Sunday, May 6, 2012

On-Line Courseware--A Faculty Governance Issue? Take the Poll!

Like many universities, Penn State is constantly under pressure to manage its computing capacities..  This involves not merely hardware, but also software.  While much of this is substantially administrative in character, there are times when it may be possible to see in decision making a substantial faculty interest, and thus a greater interest in being sensitive to the shared governance aspects of decision making.

(From Dennis Carter, Open Courseware on Every Campus by 2016?: UC Irvine Official Makes a Bold Prediction During Meeting of Open Courseware Advocates From Across the Country,  e-Campus News, Feb. 14, 2011; "Nine in 10 MIT undergraduates say they use open courseware.")

One of my colleagues recently reminded us of the implications of technological decisions on faculty teaching. It also serves as a reminder that old labels and customary divisions of authority do not always serve as a guide to shared governance decisions. The issue is an important one, at its most basic level touching on the extent to which the scope of shared governance must adjust to changes in technology and academic practices and culture.

Please take the informal POLL located at the top RIGHT HAND SIDE of this WEB PAGE to tell us what you think!

The letter that appears below has been modified slightly only to remove specific information about individuals and specific vendors that do not affect the points made. 

Dr. Backer,

I attended the Faculty Governance Leaders meeting on May 2, 2012.  I am the chair-elect for the X Faculty Governance Unit. I feel the need to follow up; I write you about the adoption of online course software and the potential dangers of this decision and whether or not this is treated as an administrative or faculty decision.

My belief is that twenty years ago, course software was, primarily, an administrative decision. Course software was more akin to assigning a faculty member to a given classroom, or picking a brand of chalk, rather than something that powerfully or meaningfully influenced pedagogy. However, as more coursework is handled online, and as we increasingly move towards blended and online courses here at PSU, I think it is worth considering whether or not that position has changed. I could see an argument that, at this point in time, the question of course software was a curricular decision; that it had implications for faculty rights and responsibilities (due to academic freedom issues), and that, if it is a decision driven by a particular and specific unit or program to meet its needs alone, and on that basis effectively foisted upon the rest of us, that it has important intra-university implications (we should not assume a priori that consensus among academic units currently exists). Because of those possibilities, it would seem prudent to assess the role the Faculty should have in determining which software is adopted, if any. Also, if there is an obvious and outstandingly good economic reason to adopt this new software from PCorp rather than keep our current system, I would find that piece of evidence to be especially important to add to this discussion.

So far as I can tell, the question of whether the Faculty has control over these types of issues is identical with the question of “what is curriculum?” Tellingly, on some lists of curricular issues under Faculty Senate purview, the first item is “Instructional Program.” As above, an incidental piece of software would not qualify under that category. However, software that would dictate the form of a course and restrict the variety of ways in which faculty could deliver material would seemingly qualify.

If the Senate wanted to put itself in a position to have a say in future software adoption, I would think it prudent to preemptively evaluate this situation, and if at all possible to voice concerns before a contract has been signed.

I might also mention that my frequent collaborator, and future vice-chair of the Intra-University Relations Committee for the fall semester, NR has done considerable research into the adoption of software packages at the University level. While his expertise isn’t in academic software, per se, he knows a lot about how software companies manipulate universities, especially when regarding the odd relationship between non-profit organizations like Penn State and for-profit organizations like PCorp. We have recently been involved in a related project looking at the changing attitudes (legal attitude as well as campus policies) towards power point presentations and materials prepared for online courses. We conclude, as others have, that form constrains function, and we have the same concerns about the form of this decision and about the form of this software.
 Readers, what do you think? Please take the poll!

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