Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Setting Online Expectations - Academic Freedom

In previous posts, I highlighted part A and part B of the information from St. Petersburg College about their expectations of and for online students. Today I'll take a look at their part C - Academic Civility and Freedom of Expression.

This is what St. Pete has to say about this:

Expectations: Students may expect that:
  • They will be able to pursue their studies in a stimulating, open environment where the pursuit of truth, free expression of ideas, responsible criticism, and reasonable dissent are recognized as basic to the educational process.
  • Students have the right to exercise their academic freedom within the responsible confines of the course material.
  • A process exists for students to express and document concerns they may have about specific action, inaction or behavior by any member of the College faculty or staff.
Responsibilities: Students have the responsibility to:
  • Act in accordance with standards of reasonable behavior, respect and civility. This standard would prohibit behavior that is disruptive or interferes with the teaching/learning process, including:
    • the posting of inappropriate materials in chat rooms, emails, bulletin boards, or Web pages;
    • use of obscenities;
    • personal attacks on fellow students or faculty;
    • sexual harassment; or
    • comments that are demeaning or disrespectful to another's ideas and opinions.
That seems to be pretty well stated. I think the bigger (err, harder) question has to do with Academic Freedom on behalf of the faculty when it comes to e-Learning. Don't get me wrong, I think that academic freedom is extremely important and needs to be protected - however, I think that it is often misunderstood. In fact, what I really believe is that academic freedom is tossed on the table in many situations where it is not a question of academic freedom in the first place. Or, to state it another way, academic freedom does not equal freedom - you are not free to do whatever you want just because you work in academe.

With regard to e-Learning, I have been waiting for quite some time for a battle to ensue regarding the intersection of academic freedom and access to technology. Several years ago I heard a negotiator for the state (employer) side of the negotiated contract language (union contract) state unequivocally that the choice of using or not using the state-supported IMS (D2L in our case, but no matter) is NOT a question of academic freedom. In other words, faculty cannot (according to him, at least) just claim academic freedom as the reason why they are choosing NOT to use the state/school-supported IMS, and instead choose to use a different IMS. Because of the licensing, support costs, and several other tech-related factors, and because the IMS is simply the vessel through which they teach, the question of academic freedom does NOT apply in this situation. Part of his rationale was that there is nothing "academic" about the choice of whether you use the supported IMS or not.

I think this is a fascinating argument. I also don't pretend to know the answer. IANAL, but I sure like to pretend as if I am from time to time. I would love to hear your opinions about this question. Please submit a comment (I moderate them due to high levels of spam, but try to approve them quickly) and share your thoughts.


Anonymous said...

I see the online platform as similar to a classroom. The administration provides the space in which to teach, whether online or in an actual classroom. Faculty cannot claim academic freedom to teach in room A and not room B.


Jeff Bohrer said...

Interesting issue, Barry. A quick look at the AAUP's selection of resources about academic freedom shows no mention of a problem with restricting faculty's use to a particular system.

The AAUP acknowledges: "Clearly, computing time is a scarce and valuable resource, priority in the use of which may reasonably reflect the institution’s core mission.

It seems that the matter of academic freedom has to do more with WHAT is communicated in an electronic system rather than WHICH system is to be used.

One other thought...the university supplies lots of systems for delivering utilities, making purchases, assigning offices, collecting grades, etc. Personal accommodations based on any individual's whims just don't work in a large organization...even one that allows for academic freedom.

Mike Condon said...

It is an interesting question - or set of questions.

First - what I don't hear, or at least am not sure is clear: just because the reason for using or avoiding the supported system is NOT a question of "academic" freedom, it's not clear whether a faculty member is still capable of making that choice on other grounds. It sounds a bit like an argument from analogy (as so many in technology are) - say, similar to a question as to whether a faculty has a right or privilege to choose a different classroom than the one assigned, or a different email system than is centrally supported. Those would be more obviously NOT academic freedom, but if pushed, I'd suspect one would have to point to some contract language around appropriate or required use of the email system that their job performance evaluation or something depended upon.

Contract language would then raise the question(s) of "terms and conditions"" of employment spectre - wouldn't it? Or, the question(s) of faculty responsibility as stewards of protected data may find its way into the equation.

I suspect the end game here has something with the ability of the school to articulate both student and faculty expectations in the online learning milieu, no?

If the point is something to the effect of: "Students can expect x degree of consistency in their online learning environment" then the school's ability to enforce that degree of consistency would seem to derive from some terms and conditions of employment. From that, it might follow that faculty could also expect certain things from or within the teaching / learning environmen(s) that the school provides.

I can't off the top of my head, flip this around, and imagine enough of the scenario for arguing the claim for choice of LMS as one of academic freedom. That'll take a reset.


Anonymous said...

It gets more interesting if an instructor sets up and maintains something (like a Moodle course) without asking for institutional support. The analog would be an instructor meeting a class in the assigned room the first day and announcing that future meetings would be on the lawn. If there were essentially no overhead. would the institution compel someone to instruct in a space, virtual or otherwise, that the instructor didn't feel met their needs, when the alternative wasn't being provided on the institution's dime?

Barry Dahl said...

Thanks for the comments.
iJim - I think the "classroom assignment" argument is the classic example when taken from the administrator's point of view. But many faculty have an alternate POV.

Jeff, I really appreciate the info from AAUP, and agree that it goes a long way toward heading this issue off at the pass - maybe that's why I've sensed it lurking, but never really showing itself.

Mike, you brought up that "e" word - expectations, which is exactly what I've been working on and what brought this to mind again for me.

Anon brought up the exact scenario where I expect this to occur. "Since it doesn't cost the college anything, I should be able to run my own Moodle site!" However, what do we tell the students contacting the help desk when something goes wrong - "Gee, don't bother us, that's not OUR system!?"

Hoping for more thoughts as well.

Lisa Cheney-Steen said...

I tend to land on the administrator side of the question because of student support issues. Student support for technical issues or for grade appeals typically requires standardization on a single LMS.

I can make an argument for a different LMS on pedagogical grounds... although with the convergence of tools available in each LMS that argument is getting more difficult to make.

Here is the different LMS question I hear more frequently though: What if the LMS in question belongs to a specific publisher and all of the content for a specific textbook is available most easily in that LMS? Should we require faculty to use some portion of the institution's LMS -- for example the gradebook or email tools? And do we provide tech support for publisher systems such as MyMathLab?

Lisa Cheney-Steen

Chris said...

For me, academic freedom assumes there are content or philosophy of teaching questions involved; and it's only in instances in which those issues are at odds with a competing interest: learner support, administrative costs etc.

From LMS to LMS, I don't know how many of those issues are truly at odds with competing interests. Most LMS' provide very similar tools; and I'm not convinced the capabilities of one provides such a significant content or pedagogical advantage to justify conflicting interests.

I think the issue of academic freedom is much more likely to come into question if a faculty member opts for a set of non institutionalized, freely available web-based tools over an LMS. I think it's an easy argument to establish that the openness of the web provides very significant content and pedagogical advantages; that's a feature with which no current LMS can compete. LMS' are inherently walled in and closed off from the web.

The issue of academic freedom is much more likely to surface if/when faculty opts to eschew institutional LMS' in favor of facilitating learner personal learning environments using a number of freely, publicly available tools.


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Minibus Hire said...

Yes, that is an interesting topic to talk about, all I feel is every faculty have an alternate POV

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