My class, my choice.



“To be absolutely blunt, it is time for individual faculty to give up, cheerfully and not grudgingly, any claim to sole authority over teaching methods of any kind.”
– Former Princeton President William Bowen earlier this week at the “Teaching in the University of Tomorrow” conference at Rice University (via Jason Jones).

That’s a pretty amazing statement, don’t you think? While I haven’t seen him in many years, I happen to know Bill Bowen (he was a friend of my father’s) so I prefer not to try to unpack it here. Doing so would be like preaching to the choir. Most of you reading this could do just as good as I could in explaining why it’s best to leave teaching decisions to the actual teachers.

Instead, I’d rather take this opportunity to thank Bowen for his honesty. In countless places throughout the world, the sole authority of professors over their classrooms is already threatened. For example, how many of our contingent colleagues have the freedom to experiment with innovative teaching methods or can even pick their own textbooks? When administrators at all levels get used to making those kinds of decisions for faculty off the tenure track, it’s only a matter of time before they’ll want to make those kinds of decisions for faculty at all levels of employment. By saying what he said, Bowen has brought this threat into plain sight for every faculty member everywhere to see.

But that’s not really what I want to consider here either. I’m interested in the various interests besides faculty who think that they should be making decisions about your class, but assert those interests surreptitiously – through the back door. Yup, I want to talk about learning management systems (or LMSs).

In an article I wrote last spring for Academe, I guessed that the next big new struggle over academic freedom would be about the mandatory use of learning management systems. Collecting information on Twitter and over at my own blog, I’ve come to learn that that struggle has already begun, and the people who believe that professors deserve the freedom to teach their classes the way they see fit are already losing.

For example, in Great Britain, there’s already a general acceptance of the notion that a mandatory minimum presence on a campus’s learning management system is a good thing since, of course, it is generally pitched as a way to help students. I’m still collecting what (for now) amounts to anecdotal evidence of this phenomenon at schools across America. However, I will note here that there seems to be a strong correlation between the level of contingency amongst the faculty and the likelihood that such a requirement exists. If you’ll remember, the one example of this I found while writing that Academe article was at a school that doesn’t offer faculty tenure. Coincidence? I think not.

With all the threats to academic freedom in the world, you may be asking yourself why am I so up in arms about the possibility of mandatory LMS use? Well, as my friend Kate Bowles has explained:

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.

Of course, the possibility of monitoring online classes became a threat as soon as somebody coined the term “big data.” Yet the kind of mandatory LMS use I’m talking about here is for both online and face-to-face classes alike. In other words, without the power to make educational decisions vital to your vision of learning, every single face-to-face class can to some degree be forced online specifically so that this kind of monitoring can occur.

Then there’s the fact that, at least as constituted now, these systems are a huge waste of money. As Jon Mott, writing for the Educause Review notes:

[U]sage patterns suggest that the LMS is primarily a tool set for administrative efficiency rather than a platform for substantive teaching and learning activities. These concerns have been exacerbated by rapid growth in LMS-related spending over the past decade, which has led many to question whether the benefits of the technology are worth the cost.

Think how many contingent faculty could get a living wage if all the money spent on IT full of unused bells and whistle went to improving faculty contracts instead.

But perhaps most importantly, I want complete control over my own classroom so that I can decide what tech is right for me and my students. A one-size-fits-all approach to education technology isn’t just potentially authoritarian or overly expensive, it’s really bad for education. While this isn’t the place to detail them, there are some really amazing tools out there that can make any classroom run better. Whether you’re already the best teacher in the world or just starting out in academia, you should have the freedom to explore all those tools and to pick the ones that both mesh with your teaching style and fit the needs of your particular set of students.

Sure, I’ll talk to any administrator or any private company about any product that might make my classroom better, but ultimately the choice about whether to use that product should be mine and mine alone. My class, my choice. And the same thing should go for everyone else teaching at my university and yours.