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McGill joins online learning platform without Senate approval

The McGill administration has come under scrutiny following its announcement on Feb. 20 that McGill is now a member of the edX consortium—a not-for-profit enterprise specializing in online interactive learning. Several members of the McGill Senate have criticized the senior administration for failing to communicate with Senate about the initiative.

McGill will use edX to design, develop, and offer “Massive Online Open Courses” (MOOCs), which will be ready in 2014. Provost Anthony Masi said that that the opportunity for McGill to partner with edX will benefit the university in several ways.

“Membership in edX will position McGill at the forefront of what many are calling a ‘revolution’ in teaching and learning,” he told the Tribune. “Further, edX provides us with the opportunity for improving blended, and other technology-assisted courses offered on our campuses.”

The idea of offering MOOCs was brought forward in a discussion facilitated in part by Masi at the Senate meeting on Jan. 23. MOOCs were not discussed at the following Senate meeting on Feb. 19. According to Masi, the executive committee of the Board of Governors (BoG) approved the partnership between McGill and edX on Feb. 15.

During an interview with the Tribune, Senator Catherine Lu—who is also an associate professor of political science—suggested that the decision to incorporate MOOCS into McGill’s academic mission should have been brought to a vote at Senate.

“By having this open discussion [at the Jan. 23 Senate meeting] … the Provost created the expectation that recommendations from the working groups regarding MOOCs —including joining a consortium— would be brought to Senate for approval,” she said. “This is why I and many other Senators were surprised to receive the Provost’s email announcement that McGill had joined the edX consortium.”

Masi said that Senators gave their approval for MOOCs by endorsing the Achieving Strategic Academic Priorities (ASAP 2012), an academic policy paper detailing a five-year plan for McGill.

“McGill’s interest in harnessing technology to transform teaching and learning is outlined in [ASAP 2012],” he said.

Lu said that Masi’s explanation has prompted her to further question the process through which McGill joined edX.

“If the senior administration wants to argue, that by endorsing ASAP 2012, Senate actually did endorse MOOCs … then I don’t see the point of having a Senate at all,” she said. “By endorsing ASAP, Senate would have forfeited all of its decision-making authority with respect to all academic activities of the university.”

“In my view, this cannot be the correct interpretation of Senate’s endorsement of ASAP,” Lu continued. “Senate may have to reconsider what this endorsement really means.”

Students’ Society of McGill University (SSMU) President Josh Redel and SSMU Vice-President University Affairs Haley Dinel, both of whom are student senators, said they do not believe that the decision to join edX necessarily required Senate approval.

“edX is a platform, and things like that don’t need to go through Senate, because they are not inherently academic—though the content of them is, which should, and will go through Senate,” Redel said. “For example, we did not approve myCourses2 … nor Minerva … at Senate, because they are only platforms for academic programs.”

At the same time, both Redel and Dinel share Lu’s concern about the lack of communication in the decision-making process to join the MOOC consortium.

“I think our discussion at Senate [on Jan. 23] could have been more transparent,” Dinel said. “It should have been made much clearer … that a lot of work had already gone into looking at these options. There … should have been more public discourse as to which consortium to pick.”

According to Masi, McGill’s MOOCs will be designed and developed by McGill faculty members. Masi confirmed that Senate will be involved in important decisions related to content and design as the project advances.

Masi also emphasized that no funds from the university’s operating budget will be used towards the initiative, and that McGill’s MOOCs will be funded purely through philanthropic support.

Despite the concerns they voiced about transparency, there is general agreement among Redel, Dinel, and Lu that McGill’s plan to offer MOOCs is an innovative and beneficial initiative.

“My complaint here is not that the BoG and senior administration approved joining the edX consortium per se,” Lu explained. “The basic problem here is a massive disconnect in the university’s governance process of approving this important development for McGill’s academic mission.”

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