Higher Education

SUNY and Coursera

As reported in the NY Times:

Joining Coursera will be the State University of New York system, the Tennessee Board of Regents and the University of Tennessee systems, the University of Colorado system, the University of Houston system, the University of Kentucky, the University of Nebraska, the University of New Mexico, the University System of Georgia and West Virginia University.

Some systems plan to blend online materials with faculty-led classroom sessions. Others will offer credit to students who take the courses online followed by a proctored exam on campus.

Some will use existing Coursera materials developed by faculties at elite universities, but others expect that their own faculties will develop materials for the Coursera platform, making them available at campuses systemwide and beyond.

As you might expect, what worries faculty about MOOCs is not the idea of free at the point of service education (although of course nothing is ever free and Coursera is a for-profit entity). It’s the idea that students will receive college credit for these courses that raises faculty concern. Furthermore, from a SUNY perspective, there is at least the worry that such decisions would be made at the system level. Indeed, as the Times reports, some state legislatures  are getting involved in forcing university hands. For example, we are starting to redesign our general education program at UB. Whatever we decide, though, will have to correspond with the SUNY-wide GE requirements. If, SUNY decides to start offering Coursera courses for SUNY GE credit, then that would make any local campus efforts basically moot.

One could say that a lecture hall course is no better than a MOOC course, but the failure rates would indicate otherwise. Perhaps we will create local structures to support those students but then that’s an additional cost.  Students in MOOCs will need to demonstrate the competencies expected in these courses, but whose courses? SUNY has 64 campus from rural community colleges to university centers. If a student takes composition at any of those campuses we are required to accept it. Understandably, we have differing standards as we serve different kinds of students and have different educational missions. So will we evaluate these MOOCs systemwide or on the campus-level. If a student gets a MOOC course accepted at one place and then transfers elsewhere, what happens then? Ugh.

Administrative hassles aside, there certainly could be economic implications for a department like mine that thrives on the delivery of composition (and the TA lines associated with it). It may not be negative, of course, as it might mean that we are now competing for the 100,000s of SUNY students who need to meet this requirement. But perhaps I’ll be competing with my friend Jeff Rice at Kentucky and the folks at Georgia Tech, Duke, and Ohio State that already have an FYC course on Coursera.

But let’s set aside the economic issues as well.

At some very distant, nearly forgotten level, this is supposed to be about learning, right? Oh yeah. But it’s not about learning as an experience. It’s about the demonstration of learning through performance. This is typically done through a proctored exam, but in the case of writing, it would have to be a portfolio. How one would verify the authorship of the portfolio is beyond me. But again, that’s not about learning either. That’s about the measurement of learning. It’s going to be a very strange world and now all of SUNY has been dragged into it.

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