CUNY Libraries: Old Paradigms or a Digital Future?

It is not saying much to state that libraries currently are going through major challenges in the digital age.  Library attendance has been trending down for over a decade as users abandon the stuffy recesses of the stacks for the flash and utility of their digital devices. How can libraries stay relevant given the onslaught of digital media, social networks, and ubiquitous access to information? In a word, many are not.

When a library refuses to embrace the digital challenge, students vote with their feet and stop visiting and using the libraries.  Increasingly, the primary usage for many libraries within CUNY and elsewhere is mainly students using the computers for non-library, non-research work. The library as a “glorified computer lab” trend is virtually epidemic in most colleges as these static institutions become increasingly irrelevant in the minds of students and even faculty.

Let’s be honest here– libraries are the last office on most campuses where one would expect real innovation. Library personnel often have positions that are secure, regardless of whether they keep current with digital trends or not.  With librarians at CUNY getting tenure after publishing a few peer-reviewed articles, many chose to coast the rest of their careers since accountability in these positions is virtually non- existent. I’ve heard many reports of search committees hiring a candidate that “would not rock the boat” while rejecting a more qualified and digitally knowledgeable person.  If the norm is mediocrity, then can such behavior be expected?

Yet, libraries vigorously fight to fend off efforts to use their space for more productive purposes. It is comical, if not tragic, to see rows and rows of dusty stacks being defended as critical to library operations when there is no student or faculty who would reasonably peruse the contents of any volume on those shelves.  But instead of re-envisioning what a new library might look like, these rear-guard turf-wars become commonplace at many CUNY libraries.

But the tide is turning, if not merely for the fact that space is at a premium at campuses.  So under-utilized space now gets more scrutiny, albeit after decades of neglect. For the most part, change will not come from current library personnel themselves whom hold tenaciously to old paradigms and procedures. No, change will by necessity come from the administrations of respective campuses, assuming there is a real vision for change.  To date, many campus administrators have not measured up in this respect.

A Digital Future

What would change look like for college libraries?  While there are articles about new campus libraries without any books, this is an extreme scenario.  More likely, college libraries are transforming themselves by:

  • Hiring chief librarians with bona fide digital credentials and a new vision for what those libraries can become
  • Gathering campus stakeholders for sessions to re-envision campus libraries
  • Funding training to upgrade the skills of existing staff to function in the digital age
  • Collaborating with IT service desk operations to offer a one-stop desk for any problems relating to student technology or information needs
  • Training students in new digital and information technologies as part of their new mission
  • Expanding the standard “information literacy” sessions for students to include a broader “digital literacy,” covering items like portable devices, social networking, phone apps for students, etc.

This list is merely a starting point. Given the balkanized, unionized, tenure-ized, and dysfunctional structures that exist within CUNY, nothing short of a real mandate from the Chancellor will address this issue.  As with most paradigm shifts, the entrenched actors will need to “leave the stage” before a new paradigm becomes the norm. In regards to many CUNY libraries, we are looking at a minimum of another decade before we see the long-touted “libraries for the digital age” we need now.


Blumenthal, R., (2005)  “College Libraries Set Aside Books in the Digital Age,” New York Times, May 14, 2005.  Retrieved at:

Lenkie, A.,(2015) “Libraries in the Digital Age,” NEA Blog post. Retrieved at:

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5 Ideas to Jumpstart CUNY’s Online Efforts

If I ever had the chance to meet CUNY’s new Chancellor Millikan, I would love to talk about a topic of mutual interest, namely, Online Learning. From his days as Chancellor at the University of Nebraska, Dr. Millikan has been an advocate for online learning and, I feel, genuinely wants to move online teaching and learning forward within CUNY. Consequently, what follows would be the main ideas I’d bring to him regarding “jumpstarting” CUNY’s online efforts.

