An Online Place

by Diane Klein

Suppose the faculty, staff, and students at nearly every institution of higher learning in the United States woke up tomorrow in the plot of "A Quiet Place."  Terrible fatal monsters were stalking their schools, sensitive to the very least sound.  In response, university administrations ordered everyone to begin using American Sign Language (ASL) for all instructional activities, immediately.

Everyone would quickly realize how ridiculous and impossible that was.  The overwhelming majority of university students and teachers don't know ASL, and this instruction would be impossible to follow (even if one's life and the lives of others depended on it).  The initial phases of such a transition would be incredibly difficult ("If they hear you, they hunt you"), and while eventually effective instruction could and would occur, a great deal of instructional time would be lost (to say nothing of the people killed by the monsters!).

Decisions currently being made by university administrations to conduct all instruction online beginning in a day or a week might not sound quite as ridiculous as the premise of "The Quiet Place."  After all, many faculty members use "distance learning" every day in schools across the country.  Many have been doing so for years.  Of course, the same goes for ASL.  The difference is that no one thinks you can learn ASL, much less use it effectively to communicate complex course content, overnight.

As with so many of the skills possessed disproportionately by the lowest-paid, most precarious part of the academic work force (and also the segment with the greatest proportions of women, BIPOC, and other historically underrepresented faculty), those in higher status positions not only do not respect the skills required for effective online instruction, they seem not to think there are skills needed here, at all.  They've got another think coming.

When I began an online teaching certification course at my school last spring (which took about 5-10 hours per week, over two months), I didn't know very much about online education.  I was not a complete Luddite or technological naif.  I knew how to record a lecture on Panopto; I knew how to post a Syllabus on TWEN or Google docs, and how to give a secure multiple-choice exam on TWEN.  But I had no real understanding of the functionality of a Learning Management System (LMS) like Blackboard, or Canvas, or Moodle, or any of the other oodles of cutely-named educational "platforms" out there.  I knew I didn't want to build "robot Diane," and what I mostly feared was taping lectures and creating content (especially Syllabi and assessments) that could be turned into a course without me there.  I didn't want to cooperate in my own planned obsolescence.

I was inspired to obtain this certification because the ABA had relaxed its standards about distance education and adopted new Standard 306, permitting greater use of online learning.  I predicted that my university, where Blackboard was very widely used outside the College of Law, would want to expand its use of online education for law students.  Prior to that time, the ABA had been quite resistant to it, and as a result, legal education lagged years behind other disciplines (for better or worse).  In just a few years, the environment has changed so much that now the ABA is considering abolishing that Standard and revamping its approach to online and distance ed quite significantly.  Online JDs are becoming increasingly common, and legal education will be joining the great experiment in distance learning.  Except now, thanks to coronavirus, it's going to be a crash course.

The "robot Diane" concern I brought to my online training was only partly misplaced.  As the enrollees in the course introduced themselves (by video clip, natch), I quickly realized I was the only tenured faculty member in the bunch (of more than 20).  New adjuncts (part-time non-tenure-eligible faculty) were being required to complete this course, unpaid, and the course modules they were "building" inside Blackboard would not belong to them, but to the university.  Most tenured and tenure-eligible faculty probably don't think very much about the intellectual property rights in course content we create - lecture notes, slides, assessments, even Syllabi.  Because faculty create and control these materials, most universities generally don't assert any rights in them, formally.  If we thought about it, we'd probably think of ourselves as the copyright holders, and the university and/or the students as licensees.  Unless the university sought to commercialize our content without our approval, disputes over who owns your lecture notes seem unlikely.  (I do remember Prof. Eben Moglen getting into a dispute with Harvard Law School in spring 1995 about ownership of an exam he had written as a visiting professor, which HLS claimed to have the right to retain, though I don't recall how it turned out.)

While it might seem no different to write an exam or lecture notes in longhand on a legal pad, on your home computer or tablet, or "inside" an LMS like Blackboard, in fact, the legal situation is entirely different.  Blackboard is proprietary, and faculty members who create content within it are subject to whatever agreement their university has entered into with this private, for-profit vendor.  If a faculty member leaves the school, their access to Blackboard - and to the content they created - is lost.  If a school and Blackboard part ways, it is not at all clear what happens to everything "inside" that system. Same goes for all the rest of those proprietary, for-profit vendors.

These issues are invisible to many faculty members in higher education, who either are not lawyers, simply have not thought about it, or have the luxury of being able to choose whether to teach using Blackboard or something like it.  At my school, the chair of the Faculty Technology Committee, a physics professor, has simply never used Blackboard.  The faculty who have that luxury, unsurprisingly, are the same faculty who have the other luxuries enjoyed by those at the top of the academic food chain - the senior tenured faculty, predominantly, many of whom have not fundamentally changed the way they teach in years, perhaps decades.  For the tenure-eligible and those who have entered tenure-eligible teaching in the past decade or so, whether and how to use online platforms may be under their control to some degree, depending on the university, subject, and program in which they teach.  But for that great mass of contingent faculty - now about 70% of the professoriate by some estimates - there is no choice at all.  If this is what your employer requires, this is what you will do.  And for more and more part-time non-tenure eligible faculty (aka "adjuncts"), teaching on an online platform is a job requirement.  Fluency in more than one of them is a necessity for those contingent faculty who teach in two or three or more places every semester.

