OU looking to expand online learning

Trevor Tyle, Campus Editor

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Officials at Oakland University sent out a request for information (RFI) last week regarding the expansion of online learning.

According to Shaun Moore, director of e-Learning at OU, university officials are in an “information-gathering phase,” in which they are looking at three potential options for expanding online learning to appeal to more non-traditional students.

The first is described as an “in-house” model that would utilize on-campus resources, which could potentially see the hiring of new staff members in the e-Learning department and new program coordinators.

The other two options would enlist the help of outside resources called online program management companies (OPMs), of which there are two types. The first is what Moore calls a “revenue-sharing model,” in which the university would share 50 percent of tuition revenue with the company without having to pay anything upfront. The second is described as a “fee-for service model,” which allows the university to “pick and choose” the areas in which it needs the company’s help. Unlike the revenue-sharing model, however, it requires upfront payment rather than sharing tuition revenue.

Initially, this information concerned members of the campus community due to Eastern Michigan University’s recent controversy regarding OPMs.

In January, EMU’s chapter of the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) filed a grievance against the university after it partnered with Academic Partnerships, a revenue-sharing OPM, in December 2017. The Eastern Michigan AAUP argued that the partnership would forfeit faculty control over course curriculum to Academic Partnerships.

However, an arbitrator ruled against the AAUP, concluding that the partnership didn’t violate EMU’s shared governance agreement. This is an idea within institutions of higher education that “the faculty have input into almost everything that goes on around here,” according to Anne Hitt, Interim Associate Provost at OU.

“It’s not just one group making all the decisions without regard to the others,” she said. “Everybody shares in making sure that the university works in the best interest of the students.”

Moore and Hitt both reaffirmed this, noting that the case at EMU was simply a lack of communication, which would be avoided should OU partake in a similar partnership.

“It is really important that students and faculty both know that the content isn’t dictated by some company that’s out there to make money, that it’s really based on what the students need and based on what the faculty’s expertise is,” Hitt said.

OU is taking steps to avoid a situation similar to EMU, having already informed faculty members that an RFI has been sent out, according to Communication Professor Tom Discenna.

“We’re not against the idea of doing this automatically,” he said. “We just want to make sure that it’s done in a way that respects the academic freedom of the faculty members, and also that doesn’t lead to a watering down of the education that you folks are paying a lot of money for right now.”

Some students have expressed concern that partnering with OPMs could diminish the value of degrees obtained by those receiving an in-person education, which Moore has denied. Sensationalism has further driven concerns about degree mills, or “phony colleges [that] thrive on the sale of fake diplomas.”

“We already offer online degrees right now and they’re absolutely the same quality as our face-to-face degrees, and we would do the same thing moving forward,” he said. “The only reason we’d be looking at an OPM company is to help us with what we already have, not to grow it to such a point where we can’t teach our courses anymore, we have to have other people teaching the courses, and then it’s almost a lesser degree in that way.”

Moore also promised tuition would not rise as the result of such a decision.

“I’ve been told pretty clearly that, no matter what we’re doing with this, it’s not going to be extra money brought in,” he said. “This is something that we’ll have to make the case for, and basically, money has to be moved around from certain areas.”

Moore hopes the RFI will give the university a better idea of how to proceed by the end of the year.

“All this takes a lot of time,” he said. “Really, this year, I want to focus on getting our road map together, getting our strategy down to where we’d like to go and then we’ll look at timelines in terms of where we can do this type of thing and how we can roll it out.”