Faculty reject Pearson Inc. online platform


Faculty members of the Organizing and Communications Committee along with other graduate faculty of the New Brunswick campus pressed and won a resolution against an online course contract yesterday morning at the Waksman Auditorium on Busch campus.

Rutgers entered into a contract with Pearson Inc., then known as Pearson eCollege, on Sept. 17, 2012, offering more online masters degree programs on the Rutgers-New Brunswick, Newark and Camden campuses.

Rutgers has been bolstering its online education platforms by also working with Coursera, a free online course platform, which intends to provide three courses this November for free, but without academic credit.

Deepa Kumar, associate professor in the Department of Journalism and Media Studies, said the faculty is not against online education, but wants it to have the best interests of students and faculty in mind. After studying the contract’s language, she said faculty members in the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick determined the contract has problematic aspects to it.

“This contract, financially, gives departments only 50 percent of the income, whereas Pearson takes the rest,” Kumar said. “So we do all the work, and instead of the money being used to improve education to funnel it back into our students and our faculty, it goes to make Pearson a profitable company,” she said.

According to the resolution, which passed with a majority vote, the administration took this step without proper consultation of faculty members, who have taught online courses “in other formats and under other financial agreements.”

Members of the administration, including Harvey Waterman, associate dean for Academic Affairs, Richard Novak, interim vice president of the Division of Continuing Studies and Jerome Kukor, dean of the Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick, were present, Kumar said.

“This, by the way, is huge,” she said. “Other online platforms don’t take such a huge chunk out of money. The money that comes out of education should be spent toward education, not for enriching online platforms, like Pearson.”

Kumar said the second issue surrounds the question of academic freedom. The contract suggests that when a professor creates a course, the course and materials associated with it will be taken and “farmed” out to a part-time lecturer, who pays a fraction of the cost compared to what a full time faculty member would pay for it.

“This not only creates incentive for a whole strew of underpaid part-time lecturers, [as] it is a violation of intellectual property. Because without our consent, our courses and the material in it can be taken away, by Rutgers, not by Pearson,” she said.

According to an article in the New York Times published in June, on many college campuses, faculty members oppose the spread of “massive open online courses,” or MOOCs.

“[Faculty are] … angry that their universities joined in with little consultation, undercutting the tradition of shared governance,” according to the article. “Others argue that MOOCs will shortchange students, replacing the personal relationships that encourage learning.”

Kumar said there is no protection for the faculty to not lose control of their intellectual property, and it creates incentive for low-wage, underpaid, part-time faculty to teach courses.

“Rutgers has the ability to take it and give it away,” she said. “Part of what [we argued for] today was that faculty should have ultimate control over courses and programs, not the administration, because we don’t want people to be exploited. We want good jobs for everyone.”

But for traditional classroom-environment courses, Kumar said administration or anyone that wants materials for the course, such as the syllabus, has to ask for consent from the professor.

“We don’t mind sharing it with others in our department, but we are always consulted,” she said.

Kumar said the contract also bans “obscene, threatening, indecent, libelous, slanderous, defamatory” content, which is problematic in terms of academic freedom.

“We don’t want a third party to intervene to determine what is libelous or what is indecent and basically, we are at the mercy of Pearson’s judgment,” she said.

The contract does not provide protections that will limit the migration of undergraduate students from existing courses in classrooms to online courses, as there is a widely held perception that online classes are easier, she said.

“The vast richness of actual interaction with a professor in the classroom, answering questions, listening to you — the dynamic of classroom discussion — if there are no protections to maintain enrollment in classroom courses, all of that could be badly impacted,” she said.

The resolution rejected the contract on behalf of the faculty of Rutgers Graduate School-New Brunswick and argued for greater faculty involvement in future online programs.

“All future programs will not use Pearson … we will not renew Pearson after it expires, but for the existing programs that do use it, the union will be involved and try to make sure it is fair,” Kumar said.

Kukor issued a statement surrounding the resolution, which said the expansion of online learning technology is critical, especially to adults and part-time learners who, because of familial and work obligations, cannot attend traditional classes.

“Rutgers retains all academic decision-making, from admissions to what courses are offered and the content in all courses,” Kukor said in an email statement. “There are no threats to academic freedom, no corporatization of Rutgers education, no influence by Pearson as to who teaches courses — that remains solely a Rutgers decision, and there is no claim on any faculty intellectual property rights.”

He said this resolution, which passed by a vote of 39 to 22, in a school with approximately 1,500 graduate faculty members, “denies graduate programs the choice” to participate in the Pearson online platform to produce fully online degree programs for faculty and Rutgers students.

The faculty union, American Association of University Professors – American Federation of Teachers, will bargain with the University about the contract so as to make it fair until its end Dec. 31, 2019.

Sherry Wolf, contract campaign coordinator for Rutgers AAUP-AFT, said the resolution is essentially a boycott by the professors, showing their rejection of Pearson.

“Such an attack on intellectual property rights on education could potentially advance erosion of full-time labor, faculty members’ jobs and would have led to low-wage contingent labor at Rutgers,” Wolf said. “It’s a fight for academic freedom versus [the] Walmartization of education, and academic freedom won.”

In an email statement, Wolf said at least 160 faculty members signed a petition last spring to stop the implementation of the contract, and yesterday morning, more than 75 turned out to push for passage of the resolution to nullify the contract’s terms.

“That the faculty of the Graduate School, New Brunswick, rejects all current and future proposals for graduate degree programs managed under the Pearson agreement and ancillary contracts of 2012; and that the same faculty also rejects any transfer of existing online graduate programs to Pearson’s management under that agreement,” the resolution stated.

According to the New York Times article, discussion has kicked off about whether universities should develop the technology, collaborate and share their courses, instead of working with outside providers.

The Committee on Institutional Cooperation, which Rutgers is a member of as of July 1, 2013 after receiving an invitation to the Big 10, released a released a report stating that higher education must take advantage of the online educational platform technology on its own.

“To meet our objective of using online platforms to improve instructional quality, we need to harness campus creativity and expertise to rethink the underlying methods and aims of instruction; to experiment with new pedagogical approaches that change the ways students interact with instructors and each other; to create new kinds of student projects and tools for assessment; and to foster new modes of collaboration in order to enrich student learning,” according to the report.


By Julian Chokkattu

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