Luke Waltzer, left, testifies at a City Council hearing with fellow PSC members Barbara Bowen, center, and Remysell Salas. (photo credit: Erik McGregor)
Like many PSC-CUNY members, I am concerned about CUNY Online, about the speed of its development and about what it means for the identity of the University. CUNY Online is a necessary and overdue investment that could bolster our infrastructure for online learning. But the ways in which the program is taking shape represent a missed opportunity to build broad, sustainable capacity for innovative digital and online instruction across the University.
CUNY Online is imagined as a quick solution to the University’s enrollment crisis, designed to attract new students: partial college credit holders and adult learners for whom total flexibility is paramount. It’s a worthy goal to extend access to new constituencies. Yet we must also ask just what these new potential students are being given access to.
AN INSTITUTIONAL OPPORTUNITY
The ideal CUNY Online would harness the University’s vast and deep institutional knowledge, accumulated and developed through years of experimentation with digital learning in a variety of modes. The pandemic also radically broadened faculty experience with online education and the flexibility it affords, leading to a deepening of collective knowledge across CUNY. But neither experience has been examined, evaluated, interrogated or harnessed for institutional transformation here. As it currently stands, CUNY Online sidesteps meaningful engagement with the longer- as well as shorter-term knowledge we’ve accumulated at CUNY, and risks pushing the University away from its historic mission to combine excellence, access and democratic principles.
CUNY Online, initially conceived by a 2016 task force, was reanimated in Spring 2022 as CUNY leaders saw the opportunity to use federal stimulus funds to jump-start a program they hoped would offset enrollment declines. Oversight would be located within CUNY’s School of Professional Studies, which had an established infrastructure for the development and support of online courses. CUNY committed $8 million. A director and a team of instructional designers were hired, and a structure similar to the “online accelerator” imagined in 2016 was put into motion.
Campuses were invited to propose new programs, with a modest goal of seven to 10 new degrees in the initial phase of development. All courses would be fully asynchronous, but more flexibility would be granted in the future. CUNY Online would help build courses, and each campus would be responsible for staffing and supporting them and would keep any revenue generated.
In Summer 2022, CUNY Online moved suddenly from the School of Professional Studies to the Office of Academic Affairs at CUNY Central, and was integrated into a new office that is also overseeing the University’s transition to a new learning management system. Previously hired CUNY Online staff were let go. Ambitions for CUNY Online dramatically expanded, with more than 100 new, fully asynchronous programs planned for development by 2025.
The CUNY Online portal currently advertises over 180 fully online programs, far more than were imagined less than a year ago. It’s unclear how many of these programs are new or how many had previously existed. CUNY Online promises mental health, financial aid, advisement, professional development and career services, as well as one-on-one around-the-clock support, but the University has, to date, made no evident investment in these areas.
There is also not yet a consistent way for students drawn in by the promise of a flexible degree to complete general education requirements. CUNY is hastily assembling a CUNY Online Passport, featuring select campuses that have been asked to contribute asynchronous Pathways general education courses as part of a consortium that will be open to all students.
CUNY Online will most certainly impact policies and expectations around working conditions, including workload and intellectual property agreements, academic governance, academic support, continuing faculty oversight over the curriculum, resource allocation and the freedom to teach. The speed of the program’s development and the limited communication and transparency around CUNY Online upsets expectations for collective bargaining and consultation in each of the pillars of university labor. It’s unclear whether this is by design or is simply a byproduct of the urgency senior leadership feels to immediately put up new programs. Consultation and communication remain limited. The Committee on Academic Technology—which contains two representatives from every campus and which has met monthly since 2008 to discuss pressing issues affecting the use of academic technology at CUNY—has been reconstituted multiple times over the past three years, meets less regularly, and has no clear charge. And the IT Steering Committee, which used to be a conduit for information from the CUNY Office of Computing and Information Services to the campuses and the University Faculty Senate, no longer meets.
It’s important for PSC members to continue to ask questions of the administration and advocate for a commitment to shared governance. CUNY approved a $5.2 million contract with O’Donnell Learn (now Alchemy) to provide instructional design services for the rapid development of asynchronous courses. CUNY also commissioned UPCEA (an organization of professional, continuing and online higher education programs) to produce a “gap analysis” that used jobs data and market analysis of competitors to score the revenue potential for each of CUNY’s programs. Though it has not been shared publicly, CUNY Central has used its recommendations as a basis for outreach to campuses to recruit specific academic programs.
External vendors like UPCEA and Alchemy are not accountable to CUNY students, faculty and staff, nor the wider communities served by CUNY. The guidance they give CUNY is only that – guidance. The rapid and chaotic implementation strategy for CUNY Online begs the question: What kind of future does our leadership imagine for our curricula and work?
There are reasons to be worried: Consultants hired in the past three years by West Virginia University, New Jersey City University and other institutions have made recommendations that have radically restructured the identities of these institutions. These recommendations are often presented as a response to fiscal exigency and they almost always favor restructuring curricula in the same way: Liberal education is narrowed, the humanities are marginalized and programs are evaluated primarily for how they prepare students for specific jobs.
PSC members are also concerned that CUNY Online’s massive investment and promotion of asynchronous courses as the primary mode of online learning could lead to decisions that impact how we serve the students we already have. The configuration of the new LMS, academic policies, workload definitions, the role of academic support units, access to library resources: each of these areas will have to accommodate a potential influx of students whose primary reason for attending is guaranteed flexibility.
While asynchronous courses do provide flexibility, they limit the tools at a professor’s disposal and require significant time and labor. To be successful in asynchronous programs, students must be self-motivated, organized and disciplined. They must have the resources and ability to remain consistently connected and engaged.
The affective components of pedagogy – the sense of personal connection which has been so important to what’s happened in CUNY’s classrooms since COVID – are more elusive in an asynchronous learning environment. Sociality is constrained and the courses tend to be content heavy and designed for consumption. Group work, experiential learning, peer learning, culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies – all “high impact practices” that CUNY has promoted over the past decade or more – are harder or simply impossible to pursue in asynchronous courses.
NO HASTY PROGRAM
There is considerable risk to the reputation of the institution, to the nature of our work and, most importantly, to the well-being of new and existing students in recruiting them into programs that are not fully supported or integrated into the broader life of the University. CUNY faculty and staff must continue to advocate for guardrails that ensure that investments and curricula at CUNY open pathways to all that higher education can offer.
Online education at CUNY should not be a quick path to a credential or a quick fix for enrollment challenges, but rather should be an ongoing effort to unlock the potential of digital technologies for vibrant and engaged learning. The way to do this is through the hard work of deliberative consultation; the gradual, intentional and coordinated development of programs in a range of instructional modes; and sustained investment in local infrastructures to support teaching, learning and student success. There are no shortcuts.
Luke Waltzer is the director of the Teaching & Learning Center at the Graduate Center.
Published: November 15, 2023
Last Modified: November 20, 2023