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McGill to offer open online courses

Decision made without Senate approval

McGill announced this week that in 2014, the University will join the growing ranks of universities across the United States and Canada in offering some of its classes entirely online, available to potentially thousands of students over the internet.

Massively open online courses, or MOOCs, are a growing trend across North American academia, and allow for thousands of students to enroll in college courses online, sometimes paying tuition for credit. McGill has joined a consortium called “edX,” which describes itself as a not-for-profit based in Cambridge, Massachusetts focused on the goal of educating one billion people in the next ten years.

In a press release, Provost Anthony Masi wrote that “Membership in the edX consortium ensures access to massive datasets that provide unprecedented opportunities to study how students learn in digital environments, to develop assessment tools for these broadly distributed platforms, and to improve technology-supported learning on campus.”

The decision, announced late last Wednesday, has caught a number of professors and students off guard as the decision was made without Senate approval, and with little faculty or student consultation.

At Senate on January 23, Masi gave senators an informational presentation about various MOOC consortiums. The presentation was followed by a discussion among senators about whether or not McGill should join such a consortium. As the presentation was billed as merely an informational session, no vote was taken by the Senate, and MOOCs were not discussed at last week’s Senate meeting.

During the open discussion, senators raised questions about how potentially large numbers of students would be assessed.

In an email sent to Senate by senator and political science professor Catherine Lu, and forwarded to The Daily by another senator, Lu questions the process by which the decision was made.

“I am wondering if someone can help me to understand governance processes at this university. As far as I am aware, Senate had an open discussion about MOOCs on January 23rd, and there was no agreement about proceeding with this initiative,” Lu wrote.

Lu’s email goes on to ask why there was “no effort” made to inform senators of the decision at the February Senate meeting, and questions how McGill can afford such a program of development as budget cuts are expected across the University.

According to SSMU President Josh Redel, the executive committee of the Board of Governors voted at some point during the last month to join the MOOC consortium, following a positive report from the Board’s finance committee. Redel said he was bound by confidentiality and was not allowed to say exactly when the vote took place.

Redel, through his position as SSMU president, is an observer on the Board’s executive committee, but has no vote.

Redel, who also sits on Senate, said that after the January Senate meeting “what everyone said to me is that it sounded like we were a year or two off [joining a MOOC consortium].” He did say that he was excited about MOOCs and about the particular consortium that McGill has chosen to join, but was surprised to hear about the decision last week.

“I don’t think that they made a bad choice. I think that they did put the work into it. But, just like a lot of other things at McGill, they grade-A failed at communication. Just no word about it. I’ve been here for six years. I’ve been in positions of leadership roles…. And I have never heard of [McGill’s plan to join a MOOC consortium],” Redel said.

The SSMU president went on to say that he recently learned of two “large working groups composed of very broad constituency representation,” involving University deans and members of the IT community, that have been working on the issue of MOOCs for as long as two years.

In an email to The Daily, AGSEM–McGill’s teaching union president Lilian Radovac wrote: “It is more than mildly ironic that McGill is climbing on the MOOC bandwagon at the same time as it’s putting hundreds of undergraduate courses and the lecturers that teach them on the chopping block.”

Alvin Shrier, president of the McGill Association of University Teachers (MAUT), declined to comment, saying that the MAUT has not had a chance to consider the decision.

On Friday afternoon, Masi sent an email to senators in an effort to respond to Senator Lu’s concerns.

In the email, Masi writes that senators were not informed of the decision at the February 19 senate meeting because the McGill was still in negotiations with edX, and was unable to announce the partnership until the next day.

Responding to Lu’s concerns about approval and the governance procedure, Masi wrote that MOOCs were implicitly given the go-ahead by senate in its approval of the Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities (ASAP) administration policy paper, voted on in October.

Masi goes on to write that his understanding of the Senate discussion of MOOCs in January was that McGill should “occupy the MOOC space,” and should do it “deliberately.”

“If and when new courses or programs may be offered via this consortium for McGill credit, Senate will have an opportunity to discuss these issues again,” Masi wrote to senators.

Money to pay for the development of MOOCs at McGill will come from exclusively philanthropic sources, according to Masi’s email.

MOOCs reportedly have a dropout rate of approximately 90 per cent, according to an article in the New York Times.

This story was updated on February 25, 1:18 a.m.