Private Online Courses Discussed

Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.
Photo by Robin Weinstein.

Frederick Kowal, the new president of United University Professions (UUP), the union that represents all SUNY professors and professionals, has opposed privately operated, massive open online courses (MOOCs), expressing concern over private corporations doing the teaching instead of university professors.

According to Peter Brown, UUP chapter president at SUNY New Paltz, in the private sector, MOOCs, which allow thousands of individuals to take a single class at once, are run by profit seeking companies who employ professors to create online courses that are essentially “sold” to those who pay to enroll in them.

When offered with the consent of a university, private MOOCs can count toward student credit.

MOOCs have been endorsed by SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and the SUNY Board of Trustees as a way to help students graduate earlier and save money on tuition. A new campaign called “Open SUNY” aims to bring all online courses offered at each of SUNY’s 64 campuses into a shared and comprehensive online environment, making them accessible to all of the system’s 468,000 students and 88,000 faculty, according to the SUNY website.

“SUNY is being run like a business, and we’re concerned about our universities being corporatized,” Brown said.

According to Brown, there are currently no private MOOCs offered through New Paltz, but said the possibility of students and administration turning to MOOCs as tuition costs increase and state and federal financial support dwindles does exist.

However, Brown said he believes students desire face-to-face education in a classroom environment over an online class where they exist as a number amid thousands of others.

“That’s not a quality education from a student’s point of view. From a professor’s point of view, we’re concerned that there will be some major stars delivering the lectures in the [private sector] MOOCs, but the grading, discussion, and interaction will be done by low paid adjuncts making poverty wages with limited benefits, no job security and no academic freedom,” Brown said.

Addressing UUP’s concerns, SUNY New Paltz Provost Philip Mauceri said he understands their position, but believes it is too early to judge MOOCs’ potential effect on colleges.

“There has been a lot of media attention to MOOCs, with some forecasting Armageddon for higher education should they be adopted and others dismissing MOOCs as a passing fad,” Mauceri said. “I think it’s still too early to tell what, if any impact they will have. What we do know is that currently MOOCs have abysmal completion rates, they present real difficulties in assessing learning outcomes and have yet to prove themselves as financially viable.”

Brown said even within public university education, MOOCs are cause for concern. Regarding the use of MOOCs in Chancellor Zimpher’s “Open SUNY” campaign, Brown said the system is moving toward a homogenous SUNY curriculum.

“We’re seeing the McDonald-ization of higher education,” Brown said. “You take as many students as possible and push them through the system as fast as possible.”

Brown also commented on SUNY’s “Seamless Transfer” plan.

According to a pamphlet put out by UUP titled “Seamless Transfer/Core Curriculum: Impact on Public Higher Education,” seamless transfer is SUNY’s plan to mandate a system wide general education program, allowing for ease of student transfer between SUNY community colleges and state-operated campuses.

The pamphlet refers to the mandate as a “canned curriculum,” saying that the plan threatens academic freedom and SUNY colleges’ ability to provide diverse educational experiences in tune with student needs and program specialties.

“It’s not just MOOCs. It’s a broader array of SUNY initiatives that [UUP] sees going toward privatization,” Brown said.

According to the pamphlet, UUP will call on Chancellor Zimpher to “redirect SUNY to its essential education mission and work with us to collaboratively address problems.”