SUNY Gets It (Part 3) A Tale of Two Universities

Note: On January 2014, Open SUNY was started with a full roll-out to happen in September 2014. This post reflects on their online strategy as a university and calls for CUNY to begin to address hybrid/online from a university perspective.


In previous posts, I  outlined SUNY’s new initiative in the field of online learning, which they have branded as “Open SUNY.”  In this post, I compare and contrast what CUNY has, or hasn’t done in this regard and provide my perspective. The chart below shows the disparity between the two NYS public institutions for higher education in terms of online.

                 Tale of the Tape (Best statistics as of 2014)

Online Programs 400+   12
Fully Online Courses 12,000+ approx. 1000
Planned increase online students in next 3 years 100,000  ?
Strategic Plan Yes No
Online Global Perspective Yes No
Take courses @ other campus? Yes No
24/7 Student Support? Yes No

This chart could easily be expanded to contrast many other criteria important to the success of an institutions online programs like, uniform faculty development program, collaborative efforts, and team-based course development.  These data points clearly show a “tale of two cities” scenario that can only be attributed to how these institutions view, plan, and implement online programs. In my estimation, CUNY, unlike SUNY, still “doesn’t get it.” What the “it” is, is the importance of online learning for the future success of the institution. CUNY still is not taking online seriously, hasn’t a strategic plan for the entire institution concerning online, and does not support and encourage campuses with dedicated resources to implement online programs. With a new Chancellor, I would hope that  new direction for online learning at CUNY might have a chance of being considered.

SUNY Takes Online Seriously

From the SUNY Chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, at the inauguration of Open SUNY on January 14, 2014:

“Open SUNY will completely redefine access to a college degree in our state, reaching every child and adult in every school and home in New York,” added Zimpher, “reaching them on their terms—in their homes and communities, and on their time, adapting to their schedules.” (reference below)

This major initiative involves serious planning for just about every aspect of the student experience, online infrastructure, faculty development, and transfer of course credits between campuses. For example, the press release states:

“Included as part of Open SUNY are built-in supports for students and faculty, such as 24/7 assistance for students, whether they need technical help, tutoring, financial planning, or academic advisement services; and a Center for Online Teaching Excellence where faculty can opt in to training programs and online for a to broaden their knowledge about developing effective online courses, or share best practices and learn directly from colleagues across SUNY.” (reference below)

A.  Support of SUNY students 24/7 from a central help line provides efficiencies of scale and support for online student learners across SUNY campuses. Moreover, students at one SUNY campus can easily take an online offering at another campus to speed their time to degree and take courses not available at their local campus.  In contrast, CUNY has no 24/7 help now or in the planning stages, and has just undergone a bitter Pathways controversy which purports to speed the transfer of credits between 2- 4 year colleges.

B.  SUNY has established an online global presence in their COIL campus in the heart of NYC. The Center, established in 2010 with the following mission:

The SUNY Center for Collaborative Online International Learning (COIL) is one of the leading international organizations focused on the emerging field of Globally Networked Learning (GNL); a teaching and learning methodology which provides innovative cost-effective internationalization strategies. Such programs foster faculty and student interaction with peers abroad through co-taught multicultural online and blended learning environments emphasizing experiential student collaboration. (from COIL website, reference below)

The concept of expanding an institution’s online offerings from regional, to national, to global reflects a later stage in online program development (see previous blog post). SUNY has chosen to create this innovative Center to start a process of looking outward to potential collaborations with other countries, vendors, and collaborations. Simply put, this is light years ahead of where CUNY is at this point.

C.  SUNY has a comprehensive model for online faculty development (link here to video). It will take another blog post to detail the numerous advances in this area that SUNY is truly pioneering.  For now, viewing the video is a good starting point. For someone who is in the trenches of online faculty training at a CUNY college, I can say that we have nothing that approaches SUNY’s vision, scope or program implementation. Instead, for many years I have labored under several administrations dismissive, if not adverse to online learning and a faculty governance process that equated hybrid courses with “experimental” courses in a faculty senate vote about 3 years ago. Both faculty recalcitrance and administration neglect has created a situation where only about 1% of courses on my campus are either fully or partially online at this point. This is a sad state of affairs.

