“I feel the earth move under my feet…”

Good old Phil Hill shot me his notes from Educause via Google+ last night because he knew I’d want to see them. My first reaction was that I wasn’t touching this one with a ten foot pole, but I changed my mind – not because I want to insert myself into the business of my northern colleagues, but again because it’s just such a beautiful way to make a broader point.

Here’s Phil, summarizing Colorado State University – Fort Collins’ Pat Burns on the decision-making process that led them to both switch LMSs and join the online education consortium Unizin:

Q. [paraphrase re. 30-minute decision meeting] It doesn’t sound like there was a lot of room for faculty buy-in as part of the process. Could you talk about whether this will happen later?

A. The negotiation was a consortial negotiation. It really wasn’t possible to involve the faculty in that negotiation. We have a fairly good trust relationship between faculty and administration at CSU. We had an open forum on that, and we had a question and we explained it really wasn’t possible since Unizin was structured as a consortium, and the negotiations were proceeding as a consortium.

Imagine trying to make a decision that was so vital to CSU’s teaching and learning experience in the real world (say, building a new classroom building) without consulting faculty. The brouhaha would be worse than if you mixed up everybody’s parking spaces.

Perhaps everything will work at fine up north because the administration there cares about its faculty and its students alike.  But what if they don’t? They certainly don’t everywhere else. I know nothing about the University of Maryland University College except that it’s the online arm of the Maryland system. OK, I know that one of my friends stopped working there (he was actually a department head) because he didn’t think they were serious about education. This article, by a Interim Provost/deanlet there, demonstrates why I think he was right to do so:

“Until now, institution-wide changes in the faculty role have been the exception, the provenance of that seemingly marginal group of not-for-profit and for-profit institutions serving adult students. But the margin has become the center, and the reality is that any large-scale migration to online education, adoption of open educational resources (OERs), competency-based education or many of the other changes being explored almost necessitates further unbundling of the traditional faculty role.

By the same token, enterprise-wide reforms will not succeed unless faculty are included in the conversation. Institutions must be able to clearly explain why they’re unbundling, and what those new “bundles” will look like.”

The author goes on to note that “every serious party admits cost reduction must be part of the equation.” I guess that makes me a jolly joker. No, scratch that. I agree that cost must be part of the equation, but I’d like to look at a few other cost centers besides faculty salaries.

There are some incredibly talented and dedicated people teaching online right now. I just think of all the incredibly dedicated online teachers I’ve come to “know” through the Interwebz: Laura Gibbs, Lisa Lane, Shane Landrum (just to name a few). You don’t have to follow any of them very long to see that they can do wonderful things online, including countless wonderful teaching strategies that can only work online.

But what if the people who control the medium by which dedicated online instructors interact with their students won’t let them do their thing their way?

Some of us are employed by universities that have academic integrity. Some of us are employed by universities that don’t. Some of us are employed by universities that might have academic integrity now, but do you know if they’ll still have it if their financial stability is ever tested? If there’s one nice thing about working in academia it’s that your boss usually doesn’t act like your boss, but that, of course, is changing rapidly, and when your boss really starts acting like a boss then you know you’re in trouble.

Online education (and to a lesser degree even regular education conducted online through a learning management system) offers plenty of new opportunities for your boss to be bossy. As my friend Kate explained back during LMS week:

But as we move towards a more competitive system, with tighter budgets and higher expectations for quality, we should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. Minimally this is being introduced through the development of institutional threshold standards for online learning practice, while the attention of analytics tools is technically towards the evidence of student engagement with learning. As more routine teaching shifts online, there is nothing whatsoever to inhibit the development of LMS analytics for staff performance evaluation—including of casual and sessional staff.

Sure, monitoring you means they can tell that you’re doing a good job, but have you ever considered the possibility that that your means and their ends might not be the same? You care about education. If your employer doesn’t, your talent and skill at teaching online will become irrelevant online. It might even actively hinder your career.

Or consider the implications for academic freedom of teaching online. Thanks to big data, they can tell (and maintain a record of) everything controversial that you might possibly tell your students. They certainly never could have done that much to protect their “brand” before higher education moved online.  Then there are the many intellectual property issues that arise in higher education that would never be an issue in a face-to-face class.

I can feel the earth move under my feet right now. Unfortunately, earthquakes like this one are going to swallow up deserving and undeserving teachers alike.

PS Yeah, I wrote a post with this exact same title once on the old blog, but in my own defense that one was on an entirely different subject. New blog. Old title. At least I picked a different video this time.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Pat

    I think this could be reverse MOOC fear. So everyone does MOOC because everyone is, and here, unis gather round so to make sure they can ensure their product is the same as, or roughly the same as others.

    Elearning has cost a lot, and bar a few places (as I doubt we’d need as many institutions the moment we get footloose) it hasn’t worked. So how better to fail than in unison (prior example, slow to non uptake of d2l and angel, slow death of blackboard, moodle growth stable)

  2. from Kate: “We should probably notice that the LMS is also a performance monitoring system for teaching. ”
    It is a performance monitoring system, and even worse one the university might not have direct access to. If Coursera tells my employer they got xx complaints from students, well, my employer has… to believe them.

    “Or consider the implications for academic freedom of teaching online. Thanks to big data, they can tell (and maintain a record of) everything controversial that you might possibly tell your students.”
    Yep. And again it gets worse if the employer does not have access to the raw data: out of context, tangentially quoted, etc.

    1. Pat

      Need to sort stuff out though.

      Some LMSes may well do some stuff to monitor, but having tried beyond tried to get Moodle to do decent analysis the answer to “performance monitoring” in moodle is basically, it can’t, at all, completely not, it’s logging and recording is at best amateurish. The idea it can monitor is pretty much hilarious to be honest. It barely does anything well, and it certainly doesn’t do any monitoring to a level that would survive the briefest of dalliances with due diligence.

      If you’re saying that say content, or number of log ins is performance, then perhaps it could, but I’d suspect the idea of that as performance is way short of dictionary meanings. The internet value unit of the user or the visit might count, but you’d need to rewrite moodle to get proper tracking of it.

      If a student complaint exists, there is no reason not to believe it, regardless of source. Our MOOC got complaints and so on, some are valid and help us improve, some are clearly mendacious and can be ignored.

      I don’t think big data has made logging what people do easier, I think an LMS keeps a record not because it keeps a record, but because what people say to students makes sense to be maintained (the alternative is self deleting forums). The size of most LMS databases is pretty small (it wouldn’t take big data tools to analyse it). And I doubt a Uni would record all of someone’s tweets without due cause – mostly because it is a vast amount of work to do it. I have a system which records tweets MPs make, and the database with 400 MPs grows pretty big pretty fast, to do that with all faculty would be a significant expense, and I doubt Uni’s would pay for it.

      The LMS is a bag of crap, that is why people want to leave it behind, Hate it because it is crap and needs to become a useful tool to do useful things (you might say hate it because it needs to be a tool, not some meta tool), but to hate it for something it can barely do, seems to make me wonder why (or perhaps just a new front in the LMS is crap war)

      I think it goes back to the likelihood of an action,

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