1. Make CUNYfirst designations of hybrid/online uniform throughout the system.

An old adage, “what gets measured, gets done” applies here. Yet, there is no reliable way to measure hybrid/online activity within CUNY since CUNYfirst has ambiguous and overlapping categories that are used differently on different campuses. These designations include “online,” “partially online,” “hybrid,” and “web-enhanced.” Consequently, we cannot even determine with any certainty, what percentage of courses are taught online within the university. Without such information, we are steering the online ship without knowing our current bearings.

Solution: Have the Registrars and Provosts university-wide, meet to draft clear and uniform categories for hybrid/online learning (e.g., online means a course with little or no classroom time required). The Sloan-C definitions, used for over a decade, can be useful here.

2. Change PMP (Performance Management Process) reporting criteria for CUNY college presidents from “online courses” to “online programs.”

Imagine a student taking several hybrid or fully online courses as they pursue their degree.  This can be a good thing, but will not substantially change their time to degree or allow them to “time-shift” their academics around family or work responsibilities. Only fully online programs, or those programs specifically designed with sufficient hybrid and online offerings  for students, will have the impact we seek.  So why do CUNY college presidents get measured via PMP using the bar of total online or hybrid courses when their impact is minimal for students?

Solution: Include number of fully online programs in PMP measures (see report here) of college president’s effectiveness.

3. The Vision

Where is a vision for online learning within CUNY? If online teaching is important to you, as the leader of this university it is worthwhile formulating and promoting what that vision is. I believe such a   vision needs to be a bold statement of what is possible, and not a milk toast recitation of what is.

Accordingly, your recent statements that “It would be good to have all CUNY students take at least one online course before graduation,” or ” . . . with a CUNY school being a subway stop away, it is understandable that CUNY has not seen the need to develop online . . . ” should be dispensed with forthwith.  Instead, like SUNY’s chancellor, Nancy Zimpher, you might challenge your university to “enrolling 100,000 new online students within 3 years,” or planning with the inception of Open SUNY. What will be CUNY’s moonshot in this regard?

Solution: Develop and publicize a bold agenda for online learning at CUNY.

4. Is Online Strategic?

Closely related to vision, the latest Online Learning Consortium survey indicates that 80% of 4 year public colleges view online learning as strategic to their efforts.  Does CUNY? If so, this needs to be stated, and moreover, planned for at the highest levels within CUNY. Need we have a CUNY strategic plan for online learning or, jettisoning “strategic,” any university-wide plan for online within CUNY?


Choose the best representatives from CUNY who understand online teaching and learning and/or strategic planning. Create a compelling vision for online learning that all CUNY stakeholders can buy into (or at least not try to subvert).  See my blog post on this topic for ideas for such a vision.

5. CUNY Office for Online Learning

If online learning is important for the future of this university, then some central office needs to be guiding and supporting implementation of online at all CUNY campuses.  This entity currently doesn’t exist. I’ve written a blog post (link here)  as to why such an office is needed and what aspects of online learning they might be helpful with.


Plan for and create an empowered Office for Online Learning within CUNY Central to assist campuses with all aspects of rolling out online programs.


Allen, I.E., Seaman, J., (February, 2015), “Grade Level: Teaching Online Education in the United States, 2014,” Online Learning Consortium. Retrieved from:

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“Show Me the Urgency”

We all know it takes time to turn an ocean liner around. But at a large institution like CUNY, the question really is, “Why turn the ocean liner around?”  Or maybe next academic year, “we’ll look into turning the ship around.” On all levels of this institution, there seems little urgency to get things done today if they can reasonably be postponed for tomorrow (which stretches into the distant horizon). But what’s the urgency?

So, we had the long-expected departure of a long-standing, previous chancellor who was rumored to be on the way out for several years due to health issues, the appointment of an interim chancellor taking over a year while the search for the new chancellor was conducted, and the much-heralded appointment of a new chancellor last year. Of course, the new chancellor will take a year or so to acclimate to CUNY before he boldly acts on his agenda, and now we are in yet another year of “transition” until the university appoints a new vice chancellor for academic affairs, who will likely need yet another year to get acclimated.  In essence, we are speaking of a four year transition period for key positions within the university, for the persons filling those positions to establish and create their vision for CUNY’s future and to start implementing their plan. But what’s the urgency?