In conclusion, there is a wide gap in online envisioning, planning and implementation between SUNY and CUNY. In my estimation, SUNY is at minimum a decade ahead of CUNY in this area with the gap widening with each passing month that CUNY languishes without making online programs a priority. SUNY has pointed the way.  With the right vision and leadership, CUNY can still create a viable path for online learning that is competitive, innovative, and strategic.

Note: Please email me if you come across any factual errors and I will gladly correct numbers in this post. Unlike SUNY which openly offers it’s online statistics, CUNY does not.


SUNY Empire State College One of Six SUNY Colleges To Debut Open SUNY, Empire State College Press Release, available at:

The SUNY Center for Collaborative Online Learning, mission statement available at:

Pickett, Alexandra, “Open SUNY Digital DNA: Emerging View of Open SUNY Initiatives,” ELI 2014 Spring Focus Session, available at:

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Adjuncts Online: An Exploited Class

The plight of adjunct instructors across academia has been receiving a lot more press of late from the NY Times to the Chronicle of Higher Education.. It comes as no surprise that online teaching, the fastest growing component of teaching in higher education, also uses adjuncts as an integral strategy for keeping costs down. Although many online classes are taught by full-time faculty, increasingly, programs are using adjuncts to teach the bulk on online offerings.  Why is this so disturbing? As a niche, online programs offer a profitable segment in higher education, which is often used to subsidize traditional teaching.

The recent arrangement between Starbucks and Arizona State University illustrates my point. In an illuminating article in the June, 27th Chronicle of Higher Education entitled, “Starbucks Plan Shines a Light on the Profits of Higher Education,” the author reflects that this partnership, “..has also opened a new window on the economics of online education, one that shows just how much “profit margin” there can be in a distance-education operation.”

The article, which is worth reading, provides detail on how the costs for offering an online BA to all Starbuck part-time employees will be divvied up between the company, ASU, government subsidies (via Pell Grants) and students. To pull off this arrangement, “ASU will be forgoing 59% of what it would receive if students were paying full freight.” (P4, reference below). In essence, OSU can offer such discounts, the author claims, since online costs less to deliver that face-to-face programs. So OSU gets thousands of new online students, Starbucks gets the acclaim of supporting its part-timers, and the baristas get a real benefit that can advance their career.  It sounds like a win-win-win situation?

Who get’s left out of this party? The part-time online instructors who get about $3000 per course on average.  Is anyone paying for their continuing education, or health benefits, or professional development? Probably not. They remain an exploited class online as they do on campus, made more galling by the fact that online learning is the profitable engine for many institutions. In the calculus of online learning economics, poorly paid adjuncts are an essential part of the equation that is never questioned by these institutions. Possibly the solution to exploited contingent online faculty is for them to apply to Starbucks to get some fairer compensation for their labor.

Blumenstyk, Goldie “Starbucks Plan Shines a Light on the Profits in Online Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education, June 27, 2014.

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SUNY OPEN Gets It! (Part 2)

Note: In January 2014, Open SUNY was started with a full roll-out to happen in September 2014. This post reflects on their online strategy as a university and calls for CUNY to begin to address hybrid/online from an institutional perspective.


The previous post outlined SUNY’s new initiative in the field of online learning, which they have branded as “Open SUNY.”  In this post, I compare and contrast what CUNY has (or hasn’t) done in this regard and provide my personal perspective.

A. We Are in a Competitive Online Environment

You may not know it from CUNY’s online strategy, but online learning is increasingly a very competitive arena as more institutions of higher education realize the potential for enrollment growth may come from off-campus, adult-learner students. So, a college that starts a sustainability program has what is called “first mover advantage.” While CUNY considered, then rejected, this promising area for degree development, several other institutions have already come to market with wonderful online sustainability programs.  In the future, if CUNY decides to reconsider this option, it will be more difficult to successfully come to market in an already saturated environment. The same could be said for other online degree programs; they have already been developed by other competitors, including SUNY, which currently has 400 online programs to CUNY’s dozen.

B. Something Beats Nothing

If one team has a plan and the other doesn’t, all things being equal, the team with the plan will win the competition. That is what is currently happening in the New York State public education online marketplace. Several years ago, SUNY had about 100 fully online programs; today they have 400.  In that same period, CUNY has gone from six online programs to 12. What accounts for this difference?  SUNY has developed and executed an online strategic plan, whereas CUNY has no such plan, and has no urgency to develop one in the near future. The gap between these two institutions will continue to increase until CUNY sees the necessity for strategic planning in this area.

