Having given up on the Today Show many years ago now, I now read Twitter over breakfast in order to find out what’s going on in the world. This morning, everyone and their uncle were making fun of this article:
Harvard University on Monday became the latest elite institution that will seek to organize its online education offerings with the creation of a high-ranking administrative position. Although not a widespread practice, early adopters say institutions should consider following suit sooner rather than later.
The promotion of Peter K. Bol to vice provost of advances in learning adds coordination to the groundswell of experimentation with online learning at Harvard that includes, among others, edX, the massive open online course provider created in cooperation with the Massachusetts of Technology; the Harvard Initiative for Learning & Teaching, which supports learning innovation through grants and other programs; and the Derek Bok Center for Teaching and Learning, which uses a research-based approach to new teaching methods.
The article itself makes the whole thing seem totally harmless. Move along! Nothing to see here! Just another deanlet pushing whatever is left of real higher education towards the corporatization cliff. However, let me ask you this, how would Harvard faculty react if the administration appointed a deanlet whose job description was devoted entirely to overseeing their face-to-face teaching? If they’ve done it already, then things are worse than I ever imagined, but if they haven’t I think they’d freak. Setting up a new online education infrastructure allows new opportunities for administrative control over things that administrators simply shouldn’t control.
Why do we as faculty members let this sort of thing happen? Leslie Bary, writing in the new issue of Academe, explains this well:
The older language in which we think of our work, the assumptions we bring to our reflections upon it, and our beliefs about its fundamental purpose form an interpretive horizon that can make it difficult to recognize the full outline of what is happening. The transformation of the basic objectives of the university is so radical that one hesitates to believe that the signs could really mean what they clearly do. At the same time, the new university incorporates elements and appearances of the old one and speaks to us in familiar words. We are engaged in research, teaching, and service; we strive for new knowledge.
Without realizing it, we look back, addressing interlocutors of the past. We meet questionable new practices with objections…yet our voices fall without echo, the words missing their mark. We have misjudged the magnitude of the shift currently under way.
It’s important to note here that you don’t have to stop that shift from happening in order to improve both learning and your own job conditions. The idea is to bring the traditional safeguards of academic freedom and shared governance into the university of the future rather than treating them like a thing of the past. These things are good for the university as a whole whether most administrators recognize that fact or not.
I’d actually argue that the freedom to experiment without administrative interference is actually MORE important when building an online curriculum from the bottom up, not less. If professors can’t pick the technologies that work for the needs of their discipline and their classes without an administrator peering over their shoulder, they won’t want to experiment with any new technologies at all – unless, of course, they’re adjuncts or superprofs, which sadly might just be the whole point of online education in a whole lot of places other than Harvard.