“This land is not for sale. Some day I hope to build on it.”

I was hanging out with a philosophy professor at an interdisciplinary conference on Friday night. This is not something I usually do, but this guy was way cool. Besides specializing in political economy, one of my very favorite subjects, he absolutely hates online education. He told me about his efforts to convince his younger colleagues to join him in this resistance, but they won’t have it. Apparently, they like the possibility of teaching in their pajamas, even if that short-term convenience eventually leaves them all unemployed.

My position was that I agreed with him 90%. I really do think that you can do great things with online education as long as professors maintain total control over its operation. Nevertheless, there’s one thing that this philosopher said that really struck a chord. “We have control over so little as faculty,” he told me. “Why would you want to give up control of your classroom?” Damn straight.

To be fair, if we don’t give it up there’s the possibility on an armed takeover. This is apparently what’s going on at Rutgers theses days:

Are you planning on taking an online course at Rutgers next semester? Then you might need to download University-sanctioned software that will track your facial identity, photo ID and browser activity. According to an article published on New Brunswick Today by Daniel Munoz this past weekend, Rutgers University has implemented a recognition suite called ProctorTrack for online courses. ProctorTrack records face, knuckle and personal identification details during online courses. Munoz also notes that the system “keeps track of all activity in the monitor, browser, webcam and microphone” throughout each session.

Yes, the online education police state has arrived, because how else can we know that on the Internet you’re not really a dog? And as I pointed out at that last link a long time ago, being a dog works both ways in online education. Without intrusive knuckle scans the students can be absolutely anyone. The same thing goes for the professors, but as long as the universities are getting their tuition payments the underpaid faculty teaching those classes are unlikely to be vetted at all.

Administrations that insist upon top-down structures for teaching online might just be doing what’s convenient for them, but this also might be the first strike in an attempt to gain much greater control over aspects of the teaching process that they have no business controlling at all.

My classroom may be a small piece of land, but I will not sell it off in exchange for the ability to teach in my pajamas. Some day I hope to build on it.

Jonathan Rees

Professor of History, Colorado State University - Pueblo.

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Contingent Cassandra

    I think you’re right that online faculty are, or will be, subject to increased surveillance as well, especially when it comes to clearly “measurable” activities: how often we access the course site, how long we spend there, how long we take to grade things, etc. I gather this is already the norm for many online-only institutions where the course designer and the instructor/”learning facilitator”/whatever are different people. There will also undoubtedly be increased pressure to structure learning in ways that facilitates such measurement. This will put me (someone who designs my own courses within broad learning goals, still has considerable freedom in all my classes, and teaches a mix of face to face, hybrid, and online classes) in the position of being much more closely supervised/surveilled when I’m teaching online than when I’m in a traditional classroom.

    I don’t think the surveillance will increase the quality of my teaching, but it may be a strong disincentive to my teaching online, in part because the online class will be treated as a separate entity, completely independent from my other courses, and the overall picture of my 4/4 load, which requires a good deal of prioritizing, and at times outright triage, to do the best I can for the (too many) students I have while still maintaining my health, sanity, long-term ability to do my job, etc., etc. The experience of teaching online will end up being parallel to another frustratingly nonsensical experience: having teaching assessed/supervised via student evaluations, with the administrator in charge of the process identifying potential “problems” by looking at a spreadsheet organized by section, and contacting all the teachers who had a section with average overall ratings that fell below a certain level, without looking at the larger picture, e.g. one or more sections of the same class during the same semester that were much more highly rated, or even rated above the level considered exemplary. Though it hasn’t happened to me, one or two colleagues have received both the “congratulations on being such a good teacher” and the “we noticed you have a low rating; can we offer some assistance in improving your teaching?” missive in relation to different sections of the same course in the same semester.

    I can see two possible outcomes:(1) I (and others who have a choice) stop teaching online, because we have less independence in that medium, and because the increased scrutiny of our online classes means that we have to steal time from our face to face classes to meet “standards,” or (2) we continue to teach online, at least on occasion (in response to requests from those doing the scheduling who themselves are subject to pressures from those further up, and/or because, in an uncertain labor market, we feel the need to maintain the “credential” of recent online teaching), and do end up stealing time from our face to face classes in order to meet “standards” (even counterproductive and/or nonsensical ones) for online classes.

    Bottom line from my point of view: at the moment, my online classroom, like my face to face classroom, is currently a place where I have a good deal of control/autonomy, and a minimum amount of surveillance/supervision. If that changes, my willingness to teach online will change, too. If increased supervision/decreased autonomy online also leads to similar changes in the face to face classroom (and yes, I think that’s more than possible to), that will affect my willingness to teach at a university, period.

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