Monday, July 19, 2010

Academic Freedom and Online Standards for Teaching

Ask almost anyone who has taught online and they will tell you that it is very different from teaching face-to-face. They may be the same species, but their natural environments are as different as dolphins and humans. In recognition of this fact many higher education institutions, whether for or non-profit now require their instructors complete and pass an online certification course in order to teach online. For universities and colleges who have instructional standards formulated and in place, it makes provides a structure for course rigor, quality instruction, and accountability. However, for those institutions who do not have standards nor methods to verify that current or potential online instructors have or use needed capabilities, the issue of consistency and quality becomes an issue.

At the crux of the matter are two main areas. First, the need for all online instructors to be competent in the use of an institution’s learning management system (LMS) and requisite technical and computer skills. Second, instructors need to understand and apply appropriate online pedagogical/andragogical practices.

The first is imperative. In order to teach online one must not only have a fairly computer and high-speed internet connection, they must also be very comfortable online/browsing the web, using email, word processing software and other applicable tools as well as using the LMS tool which houses the course. Training is certainly part of the solution, but instructors must take the initiative and continue to learn and stay current with these tools.

The second, use of best-case pedagogical/andragogical practices makes or breaks course rigor and effectiveness. Online teaching and learning has been around for some time and by now it should be evident that the practices of teaching online differ from that of face-to-face instruction. The online venue is and should be primarily asynchronous and all communication and interaction that would normally take place face-to-face is conducted virtually. To assist with this tools such as email and discussions and chat come to the forefront to aid in creating an atmosphere of communication, interaction and engagement. An online instructor must establish a presence in a course and engage in discussions with students and the course in general more often. In addition the proper use of visual verbal media (VVM) can provide students with the ability to repeat and review content and add value to the learning experience.

Instructors must learn the LMS well and be able to modify their teaching practices and course content to meet the venue’s requirements and student’s learning needs. For full-time/tenured faculty it means more work on top of perhaps an already busy schedule. For adjunct instructors it may mean learning more than one LMS if they teach at different institutions, and following different instructional/facilitation standards if any.

With more and more institutions using adjunct instructors, it may be easier to require certification for them, but making current faculty retroactively compelled to become certified can be challenging. If an institution is not unionized the administration has more leeway to implement standards. However, if a union does exist it may impede the process. Either way there is likely to be resistance from those who do not wish to change.

One of the most often used excuses I have heard to refuse to go along with implementation of standards is academic freedom. When I hear this I am always perplexed as to why the person/group in question thinks that being required to learn the tool/technology and best-case practices is in opposition to the tenets of academic freedom.

To make my point I checked several sources to find the definition of what academic freedom means. From the American Association of University Professionals, AAUP site to the Association of American Colleges and Universities, AACU to the Encyclopedia Britannica to Wikipedia the definitions were primarily the same. Academic freedom is essential a freedom o speech in the classroom. It distills down to the ability to: 1.) Freely research and publish results, 2.) Use controversial content that aligns with the subject matter taught. 3.) Be free of censorship, but as scholars remember their professional and institutional obligations, showing scholarly respect of others opinions.

Nowhere did I find a reference to the right to circumvent proper teaching practices or not learning the proper tools for teaching. Online or face-to-face it makes no difference, nothing is stated or even alluded to that would indicate that standards formulated by an institution for online teaching and course best practices flies in the face of academic freedom.

It would however be reasonable to assume that instructors would be interested in using best-practices for teaching, whether it be tools or pedagogies.

I for one would like to seee more institutions thoughtfully creating standards for teaching online. Doing so would better ensure the quality of their instructors and online offerings.

As always I’m open to your thoughts on what I’ve said.


Association of American Colleges and Universities, AACU

American Association of University Professionals, AAUP

Encyclopedia Britannica


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