Faculty Reject Participation in Semester Online Learning Consortium

The Arts and Sciences Faculty Council Thursday afternoon voted to reject Duke's involvement in a consortium of research universities participating in a five-year pilot project offering for-credit online courses.

The faculty defeated a motion to participate with the private, for-profit company 2U by a 16-14 vote with two abstentions.  The vote followed more than 90 minutes of discussion in which dozens of faculty members spoke both in favor and against the resolution.

The vote had the narrow result of currently ending Duke's involvement with Semester Online consortium, but faculty were quick to note that the university's experiments with online education would continue.

"Faculty control of the curriculum is the foundation of the university, and the lengthy and vigorous debate over the Semester Online proposal illuminated a number of important issues that are also central to the future of higher education," Provost Peter Lange said after the vote.

"While the Arts and Sciences Council rejected the recommendations of its faculty committee, we believe there is great value to our students and faculty in incorporating online learning into the Duke experience, and Duke will continue to work to expand opportunities do so in the coming months.  We will also continue to innovate across the disciplines to provide our students with a rich array of educational opportunities," Lange said.

After defeating the Semester Online motion, the council passed a resolution stating its commitment to continuing Duke's "current practice of exploring and adopting a variety of online platforms."

The university signed a preliminary agreement to participate in the Semester Online consortium in November 2012, using an online learning platform developed by 2U.  The proposal had been considered and revised by four faculty committees including the Arts & Sciences Courses Committee and the executive committees of the Academic Council and the Arts and Sciences Faculty Council.

But concerns were raised at an April 11 Arts and Sciences Faculty Council session that the proposal had not received a thorough vetting from faculty.  Several faculty members said they were just hearing about the project and expressed concern that departments would have little control over the consortium's ability to offer courses related to their field.

Following the April 11 discussion, the proposal was again modified to allow departments to opt-out of the consortium, so that their faculty would not teach any Semester Online courses and that no courses in the consortium would be accepted for credit toward the department's major requirements.

But opposition to the project continued. At Thursday's session, faculty again raised concerns about faculty governance.  "For many of us, an open and inclusive discussion on this began only two weeks ago," said Rebecca Stein, associate professor of cultural anthropology.  "The chief issue is the process by which the proposal was considered and the lack of adequate time in which the faculty has had to consider it."

Other faculty raised concerns about the quality of other institutions in the consortium, which would currently includes Emory, Northwestern, Notre Dame, Brandeis, Boston College, UNC-Chapel Hill and Washington University. 

Critics said the online lecture courses would fall short of the faculty-student interaction that is emphasized in a Duke education. Opponents also cited the impact on departments and their ability to sustain enrollment and control of their curriculum. Professor Wahneema Lubiano noted that 2U wasn't the only platform available to use for online education and opposed handing over to a private company the ability "to shape the nature of our interactions with students." 

"We are good for 2U.  I'm just not sure 2U is good for us.  Five years can be devastating to departments," Lubiano said.

But where opponents emphasized the potential for significant changes in the curriculum, supporters of the plan described the project as a small experiment that would be carefully evaluated over the five years of its existence and could provide significant data needed to understand what is effective in online learning.

"I see this as a pilot project with lots of room for experimentation and over years will give us answers we want," said Professor Peter Burian, interim dean of the humanities.  "I think that is what is being proposed today."

Other supporters noted the interest Duke students have in online learning.  Faculty who have taught online courses described how the experience helped them be more creative and innovative in their own classrooms.

Economics Professor Emma Raisel, who had planned to offer one of Duke's first offerings in the Semester Online consortium, said she had initial concerns "but after working with 2U I became very excited about the range of content."

Before the vote, council chair Professor Thomas Robisheaux praised the faculty for the passion and civility of their discussions.  "This is ground we all share in common," he said.  "Everyone wants the very best for their students and have made a commitment to make their teaching the very best.  Our views may differ, but from my vantage point it's a healthy debate."