Committee of Provosts Expresses Reservations About MOOC Model

June 25, 2013

Massive open online courses have expanded the boundaries of higher education, making college accessible to virtually anyone, anywhere. Students have enrolled in droves, and university partnerships are expanding quickly. But do these courses really live up to their hype? Some schools are starting to ask themselves this same question.

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of university provosts from several major colleges, wants to create a cross-campus online education network serving more than a half-million students. MOOC providers like Coursera, meanwhile, are developing these very types of technologies in hopes of strengthening their ties with traditional colleges. One might expect the CIC and MOOC providers to work together in an effort to save time and money. Not so, reads a new CIC position paper that questions the benefits of widely distributed online courses, and of external providers of massive online course platforms.

"While new and cost effective technological capabilities make certain changes in higher education possible, it does not necessarily follow that such changes are desirable, or would be endorsed or utilized by our existing students, faculty, or community members," write the CIC provosts, adding that they do not yet "fully grasp the costs and business models that might surround new strategies for broadly disseminating course content."

The paper may come as a surprise to some given the CIC's ties to online education in general -- and to MOOCs specifically. According to Inside Higher Ed, CIC faculty have created about a sixth of Coursera's course content, and the CIC-affiliated University of Michigan is a founding member of Coursera. Nonetheless, the provosts now question whether universities really need to partner with outside providers at all. Paul DeLuca Jr., provost of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, told Inside Higher Ed that one of the group's concerns is the potential loss of control over online content. Some institutions also worry these outside products may not reflect institutions' values and goals. All of this has prompted the group to consider creating its own framework in-house rather than leveraging those already built by MOOC providers.

"There is a rather widespread concern about the notion that the core of our academic mission, on the teaching side, is being essentially developed by for-profit companies," Lauren Kay Robel, provost of Indiana University at Bloomington, told The Chronicle of Higher Education.

The provosts' skepticism of MOOCs appears to extend beyond its basic technologies, however: some question their business model, too. Inside Higher Ed reports that university agreements with Coursera are non-exclusive, for instance, and universities have made little to no money on the venture. DeLuca went so far as to call Wisconsin's work with the company a "loss leader."

This is not to say that the CIC is abandoning their support for MOOCs entirely. CIC Executive Director Barbara Allen called MOOCs and public-private partnerships are still "wonderful phenomena."

"Obviously [the companies] have been able to get out in front in a lot of ways," Allen told Inside Higher Ed. "I think the provosts are saying the values of the private sector shouldn't be driving us in making decisions as a university or group of universities."

Compiled by Aimee Hosler


'Universities in Consortium Talk of Taking Back Control of Online Offerings,", June 19, 2013, Steve Kolowich

"CIC Online Learning Collaboration: A Vision and Framework,", Ilesanmi Adesida, et al

"MOOC-Skeptical Provosts,", June 19, 2013, Ry Rivard

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