Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Do MOOC Faculty Have a Responsibility For How Courses are Used?

I have been looking at the way that massive open online courses (MOOCs) have begun to affect the control relationships between faculty and administration over the control of course construction and program development.  (See, e.g., Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State; MOOCs at Penn State; An Update).

(Pix (c) Larry Catá Backer 2013)

The issue of MOOCs raises a more interesting issue--the effects of MOOCs on more sharply drawing the hierarchical structures among universities.  One of the consequences of thisvertical ordering of universities is the potential that MOOCs could be used to substitute the faculty of higher reputed schools for those of universities of lower reputation; or as the Philosophy Department faculty at San José State put it in "an open letter, the philosophy professors warned that such collaboration could mark beginning of a long-term effort to “replace professors, dismantle departments, and provide a diminished education for students in public universities.”" (Steve Kolowich, "MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility for How Courses Are Used," Chronicle of Higher Education, May 21, 2013). 

It is clear that issue of the use of MOOCs to displace faculty raises important ethical and operational issues for administrations at all universities--both exporting and importing institutions.  But it also raises the related issue: "Are professors who develop and teach MOOCs responsible for how those MOOCs are used?" (Steve Kolowich, "MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility, supra.)

This post suggests emerging views.

One view is represented by Michael Sandel of Harvard.
From: Michael Sandel, Anne T. and Robert M. Bass Professor of Government, Harvard University To: Steven Kolowich, The Chronicle of Higher Education I strongly believe that online courses are no substitute for the personal engagement of teachers with students, especially in the humanities. A few years ago, with Harvard's support, I made my course "Justice" freely available online, as an experiment in open global access to the classroom. The goal was to enable anyone, anywhere, to have free access to the lecture videos, a discussion blog, and other educational materials. This year, we made a version of the course available on the edX platform. I know very little about the arrangements edX made with San Jose State University, and nothing about the internal discussions at SJSU. My goal is simply to make an educational resource freely available--a resource that faculty colleagues should be free to use in whole or in part, or not at all, as they see fit. The worry that the widespread use of online courses will damage departments in public universities facing budgetary pressures is a legitimate concern that deserves serious debate, at edX and throughout higher education. The last thing I want is for my online lectures to be used to undermine faculty colleagues at other institutions.
Professor Sandel was neutral--concerned about the effect but ambiguous about his personal responsibility in either agreeing to participate in the MOOC or his duty to seek greater control over its use and effects. The element of personal responsibility was more forcefully declined by others.

One of the most straightforward explanations was that recently made by Professor Mohamad Noor of Duke.  Yet considered carefully, Professor Noor suggests a premise of no responsibility that can be overcame where there is evidence of gross institutional misuse that can otherwise not be corrected.

Are professors who develop and teach MOOCs responsible for how those MOOCs are used?

“No, absolutely not,” says Mohamed A. Noor, a professor of biology at Duke University.

Mr. Noor teaches a MOOC through Coursera, called “Introduction to Genetics and Evolution.” The course is one of five Coursera MOOCs so far that have earned an endorsement from the American Council on Education, a Washington-based group that advises college presidents on policy. (Mr. Ghrist’s calculus course is another.) The council reviewed the courses and determined that students who pass them deserve formal credit toward a degree, making those five perhaps the most likely MOOCs to be adopted, in some way, by other universities.

To be clear, Mr. Noor says he believes dismantling departments and replacing them with MOOCs would be “reckless.” But the Duke professor also believes that, in such a case, “the fault lies with the reckless administration,” and not the professor who furnished the MOOC to the vendor that furnished the MOOC to the administration.

“I don’t see it as particularly my business how people use the stuff once I put it out there,” Mr. Noor says—though he adds that if dismantling departments were all a MOOC was being used for, “then I’d stop.”

Really, though, it is a university’s faculty, and not technology vendors and their collaborators, that is responsible for reining in reckless administrative efforts, says Mr. Noor. “Ultimately, faculty at individual colleges need to be the driving force behind what students at their campuses are using,” he says.

“And if that’s not the case” at San Jose State, says Mr. Noor, then MOOCs are “the least of the faculty’s problems.” (Steve Kolowich, "MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility, supra.).

Kolowich noted that other faculty shared Professor Noor's view:

Roger Barr, a professor of biomedical engineering at Duke, says his professional obligation is to the students taking his MOOC on bioelectricity, not to colleagues at other institutions that might be advised by their superiors to use it. “I see my job as teaching students,” says Mr. Barr, “not protecting faculty.”

Sarah Eichhorn, a math lecturer at the University of California at Irvine, says she sees creating a MOOC as roughly equivalent to writing a textbook, or producing open resources for other teachers.

Ms. Eichhorn says she was surprised when the San Jose State philosophy professors went after Mr. Sandel. “I think it’s a professor’s job to make education available,” she says, “not to restrict it.” (Steve Kolowich, "MOOC Professors Claim No Responsibility, supra.).
It was a pity that in the efforts to distance individual faculty from the effects of their product (except perhaps to the extent that its substance might influence generations of students), none of these individuals thought that while individual faculty might have no individual responsibility, university faculty governance organizations might.  That certainly was the view at Duke (related in Debating MOOCs: Shared Governance, Quality Control, Outsourcing, and Control of Curriculum at Harvard, Duke, American, San Jose State).  To assume that the issue of effects is purely an administrative matter is to eliminate the institutional role of the faculty from the equation.  This would do more to diminish the value of shared governance than any potential leveraging effects of MOOCs.  Indeed, Professor Noor suggests the best role of faculty governance in the context of MOOCs--to serve an oversight role that permits faculty to produce MOOCs in reliance on the presumption of no misuse, and to protect faculties producing MOOCs from the sortt of misuse described by the faculty at San José State.  At the same time faculty governance organization should also serve to protect faculty against administrative overreaching--the efforts at American University for example--where administration seeks to claim blanket ownership of all creative efforts of people employed by them as faculty.

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