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Online Education

Faculty Members’ Outside Online Activities


James Engell

James Engell

Photograph by Kris Snibbe/Harvard Public Affairs and Communications

Members of the Faculty of Arts and Sciences (FAS) last spring voiced objections to a set of proposals to regulate professors’ “Teaching and Other Educational Content in the Online Environment,” prepared at President Drew Faust’s request by Harvard’s Council of Deans. Faust noted then that deans had been approached by faculty members seeking guidance about possible online-learning activities. In response, the council proposed language intended to encourage further faculty proposals for online education, so that additional examples of such activities and a body of guidance could emerge. Instead, some FAS faculty members found the language vague and so broad as to seem regulatory and chilling in effect (to the point of intruding on traditional academic prerogatives), rather than encouraging and expansive.

When Gurney professor of English literature and professor of comparative literature James Engell raised questions about these matters, the faculty’s docket committee asked FAS dean Michael D. Smith to create an ad hoc Committee on Outside Activities in the Online Environment to gather and communicate colleagues’ views. Engell served as chair, and the committee’s report, dated October 15, 2013, was taken up for discussion at the February 4 FAS meeting.

As background: Holding aside the unresolved issue of how faculty members are to be compensated for preparing and offering an online HarvardX course, the Council of Deans’ draft principles encouraged professors to experiment with new pedagogical technologies, but said they were “expected to use a Harvard platform” for such work when it is available; using other technology platforms would require prior approval—seemingly limiting the choice of a new, or more suitable, system were one to evolve. (Stanford, for example, is experimenting with multiple platforms, including the Harvard-MIT-led edX consortium.) Moreover, other aspects of the proposal raised questions about the issue of effective control over a faculty member’s free time and work effort, and possibly “educational materials,” in ways not anticipated by the existing policy, adopted in 2000, on “outside activities of holders of academic appointments.” Unlike classroom courses or other intellectual property clearly considered to belong to the professor, an online course takes a village of software experts, videographers, editors, and computer operators to help set up and run it—all institutionally supplied and paid for, at considerable expense.

In introducing the report for FAS consideration, Engell noted that it was just that: a report to Dean Smith, not a legislative proposal. The whole field, he said, “moves very quickly” and is highly complicated. Any policy resulting from faculty deliberations would have to be supple and subject to frequent review and revision.

He said that the matters under review did not change Harvard understandings about the ownership of intellectual property (which, he said, differ from other universities’ norms). The committee wished to convey that faculty members’ online activities are permitted except where they expressly pose conflicts of institutional commitment, interest, or loyalty. In drawing such lines, the committee determined that “teaching a course” meant having “ongoing interaction” between professor and students, typically through “direct engagement” (via assessments, comment, questions and answers). Where an online presence lacks such interaction—for instance, publicly posting videos of a professor lecturing but without student interaction, as is possible now through settings on each course’s website—no such conflict arises.

Although faculty members ought to be free to experiment with diverse online platforms, Engell said, when they make substantial use of Harvard’s edX infrastructure, the product where practicable ought to be provided to Harvard students for free or at nominal cost (like other course materials). In general, the committee favored the maximum possible, low-cost distribution of such materials. (It will be interesting to see, for example, whether the forthcoming Harvard Business School edX–supported online courses have that as the default; given the importance of executive education at HBS, and a bias for believing that people value something more highly when they pay for it, it seems likely that the school will pursue a revenue-supported dissemination model from the outset.)

Report Highlights

The ad hoc committee report notes that in an environment of rapid change in online teaching and learning,

We require a policy regarding online educational activity that reflects established principles of the University, a policy that faculty and administration can understand, trust, and follow. This policy should reflect the fundamental relationship of the faculty to the University, one that acknowledges the principle that faculty owe their primary loyalty and teaching commitment to this University community. Such a policy should enforce the professional commitment that faculty owe the University by virtue of academic appointment. At the same time, any policy must protect academic freedom and encourage, not limit, the dissemination of knowledge.

Consistent with those principles, the report outlines policies that are much more faculty-oriented than the Council of Deans’ proposals, including:

• encouraging faculty members to make educational materials available online “using whatever platform they consider most appropriate for educational purposes. Accordingly, the University should permit all educational online activity by its faculty not explicitly prohibited as a conflict of commitment, interest, or loyalty.”

• recognizing that “teaching a course” involves “the ongoing interaction between teacher and student, typically including the direct engagement of an instructor with students enrolled in a course that confers credit or a certificate at a degree-granting institution,” whereas making teaching materials available online “does not in itself constitute teaching a course at another institution, and requires no permission. If a faculty member uses educational materials on a platform not generated or endorsed by Harvard, it is understood that certain responsibilities for the use of these educational materials (e.g., copyright protection and copyright permissions) devolve to that individual member of the faculty.”