As crazy as the above scenario seems, that is what passes for “business as usual” at CUNY. The end result is institutional drift, poor employee moral, and program paralysis. The “let’s wait for the next academic year since we’re in a transition” refrain invariably impacts all campuses and programs within the university. If this were a business with actual accountability to investors, the new CEO would be expected to “hit the ground running” and, at most, have a few months to get oriented. We are reminded constantly that academia is not a business and shouldn’t be run as such. OK, but realistically how long should we wait until the university gets a new, effective team on the field ? But what’s the urgency?

Regarding programs of online learning, however, we are talking about a competitive marketplace where there certainly needs to be a sense of urgency. A student considering an online degree may choose a program tailored to their needs from an array of colleges in their region or even nationally. Many institutions are working hard to make sure they have enticing programs, effective marketing, student support structures and qualified instructors to meet student needs and get them to enroll. These institutions might be first to market with new programs, and with years in the marketplace gain experience with strategies that work for growing their online efforts. But, what’s the urgency?

CUNY’s UFS (University Faculty Senate) recently held a conference (link here) weighing the efficacy of this mode of teaching, a mere 30 years after the University of Wisconsin held its first conference on distance learning (link here). After decades of “deliberation,” faculty governance finally got around to addressing the issue of online learning. Admittedly, the new chancellor seems very interested in online learning and has started to hold campus presidents more accountable for hybrid/online implementation. This is a positive step considering that for many years, besides recalcitrant faculty and their respective governance bodies being opposed to online, many presidents were also of similar mind and actively spoke against online learning. Such opposition, in my estimation, has left CUNY about a decade behind SUNY in online implementation (see previous posts 1, 2, 3) and over two decades behind lead universities in this field. I would wish the new chancellor success in changing CUNY’s institutional climate toward being more positive for online learning. Until then, show me the urgency.

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Lessons Learned From John Jay Online (Part 2)


This is the second post discussing the implications from a panel discussion I moderated for the latest CUNY IT Conference in early December 2014 entitled, “Strategic Planning for Online Programs: Lessons Learned from John Jay Online.” I was fortunate to have two John Jay panelists, both instrumental in shepherding these new online programs into being: Adam Wandt, Assistant Professor of Public Policy/ Faculty Fellow of Online Learning, and Feng Weng, (formerly) Director of John Jay Online.
Note: Please refer to my original post (link) to provide a fuller context for the ensuing discussion.

Empowering the Change Makers

One of the key points that both Adam and Feng made was the need to empower the persons making change, in this case, those implementing a new online learning program. Each campus, a reflection of CUNY as an institution, has a plethora of potential stakeholders who want nothing more than to slow down, if not kill outright, any real change on their campuses. Maybe such actors feel they weren’t sufficiently consulted or kow-towed to; or  maybe they feel that it is a secret plot by the “administration”; or possibly they feel that their much discredited “sage on stage” style of teaching is perfectly fine; or maybe they are frustrated, ornery, stick-in-the mud types itching for a fight. Regardless, those seeking real change will inevitably encounter them in the sinecures of their faculty governance structures, administrative offices, departmental chairs, and often in the upper echelons of their respective campuses.

In reality, these obstructionists can add years to any sincere, valid effort to introduce hybrid/online programs. That is the reality at many CUNY campuses today. The only antidote to this scenario is for the president of a college to forcefully and unequivocally support those mandated to  make such change happen — as in the case of John Jay. This does not mean supporting a “faculty-driven” effort by those unknowing, undeserving or unable to lead such an online initiative.  It means giving the real experts — advocates of online learning — their “day in the sun” with the full support of administration to provide a protected space  and sufficient time for a new online program to incubate and new ideas, policies and practices to see the light of day.

Tenure and Promotion

It seems curious that in this digital age, with the rapid growth of social media, online learning  and digital publications, that rewards for most digital activities are completely absent from the formal avenues leading to tenure and promotion within CUNY. It is even more curious that critical legal documents in the tenure and promotion process are governed by letters of agreement dating back over 40 years (see link 1 and link 2). These documents pre-date even word processing and were obviously copied from old paper forms, yet have the force of law. In the context of online learning, it means that all the difficult, good work of an untenured faculty (like Adam Wandt) in seeing two online programs to fruition, is completely ignored in terms of tenure and promotion.

