Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

President Sullivan

President Sullivan

By Peter Galuszka

Just two years after the University of Virginia weathered a crisis and the short-lived resignation of its president for supposedly not embracing online education fast enough, Mr. Jefferson’s school is taking a cautious approach about Web-based courses.

This is a good thing, despite the excitement over having thousands of distant students sign up for MOOCs, or large scale college online courses, and expect to instantly log on to all the good things universities offer with supposedly few of the negatives.

Although U.Va. does participate in offering online courses through Coursera, they are not for college credit and Virginia is not following the example of Georgia Tech which is offering an entire degree program via the net.

The Daily Progress reports that U.Va. administrators and professors are worried that it is too easy for unseen students to cheat on the courses – an important consideration due to U.Va.’s strict honor code. Other problems are the high dropout rate of MOOCs and the fact that they may be best suited for introductory courses because professorial classroom involvement is important for more advanced ones.

These views raise questions after all the hype about MOOCs, including many posts on the blog. A special irony is that just two year’s ago, U.Va.’s highly capable and popular President Theresa Sullivan was forced to resign in Board of Visitors putsch led by chairman Helen Dragas supposedly because of her lack of enthusiasm in embracing new technologies.

One well-known blogger wrote a gushy lead paragraph on a posting stating that “Helen Drags gets it.” Err, maybe not, because Sullivan was reinstated after a huge outcry within the U.Va. community and after major, negative world media coverage.

Elsewhere, MOOCs do seem to be gaining some traction. One at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill noted that a Tar Heel course got 30,000 sign ups on-line.

But a University of Pennsylvania study showed that of 16 open online courses the school offered, fewer than half of all registrants even watched the first lecture.

So, it seems that MOOCs are going through a period of adjustment. And, they are politically charged since many conservatives, still angry over social changes in the 1960s and 1970s, see MOOCs as a way to overcome what they view as the overweening political bias of cossetted universities.

As the Daily Tarheel at UNC reports: “Rob Schofield,, director of research and policy development for the left-leaning think tank N.C. Policy Watch, said though MOOCs have many positive aspects, there are drawbacks.

“This problem is especially worrisome in the current political environment in which far-right politicians are doing everything they can to de-fund public schools and universities and turn them into on-the-cheap education factories,” he said.

Luckily for the Old Dominion, the University of Virginia is evaluating MOOCs with its eyes open.

14 Responses to Rethinking Online Classes at U.Va.

  1. Peter if you still believe that the 2012 incident @ UVA was a disagreement about MOOCs I would call you woefully underinformed. That was a theory thrown around by media early, subsequently debunked. Equally out of touch to suggest that that conservatives’ views are driven by resentment over social change in the 60s and 70s. Many were not even alive that long ago.

  2. Lift,
    What, then, was the Sullivan affair all about?

  3. MOOCs were part of the Sullivan-resignation issue. But the controversy was much bigger than that. It was about defining UVa’s role in an era in which many higher ed institutions were in danger of pricing themselves out of the market, and in which an entire generation of students was consigning itself into indentured servitude. MOOCs were significant mainly as a potential tool for delivering more value — improving the quality of education in some settings or driving down the cost in others. The UVa board (including the evil Helen Dragas) wasn’t advocating MOOCs or online education so much as demanding a strategic plan from Sullivan on how to respond to the perils and opportunities presented by MOOCs.

    It is good to see that UVa is experimenting with online learning. It sounds like the university is doing things right. As a former critic of Sullivan, I’m pleased to see how things are progressing. The idea was never to convert UVa into a MOOC school (like Liberty University) but to move more aggressively to embrace the technology where appropriate and to work out the kinks. You don’t know what those kinks are (like cheating issues) until you start experimenting.

    Peter’s comments about UVa and MOOCs are reasonable enough, but he is still viewing the issue through the outdated framework of the old Sullivan-resignation controversy. As far as Helen Dragas “getting it,” I think subsequent events have demonstrated that she did appreciate the importance of the MOOC issue before most people did. Now, as I understand it, she’s fighting for affordability, especially for lower-income students. That would seem to be an issue custom-made for Peter. But he seems stuck in a time warp from two years ago.

    • Re: ” … lower-income students”

      All students are lower income. They are young adults who have decided to defer their careers so they can attend college and, presumably, have better careers than they would have experienced without college.

      It seems to me that rising tuition costs are to the Democratic Party what rising health care costs are to the Republican Party. The Democrats dream up Obamacare and the Republicans complain. The Republicans dream up MOOCs and the Democrats complain. Meanwhile, neither side can back up their complaints with an alternative.

