More than MOOCs

What are the risks for academic freedom?
By Jonathan Rees

On August 13, 2013, William C. Powers, the president of the University of Texas at Austin, sent out a campuswide e-mail about educational technology. While campuswide e-mails seldom make news, this one did because few university presidents ever address this particular subject. “Rapidly advancing technology is changing virtually every aspect of our lives,” Powers wrote, “and education is no exception. The changing landscape presents challenges, but it also gives us great opportunities. We need to lead change in higher education, both for ourselves and for the future.” Powers highlighted a series of pedagogical innovations such as flipped classrooms, blended learning, and massive open online courses (MOOCs). His emphasis on these developments served as encouragement to faculty to stay at higher education’s technological cutting edge. 

Traditionally, individual faculty members have had almost complete control over how they teach. Powers indicated that he had no intention of interfering with this traditional faculty prerogative. “Without compromising our deep commitment to the academic freedom of a world-class faculty,” explained Powers, “we should recognize that these technologies amplify the visibility and impact of individual faculty and staff as representatives of the University on a global scale.” While such language is reassuring, maintaining this balance between academic freedom and efficiency is more easily said than done. 

Evolving Landscape

Online classes have been offered almost as long as students have had computers and modems. Concerns about the threat of those classes to academic freedom have been around for nearly as long. The late historian of technology David Noble worried about these questions in 1998. “Once faculty and courses go online,” he wrote in Digital Diploma Mills, “administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase[s] dramatically.” By 2010, private companies had begun to create online programs for universities desperate to break into this new mode of instruction, bypassing faculty members in the process. 

This bypassing is beginning to occur in so-called “hybrid courses,” which are taught in the traditional classroom but with online components. Over the last few years one institution after another has adopted some kind of learning management system (LMS). Most have contracted with a single platform provider, like Blackboard, or, in the case of open-source systems like Moodle, with a single firm to customize that platform. Faculty members who use the LMS can take advantage of the features it provides. Those who prefer different technologies or no technology at all can opt out. 

But what happens if your college or university mandates the use of its LMS, like Lasell College did in 2012? As the Inside Higher Ed article describing this decision explained it, the mandate allows Lasell to get the greatest return on its technology spending. Unfortunately, it also restricts the freedom of the faculty to teach the way they want to and makes it easier for the administration to track instructional activity of all kinds.

The flipped classroom, a learning technique that requires students to watch lectures as homework rather than in class, is another trend Powers applauded. Unfortunately, it has the potential to be equally problematic. Instructors can record their own lectures for students to play back at their leisure. Yet secondary school teachers, who tend not to have academic freedom or necessary resources, often rely on outside content providers like Khan Academy to flip their classrooms. 

What happens if your administrators want to flip your classroom for you? A contract to license MOOC content from a major provider like Coursera or Udacity would certainly be the most efficient way to make use of that content. What if some professors are not familiar with or do not want to teach the content the administration licensed? At the very least, the quality of education that students receive will suffer and the traditional prerogative of the professors whose classrooms get flipped for them will effectively disappear. 

“Unbundling” the Faculty

A professor who does not choose and present educational content in his or her courses is no longer a professor in the traditional sense of the word, becoming instead a glorified teaching assistant. 

Sadly, this situation is no longer hypothetical at San Jose State University, an institution at the forefront of both the production and the consumption ends of the MOOC revolution. Faculty in the philosophy department there objected to a MOOC—led by the Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel and provided through edX, a Harvard University–Massachusetts Institute of Technology partnership—that was offered for credit in their department. It’s not that they opposed online instruction. They simply thought they should be the ones doing the instructing. 

They made their case in a widely read open letter to Sandel. In that message, the philosophy faculty noted that the ability to control the content is a fundamental part of what it means to be a college professor: “When a university such as ours purchases a course from an outside vendor, the faculty cannot control the design or content of the course; therefore we cannot develop and teach content that fits with our overall curriculum and is based on both our own highly developed and continuously renewed competence and our direct experience of our students’ needs and abilities.” To use the language of education technology, they do not want to be “unbundled,” to have the provision of content separated from actual instruction. 

