursue MOOCs before addressing issues such as faculty oversight and release time. In the interview, Mr. Bass also mentioned unresolved issues like how MOOC teaching gigs might fit into decisions about promotion and tenure.

"There are serious questions to be asked, and answered, before we rush ahead," the provost said.

In the memo, the provost lays out a series of proscriptions—formulated in consultation with the Faculty Senate—that limit how professors at American may teach online on a freelance basis.

For example, professors may not teach full courses online; they may not engage in any online teaching that costs students money or results in a certificate or course credit; they may not engage in any grading or assessment activities; and they must tell their deans about any freelance online teaching job, even if it falls within the rules.

"The university wanted reassurance," said Barlow Burke, a professor of law and chair of the Faculty Senate, that American University "would be the primary employer of the faculty." (Steve Kolowich, As MOOC Debate Simmers at San Jose State, American U. Calls a Halt, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2013).

Yet it is not clear that the university's desire, which is reasonable, is at all proportional to its methods, which could be seen to be overbroad.  What American said it was seeking was assurance that it was the primary employer; what it appeared to negotiate for effectively was that it would be the sole employer.  This is an issue--the control of faculty time not devoted to university activity--that will likely become a more controversial issue in coming years as faculty seek to explore personal avenues for engagement even as the university seeks to control more of a faculty member's discretionary ise of non-university time. Most telling is the obligation for administrative approval of private time activity--a process that is subject to abuse with substantially little faculty recourse and a powerful mechanism for control beyond its ostensible limits. For the moment, the guidelines at American ought to be studied carefully as a likely influential template for those discussion. 

San Jose State:  The debate at San Jose State also raises issue of governance.  But more importantly it raises both issues of quality and of the use of MOOCs to attack tenure and reduce the size and power of faculty within universities.  "The union representing professors at San Jose State University wrote the following statement expressing concerns about recent efforts by the university's president, Mohammad H. Qayoumi, to work with commercial MOOC providers." From  San Jose State U.'s Faculty Association Responds to MOOC Backlash, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2013. The letter from the San Jose State Faculty Union  is worth reading in full:

Massive Virtual Fires Engulf San José State University
California Faculty Association - San José State University, Executive Board

Last week, California experienced record-high temperatures around the State, prompting the California Fire Department to announce an early start of the "fire season." San Jos? was no different. The news fires that sprung up at San Jos? State University (SJSU) called for immediate address by the faculty. Particularly, two articles in the Chronicle of Higher Education, "Learning from Big Business," and The New York Times, "Colleges Adapt Online Courses to Ease Burden," highlighted our campus president, Mohammad Qayoumi's, opinion about online education, traditional pedagogy, and his vision of the California State University system. A third article by the entire SJSU philosophy department "Why Professors at San Jose State Won't Use a Harvard Professor's MOOC," clearly demonstrates faculty concern - about massive open online courses (MOOCs). Finally, Associated Student Senator Leo Postovoit's opinion published in the Spartan Daily "Just Add Coffee: Our University is not Walmart" challenges the business model of the university put forth by President Qayoumi stating that the educational experience at SJSU is not just a "shopping cart" or "e-commerce site."

The California Faculty Association (CFA), representing 2,059 faculty at San José State University and more than 23,000 faculty statewide, also has serious concerns about President Qayoumi's comments and vision. To be clear, CFA has long supported the classroom and technology innovations by faculty at CSU. Moreover, CFA has also pushed for more resources and training to enable the faculty to explore new pedagogies and new technological tools. The faculty association is alarmed by the expressed preference of President Qayoumi for private rather than public solutions for the CSU. Moreover, what consultation and meetings have occurred with the faculty run counter to his comments in the press, which celebrate private enterprise at the expense of the University and its collegial form of government. Walmart and other private firms have a command and control authority structure and resulting inflated executive salaries. This is the antithesis of public service and more specifically of university governance, and raises for CFAs questions about the stated commitments to shared governance. Does SJSU really want to be known as Wal-Mart U? It is clear that President Qayoumi is committed to expanding the partnership between Udacity and edX, regardless of any assessment outcome and what it may inform us about online education or course materials provided by third parties, in the case of edX. This directly contradicts previous statements that he and the Provost have made to the faculty about how these "pilot programs" are to proceed. The Math Department is concerned about decisions being made regarding the online courses developed by Udacity, without adequately consulting with the department. In particular, a decision was made to limit the hours of proctored exams (for financial reasons) that violated a long standing Math Department policy that any online math course must have at least two proctored midterms and one proctored final. The department also has concerns about the passing rates in the Udacity online classes, which so far seem to be noticeably lower than the passing rates for a typical in-person math class. However, the Math Department continues to experiment with online math courses and hopes that these issues can be resolved.

