Online education and academic freedom.

5 09 2011

This is going to be the last of the posts I write directly inspired by that seminar I went to last week. It might also be the most important.

One of the things that our facilitator said then that didn’t surprise me at all was that every online class in the same department should use the same template. That didn’t surprise me because I had seen a presentation from the online arm of my own university system that bragged about the same thing. They called it branding. This time the pretext was ease of learning. If all the buttons are in the same place, the thinking goes, students won’t have a hard time finding them from class to class. [Have you ever noticed that when it serves someone's interests to think of students as "digital natives" they think of them as "digital natives," and when it serves the same person's interests to think of students as bloomin' idiots they do that too?]

This time, however, the suggested degree of consistency was much higher than I had seen before. In fact, the facilitator handed out a sheet for a prototype “instructional design policy” which suggested how to organize the syllabus, which parts of BlackBoard to use and even which weeks to have quizzes. To be fair, this was supposed to be adopted at the department level and revisited every year, but it still bothered me a lot. So up shot my hand.

“Doesn’t this have implications for academic freedom,” I asked.

“Yes,” the facilitator replied, “but academic freedom should never hinder learning.”

The right response to that point would have been, “Who gets to decide what constitutes learning?,” but I left that unsaid because I didn’t feel like starting an argument. Besides, one nursing professor started whispering at me loudly something to the effect of, “Nobody’s telling you what to teach!” The thing is, I think academic freedom should include the right to determine what forms of teaching you want to employ. Here’s why:

A long, long time ago, the person who was then chair of my department announced after Spring Break that he had bought MCAT tests to administer to every senior in our department in order to assess whether we were actually teaching them history. He had consulted nobody else in advance of this decision. Little old then-untenured me objected because those tests cost $25 a piece (which could have been spent on different things) and, more importantly, because I’m philosophically opposed to evaluating historical learning through multiple choice tests.

Why? To put it as succinctly as possible, there’s absolutely no guarantee that the people who wrote that test in Princeton, NJ will ask students about the same history their teacher actually taught them and no way for that teacher to predict what history will be on that test. For this reason, as well as my refusal to assign the same institution-heavy textbook as he did (the sole author’s last name starts with a “B”), my department chairman tried to get me fired.

This is why I take my pedagogical prerogatives very seriously. People have lost their jobs over far less important issues.

To be honest, I have supported one pedagogical restriction on other academics in my career. I am the author of a department requirement that all are history courses must have some kind of writing component. The difference, of course, is that this is a minimum standard aimed primarily at contingent faculty (all of whom who I have known have gladly adhered to it) while that MCAT decision was based on a philosophy of historical pedagogy that went out of style on the college level around 1965. Also, the nature of that writing component is still up to the teacher under my rule. An online education course template is designed to make college more like an assembly line.

And just like with the Model “T” Ford, de-skilling should be another concern here. If there is a single template for teaching a particular course, then it will be easier to fit someone else into the same slot. If it’s easier to fit someone else into that slot, then you are increasingly expendable. Keep the history covered in that template as easy as possible, and there is a good chance that students will run to the online version of your course instead of taking the one that you teach with rigor.

How do you get rid of a tenured professor who hasn’t done anything wrong? Proclaim their whole department no longer economically viable. This has been happening to Classics and Russian and Theater, but what happens when enough easy history courses go up online that the non-historically inclined all take them that way and transfer the credit in to your bricks and mortar college? I’ll tell you what happens: The humanities will be outsourced to the online education charlatans.

Where will that leave you? My guess would be teaching online.

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10 responses

5 09 2011
Middle Seaman

Academic freedom, good teaching and running classes are not immune to stupidity, evil and crazies. Clearly, the facilitator didn’t lose it; he never had it. Identical formats help only cows.

Two short points: our academic freedom is and always was limited; there is nothing new there. We can, on our separate turfs, fight the moronic concept that online education looks like a Toyota assembly line.

When online will be done well and be restricted to courses where it can be used, our job will be safe. (At least safe for most of us.)

5 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs

I agree: the point you bring up here is the critical one about the jelly slide from branding to brutal standardisation of pedagogy. It’s the entirely colonising imagination at work when we think the digital natives are too dim to navigate in their own environment without the benefits of our moral frameworks. Big box of bibles, anyone? We have so many historical exemplars of this mistaken thinking, and yet we’re watching the LMS vendors and their university allies romp along with their stack of standardisation initiatives on the grounds that all of this will make learning easier for the natives.

