Online and the Gridiron

Higher education is a competitive game.  Colleges and universities compete for students, money, faculty and prestige. Online education is part of this larger game, and part of this competitive environment. To the extent online learning is seen as a strategic asset by an institution ‒ properly supported, financed, managed and organized ‒ is the extent that a program may flourish or not.

A football game is in progress with both teams evenly matched from the standpoint of personnel. As the game progresses, it becomes evident that team 1 has a game plan administered effectively by the quarterback, while team 2 has no plan other than to let each individual player decide what is the right course of action.  Team 2’s philosophy is that players should be given the “freedom” to pursue their own designs. What does management know about playing the game?  They aren’t athletes.  All things being equal, which team is likely to win this game?

What’s the point? There are many in CUNY and other institutions of higher learning that believe that faculty’s “academic freedom” trumps the right of any oversight in terms of online learning, whether that oversight is administered centrally or at the local campus. However, consider whether academic freedom is violated by:

  • Requiring the use of a specific course management system
  • Providing guidelines to ensure a uniform navigation structure for courses and common learning elements
  • Providing publicity and advertising for online programs
  • Arranging for helpdesk support across campuses
  • Creating a CUNY-wide policy for copyright and fair use
  • Assessing online courses via a system-wide student evaluation tool, and
  • Establishing collaborative ventures with other entities to create programmatic synergies.

Do these potential policies really hinder “academic freedom” in any substantive manner? There are other aspects of online that can — and should — be the domain of a more central administrative structure. Does it make any sense to review, research, debate, and create online policy at 24 campuses when many policies can be cooperatively planned once? Without clear delineation of authority and responsibility, the effectiveness of online programs will ultimately suffer and there will be a great deal of duplication of effort.

However, within CUNY there has been a general aversion to centralized decision-making with the attitude that CUNY Central should in essence “mind their own business.” Despite CUNY’s history and prevailing culture, I believe these views are shortsighted, and hinder an effective approach to hybrid/online learning, where the impact clearly cuts across campuses, academic silos, administrations, and faculty governance bodies.

A more effective model used at other universities is one where some policies are decided centrally at the university level, some locally at the campus level, and some by instructors teaching online. The right balance for these different models needs time to develop, but only in a non-adversarial, cooperative atmosphere. Without such cooperation, these guidelines may seem to faculty as “mandates” imposed from above by an unthinking, ill-informed cadre of administrators removed from teaching. However, what if we actually had all parties working toward scoring a touchdown instead of protecting their prerogatives, historical or otherwise? This situation exists in many of the most successful online programs throughout the country.

In summary, for hybrid/online teaching and learning to achieve even a fraction of its potential on the higher education playing field, a unified vision and strategic plan is needed to bring coherence and synchronicity to any team effort. Ideally, this plan will be flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances. If you look at successful online programs, they are invariably centrally administered with a clear vision, institutional mandate, faculty cooperation and policies supporting online learning. Professors, administrators, staff and students at CUNY deserve no less.

 

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