Open SUNY: A Game Changer in the Making

Update 4/25 and bumped due to changes: Thanks to Greg Ketcham and Robert Knipe, I have replaced the 2009 interim proposal document with the updated advisory team report. This changes the intro blurb, description of 9 inter-dependent components, and list of contributions below.

I have been surprised at how little interest the Open SUNY announcement last week generated in educational media and blog discussions. Perhaps the MOOC portion of the story, which was prominent in several headlines, caused people to assume this was just another school trying to jump on the bandwagon. What is significant, however, is that one of the largest statewide systems in the country is making a multi-pronged approach to reduce time-to-graduation and therefore lower student costs.

In brief, Open SUNY is part of the system’s agenda to expand access to public higher education by leveraging existing programs or experiments already in place at member campuses or at the system level, and it has strong ties to Open Educational Resources (OER) concepts. The concept for the strategic plan originated in 2009, eventually leading to the report Getting Down to Business: Interim Report of the Chancellor’s Online Education Advisory Team released in December 2012 [updated].

The Advisory Team recommends “Open SUNY” be officially adopted as the name of SUNY’s new online learning initiative. The term Open SUNY represents an opening up of the educational opportunities that SUNY can provide through the enhancement of existing—and development of new—online education resources, courses and degree programs.

Open SUNY has the clear potential to establish SUNY as the preeminent and most extensive online learning environment in the nation by providing affordable, high quality, convenient, innovative, and flexible online education opportunities for the citizens of the State of New York and beyond. As a collaborative online educational network, the Open SUNY Online Consortium (SUNY campuses and SUNY system offices) will draw on the Power of SUNY to connect students with faculty and peers from across the state and throughout the world, and link them to the best in research-based online teaching and learning environments, practices, and resources. Dedicated to providing access to open and online learning opportunities, Open SUNY will connect learner and community needs and will allow the State University of New York to bring this concept to scale like no other college, university, or system in the United States.

What is Open SUNY?

Open SUNY is a set of 9 interdependent components, as described by the advisory team report [updated]

1. Open SUNY Online Consortium – Comprised of courses from SUNY campuses across the system taught by SUNY faculty, the Open SUNY Online Consortium will collectively offer the most extensive array of online courses and degree programs in the country. This unified approach to online education will provide learners with cost effective options to compete with the rising costs of higher education and enable students taking courses across multiple SUNY institutions to receive financial aid from their home institution.

2. Open SUNY Degree – The term Open SUNY degree refers to functional coordination of policies and practices that “systemness” will allow for, not the actual degree conferrals that are the role of the campuses. The Office of the Provost will seek out campuses to offer new, high needs, online degree programs that will not necessarily require the host campus to develop or provide all the necessary courses to meet credit requirements to confer a degree.

3. Open SUNY Complete – Open SUNY will lead a SUNY-wide project to support degree completion for students who seek to return to college after a significant absence (commonly referred to as “stopped out”). The Open SUNY Complete program will identify and support former students who wish to return to SUNY to earn and complete a degree. This will occur through use of market analyses and outreach to students who are now considered beyond the normal reach of the originating enrolling college, using a variety of cooperative strategies between SUNY institutions. tate University of New York  Chancellor’s Online Education Advisory Team Interim Report 4

4. Open SUNY Resources – Open SUNY Resources will build on existing digital repositories, making vast amounts of high quality, credible material available to faculty and learners, while simultaneously staking ground as a world leader in creating new resources by leveraging the vast expertise available across SUNY disciplines.

5. Open SUNY PLA (Prior Learning Assessment) – Increasingly, people acquire and assimilate knowledge both internal and external to the academy. Recognition of the latter, when applied toward college level learning, provides greater access to higher education, decreased time to degree completion, increased retention and completion rates, and significantly lower costs to students. Open SUNY PLA will provide services to campuses that do not wish to establish their own prior learning assessment processes.

6. Open SUNY Workforce – A SUNY-wide strategy for the use of online learning in support of workforce development and adult/continuing education can strengthen SUNY’s role as an economic driver throughout NYS and provide access to SUNY higher education specifically for potential employees, employees and employers statewide (and nationally, who will be attracted to all that SUNY and New York have to offer).

7. Open SUNY International – Open SUNY International will provide a network for learning by linking faculty and students from around the world, demonstrating SUNY’s commitment to international education. In partnership with the Office of Global Affairs, Open SUNY International will provide new opportunities for SUNY students to engage in international and intercultural learning.

8. Open SUNY Research – Open SUNY Research will continue a long tradition of scholarship related to innovation, student access, and learning in open and online environments. Previous support from the Office of the Provost has fostered an active and ongoing research and development agenda with more than 150 conference papers, book chapters, peer-reviewed journal publications, monographs, and presentations directly related to SUNY Learning Network and online education initiatives. Open SUNY Research expands this work and will be supported by a combination of SUNY-wide innovation grants, external funding, formal initiatives, advisory group efforts, and campusbased research activities.

9. Open SUNY Learning Commons – The Open SUNY Learning Commons will be a set of technology applications and online environments to support all Open SUNY services and components. Facilitating communication across campuses, the Learning Commons will bring the user-friendliness of social media applications to the SUNY community. It will leverage advanced open source and commercially available online learning tools, while building communities of practice for students and faculty.

Open SUNY funding comes from a $18.6m funding from NY2020 legislation, and will eventually cost (according to estimates) $3.35m per year in operations.


