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As U.S. colleges and universities are working to deal with the public health and logistical implications of the coronavirus in a global emergency, we’re seeing a rushed move to use online education tools, often from private, for-profit companies.
As someone who works in higher education, I am confident that most schools are doing the best they can in a tough situation, but I also have concerns about the possibility of dangerous precedents emerging for higher education.
The online courses we’re creating right now are ways to survive in uncertain times, not to thrive in online education.
I have taught online courses in introductory biology and in-person human anatomy and physiology courses, both for biology majors and non-majors. While having more options for students to access higher education is good, these hasty shifts to online teaching may become an excuse to further inject privatization into U.S. higher education.
Most American universities are run by a process of shared governance, or the practice of recognizing faculty, administrators, staff and students as integral stakeholders in a university’s success, and the success of the individual members of that university community.
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Unfortunately, amid the rush to address public health concerns, many universities are functioning on a more top-down model of management than the shared governance that is standard in U.S. higher-education institutions.
Again, in times of emergencies, this model of strong, decisive leadership can be critical. It is not, however, the way that educational systems should ideally operate, and the coronavirus doesn’t change the need for shared governance.
Faculty and staff are co-equal partners with the administration in the running of a university, and their experience, expertise and relationships with students shouldn’t be discarded or downplayed. We all contribute to the mission of a university, and we all must continue to have seats at the table for the university to continue to thrive.
In-person classes facilitate an active learning atmosphere and participation in service-learning or other more interdisciplinary and holistic educational opportunities.
Online classes are great for non-traditional students, students with mobility issues and students who are geographically tied to family or jobs. While higher-education tools like online program managers (OPMs) have benefits to faculty and students, the contracts with for-profit companies raise concerns about the privatization of U.S. higher education. Buried in these contracts are problems for shared governance, academic freedom, educational quality, student privacy, and the reputation and sustainability of the institution.
Faculty should review carefully any contract their institution has with OPMs and revisit their institution’s instructional Intellectual Property policy. They should make sure any contracts protect faculty’s intellectual property rights and instructional materials.
There are plenty of standard restrictive agreements in such contracts, such as mandatory arbitration clauses and nondisclosure agreements. The American Association of University Professors has created a model letter of agreement defining the scope of OPM contracts for faculty, as well as other material to help faculty watch out for numerous pitfalls in these contracts.
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If these online tools are seen by university administrators as a way to justify less-autonomous classrooms, this will damage innovation in teaching and could lead to more homogeneity in classrooms across the United States, as well as an increased reliance on for-profit institutions.
A more uniform experience in higher education may sound like a good idea, but this is detrimental to the ideal of academic freedom, both for instructors to teach how they feel works best and for students to learn in ways that benefit them most. While there is nothing wrong with online education in general, such decisions — including contracts with online education companies — must have as much faculty oversight as classes taught on campus do.
At the same time, creating something in a rush to address a short-term and organically evolving situation is not ideal. Necessity is the mother of invention, as the saying goes, but those innovations may not be the best practices outside of that time of necessity. We must remember this.
Put another way, the coping mechanisms that we develop during a traumatic event, such as a pandemic, are not the ways we should cope under normal circumstances.
We are in unusual times right now, and that fact requires unusual measures to make it through. Our task once the acute conditions subside is to not let those unusual measures become business as usual.
This story about online instruction in uncertain times was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up here for Hechinger’s newsletter.
Lis Kenneth Regula is a lecturer in the Department of Biology at the University of Dayton in Ohio. Regula conducts research in zoology and ecology. His current project is “LGBTQ+ concerns in early education and home-school-community partnerships.”
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