Fifteen universities are exploring the creation of an online education network.

The provosts of the Big Ten universities and the University of Chicago are in the early stages of creating a collaborative online network among the 15 campuses, with a focus on encouraging the colleges to imagine new ways of online learning.

Together, the universities constitute the Committee on Institutional Cooperation, a consortium of research universities that have collaborated for more than 50 years.

The committee members are not strangers to online learning, with CIC universities making up 16 percent of the massive open online courses (MOOCs) offered by MOOC provider Coursera. But the proposed collaboration is a marked shift that could position the universities themselves to create new tools, courses, and applications rather than rely on innovations rising from tech and MOOC companies.

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“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,” the provosts said in a June issue paper.

The 13 provosts met last December to discuss online learning. They agreed that expanding the already existing CourseShare approach, which has so far been used by the universities to share and teach lesser-known languages, would be a good first step, according to the paper.

See Page 2 for what hurdles could stand in the way of the universities’ network.

The specifics from there are somewhat scarce, but the provosts created a list of principles that should guide such an initiative.

“Ensure clarity about the purpose of the collaboration, including developing more effective and engaging online teaching and learning, through collaborative action and analysis, promoting the reputation of CIC and its member schools, enabling future federation of courses by adopting standards for course development and delivery,” the provosts listed.

They implored the universities to acknowledge that the collaboration would require a long-term commitment, a sizeable investment from each school and for administrations to “change the way it has always been done.”

The issue paper also poses a series of questions that will need to be addressed before the project gains any more momentum. Among them: can CIC universities actually develop, and share the costs of, the needed technologies or will they still have to contract with external partners?

That, and many other questions, remain unanswered in the early stages of the collaboration, but the paper concludes with a confident appraisal of the CIC’s abilities to create the network.

“The enormous ‘buzz’ — both positive and negative — that is accompanying recent technology developments from other well–known higher education institutions should not distract from the much greater experience and expertise of CIC schools that have been doing high quality and innovative online education for 15 years or more,” the provosts said.

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