UC-AFT has put together a web page with links to several articles regarding the UC push for online education. We have also outlined some of the ways we are seeking to use the collective bargaining process to restrict the use of distance education and to protect the rights and jobs of lecturers. Since we are currently bargaining the Unit 18 contract, we have the opportunity to engage the administration in a discussion of how the move to online courses will affect faculty workload, intellectual property, merit review, and promotion.
While it is clear that UC is trying to cut costs and generate profits by moving large enrollment courses online, we know that most research university online programs have failed because of the high cost and poor student retention. Distance Education also waters down the prestige of a university degree; after all, why should someone pay $40,000 to sit at home in front of a computer.
Of course, one of the risks of moving classes online is that the faculty can become subject to surveillance and political intimidation. This threat has just become reality at the University of Missouri where an instructor has lost his job after a video of his class appeared to show him advocating violence in labor activism. According to the Inside Higher Ed story, the infamous Right-wing blogger, Andrew Breitbart, the same person who brought down ACORN and Shirley Sherrord, obtained the video from a student who copied it off of the university’s online course management system. The video was then reedited, and although university officials acknowledged this manipulation, they still forced the non-tenure-track instructor to resign.
We see in this example the failure of academic freedom to protect instructors and students, and we also learn here how online courses open faculty to public scrutiny and political witch hunts. In this particular case, students were motivated by a conservative group to post video of their teachers endorsing unions and other forms of labor activism. This example is similar to what happened at UCLA a few years ago when a conservative alumni group offered money for students who recorded their professors saying anti-American or anti-Israel things. Not only is Big Brother watching, but with new digital media, little brother also has access to our private words and actions.
Online courses then not only get rid of the need for “bricks and mortar,” but they also remove any sense of education as a protected sphere. Since anyone can now copy and edit digital recordings, online lectures and course material become subject to political manipulation. While the UC faculty will be assured that privacy protections will be in place for online courses, these safeguards will be easily transgressed by any high-tech political hack.
In related news, UC Berkeley is contemplating putting student evaluations online, and this move will also render faculty vulnerable to outside political manipulation. As we have seen at UCLA, disgruntled students can try to sabotage their professors by claiming that these teachers are Left-wing ideologues, and once these evaluations go online, you cannot control whose hands they end up in. Online student evaluations also turn teaching into a market where students search for the easiest classes or the most entertaining lectures.
It should be clear that faculty and students should resist this move to place all of our views and experiences online.