Academics at one more university resist online courses

Professors at Eastern Michigan University in the United States are objecting to its partnership with a private company to market and support online programmes, making it the latest institution to grapple with questions about the quality of online instruction.

[This is an article from The Chronicle of Higher Education, America’s leading higher education publication. It is presented here under an agreement with University World News.]

The unions representing Eastern Michigan’s faculty members and lecturers are asking campus leaders to stop marketing online programmes with the company, Academic Partnerships, until they can review the arrangement. And they’re rolling out an advertising campaign in an effort to build public support for their position.

Those actions may be a bit unusual, but the concerns behind them – that online education may not match the quality of classroom instruction – are not uncommon nationally.

As an online programme manager, or OPM, Academic Partnerships has contracted with Eastern Michigan to market and recruit students for its online programmes.

Typically, OPMs – which also include 2U and Pearson Education – build a college’s online enrolment and bring in more revenue than the college arguably could bring in on its own. But critics argue that such partnerships can result in a lower quality education and fewer consumer protections.

Academics fear risks to quality

According to a recent report on the industry from the Century Foundation, "the involvement of a third-party – particularly a profit-seeking entity – in providing services so intertwined with the actual teaching and learning … presents potential risks to quality and value in the education".

That’s what the unions at Eastern Michigan University, or EMU, are worried about, although their interpretation of the implication of the agreement differs from that of the administration.

The local chapter of the American Association of University Professors, or AAUP, has filed a grievance – now in arbitration – stating that the university violated its contract by failing to consult with the faculty before offering new academic programmes.

Instructors interpret provisions in the contract about programme development and implementation as crossing into academic territory. They worry that online classes will be taught by third-party contractors, weakening the educational experience and damaging the university’s reputation.

"We don’t think EMU students should be guinea pigs in instructorless classrooms," said Judith Kullberg, president of the university’s chapter of the AAUP, in a phone call with reporters last Wednesday. The faculty’s concern, added Kullberg, a professor of political science, is specifically with degree programmes offered entirely online.

The AAUP chapter and the Eastern Michigan University Federation of Teachers are placing ads that outline their concerns and point to a petition asking the university’s governing board to suspend the partnership until it is reviewed.

The administration’s position? The contract with Academic Partnerships is a "marketing and student-recruitment agreement" that will help it draw students from beyond the Midwest, said Geoff Larcom, executive director of media relations. The agreement, "leaves pedagogical control" in the hands of the faculty.

Academic Partnerships is "marketing programmes that already existed and for which faculty input has already been given," Larcom said. "The university," he added, "has not and does not intend to use coaches to teach classes".

Concerns countrywide

Fears that online programmes are inferior to in-person ones extend beyond Eastern Michigan.

Last month a task force at George Washington University released a report on the quality of its online offerings, prompted by a lawsuit brought by graduates of an online master’s programme who argued that it was weaker than its in-person counterpart.

The report described a complex, decentralised collection of hybrid and online offerings whose equivalence to on-campus counterparts was hard to ascertain.

Nationally, faculty members have a "love-hate relationship" with online education, according to a recent report from the Educause Center for Analysis and Research.

"Faculty say that they do not want to teach online and do not believe it helps students learn more effectively," it said. "But when asked about the tools and technologies that enable online learning, faculty believe that their teaching would be improved by their use."