So let’s put up our hands every time: this is a mistake of significant order. I have never seen a student who seriously cared about the difference between one design and another. They seem to me to be telling us that they just want good designs, that are meaningful in their context. In their ordinary digital lives they skip from environment to environment with real agility. They don’t need it all to look like a Levittown.

So why do our administrators honestly believe in the pedagogical strength of this ultra planned approach? Ker-ching.

5 09 2011
Jonathan Rees

When online will be done well and be restricted to courses where it can be used, our job will be safe. (At least safe for most of us.)

MS,

You prove my point for me. Unless they somehow ban for-profit colleges the conditions you set down are impossible to achieve. The bad will drive out the good, just like Wal-Mart does every day in retail.

This also gets at the heart of my ongoing disagreement with MfD. MfD is trying to find a noble online enterprise. I think that’s great, but if most of them still stink that won’t do anything to save a higher education system that needs more public funding much more than it needs serious reform.

5 09 2011
Randy Bourne

Jonathan,

Fairly new reader, first time commenting – great blog! I was drawn here because of your posts concerning the “uncoverage” model a la Lendol Calder and Sipress/Voelker. I’m testing out a version of that approach for the first time in my US survey this semester. (Could be great! Could get a pie thrown in my face!).

At any rate, I’ve been reading your posts about online teaching and feel much the same as you–the technology seems to be an end unto itself, to put it bluntly. All the more disturbing, then, to read the cover story in Sunday’s NYT about a school district in Arizona that has pumped millions into the latest, greatest technology with *zero* evidence that it has yielded anything other than big profits for the edutainment software companies.Test scores are flat, though falling behind compared to other districts in the state, teachers work crappy second jobs selling shoes at the local mall, etc. Just a depressing piece. Again, no evidence that all the bells and whistles help the students learn. One interviewee (a teacher, if I recall) justified it, nevertheless, on the grounds that the kids expect to be entertained, so hey, shouldn’t we give them what they want? Ugh. Of what value will the ability to read a text deeply and critically, or analyze a primary source, have in our culture when this cohort reaches our college survey courses?

5 09 2011
Jonathan Rees

Randy:

I think that story is the one I have linked over to the right under “What I’ve Been Reading” (from Gainesville.com in order to get around the NYT partial firewall). Yeah, totally depressing stuff. What’s more depressing is the thought that what they’re doing in secondary schools will likely migrate to our territory.

And yeah, the uncoverage stuff is absolutely amazing. The feeling of freedom you get when you forget about trying to teach everything is absolutely amazing.

5 09 2011
Music for Deckchairs

Well, I love that I have been promoted from simple charlatanism to some kind of crackpot idealism, but you’re right, this is all there is to our disagreement. We don’t disagree on the fundamentals at all: public education, and its often desperately underprepared students, need every facility they can get in order to flourish, and all need to be built to high standards, not via some cheap prefabrication.

6 09 2011
Standards | Music for Deckchairs

[...] struck by the coincidence of Jonathan Rees and Ferdinand von Prondzynski both writing, in different ways, about the significance to academics [...]

28 10 2011
What if I don’t want to teach out of your e-textbook? « More or Less Bunk

[...] I’ve explained before here, my department chairman once tried to get me fired because I didn’t want to assign the same [...]

19 09 2012
Anonymous

“One of the things that our facilitator said then that didn’t surprise me at all was that every online class in the same department should use the same template”. Well, from the contrarian side, I have seen too many poorly designed — horribly designed — online classes. Sure, have your academic freedom for your opinions and the content you want to cover. But too many faculty hide behind ‘academic freedom’ as an excuse for lack of technology skills or simply being too lazy to put the time in to develop a well designed online course. When faculty get it together and learn how to design a decent class, then the movement to use ‘template courses’ will subside…

4 12 2012
Anonymous

I am a junior faculty member at a state institution (where we really don’t have any such thing as academic freedom in any event, given the Garcetti decision), and we were having this exact same discussion regarding our online instruction. My understanding of academic freedom is that it cover substantive, rather than procedural, elements of pedagogy. I get that there is a slippery slope possibility here, but isn’t it a valid argument that template formatting (in the interest of the students, etc.) is procedural and not substantive. That what the facilitator was recommending is in effect similar to the requirement that most of us have when we submit a syllabus with a course calendar to our administrative personnel? I am not sure that I see this as an issue of academic freedom, but then again I am still trying to figure out many of these issues.

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