As University of Colorado system leaders look to expand its online education offerings, faculty members said they’re feeling left in the dust. Additionally, President Mark Kennedy’s previous employer’s online education experience is drawing criticism in a national study.
University leaders put out a call in August for consultants to evaluate whether CU can grab a share of the online education market in Colorado.
According to one of two requests for proposal, CU is seeking answers to more than 20 questions about the future of online education in Colorado and across the country.
Those questions were crafted largely without input from professors across the system, faculty council chair Joanne Addison said at a meeting Thursday.
“This is a room full of people who teach online, develop courses online… it’s no accident that faculty council members are deeply involved in online education and have been for some time,” Addison said. “We were quite concerned when we were left out because we want to be part of the solution, and we’re concerned about things we’re hearing that may or may not be true.”
Those concerns include the possibility of hiring private, for-profit companies to manage the university’s online offerings, a practice implemented at the University of North Dakota during Kennedy’s tenure and criticized in a new study by The Century Foundation.
The Century Foundation, a progressive think tank, highlighted the University of North Dakota as an example of what not to do in online education.
The study analyzed contracts between public universities and companies that serve as “online program managers,” doing everything from crafting curriculum to recruiting students.
When public universities hire private, for-profit companies to provide online education, it’s often at the expense of a large share of student tuition, student privacy and control over curriculum, according to the study.
Under Kennedy, the University of North Dakota signed a contract with education giant Pearson to develop an online education program, including course design and development, marketing, recruitment, student support and more.
Those services cost the university up to 62 percent of tuition for students who enrolled in the programs, according to the Century Foundation.
On top of that, North Dakota’s contract with Pearson gave the company ownership of data files with names and contact information of prospective students.
“That means that Pearson can market other programs and products to those targets,” wrote authors Stephanie Hall and Taela Dudley. “More worrisome, it also means that Pearson can sell those personal details to other colleges or to other marketers.”
The agreement also took away control from professors and instructors in online programs for cybersecurity, nursing and accounting, preventing the university from making changes to the programs without appealing to Pearson.
“Pearson then evaluates the effect of the proposed changes on enrollment,” Hall and Dudley wrote. “Student needs and faculty knowledge about professional practice are superseded by the enrollment and revenue priorities of the (online program manager).”
Kennedy said Thursday that CU has not made any decisions about online education, and that the point of hiring an outside consultant was to gather enough information to make an informed choice.
“It’s an important issue that needs to be addressed urgently, which is why we’re trying to get this done in a deliberate fashion,” he said.
Kennedy said he had not read The Century Foundation report, but rejected some of the study’s findings.
“I do not recall explicit concerns being raised over faculty not defining and driving the curriculum process,” he said. “I would reject the idea that you ever let the (online program manager) control the curriculum.”
It would be “disingenuous” to talk about the cost of program managers without talking about the value they bring, Kennedy said.
“I would say in many ways what they invest in marketing and recruiting and the student that brings in, you are going to be left with more resources as a university if you had not retained those services,” Kennedy said. “Is that the best model in every case? It depends.”
While the process has so far happened “under the radar”, CU faculty vice chair Maja Krakowiak said staff across the system should pay attention.
“This could change how we do online education across the system on every campus,” she said. “I think this is hugely important and I recommend you talk to colleagues about this.”
A committee is set to review consultant applications in the coming weeks, with the first phase of research wrapping up by end of the year.