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The University of Pennsylvania is working on new guidelines to limit its professors' freelance work for online education companies.

The university proposed new guidelines Tuesday to show how its conflict of interest policy applies to professors who want to teach online courses through outside firms. Penn said outside ventures “may create the potential for conflicts of interest that did not arise in the past" for faculty because of Penn's existing online educational offerings and new offerings the university is developing. The university makes clear it has first dibs on its professors’ time, including professors who want to teach online courses.

Edward Rock, a senior advisor to Penn's president and provost and the university's director of open course initiatives, said the new guidelines represent an updated version of the longstanding principle that professors owe their primary loyalty to their home institution with few exceptions. 

“It occurred to us -- and, as I talked to other universities, folks are coming to very much the same position now that we’re teaching online -- the same principle has to apply to teaching in cyberspace,” Rock said.

He said Penn was thinking ahead and not reacting to a particular incident.

“I think it’s important as sort of an educational matter for the faculty to understand that online teaching is here and we’re doing it and start thinking about it in the same terms,” Rock said.

Penn says professors who want to teach online courses or freelance their talents should first explain why they can’t do so using Penn’s existing but nonexclusive partnership with massive open online course provider Coursera or an in-house effort, the Arts & Sciences Learning Commons.

“First, teaching online has become part of the ‘university’s outstanding or prospective commitments for teaching and research,’ ” the draft policy says. “Just as a faculty member may not agree to teach at another university without the university’s permission, so too a faculty member may not agree to teach elsewhere in cyberspace without permission.”

Penn’s guidelines say the university may be protecting programs it is still developing from outside companies that might compete against them using Penn’s own faculty. The university is working to develop 15-20 online courses a year for the next several years, Rock said. He said not all of them will be massive open online courses, or MOOCs, for Coursera. 

“Second, because the university is developing and offering a growing array of online programs, ranging from traditional for-credit courses for enrolled students to short modules for the general public,  many activities that previously might have been outside of the university’s sphere are now within its operations,” the draft says.

Rock said players for the New York Knicks can't just wake up and begin playing for the Indiana Pacers. So too, he said, should it go for faculty.

“What Wharton is selling in executive education is Wharton faculty -- that’s the brand," he said. "And when you think of why that is, you have to think of it in terms of conflict of commitment."

The policy was prepared with help from numerous faculty and faculty committees, the university said. The university said the guidelines are based on longstanding rules, including rules that say a faculty member’s "primary professional obligation is to the university."

The online issues are not new. More than a decade ago, Harvard University took exception when one of its law professors, Arthur R. Miller, began offering instruction to students at the online Concord University School of Law. He kept teaching to Concord students anyway.

"How much of Arthur Miller," Miller said at the time, "does Harvard own?

But the such issues are now reemerging as online education firms seek to use star professors from established universities to reconfigure the higher education market in ways that some professors think could ultimately harm traditional universities.

Earlier this year, for instance, the union for faculty at the University of California at Santa Cruz said it could seek a new round of collective bargaining after several professors agreed to teach classes on Coursera. Union officials worry professors who agree to teach free online classes could undermine faculty intellectual property rights and collective bargaining agreements. 

Rock, a lawyer and law professor, said Penn had worked out those issues by coming up with an agreement for faculty members and the university for Coursera classes. In those agreements, Rock said the content of a course belongs to faculty but the "expression" of that course, which is to say videos of the lectures, belong to the university, which pays for them to be created. Professors also get a stipend for teaching a Coursera course and the chance to share revenue, if there ever is any.

Bob Samuels, president of the University Council-American Federation of Teachers, which represents 4,000 University of California instructors and librarians and who was involved in the Santa Cruz issue, looked at Penn's draft guidelines and wondered if the university was accomplishing what it intended to.

"If I teach a MOOC at Penn that is mostly for non-Penn students, can I say that I am not being distracted from my Penn work," he wrote in an e-mail. "I think this process is turning people into private free agents and muddles the distinction between the work one does for the home institution and the work one does with an outside, for-profit vendor."

Rock said he doesn't view the faculty's work for Penn's online offerings that way at all. For one thing, he said, faculty don't reduce their normal teaching load when they work on a Coursera course, so Penn students are not losing out on traditional classes. For another, Rock said faculty already give lessons to non-Penn students, including students in continuing education classes and lectures faculty give to other researchers or to people from the corporate world. But now MOOCs allow Penn faculty to extend that work to tens of thousands of users online.

“To view it as privatizing teaching or working for some for-profit enterprise is, I think, to trivialize what the faculty members are doing,” Rock said.

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