MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom.

If you haven’t read the letter from the San Jose State (SJSU) Philosophy Department to Harvard’s Michael Sandel about his “Justice” MOOC through MIT and Harvard’s edX program, you really should. I think it might become a classic document in the history of the long, slow decline of American Higher Education. For one thing, it’s interesting because it may be the first sharp published criticism of someone who’s decided to teach a MOOC. [I’ve written about that here.] But it’s also the first serious public attention that I’ve seen given to what I’ve called the academic freedom crisis of the twenty-first century.

To summarize, the philosophers at San Jose State don’t want Sandel’s MOOC to be given for credit in their department or at their university. It’s not that they’re opposed to online instruction. It’s that they think they should be the ones doing the instructing, not a Harvard professor on tape through a computer. “In spite of our admiration for your ability to lecture in such an engaging way to such a large audience,” they write:

we believe that having a scholar teach and engage his or her own students in person is far superior to having those students watch a video of another scholar engaging his or her students. Indeed, the videos of you lecturing to and interacting with your students is itself a compelling testament to the value of the in-person lecture/discussion.

The philosophers go on to note that the ability of a professor to control the content they provide 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.”

What makes this both an academic freedom and a shared governance issue is the response of the San Jose State administration. Queried by a New York Times reporter, the Provost there said exactly what faculty would hope to hear:

“All we ever did was let the deans know that these courses were available, and if they were interested in integrating any of the edX materials into their courses, they should let us know,” Dr. Junn said. “We’re never telling faculty what to use. They control the content of their courses.”

But then the other shoe drops:

Several philosophy professors, however, said that there was administrative pressure to offer the Justice course. Indeed, the department chairman, Peter J. Hadreas, said that administrators had now arranged to offer it through the English department, reinforcing his concerns that it would be taught by professors who are not trained in philosophy and would be especially reliant on the edX materials.

It is, of course, precisely this unbundling process – the separation of content provision from actual instruction – that makes moving a course on justice to the English Department possible. Should the SJSU Philosophy Department, or any other department, resist the MOOCification of higher education, their face-to-face students can simply be diverted away to other departments or (thanks to the wonders of the Internet) anywhere else in the world and the university will still make money! Offer enough cost incentives to take MOOCs instead of face-to-face classes and there may not be a single student left on campus before too long.

What does it mean to have a university without professors? Certainly it makes shared governance, the primary means of enforcing quality control upon methods of instruction, a thing of the past. Perhaps more importantly for society at large, what does it mean if future students everywhere get only one view of what justice means? Nobody is censoring anyone if you simply take away their listeners, but on cultural terms that result may be even more disturbing.

7 thoughts on “MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom.

  1. Pingback: MOOCs, shared governance and academic freedom. ...

  2. This debate seems to uncover various layers of intentions behind the contract of EdX and SJSU. From Michael Sandell’s response to the Chronicle we must deduce that his professional intention of creating this MOOC package of ‘Justice lectures’ is an extention of his ambition to make such lectures “available to anyone, anywhere”.
    Having followed the original first online lecture series of Sandell 2 years ago, I became aware of the power and democratic value of online access to such high grade teaching to those who would otherwise never have an opportunity to engage in such universities. Being a medical doctor by training, and a public health educator by profession, the content of Sandell’s Justice course impacted profoundly on my professional viewpoints for social justice in Europe, and open access to education resources.

    There seems to be no conflict between the SJSU Philosophy professors and Sandell on the benefit (and social justice) of online teaching, where it offers opportunities to those who otherwise would not be able to access it.

    The conflict seems to be burried in a deeper layer of financing education and even academic governance. It seems that some parties now seem to use this new tool of online learning (and MOOC specifically) to solve funding problems in the current higher education system, rather than to focus on how to use this to enhance the aim of all universities (globally), which in my view is to share up to date scientific knowledge and to educate all generations on their way to specific professions with the knowledge that is required, in order to serve society best.

    What worries me is that Michael Sandell writes in his response that he had no clue what EdX negotiated in the contract with SJSU. I am sorry to say that this comes across as very naive to me. The Justice course of Sandell is of such high quality, and he has acknowledged in many TV interviews that from the social justice perspective, his ambition is to allow those who otherwise would never be able to access such lectures, have access and join a global community that could engage in debates on issues of social justice. Without him, there would be no such lectures, He is author and (hopefully) has copyright. Why was he not informed about the details of the EdX contract?

    MOOC’s and the universities behind them, have an unprecedented chance to deliver high level teaching globally, to people who would otherwise never be able to engage in university courses. This will have an amazing effect on professional development world wide. And basically, the cost of investment for universities is not that high, especially when we look at the gain.
    We need to carefully watch and actively participate in this debate, to ensure that this unique democratic instrument leads to expansion of the effect of our current academic services to a worldwide community.
    If it will be abused to make universities compete with each other, then the SJSU professors are absolutely correct in their analysis, concerns and prediction.

    • I agree with much of what you say, but if you imagine that universites are not already competing with each other, you haven’t been paying attention. Until now, the competition has been constrained by bundling at the school level. the MOOC offers the student the chance to get just the courses she wants – computer science from Stanford, statistics from Berkeley, biology from MIT and so on. That fact plus economies of scale place the school with a modest reputation, and its professors, at a ruinous disadvantage.

      I don’t think protesting this tide is going to have much more effect than Canute’s similar attempts. Technological unemployment is headed for the academy, and a lot of professors will find themselves in the same situation as weavers, blacksmiths, and farmers before them.

      If it’s any consolation, a lot of lawyers are in the same situation.

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