Empowering the Faculty in Debates Over Managing Online Programs

A new tool kit from the AAUP offers faculty groups concrete steps for ensuring that partnerships with for-profit companies don't threaten academic freedom and program integrity.

October 24, 2018
 
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Faculty members' hackles have been raised in several recent cases over the terms of their institutions’ agreements with online program management providers -- and over their involvement in setting those terms.

Now the American Association of University Professors wants to empower instructors in those debates with the help of a tool kit of resources under the umbrella of “Education Not Privatization.”

The association’s materials, released Monday, don’t explicitly make the case that faculty members should seek to block deals with OPMs or other for-profit companies like learning management system providers. But they aim to even the playing field of contentious negotiations between for-profit companies and the complex network of shared governance on the institutional side.

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“While the use of digital platforms and online teaching tools can enrich higher education, elements of contracting with for-profit online education corporations can present problems in areas of interest to faculty, particularly academic freedom and shared governance,” the tool kit introduction reads.

Online program management companies, or OPMs, have emerged as an increasing force in higher education, turned to by many colleges to fill gaps in their expertise (in digital marketing, say, or instructional design) or provide up-front capital to adapt or initiate academic programs to take online. As the providers have proliferated, intensifying competition, so too have questions and qualms about the providers' expectations on revenue sharing and long-term contracts and about the potential blurring of lines over who controls what in the process of taking academic programs online.

In its primer on privatization, the association makes the case that partnerships with for-profit companies, when left unchecked, can diminish program quality, threaten student privacy, restrict academic freedom and damage an institution’s reputation. Internal survey data from the association indicates that many members feel frustrated with their institutions’ for-profit partners, and with the outcome of their efforts to raise concerns.

According to Monica Owens, senior program officer in AAUP’s department of organizing and services, the association was inspired to create the tool kit following a faculty group's successful effort this summer to reverse a controversial nondisclosure agreement at Purdue University Global.

“The goal is to create a network of chapters so that they feel they’re supported and they can see each other’s work, reflect back success and challenges, and also create more visibility,” Owens said.

Faculty members who use the tool kit’s resources will be better prepared to “defend some of the core principles of academic freedom and shared governance” that underlie higher education’s mission of serving “the common good,” Owens said.

While she stopped short of making blanket statements about the value of institutional partnerships with for-profit companies in providing academic programming, Owens said the association’s informal survey data and outside research from organizations like the Century Foundation and the Pew Research Group show that such partnerships can in some cases pose a threat to core faculty values.

“I hope that [for-profit companies] can understand and appreciate the immense value that faculty involvement brings to the table in terms of quality of education and online offerings,” Owens said. “I hope they take away from this that having robust shared governance in these contracts actually just strengthens online offerings and the quality of education.”

A document with 10 action items for faculty members opens by encouraging the association’s chapter representatives to obtain the proposed OPM contract with the institution via public-records requests -- or, if at a private institution, to review public records of other recently established contracts.

The tool kit warns of restrictive contract clauses that could pose challenges down the road for instructors, such as an “obscenity clause” that could limit curricula in disciplines like literature and art history, or an indemnity clause that weakly claims the institution will bear the responsibility of violations of the user agreement with the company.

Aside from preventative measures, the tool kit urges instructors to assert "agency" in the negotiation process, such as offering open-source alternatives to proprietary companies, submitting a faculty-driven letter of agreement to administrators in an effort to minimize the potential negative effects of an established partnership, and passing resolutions broadcasting faculty concerns and urging administrators to reconsider undesirable deals.

OPM companies, for their part, tend to dispute the notion that their efforts encroach upon faculty territory. "Inside Digital Learning" reached out to representatives of four OPMs for comment on the toolkit. Pearson's executive team was away at a meeting earlier this week and could only provide a statement, which did not address the toolkit but noted that "we respect academic freedom and strive to work with instructors to ensure they have access to the products and services that meet their needs and help students succeed." Wiley did not respond to requests for comment in time for publication.

Andrew Hermalyn, president of 2UGrad, offered a statement affirming 2U's commitment to listening to faculty voices.

"At 2U we don’t ‘privatize’ anything," Hermalyn wrote. "From day one, 2U has respected the importance of academic freedom and faculty governance, which is why our university partners and their faculty have always maintained control over accreditation, program curriculum, admission standards, student acceptance decisions, and faculty hiring."

Asked to comment on the tool kit, Lauren Fanning, vice president and general counsel at Academic Partnerships, pointed "Inside Digital Learning" to this document outlining the company's insistence upon faculty control over academic content.

Vickie Cook, executive director of the Center for Online Learning, Research and Service at the University of Illinois at Springfield, said she thinks the tool kit is “impressive” and understands that some institutions see value in partnering with an OPM. But she remains skeptical that such a partnership would be worth the potential headaches.

“I had a representative from an OPM vendor tell me that when an OPM contract must be eliminated, it is similar to a divorce,” Cook said. “No one comes out a winner, and in many instances both the vendor and the institution feel as though they have lost significant ground.”

Today at 1 p.m. Eastern the association will live-stream a discussion about the tool kit. The conversation will also touch on lessons learned from faculty efforts at Rutgers University in 2014 to block the institution's agreement with Pearson to share 50 percent of tuition in exchange for OPM support.

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