When the Arts and Sciences Council voted against for-credit online courses Thursday afternoon, it broke an existing contract between Duke and 2U, an internet education company.
In the Fall, Provost Peter Lange signed a contract with 2U, which entered the University as a partner in the company’s Semester Online consortium of schools. Had the motion to approve for-credit online courses passed, Duke would have offered courses for credit through Semester Online for at least a three-year pilot program. Several professors voiced concern, however, that the administration was not transparent with the faculty about its dealings with 2U. Neither the decision to pursue online courses for credit nor the decision to sign with 2U specifically was voted on by any faculty governing body or committe.
“The decision taken on Thursday was an expression of desired caution with regard to a specific recommendation and not a general turning away from what has been accomplished,” Lange wrote in an email Saturday. “We will continue to...provide our students [with] the richest learning experiences.”
Although arguments against for-credit online courses focused on the merits of online learning, faculty members also expressed issues with the format of Semester Online and the timeline of the faculty’s involvement with the proposal. A number of faculty members expressed support for online learning but dissatisfaction with 2U and the way administrators discussed entering into a partnership.
“We are not, as I think we’ve been characterized, ideologically opposed to online education,” said Rebecca Stein, director of undergraduate studies in cultural anthropology, speaking against the proposal. “We simply seek due diligence on the part of the entire faculty.”
Ultimately, 16 council members voted against for-credit online courses and 14 voted in favor, with two abstentions. Prior to the vote, there was an unsuccessful motion to table the decision until the Council’s September meeting, with 10 members voting in favor, 16 opposed and one abstention.
“It’s a disaster,” said physics professor Steffen Bass, a member of the Executive Committee of the Arts and Sciences Council, who spoke in favor of adopting the proposal. “It was not voted down because online education is a bad thing. It was voted down on the basis of very political arguments.”
Before the vote, faculty members, which included non-council members who had decided to attend the meeting, were invited to state their opinion. Two microphones were placed at the front of the room, one for those who supported the motion and the other for those who were against it. Among the speakers were the two professors who had already developed classes to be taught through Semester Online, Emma Rasiel, associate professor of the practice of economics, and Tom Metzloff, professor of law.
“While I was disappointed with the outcome of this particular vote, I have no doubt that Duke will continue to pursue opportunities to explore the potential of online education,” Rasiel said in an email Saturday.
The proposal would have allowed Duke students to take a maximum of four online courses for credit throughout their undergraduate career with no more than one per semester. An “opt-in/opt-out” clause would have given each academic department the ability to decide whether or not it wished to participate in the program. Each department would have determined for itself whether or not to teach online courses and whether or not to grant credit towards a major, minor or general education requirements for courses taught by other school’s in the online consortium.
Several professors noted the departmental flexibility as a benefit that might not exist in a future venture into online learning.
Bass noted that the proposal had given Duke an “unheard of level of autonomy” in terms of how departments could shape the future of online education at the University.
Dean of Arts and Sciences Laurie Patton noted that although 2U is a commercial enterprise, Semester Online is a non-profit entity and the participating schools would retain full control over their respective curricula at the meeting Thursday. She also spoke of 2U’s willingness to work with Duke to provide new, satisfying models of online education.
“2U will work with any faculty member on the creation of new class forms,” Patton said prior to the vote. “Whatever we want to do… 2U will support it.”
Faculty members, however, voiced a number of concerns about the partnership prior to the vote.
Jocelyn Olcott, director of undergraduate studies for history, was concerned that such a set-up would pit departments against one another and diminish interdisciplinarity.
Cary Moscovitz, assistant professor of the practice in writing, noted that allowing students to take four online courses for credit would mean students could potentially recieve 12 credits from outside the University, the others coming from study abroad, transfer credits and Advanced Placement exams. Giving students another way to recieve credit outside the University could dilute the value of the Duke degree, he said.
Political science professor David Paletz questioned the prestige of the consortium. The consortium consists of seven partner schools—Boston University, Brandeis University, Emory University, Northwestern University, the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, the University of Notre Dame and Washington University in St. Louis—none of which are as highly ranked as Duke. The consortium is meant to eventually become 20 schools, all of which would have been classified as either “direct peers” or “aspirational peers” of Duke.
Though Semester Online had advertised Duke as a partner for several months, the University was removed from the website as of late Friday morning.
When the vote count was announced, several professors broke into cheers. Their excitement was not universal, however.
Bill Seaman, professor of visual media studies, started a motion on the floor for Duke faculty to continue a commitment to pursuing online education, which did pass.
“I do not want this conversation to be about faculty versus administration,” Patton said in the closing remarks of the meeting. “I want this conversation to be about us moving forward with creative possibilities for online education.”
Correction: A previous version of the article said Bill Seaman's motion to continue pursuing online education did not pass. The Chronicle regrets the error.