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    Tracy Mitrano explores the intersection where higher education, the Internet and the world meet (and sometimes collide).

Critique of 'Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in the Digital Age'
January 28, 2013 - 9:37pm

Last week this document created quite a storm of controversy. Comments trended toward two themes: a growing backlash to all the attention that MOOCs are getting at the expense of so many on-going distance learning initiatives already in place and the thought that it is old wine in new bottles.

I share these reactions, and yet I could not help but be intrigued at least a little bit with what the authors -- many big names in higher education -- considered important to raise to the level of "rights." The right to learn, and teach, reminded me of Chaucer's great line, "Gladly would I learn, and teach." The notion of rights overall, obviously, harkens to our modern political era, the American and French Revolutions in particular, and the notion of something that is "inalienable." Of course, that notion emerged as a reaction to overarching, greedy governments, and so the implication was that the government in particular was the menace that threatened to separate the individual from his rights. Not so sure that stands up in this context … unless the implication is that traditional higher education now plays that role?  

For particulars, there is privacy. I found this somewhat curious since legal protection of education records is one of the oldest public privacy laws in the United States. Especially in light of peer grading, which is an accepted pedagogical exception to the Family Education Rights Privacy Act, I am not sure exactly what kind of privacy the authors refer to given the protection over personal identification, as well as grades, that are established components of that law and practice at least in the United States. The same is true of intellectual property. I don't know of an institution that denies a student intellectual property of their own work, and expect that when it comes to more complicated circumstances, graduate students working with professors on grants, that institutional IP policies should be written with both fairness and prescience.

Financial transparency, now that is a great idea, although for public institutions it exists at least in a data element form, that is through state laws that allow an individual to request just about any institutional information. Perhaps the document should go further to explain how and in what way institutions can disclose their revenue streams that would reveal a good many interesting things. Not just about this one or that one's salaries, but so many of the hidden costs of higher education that perplex people. To open that door might help indeed generate much needed discourse on, say, the costs of licensing software, access to academic journals and scholarly publishing, or just plain copyright costs that institutions pay, for example, to ASCAP and to myriad publishers. I am all over that!

The right to create public knowledge. I need more information to understand this claim. I thought that is what we are doing here already, but perhaps it doesn't feel that way? Or perhaps because everything from patents to copyright to trademark are very much in every institution's portfolio … and the expectation is that all of that should be entirely free? If so, higher education would be bankrupt in a minute because the revenue generated from that intellectual property is a part of what keeps the lights on and the faculty afloat. Is that the goal, to turn off the lights and liberate faculty completely?  Or is there a deep problem with intellectual property and how it is structured in the United States? You wouldn't have to go far down the list of previous blogs I have written to know that is what I think, and believe is the deeper problem at stake in this provision.  Blaming higher education is an act of displacement. We have been target on that point long enough.  Another reason we should exercise leadership as both producers and consumers to help the entire country -- and by extension of treaties, world -- sort through this complicated area to achieve greater balance and keep colleges and universities out of the bull's eye.

The right to have great teachers. I agree with that one. In 1981 when the senior student leaders asked me, Little Miss Lefty, to run for student government, having a voice and some degree of input on promotion and tenure was my platform. According to this document, little has changed in this realm except for the worst examples of how to evaluate teaching, such as "Rate My Teacher," which fills the vacuum that higher education has maintained, research institutions in particular, about raising teaching to the level of research.  But a word of caution: "great teachers" is a very ill-defined statement, and greatness may operate differently for different people, in a variety of disciplines, etc.  If nothing else, I would be disheartened to have the notion devolve into demagoguery.  And by the way, there is a learning curve to teaching … great teachers do not just emerge out of the head of Zeus, but often require years of preparation and experience before, like any other expertise, one achieves a steady state in the craft.  The word "great" does not seem to allow for that kind of development, which is ironic, because it, too, is "learning."    

Now as to the principles, if we: administrators, educators, support staff, etc., are not already doing the many values listed, then we should turn in our keys and move aside. Nothing specific to distance education, or MOOCs, that I see here. And if education as it currently exists is somehow the opposite of these qualities, then I agree, there is much, much work to be done.  But somehow I don't feel that to be the case on a massive scale … so allow me to get to my main concern with this document.

Our Bill of Rights is a political document, born out of the experience of the colonists facing a central and oppressive authority of Great Britain in the last third of the 18th Century.  For most of that list there were distinct practices that informed the framers: censorship, forced quartering of soldiers, arbitrary and captious search and seizures, double jeopardy and less than due process.  Is higher education that bad?  Again, I don't think so.  Which is not to say that we do not have some very serious challenges to countenance, but traditional, not for profit education cannot be said to have so violated faculty, staff and students.  Which does make one wonder about the potential for hyperbolic prose given the source: a newly formed, for-profit company.  These rights seems more suited to that kind of environment, where students are now indeed consumers and the owners, not matter how noble, are as a matter of corporate organization "in it for the money."  Take note: this is true of Coursera too.  Please note that this corporate organization is in contrast to the institutions that exist as not for profit institutions because they are designed as a public good.  Perhaps in a market-driven world, we need to be more thoughtful about what "public good" means?

It is on that distinction that I think the authors have missed the mark. Again, not insofar as current traditional not-for-profit higher education is above reproach, but because it is not so much a matter of "rights" that will secure anything of what is needed for change.  We are a community of scholars and we invite students into that world with rights, yes, but also with responsibilities.  I would be much more in favor of revisiting from a broad and enriched perspective the notion of academic integrity as the starting point.  From that we can all consider deeply our responsibilities to teach well, to learn appropriately and to have experiences relevant to intellectual autonomy and the contributions toward global citizenship. That is a document I think is worth drafting.

 

 

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