Pitt faculty raise concerns over renewed partnership with online teaching platform | News | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pitt faculty raise concerns over renewed partnership with online teaching platform

Early this week, the University of Pittsburgh renewed a contract with the online education startup Outlier, extending the deal to an additional five years. This was done without relay of notice to the university’s faculty about the deal.

Pitt’s partnership with Outlier began in August of 2019. Outlier classes only became available to students at the beginning of this year with a spring and summer pilot plan. Outlier’s stated mission is to make higher education more accessible to students.

Students have the option to take introductory classes like Intro to Psychology and only pay $400 for the course. While the students do receive Pitt credits for the course, the caveat is that the credits do not count as a prerequisite for other courses or towards their general ed requirements.

Melinda Ciccocioppo, a lecturer in Pitt’s psychology department and a member of the Pitt Faculty Organizing Committee has reservations regarding the Outlier partnership because of the university’s mishandling of communication with faculty and whose curriculum would be the basis of these classes.

Ciccocioppo says faculty didn’t find out about the partnership until the spring semester from a Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article. She was taken aback when one of the main courses Outlier offered students was Intro to Psychology.

“I was really disappointed that this was happening without any kind of meaningful faculty input. I think that really increases my belief that we need a faculty union at Pitt because if we had a faculty union, this would be a subject of collective bargaining and faculty couldn’t be kept in the dark about decisions like this,” says Ciccocioppo.

Once the faculty found out about the partnership, there was push back. Ciccocioppo specifically spoke on behalf of the psychology department, but since Outlier now offers courses in calculus, statistics, and astronomy, those departments also voiced their concerns as well. She said the psychology faculty weren't offered any kind of oversight of the Outlier course.

Moreover, Ciccocioppo expressed confusion about why Provost Ann Cudd renewed the contract for five additional years when there is no public information and essentially a lack of transparency regarding if the classes are successful or if students are excelling in the courses.

“It’s just another disappointment that these decisions are kinda being made unilaterally and the faculty, I would argue, we are really the experts on education, right? That’s what we’ve been hired to do, are not being consulted or at least meaningfully consulted in making these decisions,” says Ciccocioppo.

University of Pittsburgh spokesperson Kevin Zwick says it respects the faculty’s concerns over the partnership, but pushes back on the notion that they were not consulted. Zwick says this “has been a topic of discussion for months at shared governance meetings between university administration and faculty,” and notes Pitt has been working with Outlier since 2019.

Faculty brought these issues to the attention of the faculty senate, which had begun fighting for the faculty, but it was too late. The courses were already developed, and the contract was already renewed.

Ciccocioppo stated that the faculty senate President Chris Bonneau sat down with the Provost to express faculty discontent for the deal with Outlier and that it should not be renewed. But the school’s response was to go to Pitt Johnstown and launch more pilot programs.

More importantly, Ciccocioppo says, her concerns are for the students, their money, and the quality of education they will receive from a third-party lecturer. Outlier doesn’t engage in the same face-to-face learning activities and styles of teaching that a professor at Pitt would give their students in their classes. She’s worried the education students receive has been traded for corporate interests.

“It does concern me that Outlier is a for-profit company. [Aaron] Rasmussen [the co-founder of Outlier] has been very clear in other news articles that I’ve read, the purpose of this company is to make money,” says Ciccocioppo. “He likes to talk about ‘we’re increasing the accessibility of education by having it be more low cost and open to everyone,’ but ultimately it is a money-making venture. At what point do you start putting the money-making goal over the goal of providing good, quality education to students?”

Zwick defends the university’s use of Outlier, saying it provides access to education that some students would have trouble accessing.

“This partnership is not marketed to Pitt students. It aims to offer affordable, accessible general education courses to national and even international students who would otherwise have difficulty engaging in higher education,” says Zwick. “That focus has not wavered since we began the pilot, and the mission continues through Pitt Johnstown.”

Overall, Ciccocioppo says Pitt Johnstown will have Pitt faculty more involved in the development of these Outlier courses, but Ciccocioppo still feels apprehensive about the partnership, the university administration’s lack of transparency, and the interests of the students paying and taking Outlier courses.

“The spin for this is that it’s gonna make college courses to low-income students. I get tuition at Pitt is high, I certainly don’t want students to be saddled with debt their whole life, but I’d argue there are better ways for the university to address these issues than offering these subpar courses to students," says Ciccocioppo. "If they’re really serious about providing more accessible education to students, I just don’t think this is the path to take."

Pittsburgh City Paper News Editor Ryan Deto contributed to this report.

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