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Chair of the NYC Council Higher Education Committee Ydanis Rodriguez (left) discusses massive open online courses with Dr. Steven Briar/CUNY Graduate Center (center) and Prof. Steve London of PSC/CUNY (right)
Media Credit: Loretta Chin

By LORETTA CHIN                                           Originally published on Brooklyn News Service on April 27, 2013.

The head of the City Council Higher Education Committee criticized CUNY leadership on Tuesday for not moving quickly enough to join the massive open online courses (MOOCs) movement sweeping the nation.

“We are leaving the market to for-profit,” said Committee Chairman Ydanis Rodriguez at a City Council public hearing as he expressed concerns that CUNY was not doing all it could to take advantage of the opportunity to provide increased access to students.

MOOCs first appeared in 2008 as a form of online learning that is free to the public, has unlimited enrollment and has no admissions or completion requirements.  Although free to the public, they are not without cost and some are heavily funded in the millions of dollars by venture capitalists.

“There is a real danger that faddish or unproven content such as MOOCs will be grabbed on to for their purported cost savings and features that are not related to educational value,” said CUNY union leader, Steve London. “This is an area for privatization and profit-making and we see that there are dollar signs by hedge funds and venture capitalists.”  He said that MOOCs undermine faculty governance, which is necessary to ensure quality.

CUNY Director of Academic Technology George Otte warned that the size of MOOCs pretty much guarantees that there is very little time interacting with an instructor. “The key issue for CUNY is how to take advantage of the positives and somehow address the negatives,” he said.

Rodriguez said that getting a good quality education is still a privilege for the elite and that more opportunities need to be given to the working and middle class.  He said he wanted to see a concrete plan and recommendations from CUNY to decide how much money should be invested in the new technology to ensure access to a population of students that can benefit from a MOOC environment.

Educators debate whether MOOCS should grant college credits, how they should be credited, and what effect they will have on the future of public institutions, which traditionally provide access to lower income students. Only 10 percent of students complete a MOOC and it’s not clear how MOOCs will guarantee a steady revenue stream.

CUNY University Dean of the Macaulay Honors College Ann Kirschner told the committee that there are 6.7 million students online and growing, but less than 3 percent of institutions offer MOOCs.  “We are still very much in the infancy of this movement,” Kirschner said.  “There are good MOOCs and there are bad MOOCs.”

Key players in MOOCs are Coursera, a venture capital funded MOOC used by Stanford, Princeton, Brown, University of Pennsylvania, John Hopkins and Cal Tech; edX, a not-for-profit model used by MIT and Harvard; and Udacity, which is also a venture capital model.

CUNY Dean for Libraries Kurtis Kendrick voiced concern about widening the digital divide for students without access to computers and implications for faculty.

“Do faculty own the rights for the courses they develop or are these paid works for hire?,” he said. Faculty and their unions will need to negotiate how tenure and promotion will be evaluated under the MOOCs model.

CUNY offers eight traditional online degrees: six baccalaureates and two masters at the School of Professional Studies. Officals plan to look into modified or blended MOOC models between campuses and to increase online learning opportunities. John Jay College offers 300 online course sections each year with plans to offer MOOCs that will be non-credit but follow rigorous academic standards.

Chief Digital Officer at Columbia, Sree Sreenivasan said that Columbia was running three MOOC engineering pilot courses with more than 100,000 registered participants, with plans for more in the future.

At NYU educators debate whether MOOCs are courses since there is a low commitment on the part of students and instructors, low completion rates and little validation that students know course content.  In addition, MOOCs do not have to be a part of a school or university, which has to be accredited.

Creative Commons Director Eric Saltzman said the word “open” in the acronym for MOOCs was originally intended by the founders of the open software to mean “free as in free speech, not as in free beer.”

“As policy makers, you will have the opportunity to influence how open open is and what open means,” Saltzman said.

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