Outlier arrangement with Pitt–Johnstown raises concerns


Pitt–Johnstown recently announced a scholarship with Outlier, a company that offers online college courses, as Pitt faculty on the Oakland campus continue to reject Outlier, citing concerns about ownership of course materials, a lack of Pitt faculty input and the college credit transfer process.

The Frontline Workers Scholarship will award scholarships to 1,000 people working on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic to take a free, for-credit online course — a donation of roughly $3.8 million in University of Pittsburgh credits, according to a news release. Recipients would be allowed to choose the Outlier course they want to take through Nov. 19, 2022, according to the release.

In addition, Pitt–Johnstown and Outlier signed a five-year agreement where the school will oversee the Outlier courses. So far, Outlier offers Calculus I and Introduction to Psychology, Astronomy and Statistics courses. Participants will earn transferable college credits from Pitt–Johnstown. Outlier courses typically cost $400, according to the company website.

Pitt faculty on the Oakland campus have repeatedly pushed back against the University partnering with Outlier, citing concerns that the University could exploit faculty course materials and intellectual property for profit.

Pitt administrators have reassured Pitt faculty that the University cannot, and will not, exploit course materials. Pitt faculty do not generate course materials for Outlier and aren’t involved in the teaching or virtual course design. Outlier courses, are instead, taught by faculty from other colleges and universities, including Davidson College, University College London and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Additionally, Provost Ann Cudd told members of the Psychology Department that Pitt students aren’t allowed to take Outlier courses, according Sybil Streeter, co-chair of the Student Admissions, Aid and Affairs committee and director of undergraduate advising at the Department of Psychology.

"Our partnership with Outlier.org has been built upon a common interest in making higher education available to students from all walks of life," Cudd said in the release. "The Frontline Workers Scholarship is yet one more way we can support the ambitions of workers who have been most affected by the COVID-19 pandemic."

"Pitt–Johnstown is deeply committed to expanding access to a high-quality education for all and reducing student debt — a goal we share with Outlier.org," Jem Spectar, president of Pitt-Johnstown, said in the news release. "We are excited to partner with Outlier.org on this initiative to give frontline workers, who are sacrificing so much, the opportunity to advance their college careers."

Since the fall 2019 semester, Pitt faculty at the Oakland campus have repeatedly criticized Outlier courses for their potential to compete with Pitt courses, and for the lack of faculty input in the course design and assessment, Senate Council President Chris Bonneau said in a series of tweets on Nov. 30 and in the Dec. 2 Faculty Assembly meeting. 

Bonneau’s tweets were in response to the Union of Pitt Faculty Twitter account criticizing a lack of transparency surrounding the deal between Pitt–Johnstown and Outlier.

Bonneau reiterated and expanded upon these tweets at the Faculty Assembly meeting. In his opening statement, Bonneau said that, in response to faculty criticism, he has met with department chairs and directors of undergraduate studies departments, including psychology, physics, astronomy, philosophy and statistics.

These departments made it clear they weren’t interested in partnering with the organization, Bonneau said, and this message was relayed to Cudd, Vice Provost for Undergraduate Studies Joe McCarthy, Dietrich School of Arts & Sciences Dean Kathy Blee and Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies John A. Twyning.

Afterward, Pitt’s regional campuses were asked about a potential partnership. Only Pitt–Johnstown was interested, Bonneau said, adding that he was unsure of how the process worked. And so far, Johnstown faculty have not complained about the relationship or the design of the coursework.

“As anyone involved in this process knows, I am not a supporter of either Outlier or this partnership,” Bonneau said. “I consider having it removed from the Oakland campus to be a victory for our shared governance process. And if there are concerns among the (Pitt) Johnstown faculty, the (University) Senate will assist them, as we have done with the faculty in Oakland.”

Bonneau added that there is a “financial incentive” for departments and schools to partner with Outlier, and University administrators told him and others that there would not be a penalty for declining to participate. Bonneau did not mention what the financial incentive is.

Following Bonneau’s opening statement, Faculty Assembly members said Outlier’s website did not differentiate whether credits would come from Pitt–Johnstown specifically or the University of Pittsburgh’s Oakland campus.

Streeter said she has been involved with Outlier discussions since they first began on campus. The Psychology Department, she said, will not accept Outlier's psychology course credit to satisfy the PSY 0010 pre-requisite for additional coursework. Department members were concerned that prospective students would be unaware of this.

To further complicate the transfer process, Jeff Aziz, a senior lecturer and advisor in the English Department, told members that there are restrictions on transferring credits from Pitt’s regional campuses. 

“Johnstown happens to be one of the campuses from which we do not accept a mathematics class, either for credits toward graduation or for the satisfaction of any major or Gen Ed requirements,” Aziz said. “But it’s a weird sort of ad hoc landscape when it comes to courses that are accepted that are given at regionals and don’t have the same status here.”

Toward the end of the meeting, Bonneau said he would take these concerns to the provost’s office, and that the Educational Policies committee would look into the Outlier partnership soon.

Correction: An earlier version of this draft said Psychology Department faculty were unsure of the Outlier course credit transfer process and disapproved of the policy that Pitt students aren't allowed to take the Outlier courses. It has been updated to reflect that the Psychology Department will not accept Outlier's psychology course credit to satisfy the PSY 0010 pre-requisite for additional coursework and that Department members were concerned that prospective students would be unaware of this.

Donovan Harrell is a writer for the University Times. Reach him at dharrell@pitt.edu or 412-383-9905. 


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