C. Programs, Not Courses

CUNY college presidents’ performance ratings are based on performance measures called PMP. One of the many criteria for a president to get a good rating concerns the percentage of hybrid/online courses offered at a campus. Many CUNY campuses are woefully under-represented in terms of online courses offered, ranging from a paltry 1.5% at one senior college to about 10% at the best. These numbers, at face value, are not good in comparison to most public universities.

Even worse, what PMP measures is not a good metric, and understates how ineffective CUNY’s online efforts truly are. A much better comparison is the number of fully online programs a college has, since it is programs that can really impact whether a student enrolls at one college or another.  A few scattered courses offered throughout the curriculum will not appreciably impact time-to-degree, enrollment numbers, or other important evaluations of an institution’s success. CUNY must direct its focus on online programs to stay relevant in this arena.

Next Post: More Analysis of SUNY vs. CUNY Online Programs

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SUNY Gets It! (Part 1)

Note: On January 2014, Open SUNY was started with a full roll-out to happen in September 2014. This post reflects on their online strategy as a university and calls for CUNY to begin to address hybrid/online from a university perspective.


It’s official. SUNY has re-branded, restructured, and re-envisioned its SUNY Learning Network (SLN) to Open SUNY. Despite the relative success of its previous online offerings developed over several decades, SUNY has taken the initiative to not rest on its laurels but instead strike out with a bold plan for online teaching and learning. This is what it takes to stay a step ahead in today’s competitive online education marketplace

What does a strategic plan for online look like?

One theme that I have emphasized in this blog is the need for envisioning online learning and developing a strategic plan for implementing that vision. SUNY has done just in the past and even more so recently.  In a wonderful public document, SUNY lays out both their vision and plan.

Among the innovative best practices in the Open SUNY  initiative include:

  • Commitment to offering 400 fully online undergraduate and graduate programs
  • Team-based online program development
  • University-wide 24/7 student tutoring and technical support
  • Vision statement for online learning
  • Experiential learning and other engaging pedagogies
  • Student “concierge” role to assist students in navigating programs
  • Creative partnerships with vendors and publishers
  • Prioritization of high-demand programs
  • Learning Commons and professional communities of practice
  • Open SUNY Center for Online Teaching Excellence to support faculty
  • Global marketing and reach for online programs.

The SUNY Open program is more than merely the sum of these (and other) parts. Why? SUNY as an institution has been clear that online teaching and learning is a priority.  When their Chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, laid down the goal of adding 100,000 new online students in the span of three years, clearly it shows the importance of online learning in their universe.

Upcoming Part 2 Post: Lessons for CUNY

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The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 3)

Note:  This entry continues my discussion of the need for a CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning.

Bruce Blog CUNY CITL

E. Technology Evaluation and Testing

In a previous blog post, I wrote about the veritable “sea of instructional technologies” out there vying for attention, research, testing and funding. Offices throughout CUNY given the charge of supporting technology on campus are hard-pressed to systematically review the many vendors in just one category of instructional technology, from among the dozens of categories. This situation is prevalent throughout academia, as generally slow-moving institutions of higher education attempt to make sense of a plethora of new technologies, seemingly being introduced daily.

For an institution as large as CUNY, it would be advisable to have some central oversight in testing and vetting the most common instructional technologies. For example, Penn State has “hot teams” that are selected to review a specific technology category like student response systems. The team for this intensive review process consists of IT professionals and key stakeholders impacted by these instructional technologies. At the conclusion of the inquiry, they make a public report of their findings for specific stakeholders to consider. It should be noted that their suggestions are not mandated on departments, but instead, are used for information purposes only.

Last year, I convened a group of instructional technologists throughout CUNY. One of the recurring themes in that meeting was the need for support in sorting out how best to spend limited IT dollars for instructional technologies. Currently, CUNY has an ad-hoc group of technologists that meet occasionally for this purpose. “Skunkworks,” the name for this group, is well-intentioned, but under-resourced. It would be very appropriate to have a small group dedicated to this “Consumer Reports” function for new digital tools for teaching and learning.

