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The shadow university.

Yesterday, I found out that my university is the first school in the nation that will accept the completion of a course through the MOOC-provider Udacity for transfer credit.  OK, it’s not my university exactly.  I work for Colorado State University – Pueblo.  That’s a large branch campus in the Colorado State University system located in Southern Colorado.  You probably know about our sister institution, the main campus up north in Fort Collins.  The institution accepting the transfer credit is CSU-Global, an entirely online “campus” that started in 2008.

I’m of two minds about this development.  On the one hand, all that’s involved here is a single introductory computer science class.  I’ve read enough about Udacity’s computer science offerings to know that they’re not exactly easy.  I’ve also been to enough presentations on my campus to know that CSU-Global might as well be Harvard compared to a lot of the other for-profit online institutions out there.  In other words, this MOOC isn’t threatening my job or the standards of rigor on any campus in the CSU system. CSU-Global is almost certainly accepting this credit because it has no like offerings and hopes to entice Udacity participants into taking other, more expensive online courses.

So why am I still concerned? There’s an important principle at stake here. Accepting credit from a MOOC strikes me as a pretty big step in the development of online learning in our system, but that article in the Chronicle is the first and still only thing that I’ve read on this subject. Perhaps things would have been different if I actually taught for CSU-Global, but I have no idea who their professors actually are.*

On physical campuses, deciding what courses get accepted for credit remains one of the core functions of tenure track faculty under the principle of shared governance. If a university has no tenure track faculty, then maintaining that function becomes impossible. Perhaps I’m being overly cynical, but I can’t help but wonder whether bypassing that aspect of shared governance might explain why so many physical campuses want to go into the online education business in the first place.

As someone who’s actively involved in shared governance issues on my campus, I know the presidents of both my school and the one at Fort Collins fairly well. I trust them to make decisions that they think are best for the CSU-System, even if I happen to disagree with them. Giving credit for this course is probably going to help CSU-Global in the long run, but that doesn’t mean I like the precedent this sets. If universities can set up shadow courses (or accept other people’s courses that serve the same function) and students can get credit for taking those shadow courses and transfer it towards the completion of on campus degrees, then professors are losing one of their most important prerogatives. The current leadership on all three campuses might not abuse this kind of power, but that could very well still happen in the future.

* If you can find a CSU-Global faculty list on their web site, you’re a better hunter than I am. I think some of our faculty teach overload courses for them, but who they are remains a mystery to me.

About Jonathan Rees

I am a Professor of History at Colorado State University - Pueblo.

One comment on “The shadow university.

  1. Aaron Barlow
    September 7, 2012

    You put your finger on one of the major concerns with both the new online universities as well as the for-profit schools: who is making the decisions?

    It’s an important question, and one we are going to have to raise, I think, over and over in the coming months and years.

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This entry was posted on September 7, 2012 by in shared governance.
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