After Leadership Crisis Fueled by Distance-Ed Debate, UVa Will Put Free Classes Online

July 17, 2012

Before the University of Virginia's president, Teresa A. Sullivan, was abruptly removed from office last month, her critics on UVa's governing board expressed anxiety about being left behind in the emerging technological arms race on university campuses.

Their wait now appears to be over.

On Tuesday, Virginia is joining a group of 12 institutions that plan to open their courses to the world, free of charge, through an online platform created by the start-up company Coursera.

Tuesday's announcement puts an ironic twist on the university's tumultuous leadership crisis last month, in which Ms. Sullivan was forced out of office only to be reinstated 16 days later. The fracas was set in motion by critics on the board, including the rector, Helen E. Dragas, who worried that Ms. Sullivan's self-described "incrementalist" approach to higher education meant that Virginia might soon be eclipsed by other elite universities that have experimented with open online courses.

College-Completion Rates Continue to Decline

Just 53 percent of students who entered college in the fall of 2009 had earned a degree or certificate by May 2015, according to a report released on Tuesday by the National Student Clearinghouse Research Center.

The report’s findings represent another year of discouraging results as colleges and policy makers continue to focus on increasing graduation rates. The 53-percent completion rate for the fall-2009 class was 2.1 percentage points lower than the six-year completion rate for students who had entered college a year earlier, even though the total number of graduates actually grew by about 71,000.

This year’s report also found that completion rates fell at all types of colleges and among all age groups. The sharpest declines occurred at four-year for-profit colleges, where completion rates dropped by 5.6 percentage points.

Students age 20 through 24 saw the steepest decline of the three age groups that the center tracks, with their completion rates falling by 4.7 percentage points. The completion rates of their younger peers, who started college by age 20, fell by less than one percentage point.

Doug Shapiro, the center’s executive research director, said that the report reflected the lingering economic effects of the Great Recession, with increasing enrollments and falling completion rates.

What was most striking, said Mr. Shapiro, was that the overall dropout rate (33 percent) was the largest of all four years that the clearinghouse has released its annual report on completions.

The year before, he said, the one-percentage point decline in completion could be attributed to a shift in enrollments at community and for-profit colleges, which saw increases among adult students and those ages 20 to 24.

But this year’s numbers showed "something deeper," said Mr. Shapiro. With enrollments rising at all types of institutions, "graduation rates went down for virtually every category of student — part time, full time, older, traditional," he said.

Students who would have gone to college regardless of the economic situation "are still having a hard time finishing," said Mr. Shapiro, because of "lingering questions about the value of college."

—Kate Stoltzfus
 Elite universities have since scrambled to jump on the open-course bandwagon. In April, Coursera signed its first agreements with four partners—Princeton University, the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, and Stanford—to allow nearly anyone with an Internet connection to enroll in courses free. Two weeks later, Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology announced a plan to invest $60-million in a similar course platform called edX. Since announcing its first partnerships, Ms. Koller said roughly 690,000 students had used the platform for 1.6 million enrollments.

What the Future Holds

Ms. Sullvan said in a written statement that she was "pleased" that Virginia was joining the ranks of universities experimenting with Coursera.

"These classes will expand the university's role in global education while reinforcing our core mission of teaching, research, and public service," she said. "They will in no way diminish the value of a UVa degree, but rather enhance our brand and allow others to experience the learning environment of [Thomas] Jefferson's Academical Village."

In a nod to those who had criticized her deliberate leadership style, she added, "it's critical for UVa to be in on the ground floor so that we can learn along with our peers what the future holds."

J. Milton Adams, the university's vice provost for academic programs, said faculty members' dealings with Coursera began in April, well before the controversy erupted over Ms. Sullivan's tenure as president. This week's agreement, he said, was "completely unrelated to the board's questions and actions with President Sullivan." He added, however, that the board's concerns about the university's online strategy probably helped accelerate the deal with Coursera.

The agreement, Mr. Adams said, would allow Virginia to fulfill its mission as a public institution of higher education, and would give faculty members a virtual testing ground that they could use to improve their courses. At the outset, Virginia professors will teach five classes in a range of disciplines, including business, science, and history.

Two European institutions—the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne, in Switzerland, and the University of Edinburgh, in Scotland—are also among the dozen institutions to sign up on Tuesday with Coursera. The Swiss university may offer a programming course in French. Coursera's founders hope that multilingual shift means its partners will be able to reach even more students than they have so far.

Mr. Ng said the commitments from a dozen institutions signal that massive open classes for students across the globe won't be going away anytime soon.

"This is a sign that the world is different, that MOOC's are not a passing fad," said Mr. Ng. "They are here to stay."

The nine other universities joining Coursera are the California Institute of Technology, Duke University, the Georgia Institute of Technology, the Johns Hopkins University, Rice University, the University of California at San Francisco, the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the University of Toronto, and the University of Washington.