Accrediting On-Line Institutions


Posted to the Chronicle of Higher Education, October 26, 1999

I have the luxury of coming late into this discussion, and thereby, of reading not only the essay by James Perley and Denise Marie Tanguay, but also the insightful responses shared by some of the leading thinkers in the field of online learning.

My schedule being what it is, I would have missed this discussion were it held in a traditional face-to-face fashion. Moreover, I would have missed it because the discussion most probably would have occurred at some eastern American university, a bit too far for a mid-week session. And I can't help but to wonder whether the discussion would have been so insightful were it crammed into the ten minutes traditionally reserved for questions.

Perley and Tanguay argue that Jones International University should not have been accredited. They place this argument in the context of the observation that Jones, as a fully online university, cannot be properly evaluated by accreditors. Moreover, they argue that an online university cannot embody the essence of a university: academic freedom, collegial governance, and the combination of teaching and research.

The hypothesis underlying Perley and Tanguay's reasoning is that an online university "unbundles" education such that "course materials are prepared by a 'content expert' and delivered by a 'faculty facilitator,' in a uniform manner, producing predictable and measurable 'outcomes' that fit uniform assessment tools." By this process, faculty are relieved of the direct control they have over course content, thus threatening the three pillars of academic freedom, collegial governance, and the role of research.

I am in agreement with some of the commentators, for example, Elizabeth Kirk, who argue that the medium of instruction does not inherently threaten these three pillars. Nothing prevents an online university from hiring tenured faculty who will teach via the internet in much the same manner as professors have been teaching for the last five hundred years.

But I am not in agreement with the idea that this would be a good thing. For while Perley and Tanguay defend - in passing - the high standards embodied by the traditional system (though only against those institutions in unnamed "other countries"), they do not show that the three pillars are essential to a quality university.

Moreover, their response is, in my opinion, not so much a defense of universities, or of education, or of learning in general, it is a defense of a set of special permissions for a privileged few. One wonders how a rigidly authoritarian system, one resembling medieval fiefdoms more than modern democratic society, can be said to advance the causes of knowledge and enquiry.

Let me pursue that point. Perley and Tanguay argue that online learning is turning education into "nothing more than a collection of marketable commodities". They direct their attack most explicitly at commercially based enterprises. They invoke the scepter of a McDonald's like approach as they attack the "the rapid, franchise-like expansion of the University of Phoenix".

But while I do not recommend a Big Mac and fries for lunch, so also do I reject the idea that the only restaurant worthy of mention must be Chez Pierre's. Perley and Tanguay blithely ignore the fact that education - even in the ivy-bound traditional sense - is already a commodity. With tuitions in the tens of thousands of dollars, it is a very expensive commodity. And as such, it is a commodity reserved for a privileged few.

Open University Chancellor Sir John Daniel observes, "Half the world's population is now under 20. Our traditional concept of campus teaching will deny higher education to nearly all these youngsters." The result, he argues, is not only morally indefensible, it is a "ticking time bomb". Left in the hands of academics, universities have evolved into institutions which serve the needs of a privileged few, ignoring the needs of the hungry many.

Perhaps there is a defense to be made, though, from the observation that while McDonald's serves burgers, Chez Pierre serves filet mignon. And perhaps there is an argument to be made that the world needs filet mignon, if only to preserve the experience of fine dining. But on analysis of Perley and Tanguay's three pillars, however, we find that the merit is not in the meat.

Let us consider the first pillar, academic freedom. Long touted as the bulwark which supports professors in their avowal of unpopular opinions, "free to examine the controversial as well as the conventional in a search for truth." I too support academic freedom but wonder why it is the exclusive domain of tenured university professors.

As Chief Swift Eagle so cogently observes, "Academic freedom does not belong in the hands of a tenured faculty. Academic freedom belongs in the hands of the students." And not only in the hands of students - enshrined not only in the American Bill of Rights, but in constitutions around the world, are freedoms of expression, the press, and of religion, among others.

Not so in a university classroom. Students have little or no protection against the overwhelming weight of their professors' opinions. And while some enlightened teachers of wisdom and reason allow students their own foibles, the vast majority direct the masses with the unremitting hand of the conductor. A professor's academic freedom is not merely a security blanket; it is a license to do what he wants in the classroom, with little or no regard to the students' interests.

Perley and Tanguay don't say it in so many words, but they might as well have. They observe that "unbundled" learning "It destroys the ability of a faculty member to alter classroom content." Assuming for the moment that this is true, we must observe that while sometimes the professors' powers to alter course materials may be used for good, in other cases it may be used for evil.

Granting professors unimpeded control over course content may allow them to respond to student requirements or adapt to students' backgrounds. But it also allows them to read in monotone directly from the text, offer thirty-nine movies in a semester, or to blithely unsubstantiated theories, hypotheses and rumors. Academic freedom, in this context, is not automatically a good thing; the freedom of the professor comes at too great a cost if it ignores the freedoms of the students or society at large.