• encouraging Harvard professors to “inform themselves, among other opportunities, of those presented by HarvardX and platforms endorsed by Harvard,” given the mutual benefits of faculty engagement. “However,” the report continues, “faculty members are not required to use them” and may pursue “whatever online platform they judge best for their educational purposes,” consistent with the values of respecting academic freedom, promoting dissemination of knowledge, and ensuring that “Harvard develops sufficiently attractive online platforms to compete for the best course materials without relying on a guaranteed source of Harvard faculty acting as providers of content. The analogy with Harvard University Press is instructive in this respect. Requiring Harvard faculty to publish books only with Harvard University Press would not only infringe academic freedom and undermine the mission of the University to disseminate knowledge, it would weaken HUP by sparing it the need to compete for authors and readers on its own merits.”

• promoting “free and open access to online course materials as a contribution to the common good. At a time when the University is encouraging faculty members to make their scholarly research available online publicly and without charge in an open-access repository, the University should not infringe upon the right of faculty members to make educational materials available online on an open-access basis if they so choose.”

This of course will make it more difficult to monetize HarvardX content, as the University will no doubt want to do in the future; creating and launching a HarvardX course can cost six figures without any compensation for faculty members’ time. As the committee’s recommendations next recognize:

[T]he University may at times seek to derive revenue from edX, HarvardX, and other online platforms. However, the University and its faculty members should strive to ensure that the possibility of deriving revenue from online educational activity not interfere with broader educational goals: that students enrolled in Harvard degree programs benefit from the online educational materials Harvard faculty members create; that technologies of online education promote access to higher education as a public good in which Harvard contributes to a broader ecosystem of higher education involving other private and public post-secondary institutions, as well as faculty colleagues and students at those institutions.

Regarding such revenue-related concerns, the committee advances these principles to ensure that “broader educational goals” remain in view:

a. In cases where a faculty member makes substantial use of Harvard resources to create online courses or portions of courses, it is expected that, where practicable and especially if mounted on a Harvard platform, such course materials will be made available to Harvard students free of any fee, or for a fee consonant with traditional course materials.

b. In cases where a faculty member posts online lectures or other educational materials on non-Harvard platforms, that faculty member is encouraged wherever possible to make arrangements that such materials be provided to Harvard students free of any fee, or for a fee consonant with traditional course materials.

c. In cases where online courses or portions of courses made with substantial Harvard resources generate revenue, formulas for revenue sharing between the faculty member and the University should be developed.

d. New educational technologies developed by members of the faculty shall remain governed by existing intellectual property rules of the University as implemented by the Office of Technology Development.

Accompanying these principles are eight recommendations, including one governing revenue. The report recommends that in cases where courses made “with substantial Harvard resources generate revenue,” where practicable, “HarvardX and platforms endorsed by Harvard provide faculty members with a ‘free access option’ that permits faculty members to make online lectures and educational materials available without a fee or for a nominal charge.”

The committee report concluded by noting that Dean Smith would convey its report to FAS for discussion, following which the committee would work with University counsel to shape “a final policy statement”—an expectation, in other words, that the principles enunciated in the Council of Deans’ proposal would be modified, superseded, or set aside.

Faculty Discussion

Peter Bol, vice provost for advances in learning, to whom HarvardX reports, observed that the goals of the report were to secure greater freedom for faculty members to make choices and serve students. The many people working on online education shared those goals he said.

Harry Lewis, McKay professor of computer science, praised the report, and asked whether its authors could reinforce its general principles with data or specific examples of behavior now restricted that would be liberated or encouraged, or of behaviors now permitted that would be prohibited, were the committee recommendations implemented. He wondered about the state of affairs compared to the environment under the proposals enunciated by the Council of Deans.

Engell welcomed the question. The report, he said, was tentative, given that the online-learning world is in such flux. It was intended, if adopted, to give faculty members a greater sense of opportunity to put educational materials online—but it did draw a line around online experiences that involve interaction with non-Harvard students, given its definition of teaching. (This may pose interesting challenges for courses like Computer Science 50, the most heavily enrolled HarvardX course by far; it is highly interactive, in several respects.)

President Faust repeated her explanation of the origin of the deans’ report last March as a response to rising faculty interest in online activity and requests for guidance. A year later, she said, it was even more evident that, as Engell had said, the entire online-education environment was highly complex and rapidly changing—and full of interesting opportunities to explore. The FAS committee’s perspectives, she said, would be useful to help other deans think the issues through. She agreed with Lewis that examples would be helpful in informing policy. The aim is to arrive at a “living policy” that will not immediately become obsolete.

Dean Smith noted that he had already forwarded the committee report to the general counsel for sharing with the other deans. (He spoke with the committee during its deliberations, and upon the presentation of its report, Engell noted.)

In response to a question, Faust noted that the goal was to elaborate a University policy for overall guidance, and then to make note of issues particular to each school. (Although she did not raise it, one significant example would be the difference between FAS’s model and that of many professional schools, where large executive-education operations are significant sources of revenue and a major faculty responsibility.)

As discussion then concluded, the general sense was that a revised University policy would likely be forthcoming.

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