F. Grant Opportunities for New Technologies

There is also a need for a centralized office to explore, coordinate, write, submit and oversee grant applications for university-wide technology initiatives. Whether the grant concerns creating digital learning objects for STEM courses, creating a program-sharing network among CUNY CTL Centers, planning a remediation online program in writing, or a myriad of other concepts, there needs to be one central point to coordinate these activities. It is asking too much from campuses to pursue such funding without active support from the central office.

I believe there is untapped potential for CUNY to secure technology grants that currently is not being explored.  Grant- funding organizations are often looking for cross-campus collaborations to extend the impact of any project.  With over twenty campuses, CUNY has a built-in collaborative structure for leveraging grant proposals.  Unfortunately, most of the technology grants awarded to date are campus-specific. Not enough thought and planning is going into innovative, institutional funding opportunities.  A CUNY office like the one I’m proposing, can go a long way to planning and coordinating such grant application.

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Oplerno: A Fair Model for Adjuncts?

Whether online or face-to-face, adjunct faculty are an exploited class earning a fraction of what full-time faculty earn, with few benefits and often poor working conditions.

Within higher education, online learning has been one engine driving innovation in many areas of the academy such as pedagogy, technology, and even organizational structures.  However, online teaching’s impact on the broken model of adjunct appointments, has gone largely untouched—until now.

Oplerno, a new for-profit company offering online courses, has the potential for changing the equation in terms of  employing part-time instructors. Currently, adjuncts receive a lump sum per course, typically $2-4,000 per semester, per 3-credit course. The Oplerno model, in sharp contrast, allows part-time instructors to benefit from their intellectual property and efforts in the design of their course. Instructors in this model will directly receive a percentage of revenue from the students enrolled in their courses. Specifically, faculty will get 80% of the revenue, Oplearno the remainder. Potentially, this can mean that faculty can earn several times their average online salary they receive from most institutions.

Is there a caveat or downside to the Oplerno arrangement? Yes. Will there be sufficient enrollments initially to make it pay off for faculty and the Oplerno? In addition, although the potential to transfer credit is always there, in reality, will other institutions accept an Oplearno course for credit? The jury is still out.

The intention—to compensate adjuncts commensurate with their contribution—is nothing but revolutionary.  The plight of the adjunct is increasingly in the news, and represents a stain on fairness of contractual employment in academia. Full-time professors (often tenured, but increasingly less so), earn approximately four to five times per course as their part-time colleagues. Various rationales are offered for these gross discrepancies, such as:

  • Full-time faculty must do research, service, grant-writing, etc.
  • Full-time faculty have greater qualifications
  • Full-time faculty design curriculum and attend meetings …

While all of these arguments have some validity, they ignore the fact that many full-time faculty also get pensions, benefits, course releases, release time, sabbaticals and other perks not afforded to adjuncts. Much more can be said about this issue. However, the promise of Oplerno shows one possible solution that may start to resolve some equity issues for adjuncts teaching online.

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The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 2)

Note:  This entry continues my discussion of the need for a CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning.

Bruce Blog CUNY CITL

C. Centralized Online/Hybrid Oversight

In several blog posts (link), I have bemoaned the lack of guidance from CUNY Central in dealing with many aspects of online planning, support, and implementation. For an institution the size of CUNY, it makes little sense to have 20+ campuses, each pursuing their own methods, policies, structures and goals concerning online learning. In sharp contrast, SUNY has a more centralized approach (SUNY Online Network) to online learning and, consequently, they offer over 15 times the online programs that CUNY does. Moreover, by itself, the CUNY School of Professional Studies’ online programs are not sufficient in size and scope to impact online learning for the entire university. The end result is that, despite the best of intentions, CUNY is over a decade behind in terms of implementing online learning compared to SUNY, and over two decades behind some of the leading public universities (e.g., University of Wisconsin, eCampus).

There is much work to be done in turning around this somewhat dysfunctional situation at CUNY, which admittedly might not happen in my lifetime. Nonetheless, one critical measure that can help turn the ship around would be to have a centralized office dedicated to online learning to advocate for it, support it, and facilitate online learning throughout CUNY.

