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Chief Digital Officer Sree Sreenivasan discusses online education at Friday’s plenary.

After three semesters debating hot-button issues like smoking policy, the Reserve Officers' Training Corps, and public course evaluations, the University Senate continued its quiet semester Friday with a plenary largely consumed by updates on online education and the new data sciences institute.

Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia's newly appointed chief digital officer, told senators about Columbia's efforts to establish a presence in the growing world of online education. Several Columbia schools—including the School of Engineering and Applied Science, the School of Continuing Education, and Teachers College—have offered online courses for years, and next semester the University is offering its first two massive open online courses, or MOOCs, through Coursera.

“This is part of what's a growing movement in higher education,” Sreenivasan said. “We want whatever we do to be thoughtful, strategic, sustainable, without locking into the current technology and keeping with Columbia's brands and strengths.”

Still, some concerns remain about Columbia's impending entry into the online marketplace. University Senator Paige West, an anthropology professor, asked Sreenivasan how online courses might affect intellectual property rights, cultural hostility towards higher education, grading, and Columbia's brand.

“I'm thinking of the people in the courses taking the intellectual property that belongs to Columbia and the faculties and reproducing it in ways that we would not be particularly happy with,” West said.

Sreenivasan didn't address West's question about intellectual property, although he assured her that neither professors nor teaching assistants would be responsible for grading the work of the up to 30,000 students who might be enrolled in a MOOC. Instead, he said, grading will largely be done by computer, even for written work, such as essays.

Sharyn O'Halloran, the chair of the senate's executive committee, said that she didn't “want to get into” a conversation about intellectual property rights for online courses. O'Halloran is the chair of a senate task force examining online education.

“That's very much an emerging field, and I think we are going to talk about best practices for individuals and for the University in relation to this,” she said.

Sreenivasan added that MOOCs are only part of what he envisions as the future of online education at Columbia. He said that administrators are looking into expanding online components for a wide variety of traditional courses, as well as utilizing the “flipped classroom” model, in which students learn the material at home through the Internet and then participate in hands-on activities during class time.

Also at the plenary, Assistant Vice President of Benefits Fiona McLennan described professors' and administrators' health care options. McLennan reviewed the changes to this year's policies, which include expanded access to child care subsidies and increased reimbursement for out-of-network services.

A few professors expressed concerns about large increases to health care premiums, although McLennan attributed the changes to the nationwide trend of increasing health care costs.

O'Halloran also updated senators on the data sciences institute that Columbia launched this summer with $15 million in support from the city. The authority to establish a new institute at Columbia theoretically resides with the senate, and the data sciences institute was approved by the executive committee under its summer powers.

Despite the executive committee's approval, some faculty members expressed concern that such an important decision was made without a formal review by the full senate. O'Halloran said that the senate's education committee is evaluating the institute and will report back to the full senate in the spring.
online education Sree Sreenivasan Health Care fringe benefits data science Institute for Data Sciences and Engineering Sharyn O'Halloran
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