December 2013/January 2014 Issue
December 17, 2013

Profits first, students last: SUNY's plan to use for-profit companies to run MOOCs - massive open online courses - threatens education quality

Author: Kara Smith
Source: NYSUT United
Caption: Cynthia Eaton, adjunct coordinator for the FA of Suffolk Community College, compares online learning programs during a workshop at this fall's annual NYSUT Community College Leadership Conference. Photo by Steve Jacobs.

SUNY's endorsement of using Massive Open Online Courses - or MOOCs - to allow students to graduate more quickly and save tuition money is raising warning flags throughout New York state's public higher education community.

Unions representing faculty and staff within the SUNY system assert the real goal is to downsize SUNY campuses, privatize higher education, shrink the ranks of teaching and professional faculty - and, in the process, dilute the quality of public higher education.

United University Professions President Fred Kowal said a major concern is "about the quality of credit-bearing MOOCs and the impact that offering them would have on teaching and learning within the SUNY system." UUP represents 35,000 academic and professional faculty on the SUNY state-operated campuses.

MOOCs are a controversial and unproven online learning tool offered primarily by for-profit companies.

A single online course - typically offered as non-credit - can enroll hundreds, even thousands of students. But the more aggressive scheme to offer MOOCs as accepted for-credit requirements raises serious concerns.

SUNY already offers 150 online degree programs, conferring tens of thousands of degrees through the SUNY Learning Network and Empire State College, said Eileen Landy, UUP's statewide secretary and a founding member of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education (CFHE), a national group of faculty, students and union leaders.

Landy notes that university faculty and staff support online and hybrid courses across the SUNY system. "SUNY already has an excellent track record in online education," she said. "But MOOCs are different

- they're offered by for-profit enterprises, and they're not about students, they're about profit." SUNY contracted with mega-MOOC provider Coursera in May to develop a platform for delivering the courses to all of the system's 64 campuses.

"MOOC providers are far more interested in how much money can be made from online higher education, rather than educational quality, improving access or reducing costs for students and colleges," said Kowal. "For these profiteers, the bottom line is the bottom line."

Students enrolled in MOOCs watch videos of instructors teaching other students and have little to no interaction with the professor or teaching assistant. Instead, they interact online with each other and employees of the MOOC company, who may or may not serve as online student tutors, Landy said.

SUNY is touting MOOCs as part of the system's Seamless Transfer and Open SUNY programs, which seek to expand course offerings by allowing students to take courses - including online - across SUNY campuses.

Both programs lack plans for additional teaching faculty or support service professionals, laying the groundwork for explosive MOOC growth and diminished classroom instruction.

"If SUNY isn't careful, its use of large online courses across university campuses could impede access, weaken academic standards and erode educational quality," said Kowal.

Kowal and Landy, along with Philippe Abraham, UUP vice president for professionals, and Jamie Dangler, UUP vice president for academics, are traveling statewide to inform UUP members, faculty governance representatives and local chapter leaders about the implications of Open SUNY and Seamless Transfer.

"We don't want to lose curriculum control, so we're monitoring the development of Seamless Transfer and Open SUNY closely," said Abraham. The union is demanding more analysis and accountability of the programs, as well as a deeper look at the pedogogical impact - on students and faculty - of integrating

MOOCs into the curriculum. "Exactly what are SUNY's plans and how will they impact students, faculty and institutional resources?" said Dangler.

MOOCs fall short for students

According to a series of reports published by the CFHE, less well-prepared students and students of color have significantly higher withdrawal rates and poorer performance in online courses versus face-to-face classes - a less than 10 percent completion rate.

Yet these are precisely the students MOOCs target at state institutions and community colleges.

"Research shows these students don't do well in MOOCs, and in online courses in general," said Cynthia Eaton, adjunct coordinator for the Faculty Association of Suffolk Community College. She has done extensive research on online learning and is a frequent presenter on the issue of MOOCs versus quality online education. "Why aim this technology at the people who can least afford it, and who statistics show won't fare well?"

Indeed, the so-called digital divide poses a huge stumbling block for the very students MOOC proponents claim they help.

A 2012 U.S. Department of Commerce report, "Exploring the Digital Nation," found that broadband and computer use among lower-income families, people with less education, individuals with disabilities, students of color and rural residents lag behind the national average.

Without computers and reliable, broadband access, students are at a disadvantage in the video-heavy MOOC world.

"Most students have smartphones, but they only allow them to be consumers of knowledge, rather than creators of knowledge," said Eaton. "For instance, they can read a 10-page report on a smartphone, but they can't write one on a smartphone." NYSUT Vice President Maria Neira said it's not enough to just give students access to education.

"The access must be meaningful. The policymakers shortchange students when they fail to consider the very real implications of economic inequality by blindly rushing to expand student access, rather than taking a careful, reasoned approach to ensure that the expanded access offered to students is actually helpful," she said.

Quality vs. savings

The one-professor-for-thousands, cost-savings model touted by MOOC proponents isn't how successful online learning works, said Ellen Schuler Mauk, chair of NYSUT's Higher Education Policy Council. To ensure students understand the material, in traditional online course settings, they're usually placed in smaller recitation circles, often led by graduate assistants, Schuler Mauk explained.

"It's ironic - for the last 15 years at least, higher education has been criticized for not having enough student engagement," she said. "Now they're promoting a talking-head instruction methodology."

It also remains unclear whether MOOCs truly save money.

According to a May 2013 Gallup survey of campus presidents nationwide, only 8 percent agreed strongly when asked if MOOCs could be a solution for stemming the rising student costs of education.

The same group also didn't believe MOOCs would save money for colleges and universities. Only 2 percent strongly agreed that MOOCs would provide solutions for the financial challenges they face.

Your MOOC or mine?

The lack of clarity about intellectual property rights is also troubling, union leaders say. An American Association of University Professors report argues that colleges threaten faculty members' copyrights and academic freedom by claiming ownership of instructor-developed MOOCs.

Many MOOC developers also require faculty to sign away intellectual property rights to courses they create. AAUP warns that if the battle for intellectual property rights is lost, it could change the nature of academia. The group launched a website, and is publishing a book, advising faculty how to protect their intellectual property rights.

"That's an issue we continue to explore as a union," said Kowal, explaining that intellectual property rights for faculty members differ system wide. "Our ideas, our intellectual property, are what make us academic professionals. New York state has got to ask itself: Who do they want in control of virtual classes - SUNY professors or a for-profit company?"

The City University of New York is not currently considering offering MOOCs. Nonetheless, Barbara Bowen, president of the Professional Staff Congress that represents 25,000 CUNY faculty and staff, remains concerned about the impact MOOCs would have on quality.

"Any teaching method that provides just one instructor, or one videotape, delivered to thousands of students, opens the door for administrators to override faculty knowledge and supplant it with administrative directives."

The relationship between student and professor, and the collective interaction of a class is important, Bowen said. "It's a profound relationship. I would hate to lose that."