How might a central office be useful? For example, there are potential synergies in having one portal through which students can register for online courses at any CUNY campus, or system-wide Blackboard support 24/7 for faculty and students, or being able to leverage faculty development efforts across multiple campuses, or being able to work with vendors to support specific online initiatives in an expeditious manner.  As online has become mainstream at virtually all public institutions, I believe CUNY is at a strategic disadvantage by not having the ability to plan and guide the delivery of online programs across the entire institution. The “loose federation” of CUNY campuses will lose out in the online arena to those institutions whose efforts are both focused and streamlined to produce online programs.

D. Coordination/Advocacy for Instructional Technology

A new CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning would be an advocate for new learning technologies throughout the university.  Whether it is skeptical and resistant faculty or administrators, there needs to be a reliable and respected counter  to the numerous roadblocks to change that often occur at CUNY. Failing this, these battles over turf and power will slow innovation on each CUNY campus. Moreover, instructional technologists at each campus need to be recognized and supported in their efforts to spread the word on technologies for teaching and learning.

In January 2013, I convened a CUNY-wide Forum of Instructional Technologists. Although the event fell outside of my work responsibilities, I felt it was sorely needed. At this meeting, we had time to review instructional technology issues at our respective CUNY colleges and discuss commonalities.  As far as I know, there was no follow-up meeting after that event. Instructional technologists throughout CUNY are working hard on their campuses with little support, guidance or resource and idea sharing with other colleges. This lack of coordination amongst technologists at CUNY is a lost opportunity which has several undesirable results including feelings of isolation for technologists, much duplication of effort, and wasted time and resources.  I believe we need to do better.

A centralized unit in support of instructional technologists on all CUNY campuses is needed. This might take the form of centralized training opportunities / workshops for technologists, a resource-sharing network of IT strategies that work, the funding of some instructional technologist positions on various campuses, and review panels to test and recommend specific products. Other universities have organized this area more effectively  (see SUNY  Network for Instructional Designers) since they recognize the importance of academic technologies to support the central mission of their institution.

There is a substantial need at CUNY campuses going unmet and a wide disparity at campuses throughout the university concerning Instructional Technology. For example, are two instructional technologists per 1500 faculty sufficient to support new digital tools on campus and with no funds available to be spent on new instructional technologies? I believe not, yet this is the actual situation at a prominent senior college within CUNY. Will CUNY have the vision and courage to address this need? I believe central office oversight in this area is critical to long-term success.

Graphic: Created by Louis Oprisa (CETL Technologist) using InDesign

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MOOCs: The Adult Learning Renaissance

More and more it is becoming evident that the impact MOOCs will have is on adult (lifelong) learners and not on your typical undergraduate. I am currently participating in Kathy Davidson’s wonderful MOOC entitled, “History and Future of (Mostly) Higher Education,” with thousands of others. The landscape is a rich learning environment with excellent videos, online textbook and links to articles, community site, peer-assessed assignments, quizzes and other useful innovations. Your average online professor would be hard-pressed to produce anything near the quality of this team-produced course hosted by Coursera.

This is not a site for undergraduate learners—although they would be welcome to participate. I imagine that well over 90% of the students are adults, many in academia, that wish to advance their knowledge in this area and see what a MOOC has to offer. Adult learners, as we know, are self-motivated, not needing a campus experience, capable of higher order thinking and writing (we hope), and bring a wealth of personal experience to the table.  For the most part, they are not seeking credit for this course, or even need to have this as a component of a degree. We are taking this MOOC due to our inherent interest in the topic, our love of learning, and the need to be part of a greater community of learners. We are, I believe, the real “early adopters” of MOOCs, and part of a parallel revolution in online learning—that of non-degree seeking adult learners.

In a previous post, I reflected that the real impact of MOOCs was overstated in the undergraduate arena. I feel that the real story was the acceptance of online learning within the conservative bastions of higher education. In essence, online learning has won the decade-plus battle for acceptance in academia. In that context, MOOCs are more a flashy online hybrid that may have a great future, but have little immediate impact for the vast majority of college students today.  There are many issues to iron out including students getting credit for these MOOCs, ownership of the content, academic rigor and assessment, etc. These will take time to resolve and, in time, there certainly will be a place for MOOCs in college teaching.