If this is the case, what is the motivation for junior faculty to create or teach an online course — especially if doing so might alienate senior faculty within the department? There is none, and in fact, there is more than a morsel of tangible disincentives. So younger faculty, who might gravitate to teaching online, need to think again, while older tenured faculty who can risk such behavior are not particularly inclined to do so since they may not be as fluent with technology or are happy with the status quo.  With such convoluted incentives and totally obsolete faculty policies, is it any wonder that CUNY is years behind other large public institutions in implementing online learning?

New Business Practices, Policies and Procedures

I had the pleasure of taking an intensive workshop on “Creating Online Programs,” co-taught by Joel Hartman, Vice Provost and CIO at the University of Central Florida. Dr. Hartman (see bio) has won just about every significant award in online learning that there is. When I mentioned to him that faculty development is often the primary focus of new online efforts, and that little thought is given to changing the policies, practices and procedures relating to online implementation, he enthusiastically confirmed, “you’ve got it!”

John Jay Online not only impacted teaching and learning at that college, but there also needed to be significant changes in policies, practices and procedures for that program to succeed.  Regarding the policies (link here), real thought was given to how online would impact course and teaching loads, payment to faculty for designing and teaching a course, a chargeback system for new online revenues to fund expansion of the Office for Online Learning, and other significant changes. Moreover, certain governance rules needed to be curtailed for the program to go forward. It is (and was) of critical importance to change many college practices and procedures and have the needed systems in place for this (or any) online program to succeed.


There are more lessons from John Jay’s online experience that are of value to other CUNY campuses. However, only those who are fully knowledgeable and experts, going through this 4+ year process,  can really speak to these lessons. After our panel discussion, I briefly proposed an idea to have such experts like Adam and Feng (and others from SPS) act as internal consultants for other CUNY campuses leaning toward starting fully online programs. By heeding their guidance, we can build institutional capacity while avoiding some of the pitfalls in developing online programs. The “O-Team” as I would call it, is a worthy project that deserves to be funded. Such a project would be a fitting and useful outcome from our excellent panel discussion and assist many CUNY campuses in implementing online learning.

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A Scalable Learning Management System (LMS)

Some of the barriers to entry into the arena of online learning have been greatly diminished in recent years, namely both the cost and scalability of the learning management system. An LMS is where most of online teaching happens — the virtual bridge between teacher and student. It is the environment where a professor structures their course, posts materials (links, PDFs, videos, etc.), creates assignments, conducts online discussions and assesses a student’s work, along with many other features. Fundamentally, it is the center for online learning created from the toolkit provided by the LMS vendor.

Blackboard, the largest LMS in the higher education market, has its critics and promoters. Over time, Bb has become more sophisticated, costly, and feature-rich. While many of these features are quite useful for teaching (i.e., wikis, whiteboards, eportfolios, webinars, etc.), costs for this and other LMS’s tend to be prohibitive, and faculty training with all the bells and whistles, daunting. Free LMS’s like Sakai and Moodle, could provide an affordable option to small entities only if you overlook the back-end technical know-how to successfully implement these systems. In either case, smaller institutions were  challenged to pursue this path.

Now, however, there are viable options for smaller entities wishing to conduct cost-effective online learning using a simple LMS. Companies like SchoolKeep, provide a customizable, affordable, easy-to-use LMS-lite for newbies in the online domain. The company offers an array of options/services from piloting several courses at no charge, to creating a fully online program and school. Moreover, SchoolKeep offers cost-added services like marketing, branding, registration, and student support depending on client requirements.

This company is a harbinger of what I would characterize as just-in-time LMS services, which may allow an institution, small company, or not-for-profit the flexibility of gradually building an online learning program without incurring significant start-up costs for the technology infrastructure. Often LMS contracts locked in an institution to a specific vendor for a long period of time, or the vendor might require a significant percentage of the online revenues from the new venture. This scenario is not the case for these new vendors who are increasingly more friendly to novices in the online learning segment.

