Because academic freedom does not include the freedom to create a poor learning experience


Academic freedom
Academic freedom

Dear Faculty Member or Academic (whichever you would prefer),

I was delighted to see your response to Joshua Kim’s post on experiences working with Learning Designers which he reports here on the Inside Higher Education web site. I’ll remind you of what you said:

“Enough of this professionalization nonsense. Education != instruction–education, to quote the good Cardinal Newman, “is a higher word.” We, faculty, establish the environment for education. Professional staff such as “learning designers” or “instructional designers” are extraneous and a drain on our precious few resources. Replacing tenure lines with an army of professionalized staff loaded with credentials alongside low-paid and necessarily subservient and contingent adjunct faculty is not the appropriate way forward. You are complicit with the destruction of higher education and the transformation of our institutions into the corporate university. Reject these efforts to redefine education into the instrumentalized system that you are already fully involved in. Enough.”

I think your view represents one that would be widely held in many universities and it’s important that this view be recognised and responded to because, the fact is, it represents the height of academic arrogance and pomposity dressed up as a concern for the welfare of students when, in fact, it’s nothing more than a demand for the status quo and, preferably, a return to some mythical golden age of academia.

Now I have every respect for an academic’s expertise in a particular discipline. I have no intention of arguing with someone who has spent their life studying mid-Asian relaxation techniques in the 14th century in a discussion on trends in Tibetan meditation in the middle ages. I will happily accept that somebody with numerous research outputs in the use of fruit flies in genetic studies almost certainly knows a bit more about it than me. And, more controversially, I accept the right of some academics to expound an unpalatable thesis. I may not agree with them and I may hope that somebody with expertise may counter that thesis but nevertheless it is critical that researchers and academics have the right of academic freedom to explore all possible topics and present alternative views.

What I don’t accept is the supposed automatic right of the faculty member to determine the learning experience of students. Only a small proportion of faculty members have any training or development in the advanced pedagogical techniques that are required in modern higher education. Higher education pedagogy today is much more complex than it was when I started as faculty member in 1990 when, really, the delivery options were still limited. You gave lectures, tutorials, maybe labs or seminars. There may have been some field trips. If you were adventurous you might try problem based learning or simulations or role play. In fact the more I look at it the pedagogy was actually very complex even then.

Today we typically work with a much wider range of options, technologies and types of students. Expectations are much higher in terms of delivery and the pressures on academic staff members to produce higher quality learning materials as well as develop research are inexorable. The internet is here; you may not go wholly online but you will be expected to have an online presence and, probably, a blended learning approach. Are you telling me that you are an expert on that as well? Have you studied the use of flipped classrooms? Do you know how create a social constructivist model of pedagogy in your course? What about adopting a maker culture into your course. It could be a good way of developing a unplagiarisable  and authentic assessment strategy and engender a shared learning assessment model. You may wish to include some peer assessment. You did know that didn’t you?

What about the tools for learning? I take that you know how to use synchronous teaching tools or how to set up blogs and wikis in your learning management system and why you would or wouldn’t do either of those things. I could go on but I think you get the point about complexity.

The thing is, I don’t get to tell you about your area of expertise an you don’t get to tell me about my area of expertise. What happens is that we work together as a subject matter expert (that’s you) and a learning designer (that’s people like me) and we’ll probably have a programming/multimedia support as well. We’ll work out what it is you want your students to know/understand/be able to do once they’ve completed the course then we’ll develop a solution that will lead to those outcomes. It’s quite simple really. And the opinions and theses that you develop as part of academic freedom can and will be incorporated into the learning experience because that is a quite different use of the notion of academic freedom and a justifiable one.

You complain about professional staff being a drain on resources but the fact is that a much more realistic and professional approach to course development will give you more time and be much better for the students. You just have to learn to let go. Accept that you’re not an expert in everything and just remember that your right to academic freedom does not extend into a right to create a poor learning experience.





9 thoughts on “Because academic freedom does not include the freedom to create a poor learning experience”

  1. G’day Mark, Not hear to define “Faculty Member”, it’s a silly, but not uncommon mindset (as you know).

    Having been one of those central L&T folk, however, I wonder about a potential dirty little secret that underpins the practice.