The plan was announced during the SUNY Chancellor’s State of the University address on January 15, 2013. One of the goals of Open SUNY, according to the Chancellor is to expand access to public higher education:

Launch of Open SUNY in 2014, including 10 online bachelor’s degree programs that meet high-need workforce demands, three of which will be piloted in the fall. Open SUNY will leverage online degree offerings at every SUNY campus, making them available to students system-wide using a common set of online tools, including a financial aid consortium so that credits and aid can be received by students across campuses. Chancellor Zimpher said Open SUNY enrollment will reach 100,000 students within three years, making it the largest online education presence of any public institution in the nation.

On March 19, 2013, the Board of Trustees endorsed the plan. One of the motivations for this move was to coordinate campus efforts and gain system-wide synergies, as described by Ry Rivard at Inside Higher Ed. One of the key targets for the online expansion will be non-traditional adult learners.

SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher wants to consolidate online course offerings after nearly 20 years of institutional independence.

“I think the problems the country is trying to solve simply cannot be solved one institution at a time,” Zimpher said in a recent interview. [snip]

SUNY began its online efforts in 1994 at Empire State College. Now, there are 150 online degree programs scattered across all its campuses. SUNY’s extensive offerings are, as it has said in documents related to its new effort, “fragmented” – the source of “countless unexplored opportunities for collaboration, economies of scale and innovation.”

Zimpher ultimately wants to enroll 100,000 new online students in the next several years while also adding new degree programs to train New Yorkers for industries with job openings. To reduce costs to students, she is also trying to speed degree completion times in online degrees to three years.

The chancellor said the whole online effort will target adults.

“We have all these adults who have some education but not enough,” she said. “We’re really trying to grow a major enrollment in an underserved population.”

Ry Rivard’s article also highlights potential pushback from the faculty unions.

A spokesman for the union that represents SUNY academics and instructors said the union had not been consulted about the push.

“SUNY hasn’t brought us into the conversation, hasn’t consulted us,” said Don Feldstein, spokesman for United University Professions, which represents about 32,000 SUNY employees.

SUNY spokesman David Doyle said the system had consulted with faculty by appointing some of them to a task force and by talking to faculty through the “appropriate governance channels,” such as the faculty senate.

How Will We Know?

The part of innovation that I don’t see mentioned enough, at least in the proposal and press releases, is a structured method of determining what works and what doesn’t work. The proposal does mention the metrics that should improve if Open SUNY is successful, but these are all at the initiative level, and not at the individual innovation level [updated].

The impact of Open SUNY will be measured by its contributions to:

  • Enhancing and supporting academic excellence of faculty and students;
  • Reducing the time required for degree completion;
  • Reducing the overall cost of obtaining a SUNY degree;
  • Meeting workforce and societal needs;
  • Increasing SUNY completion rates;
  • Increasing the number of online learners;
  • Enhancing the profile of SUNY as an innovative leader in teaching and learning;
  • Continuing to reduce a collective carbon footprint; and
  • Increasing student and faculty international engagement through online interaction.

Some of these are laudable goals (reducing time to degree and overall cost, increase completion rate), but some are ill-defined (improved outcomes) and some are questionable (increased number of online learners as a goal rather than means to a goal, and enhancing the profile).

But a deeper problem is lack of discussion on determining which innovations to diffuse and which innovations to keep from diffusing. Perhaps there are plans for evaluating courses and programs, but there are no details available that I can find.

Focus on Spreading Innovations, not Creating Innovations

SUNY, of course, is not the first place to develop MOOCs, online courses, OER, open courseware or PLAs, so what is important about this announcement? I think the significance lies in SUNY’s scale and SUNY’s approach. SUNY appears to view the Open SUNY program as a method to spread educational innovations throughout one of the largest systems in the country rather than creating a new pilot program or experiment. SUNY has 468,000 students and plans to add 100,000 more. Rather than trying to create a new innovation, the role of the system is to foster innovation and then take the best ideas and make them available to all.

Although it’s not getting enough attention, Open SUNY will have an outsized impact on the future of online education in the US. State-wide initiatives, whether driven by the systems or the state government, are becoming one of the biggest factors in how higher education is changing in the US. I suspect that other states will be watching SUNY and adopting this model in part or in whole.

Pay attention to Open SUNY – it will matter.

Further Reading

Further reading in chronological order:

Update 4/02: Fixed editing mistake to say “SUNY, of course, is not the first place to develop . . . “

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About Phil Hill

Phil is a consultant and industry analyst covering the educational technology market primarily for higher education. He has written for e-Literate since Aug 2011. For a more complete biography, view his profile page.
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4 Responses to Open SUNY: A Game Changer in the Making

  1. Alfred Essa says:

    Phil, Thanks for bringing this to the attention of your readers. You are right. This experiment is worth watching. I am also not aware of anything like it by a major public university system. SUNY is taking a systematic approach, which is what will be needed to scale and compete.

  2. Tom abeles says:

    There is nothing so powerful as an idea whose time has come. This possibility has been on the table at SUNY for more than a decade; elements have been in place, scattered, for much longer. The trickle of many streams have reached a confluence. There are not enough fingers to plug the leaks in the walls. P-12 is now P-16, globally. On the Horizon will be issuing two calls for special issue on the future of the academic journal and the future of the university under the emergent power of the Internet.

  3. Hi Phil,
    Thanks for this excellent update on the SUNY initiative. On one hand I’m impressed by the comprehensiveness of the program – the nine components that are part of the overall plan. On the other hand I wonder how SUNY will pull this off successfully, given that it appears they have not involved the faculty and other instructors in the process. If this is indeed the case, the chance of this initiative making headway seems pretty slim given that faculty would be integral to many of the programs.


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