      Perhaps we should look abroad. The Aussies have an interesting approach that has the great saving grace of practicing wealth redistribution on the graduates rather than their parents. The Aussies also have the great good sense to cap the level of income redistribution at 4% of annual salary during the period of loan repayment.

      http://chronicle.com/blogs/brainstorm/does-australia-have-the-answer/41015

      • re:” It seems to me that rising tuition costs are to the Democratic Party what rising health care costs are to the Republican Party. The Democrats dream up Obamacare and the Republicans complain. The Republicans dream up MOOCs and the Democrats complain. Meanwhile, neither side can back up their complaints with an alternative.”

        Do you mean like the Aussies dreamed up Universal Health Care and pay 1/2 for health care what we do – and live longer also?

        I don’t think liberals are opposed to MOOC at all.. no more than I think the Aussies are opposed to Universal Health care like American Conservatives are.

        You need to make up your mind DJ about conservatives in the US.

        they’d get rid of transit, public schools and universal health care …as a matter of policy.

        All of these places you travel to – have GOOD public schools, good transit and universal health care.

        do you consider the Aussies to be “liberals” because of those policies?

        According to US Conservatives – every single OECD country – is a welfare state.

        do you agree or not?

  4. Time Warp? Really? What has changed sine the summer of 2012?

    Also, there is a deafening lack of clarity on what the Sullivan affair was all about. We still don’t know. Was it that she had no tech plan? Were some hedge fund guys in Greenwich upset with her? Why did they go after her instead of Casteen who seemed a fundraiser and bricks and mortar (sort of like VCU’s Trani) but little else? What was Mark Warner’s role in this?

    Jeez Louize, Jim, the Sullivan affair was big national news and we still don’t know what it was all about.

  5. I have tried out the UVA Coursera MOOCs – specifically a couple from Darden – and they were very very good. To me, they are potentially a very valuable way to get continuing education, work related training, and practical knowledge.

    I’ve also taken one or more technical (programming, development, that sort of thing) MOOCs from each of the big 3 (Coursera, EdX, and Udacity.) BTW, of the 3 vendors, I like Coursera the best so far.

    My take – at this point I’ve tried MOOCs, regular online graduate and undergraduate classes for credit (classes offered online with small sizes, versus thousands for a MOOC), and post-college in-person classes, graduate and undergraduate, on top of a traditional college degree.

    For me, I think a traditional degree, if you can afford it, gives the best education for a young person coming out of high school – part time and online small classes are next best – and to me MOOCs are best suited for adult learners and professional training. If you’re self motivated, you can get a lot out of them.

    You need more drive and self-discipline to do well in an online class, and it’s even more pronounced with a MOOC. MOOCs tend to have less active discussion and less camaraderie than traditional online classes. I know some people have suggested they would be great for at risk students, but I think you do have to consider the level of drive and study skills you need to do well in a setting where you have to be pretty self-sufficient. If you are an undergraduate and need help and support, that isn’t the way I’d go.

    Re cheating – Coursera has a “Verified certificate” option now where they check your typing pattern, have you scan in an online id, and have you turn on your webcam for assignments and tests. This option is being used for verified certs. I don’t much like handing out my id and I don’t much like being videotaped, so I have not gone for that option.

    Traditional online classes have used test proctors (you go to the testing center, they open the test, you take the test under their supervision, they mail it in) – Maryland, which has a large traditional online program via UMUC, uses this for undergrad. The student pays the proctor fees. They had a list of franchised testing centers that they would accept, or you could get a local college to proctor.

    The online grad courses I took from MD required original work and didn’t use proctors. They may still be checking things – I think Maryland faculty has access to plagiarism scanning software, which would be suitable for verifying original work really is original, but I don’t actually know to what degree they utilize it, if at all.

    So there are ways to reduce the risk of cheating. Maryland has had a huge program for traditional online in their UMUC program (they also have in person classes, many on weekends or at night) and it might be worthwhile to look at what they’ve learned over the years.

    Re the Sullivan thing, I’m an alumna and I don’t have a good handle on exactly what the deal was either. In particular, I did not, and still don’t, get where the huge rush was, or why what UVA and Tech had done already wasn’t considered significant – but MOOCs were suddenly the end all and be all.

    Online learning and MOOCs are going to be working themselves out for quite a while – it wasn’t and isn’t a “decide today or the world ends” thing. I wouldn’t wait to start thinking about it – but “all deliberate speed” makes more sense than “hair on fire.”

    • Reading your comment makes me proud to have graduated from the University of Virginia. Obviously, they are still teaching critical thinking, logic and effective writing at Dear Ole UVA.

      Well stated, Virginiagal2.

  6. re: verified. can use iris or fingerprint scanning as well as randomized in person re-tests … it’s a solve-able problem not an obstacle.

    re: strategic plan – there can be more than one – and sounds like there might need to be .. and more involvement from faculty and alumni and students!