In summary, SchoolKeep and similar new options allow a smaller entity to pilot or prototype their online courses and programs without major financial risks. A “build up and out strategy” can then be employed if these initial efforts prove fruitful. Thus, SchoolKeep might provide a good fit for those smaller learning enterprises making their initial foray into the arena of online learning.


Burns, Janet (2014), The Changing Framework of Online Learning, PSFK blog, retrieved at:

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Faculty Development — As If It Matters

Slightly departing from my usual topic of online learning, I’m devoting this post or two to the topic of Faculty Centers within CUNY. As current Director of City College’s CETL (Center for Teaching and Learning), and having held several positions in faculty development over a dozen years at four institutions, I have given substantial thought to the topic.  On a monthly basis, CUNY’s CETL Directors meet to discuss matters and projects of mutual interest with colleagues.

In June 2011, Dr. Karrin Wilks, (then) University Dean for Undergraduate Studies, surveyed all CTL Directors within CUNY to get a better understanding of what these Centers were doing, their staff and funding levels, their respective missions and impact and finally, make appropriate recommendations for action. Entitled, “Analysis of CUNY Centers for Teaching and Learning,” (link here), this was really the first systematic attempt to determine the effectiveness of the CTLs in addition to assessing the challenges inherent in directing them. Although several years old, and since publication, several new Centers have cropped up on CUNY campuses, it remains the only authoritative document that I’m aware of that addresses this subject. I will add some thoughts/reflection below and in a subsequent post.

CTLs: An Under-valued Resource

Currently, there are 17 CTL Centers within CUNY. Each Center has unique, but similar, context, missions, programs and resources. If I were to characterize the general “gestalt” of CTL Directors in numerous meetings I have attended over the years, it would be that most Centers are not realizing their full potential as institutional resources for their respective campuses. Admittedly, this observation is subjective, and though there is significant variation from Center to Center, I would stand by that view. It is common for Center Directors to report staffing and budget deficiencies; inadequate, changing or tenuous management support and reporting structures; lack of involvement with institutional priorities; and minimal understanding or vision from administration of what role these CTL Centers could potentially play on each campus. Greater support and/or less marginalization regarding these concerns is necessary for these Centers to be viable, effective and integral.

CTLs as Change Agents?

In Dr. Wilks’ report, she concludes, “An effective CTL is thus a mechanism for both individual and organizational development, and an essential component of systemic change.” (pg 17, reference below). This view is frequently heard and written about in SoTL  (Scholarship of Teaching and Learning) circles.

The CTL Directors at CUNY that I’ve met are professionals who see the “big picture” in terms of the importance of teaching, technology, assessment and student learning. This perspective comes from many years of teaching, research, publications, conference presentations and attendance, and thinking about their respective Centers. In terms of being agents for change, their unique talents and ideas can greatly assist a college in the throes of institutional change. Yet often, they are not part of the decision-making process.  This is a great loss, personally to these Directors, and institutionally, as well. As I’ve written in previous posts, throughout academia generally, and CUNY and its respective colleges specifically, there is a need for a serious overhaul in the approach to teaching, technology and learning. If so, where will the agents of change come from?


Wilks, Karrin (2011), “Analysis of CUNY Centers for Teaching and Learning,” Office of Academic Affairs website. Retrieved at:

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Lessons Learned From John Jay Online (Part 1)


In September 2014, John Jay College of Criminal Justice launched two new fully online programs as part of their John Jay Online :

  1. Advanced Certificate on Terrorism Studies, and
  2. Masters in Security Management.

These programs represent the first fully online programs at a CUNY college outside of CUNY’s School of Professional Studies online programs. Given the significance of this development, I organized a panel discussion at the latest CUNY IT Conference in early December entitled, “Strategic Planning for Online Programs: Lessons Learned from John Jay Online.”

