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Home » Clarion » 2022 » December 2022 » PSC concerns about CUNY Online

PSC concerns about CUNY Online

Remote education has its costs. By PENNY LEWIS, PSC Secretary

Editor’s note: On September 22, the New York City Council Committee on Higher Education held a hearing on the future of online degree programs in the city. Below is a version of the testimony delivered by PSC Secretary Penny Lewis. It has been edited for print publication.

We have heard from CUNY and see that CUNY is committed to expanding its online degree programs and presence. We come to you to express our concerns about the possible directions these programs are already taking, and we share our ideas of some best practices that should be in place as any online expansion is considered.

Credit: Jud Guitteau

First and foremost, we would like CUNY to be completely transparent about their goals. They should actively and consistently consult with the union and faculty governance bodies, recognizing the critical roles each group plays in creating high-quality online degree programs. In particular, CUNY should be consulting with the union and governance bodies regarding the “CUNY Online” initiative, about which we heard nothing from CUNY in their testimony today. Specific questions about this program can be found near the end of this testimony.

Further, we are concerned that online is best only for certain students. Its expansion without adequate support for students, appropriate screening of students and support for faculty teaching the courses will erode academic standards and decrease student learning and success at CUNY. We know that our colleagues who are currently developing online programs provide many high-quality online classes at CUNY. But we have two related concerns. Expansion without investment will leave our online students stranded without necessary support. And, on the other hand, prioritizing online degrees over the in-person needs of our students will hurt our in-person students.


For CUNY students, especially in their first year and those returning to their studies after some time away from college, in-person classes provide a continuum of support that is not available in remote classes. Building relationships is central to an educator’s work, as it also is for advisors and counselors, and remote school makes this connection complicated. Historically, face-to-face classes and meetings allow these connections to thrive. Many students continue to struggle with injustices that COVID magnified: not having regular internet access, lack of a quiet place to attend an online class or study, dealing with family and friends’ deaths and illnesses and unemployment. Online programs offer flexibility, but we hear from colleagues in faculty and union meetings that this flexibility can be a mirage for many students. While attending synchronous classes, many times students are off camera, at work or commuting, and faculty are frequently concerned that students are therefore unable to meaningfully engage or learn. While doing asynchronous classes, our colleagues report that many students are unable to navigate the self-directed work that such online courses demand, and as a result, there is not adequate classroom engagement to ensure learning outcomes. There are definitely many students who do navigate both synchronous and asynchronous work well. But again and again, we hear that students are too often not really learning. This fact should not be a surprise. K–12 education has found clear evidence of the same.


For faculty, prepping for and conducting online classes takes longer than in-person classes. Encouraging adequate engagement and providing meaningful assessment of students is often more time intensive than in-person classes. At most campuses, CUNY faculty are often paid a small stipend for developing an online class, but across the campuses there’s rarely additional support beyond that initial investment. A 2019 study recommended the ratio of student to faculty in online classes be 12-to-1. In order for the courses to be successful, more faculty are therefore required. Though they may exist, we know of no online degree programs at CUNY that approaches this best practice for class size. Online courses across the university are frequently over enrolled. At some campuses, there are jumbo courses with hundreds of students, with limited teaching assistant support. It’s not uncommon to find courses with already too-high class size caps of 25, 35 and 40 students. We are deeply concerned at the PSC that CUNY will explore online education as a cost-saving path, when in fact, online education done well demands substantial investment in faculty training, ensuring small class size and consistent and expansive technical supports for both faculty and students.

Finally, we are concerned that faculty expertise and rights, in addition to general concerns for student success, are being overridden by administrative pushes for wholly online, asynchronous degrees, as in CUNY Online. Last spring in April 2022, CUNY’s University Faculty Senate (UFS) received a report prepared by its Committee on Libraries and Information Technology. The report raised central questions regarding the expansion of online degrees, especially those developed by the CUNY Online “online program manager.” Below are excerpts from the UFS report, highlighting several key issues:

Integration of an “independent unit,” [CUNY Online], with the principles of shared governance at CUNY

  • What representative bodies govern the development of CUNY Online?
  • What committees will interact with the unit and what mechanisms will ensure faculty involvement in decision-making?
  • What kind of ongoing support and training will the OPM [online program management] instructional designers have, and what rights and responsibilities will they have to engage in decisions guiding the direction of online education at CUNY?

Access to campus resources for fully online students

  • Will online students have full access to their campus libraries, computer labs, campus Wi-Fi and printing services? Will they pay the same student activity fee and student technology fee to support such services?
  • Will fully online students have access to advisors, counselors, food pantries, wellness centers, accessibility/disability offices, etc.?
  • Will fully online students have the same opportunities and access afforded to students who are able to access their home campus or another CUNY campus?


  • What level of orientation to online learning will be provided to students (before and after enrollment), including minimum tech standards and self-identifying “characteristics of successful online learners”?
  • Will the online course development adhere to principles of universal design for accessibility?
  • What plans for continuing assessment will occur with the expansion in online programs, and how will this be communicated to elected faculty representatives in the UFS?

The union has raised additional questions with management concerning the job titles and job descriptions of the positions suggested in the CUNY Online materials. The question of faculty rights to intellectual property is also critical, which the UFS report also raises. The concerns raised in the UFS report are all questions that CUNY should substantially answer before there is greater investment in more online degrees. The UFS report notes that SUNY Online provides direct assurance that “the faculty that teach online classes are the same faculty that students learn from on-campus.”


The report concluded, “CUNY Online must not become a substandard version of CUNY or ‘CUNY-lite.’ If the online degree programs do not uphold existing standards for academic excellence, if students are not adequately supported throughout their studies, how will CUNY protect its hard-earned reputation for providing high-quality, affordable education? We are concerned that this rapid expansion of CUNY’s fully online degree programs runs the risk of creating a two-tiered university experience that will ultimately diminish the perceived value of a CUNY degree.”

We recognize that remote education allows students who need the flexibility to better manage work-life issues. Many CUNY students are juggling jobs, childcare and eldercare, and a remote degree would be attractive to them. At the PSC, we believe tuition and the cost of attending college should not be a barrier, nor should not having access to affordable and convenient childcare. As you know, in last year’s budget, we advocated for free tuition and expanding access to affordable childcare. In the New Deal for CUNY state legislation, supported by the City Council, we ask for more full-time faculty and mental health counselors and more investment in our deteriorating campuses. We hope that you and CUNY will address these key issues that we believe are barriers to attending in-person classes in advance of efforts that potentially minimize supports for in-person teaching and learning.

Published: November 21, 2022 | Last Modified: November 30, 2022

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