'Tempest in a Teapot' at George Washington U.
Faculty members at George Washington University last week sounded the alarm about a new online course policy that appeared to present a breach of academic freedom, but the outrage quickly evaporated after the administration specified it only applied to accessibility testing and technical issues.
The furor was sparked by a memo sent from Provost Steven Lerman’s office that some faculty members interpreted as the administration granting itself the power to share course content with outside groups and change it without consulting the instructor.
“In order to provide centralized review of GW’s online courses to ensure compliance with legal requirements imposed by federal, state, or district law (e.g., that materials are reasonably accessible as required under federal disability laws) , the Provost’s Office may, at its discretion, grant access to online course materials and recordings of online discussions to auditors, outside contractors, or designated University personnel for the purpose of reviewing such materials for legal compliance or to propose improvements to GW’s online education programs,” the memo read.
Lerman clarified the administration’s intentions during a Faculty Senate meeting last Friday, said Charles A. Garris, a professor in the School of Engineering and Applied Science who was in attendance.
“They put forth this badly written memo, and there was a big misunderstanding, and they have absolutely no intention of releasing online course materials without faculty members’ authorization,” Garris said. “I think it was more more or less a tempest in a teapot.”
Garris’s take on the situation shows how the faculty’s outrage has deflated over the weekend. When the issue was reported in the student newspaper The GW Hatchet on Friday, Philip W. Wirtz, vice dean of programs and education, was quoted as saying the policy appeared “to be a clear trampling of faculty rights.”
Paul S. Berman, vice provost for online education and academic innovation, further elaborated on the policy in a statement.
“The policy is only meant to help the university ensure that all of our online courses are in compliance with various legal and accreditation requirements by allowing us to grant access to administrators or to third parties hired by the university to audit for such compliance issues and make recommendations,” Berman said.
For example, the university could grant access to an outside consultant to test if an online course conforms to accessibility standards, or to check the robustness of student identity verification methods and exam integrity, Berman said.
“Sometimes this access must be granted on an expedited basis, making it not feasible to track down every faculty member that may be involved in order to get individualized permission, and since these are legal or accreditation requirements, it is not something that is optional in any event,” Berman said. “Thus, this policy will simply help streamline the compliance process. No broader scope or review of course content or curriculum is contemplated by this policy.”