Last week, the President of the University of Texas at Austin wrote a campus-wide e-mail. While such things usually do not make news, this time it did because of its subject. Both the Chronicle of Higher Ed and Inside Higher Education covered it because educational technology is not usually the stuff of Presidential attention.
I found it interesting how the coverage of the story differed. While the Chronicle made Williams C. Powers’ note/report seem like an order ["Get Used to Sharing Digital Content," began the headline.], IHE‘s coverage made it sound much more benign:
Now it’s time for broader input, Powers said – and the call may be one that faculty appreciate, since they haven’t always been invited in.
Well, I’ve read the whole message now, and I can see the source of the confusion.
Powers touches all the bases that concerned faculty members would want to hear from a university president interested in reforming pedagogy. For example, his very first line is:
Face-to-face interactions among students and professors can never be fully replicated in cyberspace.
Later he writes:
Our faculty and academic units control the curriculum. Our faculty and academic units are responsible for ensuring that online resources, courses, certificates, and degrees reflect the content and rigor appropriate for a leading national university. Without compromising our deep commitment to the academic freedom of a world-class faculty, 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.
So why then does this note bother me so much?
I’ve called educational technology issues the “academic freedom crisis of the twenty-first century” because I think how faculty present information to students is just as important as what information they present. If administrators force us to use tools that prevent faculty from teaching what we want to teach as well as we can teach it, they don’t need to tell us what to teach in order to prevent us from getting our message out. If those tools can be used to replace faculty entirely, then even our content choices will become irrelevant because we won’t have anyone around to hear our message. So what bothers me most about this message is its very limited definition of what academic freedom is.
I think academic freedom includes the freedom to say “No, I’m not interested in using that particular pedagogical tool.” Suppose you think your class is fine as it is. Suppose you don’t have time to learn the newest technological doo-dad. Suppose you don’t think that particular doo-dad is useful for your discipline. This kind of pressure from the top would then be most unwelcome.
But every good professor should use technology when teaching, right? I happen to agree, but every professor should also have the right to decide precisely which technologies they want to use. For example, Powers touts flipped classrooms in his report. Honestly, you couldn’t pay me to ever flip my history classroom because my students won’t have any time left to do assigned reading. However, I’ve been spending hours last week and this to prepare a wiki for my graduate students.
My classroom. My choice. If it’s not that way for you now, then there’s something wrong. If technology makes that a problem for more people in the future, then we need to have a really large discussion about what academic freedom really means in order to prevent that problem from becoming worse. While I appreciate President Powers’ well-meaning efforts to keep the University of Texas relevant, I’m afraid they’re more driven by economic concerns than they are by the quality of the pedagogy there.