And indeed, one wonders what gives a tenured professor a unique insight into teaching at all. Course packs, for all their weaknesses, have at least the steady hand of a professional educator to guide them in their content and delivery. Course packs have in their origins not only a subject matter expert, but also an author who has some understanding of pedagogy and learning styles. A professorship in nuclear physics may make someone an authority on the subject of nuclear weapons, but is no guarantee that his teaching will not simply bomb.

We now turn to the second pillar, the practice of collegial governance. The concern, of course, is that "At entirely on-line institutions, faculty members won't be able to assert their collective or individual rights and responsibilities to develop and modify course curricula." One wonders, first, where Perley and Tanguay obtained this interesting insight. And one wonders, second, who died and made them God. Let me address each in turn.

First, there is no inherent separation between professors and content in online learning. From my experience evaluating hundreds of online courses in three years as NAWeb Awards chair, I can say with authority that university professors authored the vast majority of online courses. Yes, were a university to be founded with no professors whatsoever, then perhaps professors would have no input. But that seems to be the exception rather than the rule.

Moreover, even the governance of an online university may be collegial. At Athabasca University, for example, university professors participate in the same sort of faculty councils as they do at more traditional universities (they are about equally efficient, too). Program approval, curricula, and assessment practices are addressed by tenured staff. All this despite the fact that Athabasca is a completely distance, and increasingly online, university.

As to the second point: one wonders how Perley and Tanguay would support the assertion that university professors - and only university professors - should be involved in the design and implementation of programs, curricula and assessment practices. Certainly none of them (save those few from the Education faculty) are experts in the field of education.

One can imagine how a nuclear physicist would react were the campus breeder reactor turned over to a fine arts professor on the grounds that the reactor must be managed through a process of collegial governance. Or imagine how a biochemist would react were lab policies and procedures to be dictated by the collective wisdom of the Faculty of English Literature.

It is ironic to see in a defense of learning and intellect such a spirited defense of amateurism. Though it was not so in the middle ages when universities were founded, education has found its place in the academic disciplines, with the consequence that some people other than nuclear physicists can advise as to the best method of teaching Physics 101.

The defense of collegial governance ignores the reality that universities are increasingly communities of academics and non-academics (not to mention students) working together to pursue social and academic goals. Many universities in addition have in government and industry partnerships and shared objectives. In such a multi-faceted society, the preservation of governance by only one elite caste is not only wrong, it is short sighted.

Online learning recognizes the valuable contributions made by non-academic staff. In online learning, instructional designers, internet programmers, graphic designers, writers and editors all contribute to the quality and effectiveness of a piece of learning. One wonders where professors get the idea that this is somehow "their" course or "their" course content.

Finally, let me turn to the third pillar: the combination of teaching and research. Perley and Tanguay argue, "The lack of support for faculty research in entirely on-line universities undercuts the responsibility of higher education to explore new knowledge." This aspect of learning is important, they argue, because "The goal of higher education is to produce a student who is capable of independent and creative thinking and decision making, not merely a receiver of knowledge that has already been recorded."

As an instructor in logic and critical thinking for seven years, I can suggest some more efficient means of fostering independent and creative thinking in students. For one thing, I would not subject them to interminable lectures in crowded auditoriums; I would subject them to interaction and discussion among themselves and, from time to time, with experts. I would also place them in an environment where they can try new things, make choices, make mistakes, and stretch their limits.

And if Perley and Tanguay really want students to interact with researchers, then they should consider alternatives to traditional education. An online discussion - such as this - is an excellent forum for interaction; it is so much more comfortable and relaxed than that hurried conversation in the hall as the professor rushes to his next class. And it is so much more democratic, as now students from around the world can interact with the world's leading researchers.

In short, what I am proposing here is not so much the abolition of Perley and Tanguay's three pillars as I am proposing a democratization of them. Academic freedom, yes, but academic freedom for all. Collegial governance, yes, but collegial governance by all. Access to researchers, yes, but access to researchers for all.

Higher education, observes Sir Daniel, is a craft industry. And like the other craft industries which arose in the middle ages, it formed its own guilds with their self-appointed governing bodies and secret passwords. The lords of such guilds assumed the governance of society for its own good.

But time saw the passing from the craft to the manufacture, and while once only the elite could afford oak furniture and well-soled shoes, these soon became available to the masses, masses who at once both produced and consumed the new products of the industrial age. No longer content to leave the means of production in the self-serving hands of an elite few, they assembled, first at the castle gate, then in the town square, and finally, in the polling booth, to exercise both the right and responsibility of governance.

The computer age grants us the capacity to move the production and distribution of knowledge from the hands of a few skilled craftsmen to the engines of industry and commerce. The rationale for resisting the mass education of society becomes less and less tenable, particularly in a society where there is such a desperate need. The argument for a shared role and responsibility for education becomes increasingly persuasive.

Online learning forces the issue. It puts students in a position where they make choices, the ethereal equivalent of massing in the streets. It puts professors into a position where they must justify their position according to their accomplishments, not their privilege. It is a mass outpouring of learning, education, and even critical thinking and research.

It is a good thing.


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