I was fortunate to have two John Jay panelists, both instrumental in shepherding these programs into being: Adam Wandt, Assistant Professor of Public Policy/ Faculty Fellow of Online Learning, and Feng Weng, (formerly) Director of John Jay Online.

Acting as a moderator for the panel, I asked Adam and Feng to reflect on their experiences creating these programs from inception to program delivery. Topics discussed ranged from the initial vision to market research, from stakeholder buy-in to overcoming obstacles, from marketing to faculty development, from policies and procedures to takeaway lessons for other campuses. Our free-flowing conversation offered many insights and passionate viewpoints. I believe this session provided an all-too- rare dialogue concerning the trials and tribulations of starting fully online programs within CUNY. What follows below (and subsequent blog post) are the salient points these two experts made, and an expanded discussion of each point.

A Long and Winding Road

Having the college president of John Jay supporting the creation of these online programs was an essential part of seeing this project to fruition. Yet, from inception to program rollout, it took about five years to fully implement these online programs. Yes, the process is a long and winding one, with diverse obstacles and pitfalls. Unlike the SPS online programs, which created alternative structures around faculty governance issues, John Jay did not have that luxury. Faculty governance and faculty buy-in took a long time and much effort to be realized. In addition, new policies and procedures had to be developed and approved, and numerous bureaucratic approvals needed to be obtained in terms of NYS Department of Education. Considering these and other unforeseen issues, it would be a good idea for all CUNY campuses interested in online programs to plan for a lengthy process.

Institutional Support

Starting online programs with institutional support is a difficult path, without it is a fool’s errand. At several CUNY schools that I know of, mid-level administrators and some forward-looking faculty have attempted to pilot online offerings without the full buy-in from their respective administrations. Invariably, such well-meaning efforts lead to frustration and accusations from faculty governance and few sustainable initiatives. Without enthusiastic support of a college President and Provost, there is little hope for any semblance of an online strategy, vision or effective implementation. For all practical purposes, each campus stakeholders must be on board and pulling in the same direction for new online programs to have a fighting chance.

Next Blog Post: John Jay Online: Part 2 will include these topics:

Empowering the Change Makers; Tenure and Promotion; Faculty-Driven Efforts; New Business Practices, Policies and Procedures; Faculty Resistance to Acceptance

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Implications of Digital CUNY?


CUNY has been fortunate to attract a new, dynamic Chancellor–James B. Milliken–who has personal experience teaching — and institutional experience leading — online learning. He impresses me as a sincere, hard-working individual who does wish to advance the ball for CUNY as a whole. On Nov. 19th, he laid out his vision for CUNY in a speech (link here) at The Association for a Better New York. Subsequently, in a CUNY-wide faculty conference on November 21st, entitled, “Online Learning: What We Need to Know, What We Need To Ask,” he further articulated his plans for what he termed “Digital CUNY.”  What follows is an examination/rumination about his proposal.

What is Digital CUNY?

For now, “Digital CUNY” is an amorphous, broad term that we technologists can project our hopes, visions, pet projects, and agendas onto and see a bright future ahead.  At the Faculty conference, Chancellor Milliken quoted a figure of $7 million for this initiative–an impressive sum to those of us in the tech trenches at CUNY campuses. But how will such monies be spent? What group will decide what projects are worthy of funding, and will that funding be enough? Even if many worthwhile projects are ultimately funded, will they be focused on a theme or dispersed in many digital directions? And, in the end, will it really make a dent in terms of institutional change?

The Chancellor did hint at online learning being a focus for these efforts in terms of specifically mentioning online learning in both of his speeches. Coming from the University of Nebraska which has a viable, if not robust, program of online offerings, Dr. Milliken will, in all likelihood, be receptive to advancing online learning across all CUNY campuses.  This is a positive development on many levels, and a much overdue development. As I’ve blogged about previously, CUNY is many years behind other public universities in online implementation. Contrary to those who believe that CUNY, being largely a “commuter” university and hence not needing online offerings, online learning can be a boon to many CUNY students struggling with difficult schedules and commutes. I believe the Chancellor recognizes this need for more online learning opportunities at CUNY, and I fully expect that in the semesters to come there will be a concerted push in this direction.

