Academic Freedom and Selection of Instructional Modalities

On Conversion of Courses to Online Format and Academic Freedom

Philip A. Pecorino


Spring 2006

There are some within CUNY that think that when a class is to be converted and offered in an online mode of instruction that there should be an approval process for that with the authority resting in some college-wide body such as a committee established for doing this.  Such a process involving faculty needing approval for a decision about an instructional modality or methodology  and the authority issuing such approval existing in a body outside of the discipline and department of the faculty member would be a violation of Academic Freedom and of the prerogatives of individual faculty and of faculty collectives in disciplines and departments.  If the decision to establish a college-wide body with authority over faculty decisions as to how they will teach were made by the governing body it would be a diminution of faculty prerogatives.  It would be appropriate for faculty themselves to decide to establish a college wide body for training and certifying competency in methodologies and modalities of instruction but the final decision as to who teaches, what they teach and how they teach must and should rest with the academic department and the peers and colleagues of the faculty members of the discipline being taught.

In this matter the focus of concern is with classes that are using new methodologies, modalities of instruction and machinery and devices.   Some refer to the teaching of a class using computers and the internet as a  "conversion" and so that term will be employed in this statement although it is unfortunate because when an instructor decides to use group work and discussion in class rather than straight lecture format that is not termed as a "conversion" nor thought to be so problematic as the current cases arousing attention that employ computers in various ways in the instructional design for the class. 

A converted class is not a new class.  New classes should and must go through the departmental and college-wide curriculum committees that have the authority to examine and formally approve all such new courses followed by college governance approval.  However, it is another matter for classes that are already being taught using what have become termed as "traditional" modalities of instruction that are now being converted to add another newer "online" mode of instruction.   College-wide curriculum committees do not and should not review the decision of a department to change or add modalities of instruction for their courses.  If a department offers lecture classes and then decides that it will offer classes in a lecture/ group work modality why should a college wide committee need to review that change or "conversion"?  If a department offers lecture classes and then decides that it will offer classes using a problem solving approach and group work in addition to straight lecture that too should not be reviewed by those outside of the discipline and department.  Decisions concerning the modalities of instruction should be left to professional educators who know best what modalities of instruction work best in their discipline with their students.

College-wide curriculum committees across CUNY do not currently have the authority to examine and formally approve all variations classroom instruction and to have each mode of instruction approved through college governance. The argument here is that  affirms that the current state of affairs is not accidental and is correct in so far as the locus of authority in reviewing and approving of instructional methodologies and instructional designs.  It is a matter for each college to determine if it serves the interest of that college to set a policy whereby college-wide curriculum committees have the authority to examine and formally approve numerous versions of courses such as would be using computers and the internet or group work , problems solving, case study approach, etc... followed by college governance approval.  To establish such a college wide body to issue such approvals or authorizations (as opposed to training and certification) would be a very dangerous practice as it violates Academic Freedom to have college-wide curriculum committees have the authority to examine and formally approve all versions of classroom-based courses, followed by college governance approval.  Why so? Because it constitutes outside interference with what are the prerogatives of individual faculty and their peers within each discipline/department.

The notion of Academic Freedom involves protecting faculty from interference from those outside of their area/discipline/department concerning their freedom of inquiry and research, freedom to teach and freedom with extramural utterances.  The concept and right to Academic Freedom has been recognized several times over by the Supreme Court that has held that Academic Freedom is to be respected for academic institutions and faculty to determine:

  • Who will teach- appointment , promotion and tenure

  • What will be taught- curricula development and construction

  • How it will be taught- pedagogy- instructional design-modality of instruction

  • To whom it will be taught- who will be admitted to study – admissions policies and programs

Faculty do not have unlimited license to do as they please but time and again the appropriate body to place limitations and set parameters and to observe them and enforce them has been established as the faculty themselves.  More precisely and based on court decisions, the faculty of a department can set out the content of a class and determine what is and is not effective pedagogical practice.  College wide committees do not observe and assess individual faculty and their choices of instructional modality.  Departments do that.

So the present issue with the classes converted to become online classes is a matter of Academic Freedom as it deals directly with the decision of how to teach a class, i.e., the instructional modality.  The decision should be up to the faculty member subject to review only by peers within the discipline/department.  The selection of an instructional modality is strictly a faculty prerogative.  The appropriate body to determine who is fit to teach and what to teach and how to teach it would be the faculty in that discipline.  The selection of an instructional modality and the fitness to teach using it and its appropriateness and effectiveness are the prerogatives of the department/discipline.

On this matter it is both appropriate and necessary for a faculty to insure that there is effective instruction being offered and that faculty are observed and evaluated toward that end.  This is a duty of a department.   The faculty of a college may set policy for its members offering online instruction or any modality of instruction or pedagogic technique having to do with preparedness for it and a college wide committee of people experienced and skilled in the modality of instruction could be established to certify training of instructors in the modality and even for certifying that a class converted to use the modality is likely to offer effective instruction.  However, that any committee outside of a department should have authority over the department's judgment as to what to teach, who teaches it and how it is taught would be a diminution of those rights faculty have under Academic Freedom.

Instructors are appointed to classes by a department. Instructors select their modality of instruction guided by whatever protocols and policies may exist within their department that have been formulated by their peers and colleagues- all professional educators- making their decision based on experiences with the programs, classes, and students of that college. The instructor's performance and efficacy of instruction are proper matters of concern and there is a process in place for faculty observations and evaluations by peers. The departmental faculty are the final arbiters.  If they think in their best judgment that a subject is best taught a certain way or that it can not be taught effectively in certain manners then they can set those judgments out in policies and practices in the department not to be overridden by the action of individual instructors within the department, faculty outside of the department and certainly not by administrators outside of the department.

