These remarks were given on a panel discussion hosted by PSC-CUNY on May 15
Like many of you, I’m concerned about CUNY Online, about the speed of its development, and about what it means for the identity of the university going forward.
I come to this as an interested observer who plays multiple roles within the university: I’m a HEO who directs a teaching center and an adjunct professor of Digital Humanities and Interactive Technology and Pedagogy. I developed and led Baruch College’s hybrid initiative a decade ago, and have directed and contributed to multiple open source software development projects over more than 20 years at CUNY.
I’ve seen first-hand the brilliant and innovative work CUNY’s faculty and staff have been doing and continue to do with digital pedagogy, and teaching in all instructional modes. We’ve done this despite habitual underfunding. We’ve carried this university through the COVID-19 pandemic, watching our budgets dwindle. And we’ve done so in ways that are responsive to who CUNY’s students are, and that reflect CUNY’s values.
CUNY Online isn’t designed to harness and build upon this hard-won expertise. CUNY Online is designed to evade it. The initiative is happening rapidly, and in a top-down way. For once, significant resources are being committed to a program– but these resources aren’t building meaningful institutional capacity. They come while the university reels from destabilizing budget cuts, and a significant amount of this new funding is being routed to outside consultants.
This program is envisioned as a solution to the university’s enrollment crisis. We’ve heard that there are hundreds of thousands of adult learners in the region who would come to CUNY to complete degrees and certificates if only it was easier for them to do so. CUNY Online is envisioned as the solution for these folks because CUNY is affordable, and because of CUNY’s historical emphasis on access.
The question is: access to what? My colleagues on the panel are speaking to unresolved questions of intellectual property, governance, and faculty and staff labor. I want to talk to the pedagogical implications and opportunity costs of making investments at this moment, in this way. The rigidity and lack of deliberative consultation around CUNY Online is a major flaw. I do believe CUNY would benefit from a coordinated investment in online education, particularly around the infrastructure for support, and in advising to help students select into instructional modes that are right for them. But this is not the way to get there.
There’s a few requirements for programs developed for CUNY Online. They must be fully asynchronous, must be delivered exclusively via the university’s learning management system, and the offering departments must ensure that faculty follow “best practices” that have not been developed within or by CUNY, but are general in nature.
Asynchronous courses can be successful, but we know from research on more than a generation of online learning—and from our experiences over the last three years—that the chances of student success in asynchronous courses are lower than in other instructional modes. These courses hamstring the professor, limiting the tools in their toolkit and requiring massive amounts of time and labor to do adequately. Courses are primarily imagined and laid out ahead of time, and the capacity of the professor to react to events or to respond to student needs and identities are limited.
To be successful in asynchronous programs, students must be self-motivated, organized, and disciplined. They must have the resources 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 our classrooms since COVID–are elusive in an asynchronous learning environment. Group work, experiential learning, peer learning, culturally responsive and sustaining pedagogies… these are all “high impact practices” that CUNY has promoted in the past decade or more. They are all harder or flat out impossible in asynchronous courses.
Requiring all courses to be served via a single, closed platform also limits what a faculty member can do, especially given all the innovative work at CUNY that’s flowed from New York State’s investment in open educational resources. And asking academic departments that may have little capacity to review and evaluate dozens of new courses to ensure they meet an abstract and remote set of standards creates perverse incentives during an enrollment crisis.
The primary goal of this initiative isn’t learning: it’s revenue. It’s diplomas and certificates. It’s “stackable credentials.” If this initiative were about transforming the infrastructure at CUNY to support innovative, flexible, and robust online education, then CUNY Central would be making strategic investments in the e-learning centers, centers for teaching and learning, libraries, disability services, wellness centers, and academic advising and tutoring programs that know how to support CUNY students, and know how to facilitate faculty buy-in to new curricular initiatives. Instead, resources are going to unaccountable and opaque third parties.
Not only is this foolish and insulting, but it’s a threat to CUNY’s identity. Valuable and limited staff time is already being drawn away from existing online and hybrid instruction to support CUNY Online. We’ll likely soon see CUNY Online advertisements plastered across the city, and statements that this program is ushering an archaic university into the future.
But as the faculty and staff whose expertise makes CUNY what it is, we have the obligation to resist this program as envisioned and in doing so force it into a shape that truly reflects CUNY’s mission, and serves the communities of New Yorkers to whom we are responsible.