Worse yet, in some universities (like mine), creating content inside a platform like Blackboard and obtaining the required certification - a process that, recall, took me between 40 and 80 hours - is a prerequisite to being assigned to teach even a single course as an adjunct.  The courses the adjuncts seek to teach typically pay a few thousand dollars apiece - and even to be eligible to be hired, would-be faculty must do 40 or more hours of entirely uncompensated labor, create content they do not own or control (these are the "assignments" in the certification course, but they consist of actual course content) - and at the end of it, there is no guarantee whatsoever that you will be assigned to teach the course you have begun building.  This is your gift, apparently, to your prospective employer (who generously offers the course itself "for free").

Online education is challenging, both for faculty and for students.  A quick story: in the summer of 2017, I developed a component of a professional responsibility course that required students to create video clips from scripted entertainment depicting fictional lawyers engaged in conduct that implicated the rules of professional responsibility.  Students had to post the clip on a video blog (a "vlog") I curate, Klein's PR Onscreen, and analyze the conduct under the applicable Model Rules.  The vlog has more than 200 clips today, and law professors, especially PR teachers, love it.  But students hated it.  It resulted in some of the worst student evaluations I'd ever received.  Students thought I was wasting their time.  They had no interest in acquiring the (quite basic, I thought) skills necessary to create and post these clips.  Some complained about having to watch television when they thought they were supposed to be "studying."  I raise this to draw attention to the fact that unfamiliar modalities of learning, including those one might think are congenial to "digital natives," are not always enthusiastically embraced by students - even when those modalities are effective.  Students who did not enroll in distance ed classes are now going to get them, in bulk, whether they like it or not - and I'm here to tell you, they are not going to like it (even if they understand better than my former students the current necessity or value of delivering courses this way).

Effective online instruction requires skill and intention.  Right now, first of all, universities nationwide should emulate Chancellor Matos Rodriguez of the CUNY system, who is extending spring break by a week to train the faculty "to operate in full distance education mode."  But beyond that, what an enlightened university administration would do is create a "Strike Force" of experienced adjuncts who have been teaching online effectively using whatever LMS is in place at the university - and pay them to teach their colleagues.  This expertise exists in-house nearly everywhere - and the people who have it should be paid to share it.  The faculty who possess this expertise have acquired it painstakingly and largely at their own expense, and have done so while in the most precarious, underpaid and undervalued faculty status in America.  This is a potential "last shall be first" moment in higher education, a moment to recognize that the least-appreciated faculty in the entire university are in possession of valuable skills that are now more vital than ever to the continued carrying out of the institution's mission.  It's time for the tenured to sit at the (virtual) feet of the adjuncts.

One last thought: There will come a time when the coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has passed, or at least subsided, and universities will be back to "business as usual."  But close observers of higher ed in America cannot help but wonder how many of the courses that "migrate" to these online platforms during this crisis may never come back.  This is not a primary worry at the Harvards and Stanfords of the world - their faculty, students, and parents understand that a very significant part of what an education in those institutions offers is in-person contact with the elite faculty and student body who are there.

But in cash-strapped public and private institutions of a distinctively less elite variety, this worry is very real.  Faculty and administrations have been in a largely-unseen tussle in recent years about distance education: who creates the content, who owns and controls it, who delivers it (and who makes those decisions).  The American Association of University Professors (AAUP) launched its Faculty Anti-Privatization Network project last fall to address issues related to online education, and has also worked to draw attention to faculty intellectual property issues for a number of years.  University administrations see online education as an opportunity to raise revenue (and maybe build those robot teachers that will be so much cheaper than full tenured faculty, and never raise issues about shared governance or academic freedom); faculty are concerned not just about being replaced, but about the degradation of educational quality, and about decisions that are educationally unsound being made for financial reasons alone.  Administrators tout the use of distance ed for "access" and affordability (and now, public safety), which sound great in theory - but educators point to lower completion rates in online education for the most vulnerable students, and point out that responsible use of distance education technology does not necessarily lower the cost of delivering a course, especially if someone, somewhere, has to grade papers one at a time, or provide individualized feedback.

This decision to "go online" may be the best one, as a public health matter, and may strike the best balance between keeping people safe, avoiding overtaxing our medical system, and continuing education as best we can.  But it carries its own risks - to the quality of education, to the intellectual property rights of faculty, to the shifting balance of power towards administrations and private vendors and away from faculty and students.  We need to admit that there is no time for the entire American professoriate to learn what they need to know in order to deliver educational programming competently and effectively online - although our adjunct colleagues have a lot to teach us, and we ought to pay them appropriately to do so.  Nor is there time for America's students to familiarize themselves fully with whatever online platform or platforms are in use for distance education in their institutions, if they have not already done so.  But we have to try.  Because, like it or not, American universities are waking up today in "An Online Place."