The Balance of Power in the Virtual Classroom

[This is a post that explores one facet of power and control in the online space of the virtual classroom. There are others, including the reshuffling of power relationships within the virtual space itself. We should not underestimate, however, the importance of the architecture and administration that provides the space itself. This post appeared initially at http://acsmooc.blogspot.com/2013/11/the-balance-of-power-in-virtual.html]

One of the biggest challenges that faced colleges and universities in the 90s and early 2000s was the task of creating and supporting a broad technological infrastructure in the age of the personal computer and the internet. That process led to the development of a powerful administrative hierarchy devoted to Information Technology. Now, as teaching moves online (in MOOC and blended-learning formats), the administrators in charge of campus technology have unprecedented power over the classroom experience itself.

IT Policies and Faculty Needs

Think for a moment about the development of IT policies in Higher Education from the perspective of goals and constraints. IT given the difficult task of supporting the technological needs of the academic program with finite resources. The policies that emerged from this situation established limits on what faculty could reasonably expect from their IT department and in what faculty were allowed to do with respect to technology.

When IT departments were primarily responsible for running computer labs for faculty and students, they had a tremendous amount of control over what hardware and software was used on campus. As they began to place computers in faculty offices, however, it created new possibilities for exploration and experimentation by individual faculty. There arose an inevitable negotiation (sometimes a struggle or conflict) between the desires and needs of the professors and those of the IT managers.

IT departments soon understood the benefits of standardization, both for cost containment and for the ease of supporting the campus infrastructure. At Furman, for example, these policies led to rules about how a person can spend their own budget money for technology. All computer purchases must be approved by IT, even if the machines are not expensed from the IT budget. Because of security concerns, faculty are not allowed to run servers for internal or external access.  Standardization and administrative control over technology leads to a narrowing of choice and opportunity for technologically-advanced faculty, in the interest of IT sustainability for the campus as a whole.

Who is ultimately responsible for deciding what kind of technology a professor uses and how she uses it? The IT department exists to serve the needs of the academic program, including the faculty, but it also must do this with limited resources, both economic and personnel. This situation is frustrating but necessary given the economic and technical realities.

The Virtual Classroom

Now think about the role of IT in the physical classroom.  In addition to whatever computer or tablet the professor uses while teaching the class, there is usually a projector and/or teaching station for sharing multimedia and slides, and wireless internet for accessing online materials. These are support-level technologies, resources that make particular kinds of activities possible, but in normal classes they are not essential. Even if the power goes out, a professor can still teach a class without any supporting technologies.

How about the virtual classroom? In the case of MOOC, online, and blended courses, the IT department has control over the essential requirements of the course. They determine what space is created for the dissemination of content, what procedures are in place for course discussion and feedback, and how the class is archived and/or repeated after the professor has finished her job. In the physical space, it would be as if the IT department were responsible for building the classroom, assembling the students, making the room safe and comfortable, and controlling who has the permission to talk at any given time.

I am not sure that faculty have thought carefully enough about how changing technological "platforms" for online teaching will control what and how they teach in the future. The Information Technology hierarchy now has unprecedented control over mundane details of professor-student interactions. Given limited resources and capabilities, this will result in increasingly constrained possibilities for faculty teaching in these programs.

Administration Policy and Teaching

One final concern related to the increasing control of IT over teaching is the fact that IT is itself under the direct control of university administration. At most if not all universities, the IT director reports to the President or Provost, not to the Academic Dean. Whose interests are served, therefore, by IT policy decisions related to teaching? One example I would give is the "Blog and Wiki Use Policy" at my university. In addition to rules prohibiting the posting of copyrighted or commercial material, the policy says:

• Announcements may not include content, material, or links that, upon viewing, could create an intimidating, hostile, or offensive learning and/or working environment.

and

• Announcements may not be used to promote activities that are illegal, support commercial activities not associated with the university, or to provide personal financial gain.

Furthermore,

• A web page may be considered in violation of content policies if it contains links to pages that violate the policy.

Thus, the policy prohibits not only "offensive" content, but also links to "offensive" content. Who is ultimately responsible for policing this academic content? The IT Department:

• Information Technology Services reserves the right to remove, at any time, at its sole discretion, any content posted on the blog or wiki services that it deems in violation of university policy or local, state or federal law."

This is problematic enough, but extend this to an online course situation and the stakes are much higher. For a non-academic department to have this much control over academic content should be of great concern to anyone interested in preserving academic freedom.

For further reading on this topic, I recommend Lawrence Lessig's Code (now in version 2, http://codev2.cc/), in which he shows how technological advances in recent times have made administrative and legal control more perfect and efficient. See especially Part 2, "Regulation by Code." In the chapter on Cyberspaces (ch. 8), he says: "Spaces have values. They manifest these values through the practices or lives that they enable or disable" (p. 85). If the university administration has direct and minute control over the virtual classroom space, then it will be their values that determine that space, not necessarily the values of the faculty.