It has been suggested that Digital CUNY was intentionally left vague in its definition in order to solicit the best ideas under that banner in future funding requests.  Logically, this view has support in terms of Chancellor Milliken’s announcement (referred to earlier) of a $7 million fund for projects that could fall under that banner. Most assuredly, there will be substantial interest and competition for such funds once the RFP is announced early in 2015.  Personally, I have thought about several projects currently lacking funding that would advance aspects of online learning within CUNY. These will be outlined in a future blog post.

Overall then, the take-away from the various speeches of CUNY’s new Chancellor seems positive for advancing both online learning and innovative technology initiatives taking place throughout CUNY (some of these are documented in a CUNY Innovation database by Lisa Brundage). There is cause for optimism, and that is a good development for those in the trenches wishing for change.

Update/Clarification: Certain assumptions I made when writing this post are not official and may not materialize.  In light of this new information, it would be better to take a wait and see approach to Digital CUNY for now. It is my sincere hope that many of the potential advances discussed in the above post can come to fruition through increased funding and attention to how instructional technologies can be used to further CUNY’s mission.

Here is the feedback I received from George Otte, CUNY Director of Academic Technology:

There is no assumption, Bruce, that the $7 million figure mentioned by the Chancellor (or any portion of that) will be devoted to the proposed projects targeted by a call for proposals to be sent out early in the new calendar year. That planned CFP  does not presume access to that funding, nor is there any presumption that the CFP will be a way of fulfilling the Chancellor’s intentions with regard to “Digital CUNY.

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Life Skills and Making the College Connection

In this month’s Chronicle, (reference below) there was a thought-provoking article entitled: “Now Everything Has a Learning Outcome.” The article details a new emphasis at Augustana College for both faculty and student advisors to include non-academic activities in counseling/advising sessions with students. So for example, participation on the golf team, a part-time job, a volunteer activity, all are seen as part of holistic learning experiences of a student. For many students, this far-reaching approach enables them to see the connection between their academic lives and those outside the ivory towers. As Dan Berrett explains,

“…. too many students squander those formative years. If they manage to make sense of what their education adds up to, they do so by accident or on their own. But educators uncomfortable with that reality are trying to shift it. While colleges won’t return to dictating moral development, some are now guiding students with a firmer hand. They are bolstering advising, trying to connect what students do in and outside of class, and explicitly identifying the learning that happens in various corners of campus. In sum, treating a college education as a holistic, cohesive experience.”

He continues,

“What matters in this vision of college is how well students put together and make sense of the pieces of their education. To that end, colleges must curate that experience. Augustana has identified nine learning outcomes—like critical thinking and quantitative literacy—that apply to everything students touch: courses, clubs, teams, residence halls. … Residence halls, for example, help achieve intercultural competency and communication competency by requiring roommates to work out their differences and negotiate privacy. Sports can help develop collaborative leadership and ethical citizenship. Running the campus’s organic farm can develop collaborative leadership; dealing with vendors and handling invoices might foster quantitative literacy.”

The program at Augustana is what I would characterize as “boutique advisement.” In a small college with favorable student to faculty and staff ratios, advisors have more time to get to know their students in a less restricted setting. In essence, these staffers function in a manner similar to what an elder sibling, aunt, or uncle might have in the virtually extinct extended families of another era. Many students today need and crave insight and direction from some caring adult to make sense of their often frenetic and bumpy lives.

The situation at public institutions regarding assisting students is not pretty. Students are frequently hard-pressed to see their advisors, whose numbers and hours are being cut due to budgetary imperatives. A student may see their “academic” advisor once a semester, and faculty are often not available to spend much time getting to know their students. So even if a student passes their courses and eventually secures a degree, they may lack essential life skills required to succeed in the workforce or in life.