A few weeks ago, the President's comments to CFA and to the press seemed to be ignorant of faculty and their pedagogy. He indicated that traditional classroom teaching, particularly in an electrical engineering course, was inefficient and ineffective--quoting a 55 percent pass rate. While Anant Agarwal of edX and Lieutenant Governor Gavin Newsom describe a stereotype of classroom teaching based on some hackneyed Hollywood script of a teacher writing on a blackboard while his students sleep in boredom, President Qayoumi does not counter with examples of the exemplary and innovative teaching that is practiced at SJSU. Therefore, we invite him to visit SJSU classes (or perhaps even teach a course) so that he might be able to more accurately represent the real work of professors and instructors at SJSU. The anecdotal accounts of the 91 percent pass rate in the edX engineering course could point to several aspects of the social process of teaching. For example, the professor and the students have openly stated that they are spending considerably more time on this version of the course compared with the traditional face-to-face version. Logically, when one spends more time preparing for a course, results are likely to improve. The pedagogical infrastructure and work that has gone into the preparation of the edX material could easily be replicated if SJSU made a commitment to pedagogy and made training in pedagogy central to all faculty. How much of the difference in outcomes is the result of attention to pedagogy?

Additionally, little is known about whether online pedagogy makes education more accessible. In many reports, online education simply increases the "digital divide." Successes in MOOCs have been reported to be due to the resources available to those who enroll. Those who do well academically and are better prepared, know the material better, and have the time to review materials repeatedly are more likely to succeed. Technology companies are aware of the digital divide and Udacity officials have informed CFA that they are addressing the issue, but reports suggest that the divide continues to widen at an outrageous pace, making education increasingly inaccessible. Furthermore, online education has yet to demonstrate if a student is more employable. Are companies willing to hire the graduate of a program whose courses are online? Is a student who possesses the resources to attend in-person programs versus online programs more marketable?

In an environment where faculty are constantly reminded that fewer resources for public universities are available, CFA is disturbed that President Qayoumi is not actively lobbying Sacramento and Silicon Valley venture capitalists for more public funding of education. The people with whom he associates, members of the Silicon Valley elite, are the very people who have succeeded in privatizing the wealth generated by our society and making the rules that reduce their tax obligations to California. The partnerships with Udacity and edX will put more tax dollars into the pockets of the Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and at the expense of the State's taxpayers.

Finally, over the last several years, SJSU has made large investments in the understanding of student retention and success. This effort includes the building of more on-campus housing and expanding the campus' Student Union. The argument for such efforts, which the CFA supports, stems from evidence showing that by creating more campus community, student success increases. Additionally, in Academic-Year 2011-12, Jeff Davis and Vincent Tinto, presented their research on working-class and first-generation students whose learning needs are distinct and require careful attention. They were brought to our campus to help us improve retention and persistence of our students, for whom the social processes associated with learning are central to their success. Additional research by Shana Smith Jaggers of Teachers College, Columbia University shows that while some students favor online education for various reasons, there is a "strong underlying pattern: Most students [do] not feel they learn the course material as well when they took it online." Jaggers found that students felt that this was not only due to reduced teacher interaction, but also weaker student-student interaction. For first generation and at-risk students, this is significant. Thus, the move to push remedial courses and introductory courses online, directly contradicts this research and the public investment in education.

San José State University is the public university of Silicon Valley. It is the engine that drives the region and its technology. As an institution of higher education, it is one piece in the larger Master Plan for Higher Education--and it is an essential higher education institution that works in collaboration with local community colleges to educate the next generation of Californians. President Qayoumi speaks of innovation, but wants to move fast--"We want to fail fast, learn from it, and move on." Is it worth it to fail in course delivery systems that do not have the full support of the faculty--whose role is to provide governance and curriculum to the students of the university?