Scenario 1
Say a department and not merely the chairperson decides that it would promote offering PHI 102 in an online modality. PHI 102 is "on the books" since 1985. The Department call for instructors to step up and do what would be required to convert the class section that they would be assigned. Professor X accepts the call and steps up. Professor X must be recognized in some way by the department as being capable of using the modality. This "certification" can be accomplished in a number of ways but it is presented to the department that will be assigning the class and that is responsible for the quality of instruction in its offerings.

Scenario 2
Professor Y joins the department or has been there a while and says to the department that the next section of PHI 102 assigned to Professor Y will be taught using a different instructional modality. It could be problem solving in groups, case study method, collaborative learning techniques, online instruction- whatever. The Department is responsible to insure Professor Y is being faithful to the course content of PHI 102 and effective in the mode of instruction- whatever it is. Now the department observes professor Y and may, in so doing, call in those more experienced with the "new" instructional modality employed by Professor Y and then the department determines whether or not the new modality is effective. If it is so found to be effective, then Professor Y and whoever else wants to teach PHI 102 using the modality Professor Y has shown to be effective may do so.

Scenario 3
Professor Z decides to teach a section of PHI 102 using the online mode of instruction. Professor Z has no prior experience with the modality but wants to "give it a try". The department might upon learning of Professor Z's intention decide as a collective that Professor Z and anyone else wanting to attempt such a thing should first satisfy some set of criteria for competency in the new modality such as training and some demonstration of the course revisions that will make it suitable for the new modality.

Scenario 4                                                                                                          An administrator pressures or encourages faculty to develop online classes or to convert existing class to the online format.  Faculty member V in Department D wishes to do so or consents to doing so.  It would be the decision of the department whether or not to assign Professor V a class that is to be taught online.  If in its judgment a subject matter taught by Department D   is best taught face to face or that it ought not to be taught online then that judgment should prevail.  This is based on the precedents established by cases in which a faculty member was not permitted to do something that did not meet with the approval of the department and the decisions it had made about the content and scope of classes offered by that department.

In determining how to certify or insure competency of a faculty member to teach a class using some particular methodology or modality the department might decide that it has not the resources to do this on its own and the matter is better handled on a college wide basis with a college committee of faculty with knowledge and experience setting the criteria for competency and issuing some form of a certification of competency.

The final decision as to the assigning of the class sections is still with the department and the department still maintains its responsibility to insure the efficacy of instruction in whatever modalities are used by the faculty of that department.

This position is not one that involves new courses in any modality of instruction.  This matter focuses only on the conversion of a class or rather the use of an instructional modality that some may feel uncomfortable with and may not like.  The college wide committee places constraints on content not modalities.

Some college wide body composed of faculty might be involved as a matter of policy and procedure in certifying faculty to use the modality.  That is a decision to be made by each college.  It is not now to be a presumption of the authority of some college wide curriculum committee. 

Whether or not any instructor uses computers with students involves the same fundamental issues as in whether or not they choose to use overhead projectors or handouts versus website materials.

A college may decide that instructional modalities are to be covered by its curriculum committee or some committee on distance education but that is its decision and if it takes the decision making authority from the instructor and the department that would be the choice of the college governance body which ought to include an effective faculty presence.  If it did so it would be a big mistake opening a path for intrusions that are threatening. 

For some it may be a matter of whether or not you can accept that instructors have academic freedom in their choice of instructional modalities or not.  It is fundamental to academic freedom that they do, subject only to a review by their peers in their department/discipline (references to decisions available on request).

The Supreme Court has explicitly included "How to teach it" as one of the four basic elements in its decisions over academic freedom (references to decisions available on request).

If an instructor wants to use computers in a class or case studies or group projects, the instructor gets training in how to do so, the instructor shows it is effective to the department colleagues, presents evidence that colleagues in the discipline across the country and the world do likewise, then who is to tell that instructor not to use what has been chosen as the methodology or modality?  Why would anyone presume that the authority over an instructor’s choices of pedagogy rests automatically with a college wide group composed of people who are not in the department or discipline and who may know nothing about what the instructor plans to do. 

Academic freedom is most tested when people simply do not like what an academician is teaching or how it is being taught.

People outside of the discipline telling those within it what to teach or how to teach it or what not to teach and how it may not be taught should not be tolerated.

Instructors should be willing to submit what they do to their colleagues in their discipline and to professional educators who know about instructional modalities that they may be using.  As professional educators they should want to insure the efficacy of their instruction and should learn form those experienced in pedagogy about what works and what does not work.

Many educators are opposed to the Academic Bill of Rights. The concern is over unneeded and troublesome interference of those outside of a department and a discipline and the classroom interfering with what goes on in the classroom.   Intrusions into the classroom over this matter of how to teach may open the path for other such intrusions.

Suppose the folks who want Biology classes to "Teach the Controversy" concerning evolution and creationism or Intelligent Design see the path that would be opened by the misguided actions that give those outside a department or discipline the authority to determine how matters are to be taught.  The advocates of “Teach the Controversy” need only change strategy and say that "Now that the instructional modalities can be determined by those outside of the discipline let us have a "teach the controversy  method of instruction used in Biology classes and then next in Physics and in Ethics." 

Having college wide bodies given authority over instructional modalities opens up that path into our classrooms for outsiders.  Academic Freedom is there to act against such intrusions.

Let instructors choose HOW to teach and WHAT to teach. Let that decision rest as close as possible to the individual instructor.  Let only peers, colleagues and fellow professionals review those decisions and keep that review as close as possible to the instructor inside of the department and the discipline with those who know best and have the responsibility to insure the effectiveness of their instruction as professional educators.

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