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Local college leaders express mixed opinions on Open SUNY online initiatives

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A SUNY initiative designed to increase online access to courses and programs is slated to be rolled out next month, but leaders at local SUNY campuses say they don’t yet know exactly what form it will take.

The Open SUNY initiative was first announced in January, and the plan has been in the works ever since. It is scheduled to make about 60 college programs available online next month, allowing anyone with Internet access to pursue an education from any location.

However, north country colleges do not yet know how the new focus on online coursework will impact them and their students.

“We’re just at the beginning stages of that discussion,” said Walter J. Conley, SUNY Potsdam biology professor and representative to the SUNY University Faculty Senate.

He said he expects the initiative to fit in with SUNY Potsdam’s existing online course options, although he said the college is not yet structured to offer entire degree programs online.

The initiative also calls for the development of free online textbooks and course materials. SUNY Potsdam already offers one such textbook, Mr. Conley said, and more are in the works.

United University Professions, the union that represents SUNY faculty and staff, issued a condemnation of Open SUNY in the November/December issue of its monthly magazine, “The Voice.”

Among the union’s concerns was SUNY’s lack of a detailed public plan on how the program will be rolled out, as was the university’s partnership with Coursera, a private company that partners with colleges and organizations across the country to offer online courses and materials.

Coursera specializes in Massive Open Online Courses, called MOOCs, which can be taken by hundreds or thousands of students at a time.

Online courses should be developed by the faculty at a campus level, not contracted to outside companies and offered wholesale without a rapport between students and faculty, the article said.

This would not happen at SUNY Potsdam, Mr. Conley said. MOOCs may be used to supplement existing coursework, but they will not replace it, he said.

“That’s not part of the plan at all,” he said.

Local UUP leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach, acknowledging these potential problems without discarding the Open SUNY initiative wholesale.

“We just feel that we should have representation in the discussion,” said Brian Harte, vice president for academics of the SUNY Canton chapter of UUP.

He said most faculty are feeling cautious about the initiative.

“A lot of students are successful in the online environment here, but if we do roll out a full Open SUNY program, that will be a concern,” he said.

“Right now we’re just having an open dialogue about it.”

His feelings are shared by Laura Rhoads, president of the SUNY Potsdam UUP chapter.

“The Open SUNY plan is not something that the faculty objects to in its entirety; the problem is that SUNY Central Administration likes to release these splashy initiatives and then seek the de facto approval of the University Senate,” she said via email.

Jefferson Community College Vice President for Academic Affairs Thomas J. Finch said Open SUNY will mostly change how online content is delivered, rather than how it is administered.

“I think it’s going to be an open education resource. If you have something good at your campus and you want to share it, now you can,” he said.

Mr. Finch said the Open SUNY program could be an advantage for the unique student population at Jefferson Community College.

“Here it may help students who leave because of the military to complete their degree,” Mr. Finch said. “The campuses streamline, the process is changing and expanding and that’s what this really is. It’s a good move.”

With Open SUNY, students will have the option to take their classes however they choose, whether it is entirely online or taking some online and some in a traditional classroom setting, Mr. Finch said.

Times Staff writer Katherine Clark contributed to this report.

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