Teaching a Class of Someone Else’s Design: The Threat of Online Teaching to Intellectual Freedom and Freedom of Speech

My least favorite part of online teaching is the possibilities for intellectual freedom and freedom of speech to be curtailed in online classrooms. Online teaching produces a number of records (almost all student interactions, except those conducted by phone or video conference and not recorded) that can be reviewed, and faculty have little control over who can review them. I have seen administrators crow about this as an asset (“If graders aren’t working fast enough to return student work, you can fire them and hire someone else!”), and I think it should be a major focus of unions and faculty senates. Whether you are teaching in online or F2F classrooms, teachers should have intellectual freedom, freedom of speech, and freedom from surveillance. If they cannot be trusted with it, then they shouldn’t be hired to teach.

One quiet form this takes is in the production of standardized classes for online programs. Some universities (mine included) demand that classes in our fully online degree program undergo an external review before being taught. When this review addresses only on tech elements, the extra set of eyes is helpful. When it addresses content, however (as my department has threatened to do but has not implemented), then faculty should be on high alert.

The implication in such review processes is that online courses are too easily corrupted and that faculty would be willing to create weak online courses even if they’d never show up to teach a lousy course in person. This is a double standard as F2F classes typically receive no such review (with exceptions, for example, for those taught by graduate students who are learning the craft of teaching).

Additionally, some programs then refuse to allow changes to a course once it has been created and reviewed. Others allow some but not all of the course to be determined by the instructor (say, 10% of the final grade or certain class policies). Again, the implication is that online teachers are not ethical or competent to create or teach a course. So, again,  Why are they hired in the first place? It cannot be both that instructors are worthy of the job but untrustworthy to do it.

There are many unhappy results of this process of limiting academic freedom in online courses: instructors end up teaching courses they didn’t design, revisions to the course may be necessary given the actual student enrolled but instructors may be (rightly) fearful of making them, the expertise of the actual instructor is ignored and devalued,  and surveillance is justified as a means of “quality control.”

The irony is that these are exactly the kinds of policies that generate the conditions for bad teaching. Rigidity, fear, dismissal of expertise, assessment that punishes (rather than edifies)–the result is that faculty stick to what is safe, familiar, and inoffensive, even if it’s not the best teaching. They choose assessments that meet student expectations (4 exams and a final with essays) rather than invite students to be knowledge producers. Students rightly come to feel that they are customers and adversaries rather than partners in generating new knowledge.

The long-term consequence is suspicion from faculty and students about online courses. And that’s a shame, because when faculty are given support to teach as they know to be best, online teaching and learning can be amazing.

David - The Death of Socrates.jpg

Above, The Death of Socrates (1787) by Jacques-Louis David shows Socrates surrounded by grieving pupils and friends as he prepares to drink hemlock, his punishment for corrupting the youth of Athens and teaching about strange gods. If you are teaching an online class, you deserve as much academic freedom as if you were teaching a class F2F. 

One thought on “Teaching a Class of Someone Else’s Design: The Threat of Online Teaching to Intellectual Freedom and Freedom of Speech

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  1. “Additionally, some programs then refuse to allow changes to a course once it has been created and reviewed. Others allow some but not all of the course to be determined by the instructor (say, 10% of the final grade or certain class policies). Again, the implication is that online teachers are not ethical or competent to create or teach a course.”

    Not quite.

    Big campuses usually have at least half a dozen instructors teaching the same class during a semester. The reasons for these policies are (1) students learn the same material in Dr. Smith’s class as in Dr. Jones’s, and (2) to make sure students taking Dr. Smith’s class receive the same grade as if they were taking Dr. Jones’s class.

    “They choose assessments that meet student expectations (4 exams and a final with essays) rather than invite students to be knowledge producers.”

    I agree in theory but not in practice. If you have 75-80 classes (an average class at Arizona State), you simply don’t have the time to do anything else.

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