Spooked by MOOCs: UVA tip-toes into online education

Online education is a touchy subject at UVA. As the university prepares to offer 11 MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) this fall, the “unpleasantness” of last summer looms over the enterprise, The Hook reports.

Indeed, when former Rector Helen Dragas and Vice-Rector Mark Kington made the decision last summer to oust UVA President Teresa Sullivan, sending the University community into turmoil and creating one of the worst PR disasters in UVA history, it, in part, was over Sullivan’s alleged failure to move ahead fast enough with online education.

As emails revealed, Dragas believed the University “couldn’t afford to wait” on implementing an online education program, citing Harvard and MIT’s $60-million investment in online course platform company edX, and that administrators and academics like Sullivan were dragging their feet.

Ironically, Sullivan had already signed off on a partnership between UVA and a company called Coursera that summer to begin offering online classes. The attempted coup was a failure. Sullivan was reinstated, and the plan to enter into the world of online education moved forward. In January 2013, UVA offered three experimental MOOCs.

Still, the traumatic events of last summer reverberate at the University, and some professors are moving ahead with the new technology with caution.

“The University of Virginia went through a horrific leadership crisis in part because of disagreements about the value and pace of online education,” says English professor Bruce Holsinger. “I’d like students in the MOOC to be aware of these debates and contribute to them in discussion forums, using our class (and other MOOCS) as test cases for the nature and value of the medium.”

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