    Something stuck in Dragas craw and she was not interested in a civilized process.. just a decapitation and major changes.

    maybe UVA does need a kick in the pants – but I’m not sure gains have been made as a result of the Dragas process.

  7. Thanks for coverage of MOOCs at UVa, Peter. You are on target to include comments about Ms Dragas and her ill-validated, inept coup to remove President Terry Sullivan before she got her feet on the ground. Sullivan is a problem for the Virginia-types who can’t stand people who gained their expertise elsewhere, who don’t conform to the Old South model, and who are well-trained and highly schooled in places like Texas and Michigan. Dragas was trained in Virginia Beach and Norfolk, where her father was paterfamilias (yes, a Roman term but widely applied) and her other mentors and supporters include lawyers, landholders and realtors–the ruling class on Virginia’s Atlantic coast.
    Fortunately for Virginia (state and University) and the Nation, we had a founder named Thomas Jefferson, who did all he could to establish a democracy, both state and federal, and later a university free of patrimonial or religious control. Jefferson’s far-sighted prerequisites–amazing in their current applicability (though beset almost daily by narrow challenges)–have stood up to protect our nation, our state and our university from the control of those who would subvert what Jefferson stood for in terms of personal and academic freedom–at all levels of life and endeavor.
    Based on those rather complex and fundamental principles, the University and its president are able to move forward with experimentation and essaying in various areas, protected by commitments to academic freedom and vigorous inquiry–concepts which often escape the understanding or approval of “lawyers, landholders and realtors,” especially in academic governance situations. In other words, a lot of university trustees have little understanding or appreciation for the time and processes that are required to establish, evaluate, revise and offer for-credit courses, especially in the technological climate of the 21st century.
    It’s important for trustees to know the boundaries of the various skills, training and experiences required to lead and govern a modern university. Trustees do their best work when they employ well-qualified professionals, give them unfettered support, and evaluate their performance using the fairest and clearest possible criteria.
    The University of Virginia’s board of visitors scored low on its initial two-year term in office. President Sullivan withstood their clumsiness and scored high on professional standards and public perception. It remains now to see if the board has revised its approach and raised its standards of performance. If so, the University will thrive in the complex course that lies ahead; if not, one can guess that President Terry Sullivan will move on to an equally challenging position where the governing body will be glad to get her and will give her the support and encouragement (and criteria-based evaluation) that she and all leaders deserve.

  8. There is 2 years of material that elucidates why the President was asked to resign, I can’t fit that into a little blog comment. While the public may not have sensed urgency (just how long is too long to wait for a plan, a spark of leadership, an innovative suggestion?) the BOV sensed urgency when they asked Casteen to step away prior to his planned retirement. His replacement had great pressure to produce quickly, to help make up for lost ground.

    The BOV had no position on MOOCs, they just wanted to know what the administration was thinking about it as they watched other institutions announcing their own experiments. I don’t know anyone who believes that MOOCs will save American higher ed, but to ignore this as a agenda item for a public university’s strategy was…strange, at best. It’s an arrow to have in the quiver.

    The President won a popularity contest, hands down. And since retracting her resignation she has done nothing but ingratiate herself to the noisiest constituents: faculty and alumnae. Two years later (4 years since her hire) it looks to me like the status quo reigns, practical considerations of sustainability continue to be ignored, and there is still no plan. If there were no contract, she’d be out.

  9. Do any of the nay sayers take time daily to read accounts of what is happening in the normal life at the University? Some of you commenters sound as if academical pursuits occur in the Board Room of the Visitors, when nothing could be further from the facts. Read UVA Today, The Cavalier Daily or any other of the tens of sources that appear daily online, and you will see what real, live students and faculty are doing in the educational enterprise — i.e., the real University. If you don’t have time because you have to earn a living, that’s ok, but if you have time, as I do in retirement, do your homework before you go shooting off your mouth as if you were back at Carroll’s Tearoom, spending your old man’s money. Better yet, drop by the Grounds and see what the students do today. Then make your comments, remembering that “we can tolerate any error, so long as reason is left free to combat it.” What a cool university we have, and how far it has come in the 50+ years since I graduated from the College of Arts and Sciences.

  10. Wesghent,
    Good for you. I did not go to school there but I am currently a Hoo-Dad and am there fairly often.

    • Thanks, and is the Hoo-Dad aka Peter? I can’t tell. If yes, you and I communicate by regular email, too. Because the position needs to be made, I’ll insist that UVa’s biggest problem is its board of visitors: their big egos, lack of knowledge of their role, belief in an antiquated corporate model, religious agendas, and so forth. Restructuring of the BOV is a pressing need, to remove it from the governors’ control primarily, and otherwise out of undue political influence. I don’t see any of that change having a snowball’s chance in happening. Still a fine university, even if rising out of chaos …

Leave a Reply