In my experience, the pace and numbers of students at a large institution like CUNY campuses, forces faculty and staff into a “nuts and bolts” type of student advising. Take courses A, B, and C to meet such and such requirement may be all too typical. What I commend Augustana for doing, albeit with more resources per student, is attempting to understand the confluence between the needs of the student with those of the greater society at large. More than academic or career guidance is offered. I would characterize their approach as “how to be your own person in the world you live in now and in your future.” This is a much more ambitious undertaking than what currently passes for college education.


Berrett, D., 2014, “Now, Everything Has a Learning Outcome,” Chronicle of Higher Education, Nov. 10, 2014. Retrieved at:

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First Mover Advantage

The concept of “first mover advantage” certainly applies to online learning.  The term is used in the context of a competitive environment, with the first entry in that environment often getting the advantage over competitors later to the table. In other words, there is an “opportunity cost” for delaying, procrastinating, and generally “not getting your act together.” In the online arena, this applies to CUNY’s efforts.

Online learning is not local or even regional in scope, but rather national, and increasingly global.  What that means for CUNY is that students living within the boundaries of New York City have the option of taking online programs from many institutions of higher learning throughout this country. So for example, a person wishing to get a masters degree in environmental studies/sustainability (lately a very hot academic area) can choose from several good programs — at Bard College, the University of Vermont, etc.  In the case of the University of Vermont, they had virtually no online offerings as of two years ago, but collaborated with a vendor to handle the technology and CMS component while they were responsible for creating the content. Virtually overnight, a successful program was born.

An online program in “urban” sustainability would be a natural fit for CUNY.  With expertise in business, sciences, architecture and engineering, an interdisciplinary program could have been developed with the right focus for an urban audience nationwide. Alas, such a program was indeed proposed two years ago by SPS, and steps were taken to begin the process of getting approval for an online program in urban sustainability. However, the rug was pulled out from under those proposing the program by an anonymous bureaucrat in CUNY’s Central Office. CUNY would have been a “first mover” in this arena had the program come to fruition.  Instead, we see several excellent programs already developed and operational taking its place.  An opportunity was lost.

This story brings up several questions.

a. Is there accountability within CUNY?

b. Who has veto power over such proposals and what is their track record?

c. Why does it take so long to bring an online program to market?

d. How can CUNY do better?


a. No, in my experience, there is little, if any, accountability within CUNY. People who have made disastrous decisions, like CUNYfirst and the one above are still earning their salaries if not more for a “well-deserved” promotion. Talented individuals, on the other hand, are often fired, overlooked, or resign due to frustration over the sad state of affairs at all levels of CUNY.

b. Often the persons making decisions regarding online learning are completely ignorant of the field, which includes many recalcitrant faculty in positions of governance. Rather than asking those who know the field, they instead pass resolutions in the faculty senate to equate hybrid courses with “experimental courses” and, therefore, require governance approval. That decision, and hundreds like it, are made by people in power at CUNY who don’t have the interest, humility or common sense to inquire.

c. The process to get an online program operational took four years from start to finish at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Other than the Graduate Center’s SPS, no other CUNY school has implemented an online program. In several other blog posts, I have documented various impediments to making online happen at CUNY, starting with the lack of a common vision, no strategic planning, and significant faculty resistance. While we fiddle as an institution, others are seizing the “first mover advantage” and gaining market share in a competitive educational marketplace.

d. CUNY can do better.  I will be starting a white paper, hopefully with the help of others, to be submitted to the new CUNY Chancellor. In his previous position at The University of Nebraska, online learning was one of James B. Milliken’s accomplishments. I would hope he’d be willing to entertain some ideas on how to move forward.

In summary, many within CUNY don’t fully recognize that today we are in a competitive environment more than ever, where quality enrollments are not to be taken for granted. Increasingly, the online arena is the one in which institutions compete for students across local and regional boundaries. Such programs account for the growth in many school’s enrollments, and is an important new revenue stream for those colleges. Most important, online learning can offer existing students and faculty the potential for positive learning outcomes in a manner that is both cost-effective and convenient for all university stakeholders.


University of Vermont Sustainability Programs

Bard College, MBA in Sustainability

John Jay College of Criminal Justice Online Program

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