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.