However, most of these challenges do not really apply for adult learners. MOOCs can, and are, having an immediate impact for those of us interested in learning a range of topics we never had the time or opportunity to explore.  Thus, MOOCs can be part, I believe, of a renaissance in adult learning. Often adult learners regret not fully taking advantage of opportunities during their college career, or the over-specialization inherent in their graduate studies.  With MOOCs, many of us see the possibility for learning on our own terms—taking what topics interest us in the convenience of our homes and doing so when our schedules permit — and while paying little or no fees (at this point in MOOC development). As baby-boomers retire and have more free time, I predict many of us will continue to pursue lifelong learning opportunities. MOOCs are real, and will start to usher in a revolution in adult learning.

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The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 1)

I have been blogging for several years about online and hybrid learning and technology trends in academia.  In that time I have made several proposals in my blog regarding ways I feel CUNY needs to change concerning instructional technology and online learning.  Among the ideas I have advocated include:

  • Creating a CUNY-wide Office for Online Learning (blog link)
  • Establishing a Vision Statement for Academic Technology at CUNY (blog link)
  • Creating an Emergency Plan for Academic Continuity in case of a crisis (blog link)
  • Promoting a “change incubator” to research/pilot educational technologies (blog link)
  • Transforming our teaching paradigm to a learning paradigm (blog link)
  • Organizing all Instructional Technologists at CUNY (blog link)
  • Developing a Strategic Planning Process for Hybrid/Online (blog link)
  • Viewing online as a strategic CUNY asset to support/fund (blog link).

Although most of these proposals have yet to be implemented, I now see a common thread that includes many of these into one proposal, namely, creating a CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning. This Center would act as the CUNY-wide focal point for several critical functions including:

  • Envisioning/strategic planning;
  • Incubating, testing and piloting new technology initiatives;
  • Planning/advocating/assisting hybrid/online learning;
  • Coordination and outreach to Instructional Technologists on campuses;
  • Collaboration and partnerships with private companies, as well as other institutions;
  • Pursue grant opportunities for new technologies;
  • Advocating with CUNY Central and faculty for these technologies.

The graphic below points to the direction that I feel would be useful.

Bruce Blog CUNY CITL A. Envisioning/Strategic Planning

The single factor that separates those institutions that are truly serious about implementing innovative technology for teaching and learning on campus is an organizing vision. This vision statement needs to be put on paper, disseminated to the entire institution, and readily available. Complementing this vision statement is a planning process that is strategic in nature. It acknowledges the opportunities and challenges inherent in technological change, including an assessment of a “failure to act.”  The most effective institutions will not only have a strategic plan worthy of the name, but the actual planning process will be fully operational down to the details of how that institution functions. This later condition is rare in academia; however, it is essential if an organization wants to ensure that their vision materializes. CUNY needs an office that can provide leadership in this envisioning, planning, and strategizing process.

B. Change Incubator

However change is defined, be it Christensen’s concept of “disruptive innovations,” or Tagg’s concept of a “paradigm shift” from instruction to learning, or what conferences trumpet as “transformational change,” one thing is clear — in CUNY (as in many such institutions), such change will be opposed, sabotaged, and undermined by many competing stakeholders –  all with apparent veto power.

As I’ve written in previous blog posts, the best way, and in reality the only way to implement meaningful change, is “in the margins.” By that term, I mean that existing structures, relationships, and arrangements need to be suspended, or at least mitigated, for a new approach or program to begin. Accordingly, I recommend an institutional “incubator” where significant changes may be researched, piloted and evaluated outside of the pressures from a variety of stakeholders that, by definition, are the gatekeepers for the status quo. Although this may seem unlikely at CUNY, I would remind you of the examples of SPS online programs, the MacCauley Honors College, and other programs where such exceptions were made, and alas, a more flexible arrangement resulted in excellent outcomes.

Admittedly, at this point in my career, I may suffer from a tad of impatience. From time to time, the tone of my blog posts certainly reflects this, and for that I offer no apologies. For positive innovations to succeed at each CUNY campus and throughout the institution as a whole, we need to carve out safe-zones for experimentation and for testing new technologies and teaching models.

In addition, some of these changes might have commercial viability. Accordingly, such “change incubators” might look into supporting creative faculty with new technologies or approaches that might have commercial potential. For example, some BMCC professors  are working on a game-based Learning Management System that has been presented at several CUNY IT conferences over the years. These and other ideas need to be piloted and given a fair chance of rising above the entrenched forces of the status quo.

