The Use and Abuse of Online Instruction

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As a new college year begins, it’s clear that the online classroom is here to stay. In some instances, teachers have found unique, enhanced pedagogies online that have vast potential for widening access to quality education. What remains urgently important is building an ethical system for the online classroom that is as robust as its technology – a system of communication that respects privacy, maintains trust, and fosters the free exchange of ideas.

There is already too much fear within the campus community that any idea out of step with campus norms will not simply become part of a creative battle of ideas, but instead will bring shame or loss of status to those espousing it. Nearly two years ago, former president Barack Obama decried the growing power of campus cancel culture: “One danger I see among young people, particularly on college campuses . . . there is this sense sometimes of ‘The way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough.’” Those effects were evident even before the pandemic: a Knight Foundation/Gallup survey in 2019 reported that 61% of college students agreed with the statement that “the climate on their campus deters students from expressing themselves openly.” Other surveys show that everything from classroom participation to social relations have suffered. Among the more alarming findings of a College Pulse/American Council of Trustees and Alumni (ACTA) survey: nearly half of college students believe that pressure to conform to prevailing opinion has a negative effect on the development of close personal relationships. 

Now the problem has worsened. In 2021, College Pulse/ACTA found that by a two-to-one margin, students report greater difficulty discussing their views in an online environment as compared to an in-person class. They have reason to be uneasy. Unlike the experience of the physical classroom, everything that teachers and students share online, whether text, voice discussion, or video, is immediately available for posting and distribution, authorized or not. Heterodox classroom opinions readily become the spark igniting a Twitter mob. Worse yet, it is all too easy to decontextualize a dissenting opinion, turning a thoughtful colleague into a villain. As the remote learning environment adopts features of the social media marketplace, the fear of cancellation will spread to the classroom. A 2020 FIRE survey of almost 20,000 students found that fully 63% are uncomfortable expressing opinions on social media.

Misuse of the online classroom crosses political lines: it’s an equal opportunity bully. Soon after the pandemic began, Charlie Kirk, founder of Turning Point USA, tweeted to his network of college students a request for videos of liberal indoctrination. One year later, the dean of the Georgetown University Law Center fired one adjunct professor and suspended another after their private conversation concerning disparate racial outcomes in grading was accidentally recorded. What should have been a confidential discussion between well-meaning colleagues concerned about minority achievement quickly made its way onto Twitter, and the law school violated its own procedures in disciplining the professors, as the American Association of University Professors (AAUP) observed. The power of social media ran roughshod over process, university policies, and academic freedom.

The online classroom needs rules of engagement to protect free and open deliberation. Going back to 1915, when John Dewey and Arthur Lovejoy founded the AAUP, a core principle was that the classroom is a sanctuary for the free exchange of ideas where students and faculty can be intellectually fearless, safe in the knowledge that the classroom walls contain the discussion. Every college and university should create guidelines for the recording and sharing of online lectures and discussions. Some institutions will wisely incorporate online classroom privacy procedures into their honor code, requiring consent before recording and distribution. Consequences for violation of improper use should be clearly stated and vigorously enforced.

There is every likelihood of mischief if colleges fail to instill necessary ethical boundaries for the powerful tools we now have at our fingertips. And yet, the online classroom has the potential to be a catalyst for a new reassertion of academic freedom. The split-screen format is an invitation to dialectic. By taking advantage of the platforms and pedagogies that include student debate, undergraduate education can embrace the methods of critical inquiry that have been the mainstay of legal education for generations. To be sure, what was forced upon higher education by the pandemic has the potential to worsen the call-out, cancel culture that has damaged campus values. But it could serve instead to renew the culture of unfettered exploration that is the lifeblood of learning.

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