    As you mention, the pedagogy required today requires a lot more expertise. It would be great to be able to have the luxury of a learning designer and an associated programming team working side-by-side with academics.

    The trouble is that the numbers don’t scale. When I was responsible for the designers at a prior institution we had at the peak about 3.5 or 4.5 learning designers to spread across a few hundred courses every semester. Lets not get started on the programming folk.


    1. Hi David,

      You’re right. The current model doesn’t scale that’s because of:
      a) a lack of investment in the provision of key support staff and processes
      b) when central L&T structures exist or are created they are often led by research focused academics supported by a few inexperienced and underpaid doers. They then spend their time bogged down in the minutiae of curriculum re-design and learning outcomes (which are important but not at the expense of actually producing stuff).

      I prefer a model (incidentally supported by Clayton Christensen’s thoughts on adapting to disruptive innovation) whereby a semi autonomous organisation with responsibility to provide course development is tasked with providing learning design support (amongst other things). Course development is prioritised and scheduled over the five year life of most programs.

      My previous employer could be viewed as very good example of this in action. A very scalable model.

      I also think that academic staff should be encouraged to seek out Learning Design services based on the potential for recognition and promotion. (Disclaimer, I now run a company that provides edtech and LD services to highered).



    1. Hi Brian,

      I think there is an important role for this but we have to be realistic; some faculty members do not want to be trained, they don’t think it’s their job and they will be reluctant to learn or adopt these skills, let alone do the work.

      There is a strong argument that you are paying faculty members for their specialist knowledge in a specific area that almost certainly isn’t 21st century pedagogy. Do we really want to divert these staff from their specialisms? I’m talking particularly about universities here and not necessarily other forms of highered.

      I absolutely believe that faculty should have a higher level of understanding than they do now; it helps the conversation. But do they need to be trained up so highly?



  2. I’m both Faculty member (in a fairly arcane area) and I lead a team of educational designers, and I think there are flaws in both positions. I’m probably closer to David’s view here: dedicated support as it’s currently resourced truly doesn’t amount to a threat, and cannot scale. We run 2000+ courses and we have a substantive team of just 4 learning designers.

    So there are risks in implying that the academics who don’t access this very limited service are offering some kind of 19th century experience, because that will inevitably be the majority of academics, through no fault of their own. We are right in the middle of the process of requiring academics who have learning technology projects to bid for next year’s support time, and it’s a burden on them and a pain for us, with a discouraging outcome: that very, very few will get the support they need, because we don’t have the resources to provide it.

    Beyond this, what freaks me out about learning design is its reductivist tendencies, which is what I think whenever I see templates and diagrams of the perfect mix of resources, activities and outcomes, plus Bloom’s taxonomy. Where I work, we are thinking carefully about the difference between templated (and often theory-driven) learning design, and a more open approach to experience design. This all takes more time, and more resources, that we don’t have.

    The Faculty member you quote needs to take a shower and have a lie down. The idea that instructional design teams are impacting on tenure line budgets is truly laughable. If that were the case, there’d be more of us. But at most institutions I know of you could comfortably fit the instructional design team in the lift and still have room for a party of kids and a float of balloons.

    1. Hi Kate,

      Thanks for the comment. I agree, the current model is un-scalable. I set out some more thoughts in my response to David.

      I hear what you say about reductivist tendencies in LD. I would argue that such design would be poor design and we certainly need to aim for something suits the course being developed.



    2. The hard part to this conversation is that with everything pushed to online AND that specialised knowledge is available somewhere on line. The important thing then, is how you engage students to learn. They have to now find the knowledge and ratify it and make their own understanding of what constitutes knowledge. Even though I am an academic I think learning designers would do a great job in building courses and organising the uses of technology to collaborate and share experiences.
      I think that teaching, in the main, is to the detriment of learning and if it is student led investigations that we want in a constructivst approach then maybe someone who knows nothing about the topic is in a much better place to work with students to find what is important and relevant to them.

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