Senators received assurances at the Sept. 10 Urbana Academic Senate meeting that the precepts of shared governance were followed prior to university officials signing an agreement this summer with Coursera, an online educational platform provider.
And they were promised that faculty members would continue to have a voice during the life of the partnership.
"There was full consultation (by campus administrators) with the Senate Executive Committee," said Nicholas Burbules, a professor of education policy, organization and leadership. "We didn't take shortcuts and there's going to be continued examination of the policy. This is not a closed decision."
His comments followed a presentation to senators about the Coursera structure and the UI's authorization of the use of 10 no-fee, no-credit courses - as well as some strident comments from a handful of senators expressing disappointment at the breakneck speed and "lack of transparency" of the process.
Chancellor Phyllis M. Wise responded to those complaints and recounted the reasoning behind her decision that the university needed to move resolutely on the issue. She conceded the deal was done quickly - but rejected the notion that faculty consultation and a full vetting of issues related to the agreement didn't take place.
"I think there is good reason for people to wonder and worry," Wise said, though she assured senators that numerous issues were reviewed by administrators and an ad-hoc committee formed by SEC Chairman Matt Wheeler.
Burbules, the chair of the senate's General University Policy committee, said the bylaws allow the SEC to act on behalf of the senate on time-sensitive issues of import when the senate is not in session.
Wise said she instructed the leaders to search for any "show-stoppers" that would expose the university to undue risk. Of the issues identified, Coursera officials "agreed on everything we asked to change."
She said the time-sensitive nature of the agreement was due to the opportunity for the university to be part of the first cohort of universities to join with founding member universities. They include Stanford, University of Pennsylvania, Princeton and the University of Michigan. As a result, the UI became the only land-grant university on the Coursera roster, which includes 11 other highly respected universities.
She said all future conversations about the course of Coursera - including cost-recovery, general policies and a variety of unresolved or evolving issues - would involve the full senate following recommendations from an implementation committee led by Ilesanmi Adesida, the vice chancellor for academic affairs and provost, and a faculty-led course review committee.
"We will continue to answer questions - we welcome yours as well," she said. "If you become dissatisfied with the partnership, we can end it at any time. What we're using is their infrastructure. We are not losing our identity."
She said it would cost tens of millions of dollars for the university to develop its own Coursera-like platform.
Burbules said the Coursera partnership is one part of offering students a "full range of blended learning options."
He said it "signals a robust and growing online presence" for the UI and brings more visibility to the university's commitment to offering all forms of electronic learning.
The 10 courses were chosen because "we thought we could convert them more quickly" and that economic constraints will be a factor in proposing additional courses to Coursera, he said.
Deanna Raineri, an associate dean in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, provided the initial Coursera presentation to senators, describing the early participation rates as "quite phenomenal, especially considering that the dates of when most of the courses will be offered are not even posted yet."
She said about 116,000 students had enrolled in the UI-authorized courses, the most - 32,000 - signing up for "Introduction to Sustainability." Courses on Android applications and microeconomics were next with 22,000 and 17,000 students respectively.
Because of embedded assessments including "click" records and other Coursera tracking analytics, Raineri said "we have access to huge amounts of data. There is so much we can learn about which learning strategies work. It can inform our pedagogical practices."
Initial data have shown that rather than college-age course takers, many of the online students are retired or lifelong learners, those seeking professional development or who are disabled.
"They have no other way to access courses," she said.
Most amazingly, according to Raineri, the students have taken the remote course work a step further, reaching out to one another through social media to help each other navigate course issues and troubleshoot technical difficulties.
"They really are helping one another," she said. "We're seeing students helping other students.
- Jon Gant, a professor of library and information science, updated senators on plans to construct the UC2B high-speed fiber-optic communication network in the area - which would give Champaign-Urbana the fastest network in the country.
"It's the next generation of the Internet and our campus is in a great position to take advantage of it," he said.
The project is being funded through a federal stimulus grant supplying $22.5 million of the $29.4 million cost. The remaining amount is being shared by state and local money and through memberships.
It would create fiber-optic network rings around the region to provide symmetrical broadband service to the gigabit network. The project is starting with providing fiber-optic services to 11 census block areas in Champaign-Urbana that are considered underserved.
He said the area also would be a part of a national network called US Ignite, and that developers are working to offer 60 new high-speed applications to use on the new network. In all there are 200 U.S. communities expected to participate in the program.
As for the university, he challenged faculty members to find ways to bring the new technology's benefits to the classroom and use it to advance research.
"We're trying to be a test bed and this is an opportunity get involved," he said.
- Senators sent back to the General University Policy committee a proposal to regulate the use of the email system for campuswide electronic surveys and questionnaires.
Sen. Burbules said the policy was being presented for action in an effort to reduce unwanted email. He said the proposal, which also restricts the frequency of follow-up "reminder" emails, would create a committee for setting policy and reviewing mass email requests.
Senators speaking against the proposal said they were concerned the policy, as written, was overly restrictive or could be used to suppress academic freedom of speech.
One senator recommended any rewrite of the policy should drop any specific recommendations and call for the formation of the committee, which would be charged with conducting detailed discussions and making policy recommendations.
- John Kindt, the chairman of the Faculty and Academic Staff Benefits committee and professor emeritus of business administration, told senators his committee was monitoring a proposed state constitutional change that would eliminate constitutional protections of state-employee benefits.
He said the intent of the 700-word amendment is "very deceptively worded" and could be used to confuse voters.