Next Blog Post: The CUNY Center for Innovative Technologies and Learning (Part 2)

Graphic: Created by Louis Oprisa (CETL Technologist) using InDesign


Christensen, Clayton,  “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive,” Chronicle of Higher Education,  Retrieved at:

Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Tagg, John, The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA., 2003.


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Can CUNY Thrive with “Disruption”?

Clayton Christensen, the Harvard professor who coined the term “disruptive innovations,” has followed his book with a recent Chronicle article entitled, “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive.” Although his theme is that such “disruptions” produce better outcomes in the long term, it poses potential hardships to those industries or institutions who refuse to adapt to the new environment. I will review his short article in the context of institutional change, with an eye toward CUNY.

Christensen is a Harvard business professor whose primary focus for his theory is business and those who lose out to disruptive innovations along the way. Certainly, the lesson of Detroit auto makers, and the current default of that city’s bonds, can be considered Exhibit A in terms of how not being responsive to change in the auto industry led to loss of market share and eventual bankruptcy. In a similar vein, traditional newspapers’ finances were “disrupted” by the trend toward online classified ads as in Craig’s List. Is such a fate possible in the education sphere? In a word, “yes,” in time.

Paradigm Shift in Education

I believe we are in the midst of a paradigm shift throughout the field of education that will eventually replace our current instructional model with a teaching model, as I discussed in a previous post (link). Increasingly, many critics see the need to replace our current teacher-centered, 3-credit Carnegie units (seat time), over 15-week semesters, to a more dynamic, student-centered structure where learning is the center and students are the drivers of learning. This paradigm shift will take a generation to achieve, but the signposts toward this new model are now becoming more visible. Performance-based learning, badges for achievement, flex-time for semesters, learning facilitators, individualized learning programs, MOOCs, and many other trends, including the dis-aggregation of the traditional faculty role, are constant reminders that change is coming, but not immediately.

The rise of online education, which is the focus of this blog, has gone from a controversial sideshow, to an accepted fact of strategic importance at many colleges and universities. I regard online learning, with over a 20 year history in its wake, as a significant trend that can has been gradually adopted, yet in and of itself, is not transformative.  Largely, hybrid and online courses fall within the same academic structures that regulate traditional classes, although that may change with MOOCs. So, for example, online classes are often 3 credits, taught during a 15-week semester, with traditional assessments of learning, etc. That model is not transformative in and of itself, but rather it operates within the existing structures.

Can CUNY Adapt to “Disruptive” Innovations?

From our research on disruptive innovation, it does appear, though, there are two ways for an organization to survive and thrive when disruption happens,” Christensen writes (reference below). The first method is to create an “autonomous unit” which can quickly manage change to ride the disruption wave. For an institution like CUNY, this would mean creating new nimble structures — what I call “change incubators,” that operate outside the prevailing systems, processes and culture.

To some extent, CUNY has created alternative incubators with the Macauley Honors College, SPS Online, and the new Guttman Community College.  Each of these comes with a unique mission and focus, but operates outside of the institutional constraints that prevent good ideas from becoming actualized.  This is what I called “change in the margins” in a recent blog post.  Instead of directly confronting the unionized, tenured, silo-ed disciplined, bureaucratized, top-heavy, and largely unaccountable bodies of a typical CUNY college, when originally conceived, these alternatives were able to get exemptions from many of these barriers to innovation.

This is exactly the approach advocated by Christensen. In this manner, new ideas, technologies, and methods can be piloted and tested in an environment safe from the many institutional stakeholders who prefer to stifle innovation. Without such change incubators at this or any other similar institution, the “diffusion of innovation” explored by Everett Rogers, will instead yield to reinforcement of the status quo.

Next Post: Proposal for a New Structure


Barr, Robert B. and Tagg, John, “From Teaching to Learning: A New Paradigm for Undergraduate Education,” Change,  November/December 1995.
Retrieved at:

Christensen, Clayton & Horn, Michael B.,  “How Disruption Can Help Colleges Thrive,” Chronicle of Higher Education, September 30 ,2013.  Retrieved at:

Rogers, Everett M. Diffusion of innovations. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Tagg, John, The Learning Paradigm College, Jossey Bass, San Francisco, CA., 2003.


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