The California Faculty Association urges President Qayoumi to collaborate with the faculty, its union, the SJSU Academic Senate and the students of San Jos? State University. CFA is not against online education. Our mission is to protect the rights of our faculty and to ensure quality education for the students of the CSU system. CFA also urges the public to write letters to the CSU Chancellor, SJSU President Qayoumi, and elected officials expressing concerns and questions regarding online education and massive open online classes, and the use of private companies for public education. We believe that access to higher education is central to a stronger economy, region, and state, and we believe that public support and funding is the key to its success.

California Faculty Association, San José State University Chapter
(From  San Jose State U.'s Faculty Association Responds to MOOC Backlash, Chronicle of Higher Education, May 9, 2013.)

Much of what has been debated at the other universities is present here as well: administrative decision making without consultation, the outsourcing of course development (and by extension program structuring) in ways that weaken faculty control over either, and the like. But equally interesting was the action of the Philosophy Department of San Jose State, which raises a potentially more fundamental issue for university educaiton:    
Professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University are refusing to teach a philosophy course developed by edX, saying they do not want to enable what they see as a push to "replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities."

The San Jose State professors also called out Michael Sandel, the Harvard government professor who developed the course for edX, suggesting that professors who develop MOOCs are complicit in how public universities might use them. . . . .

The letter is part of a brewing debate about how MOOCs might deepen the divide between wealthy universities, which produce MOOCs, and less wealthy ones, which buy licenses to use those MOOCs from providers like edX.

The authors say they fear "that two classes of universities will be created: one, well-funded colleges and universities in which privileged students get their own real professor; the other, financially stressed private and public universities in which students watch a bunch of videotaped lectures and interact, if indeed any interaction is available on their home campuses, with a professor that this model of education has turned into a glorified teaching assistant." (Steve Kolowich, Why Professors at San Jose State Won't Use a Harvard Professor's MOOC, Chronicle of Higher Education May 2, 2013).
The open letter this week addressed to Mr. Sandel can be accessed here. The most interesting part of the letter quite correctly expressed a fear that in the rush of American universities to create hierarchies of "quality", the combination of distance education, MOOCs and leverage might well create two classes of universities, one with "quality" faculty that can originate the structures and pedagogy of knowledge collection for dissemination, and another class of university, one where faculty serve as facilitators with no real claim to quality. This is a trend that is not limited to MOOCs. At Penn State, for example, there has been a push, embraced by both particular sectors of the administraiton and faculty, have have sought to use the "conflict of interest" rules to effectively inhibit faculty from using their own materials to teach courses.  While the idea behind these conflicts rules are innocuous enough--protection against faculty who put together the materials of others and then seek to sell these to students--the real effect is more profound.  It suggests that Penn State faculty are incapable of creating knowledge worthy to teach their students.  Their role is legitimate only if they teach the materials developed by others.  But if the quality marker of elite schools is that their faculty are so "ahead of the pack" that they set the academic discourse, then these sorts of rules suggest that indigenous faculty are unworthy of that sort of reputation. 
Also worth reading is Michael Sandel's response, which was sent to a Chronicle reporter in response to the letter from the San Jose State University's philosophy department (Michael Sandel Responds ("The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.")).


  1. It is really said the professors think this way .
    I cannot point out many wrong points they have raised.

    One thing I agree
    employers ( that is me ) will decide to HIRE a graduate from GOOD ONLINE Courses ( I do not call it MOOCs, it is very misleading word ) by reputable universities .

    I warn here that if these reputable universities start to provide degrees soon, most of the schools including San Jose State will be closed and its professors will be jobless within 5-10 years or sooner .
    State will be happy to sell all lands and buildings of the school to make more revenue .
    Everybody will go to Harvard, MIT, Stanford at $ 10-50 per course and get degrees as MITx. Harvardx, Stanfordx .

  2. This is just resistance to change.
    teachers are afraid of losing their jobs .

  3. You say that "In many reports, online education simply increases the 'digital divide.'" Could you provide links to these reports?