Like Powers at Texas, the provost at San Jose State responded as if this were a traditional dispute over academic freedom, emphasizing that professors there “control the content of their courses.” However, according to Peter Hadreas, the chair of the SJSU philosophy department, the administration quickly moved Sandel’s MOOC to the English department. It is, of course, precisely this “unbundling” that makes moving a course from department to department possible. That is why a content-centered definition of academic freedom is not capacious enough to include this kind of dispute over technology. Even if the philosophers there can still teach whatever philosophy they want, thanks to this MOOC they have lost control over their curriculum anyway. 

When the definition of academic freedom remains limited to the content that professors teach, the people who run universities can employ the term even as they undermine professorial authority. Conducting a direct assault on the faculty’s traditional prerogative becomes unnecessary. Administrators can simply shift the burden of flipping the classroom or teaching with MOOCs to different departments or to faculty members who are untenured or who teach exclusively online. At the same time, they can steer resources to faculty members willing to jump on the technological bandwagon, as Powers suggested he’s doing already. When professors who cling to older modes of instruction retire, they can be replaced by more technology-friendly faculty—assuming those faculty members aren’t themselves replaced by technology.

But don’t expect the people who create policy to wait for faculty members to retire. In December 2013, after discovering that a University of Kansas journalism professor could not be dismissed but only suspended after a controversial tweet, the Kansas Board of Regents decided to adopt rules that would allow dismissal of faculty for “improper use of social media.” This includes any communication that “impairs discipline by superiors or harmony among coworkers,” “adversely affects the university’s ability to efficiently provide services,” or is “contrary to the best interest of the university.” The ensuing outrage, including sharp criticism from the AAUP, has led that policy to be reconsidered. 

While faculty have reason to hope that this policy will be fully overturned in the near future, it is worth noting what led the regents to enact such restrictions. “The goal of this policy is to provide guidance to all university employees and university administration regarding the use of social media,” explained the chair of the board, Fred Logan. Imagine a similar statement with respect to a professor’s speech pertaining to his or her course within a physical classroom. Its relationship to academic freedom would be obvious, but the fact that social media offer a window on classroom activity and leave a permanent record of that activity will likely incite other administrators to try to regulate the use of such media in the future. For these reasons, the need for academic freedom in an age of new technology is greater than ever. Included in that freedom should be the right to opt out of social-media communication entirely.  

A New Vision 

Those of us who point out the potentially adverse implications of sweeping technological changes for academic freedom are often labeled Luddites or fossils; and it is usually suggested that we step out of the way of progress. Really? I use technology—wikis, blogs, film clips—in every history class I teach. I even enrolled in a MOOC during my last sabbatical and was one of the very few students who completed the entire course. The issue here is not the technology but who controls how that technology is employed in the classroom or whether it is employed at all. Faculty professors could pick the technologies that serve the educational needs of their students and reject the ones that don’t. Think of the money that would be saved on expensive licensing contracts for learning management systems with bells and whistles that most faculty members don’t even use! Think of the improvements in efficiency that would occur if faculty members could focus on technologies that help them teach rather than those that can be used to track their every interaction with their students! 

Making this vision possible will require a broader definition of academic freedom than the one that so many educational technology enthusiasts are currently using. If academic freedom includes only what professors teach and not how they teach, it will become the first prominent casualty of the “disruption” that so many educational technology advocates crave. Even if professors remain able to teach the content they want, they risk losing the ability to teach the kinds of skills that go with that content if those skills are not easily taught in an online setting. 

More important, the spread of MOOCs—courses with content provided by professors whom students will never meet—could lead to the abandonment of skilled educational labor entirely, since there is no reason to pay people who went to graduate school to learn content if that content has already been purchased from an off-campus provider. If that nightmare scenario came to pass, professors might still have the freedom to teach whatever content they wanted, but they would be able to exercise it only while standing in the unemployment line. 

Jonathan Rees is professor of history at Colorado State University–Pueblo and copresident of the AAUP’s Colorado conference. He blogs about history and educational technology at More or Less Bunk (http://moreorlessbunk.wordpress .com). His e-mail address is jonathan.rees@colostate