The Radically-Transparent Classroom

Two stories in my feed reader caught my attention this weekend that hint at the growing friction between outmoded academic traditions and Web 2.0:

  • First, the L.A. Times recently published an in-depth report about the difficulties of firing tenured teachers (Song, J. “Firing Tenured Teachers can be a Costly and Torturous Task,”May 3, 2009).
  • Second, the UK Times Higher Education edition published a story (Attwood, R. “Students Union Accused of Snooping on Lectures,” April 20, 2009) about the University and College Union (UCU) objecting to the Manchester Metropolitan Students Union’s (MMSU) new practice of encouraging students to report (via text message) when faculty are late or when they suddenly cancel lectures.

The halls of academia are no longer immune from the influence of the ubiquitous, networked, media-saturated, always-on world we live in – and in many ways they’re more vulnerable because their insulated structure means they haven’t been able to gradually develop as many workarounds to resolve minor conflicts between tradition and technology. As a result of 1) the way technology has empowered “consumers” (which includes students), 2) the pressures of strained education budgets, and 3) the continuing growth of shrill interest groups that attack public education – there’s going to be a seismic shift in the governance of higher education.

There have already been a few incidents that have hinted at the future of a radically-transparent classroom (like Jay Bennish, and the much-less publicized case of David Paszkiewicz).

Instead of being sensationalist fodder for special interest groups, however, it could be that transparency provides educational institutions with the leverage they need to overcome the problematic aspects of tenure in a constructive way. Make no mistake: having protections in place for faculty (like tenure) is absolutely necessary to ensure quality education. This is especially true in the polarized era we’re living in where an indelicately-worded comment in a discussion on any of the hot-button issues in education (like the teaching of creationism/intelligent design) can bring out the torches and pitchforks.

The first way transparency can help ensure better quality education is the ability social media gives students to connect with one another and share information. It’s no longer the case that poor conduct on the part of an educator (which includes, by the way, ending the “voicemail hell” students all too frequently find themseves in) is lost to the wind after the twenty or so students that witnessed it go their separate ways at the end of the semester. It can be documented and indexed (i.e. searchable) so that it is readily available to future classes that will be able to easily document patterns of bad (or good) conduct by educators.

Second, due to the fact that so much of what makes dismissing a bad teacher so difficult is the highly-specialized nature and context of each individual situation and the difficulty in documenting poor performance – it would seem that social media and technology may provide both the tools and framework to ensure that we can more efficiently provide due process for educators when a dispute arises.

There is a constructive way to go about this, and it can be a great thing for all those involved if it’s done right. What that means, however, is that educators (and administrators) will need to relinquish some of the outdated policies they’ve come to rely upon and be more responsive to the concerns of their stakeholders (which is something the majority of faculty are doing already).

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