George Moore, Chief Technology Officer, Cengage
In the World of Virtual Learning, CIOs Play a Vital Role in Maintaining Academic Freedom
With the rapid acceleration in virtual learning due to COVID-19 and the associated widespread adoption of technology, CIOs at U.S. higher education institutions face new and unprecedented challenges. One of the most unique—and important—among these is helping to protect and to maintain academic freedom.
In our current societal and political climate, it is more important than ever that the education ecosystem take steps to protect academic freedom. Academic freedom protects faculty and students and ensures that higher education is a space open to diverse ideas, pedagogy, and debate. While it is a central tenet of higher education in the United States, that is not the case throughout the world; in Germany, academic freedom is making headlines as scientists push for it, and thousands of students recently marched for the cause in Hungary.
In 1975, William Van Alstyne, a recognized legal scholar, wrote this highly-referenced definition of Academic Freedom: ‘academic freedom’ is... [the] personal liberty to pursue the investigation, research, teaching, and publication of any subject as a matter of professional interest without vocational jeopardy or threat of other sanction... Specifically, that which sets academic freedom apart as a distinct freedom is…: an accountability not to any institutional or societal standard of economic benefit, acceptable interest, right thinking, or socially constructive theory, but solely to a fiduciary standard of professional integrity.
Over the past decade, technology has helped academic freedom to flourish. As the number of edtech offerings has increased dramatically, faculty and students have had the opportunity to leverage a greater variety of resources to inform and develop learning experiences.
However, colleges and universities across the country have transformed dramatically since the spring as the adoption of edtech solutions has soared. Even those institutions and faculty who have been skeptical of technology have embraced edtech, and it has quickly become a must-have to create valued, engaging, and impactful learning experiences for students.
For institutional CIOs, this new dependency on technology poses a different – and broad – set of challenges when it comes to efficiency and security. Traditionally, the CIO’s role is to implement, manage, and utilize technology solutions that help to standardize processes, ensure data privacy and security, and simplify the end-user experience. However, institutional CIOs have a unique dilemma that isn’t faced by their counterparts in other industries: they have an obligation to students to put their needs and educational experience first.
With this mission in mind, institutional technology leaders must focus on creating simplicity without sacrificing data privacy and security or homogenizing the learning experience. Every individual faculty member teaches differently and uses a different set of resources. Similarly, all students learn differently. There is a danger that, if institutions create too much standardization, academic freedom could be called into question.
As institutional CIOs adapt to the dramatic shift brought about by COVID, they must ensure that they take a step back, and carefully evaluate the balance between operational efficiency and academic freedom. Consider the following questions:
Are you fostering an ecosystem that ensures instructors can create unique experiences in a simple, integrated manner, and in alignment with 1EdTech standards? Are students and faculty empowered to leverage varied sources and diverse thought in their content and activities?
Are your procurement processes ensuring that new and emerging resources can easily be leveraged?
Do the policies and procedures intended to create a safe and secure learning environment also allow instructors to create unique, expressive, and engaging experiences for their students?
Overall, are you balancing the desire to standardize with the need to let freedom of expression flourish in the context of digital learning experiences?
These are the types of questions that all of us in the education and technology ecosystem must ask ourselves. Technology leaders need to recognize these challenges now and identify a path forward that allows them to do their job—creating processes and protocols that uphold security practices and encourage efficiency—while also enabling the independent thought, teaching, and debate that has made the U.S. education system renowned across the globe.
As we look toward the future of higher education, it is increasingly clear that the shift to online learning will have lasting impacts long after COVID-19. Once some level of normalcy emerges, the importance of academic freedom will resurface; CIOs should be prepared to respond and to enable progress as stewards of academic freedom.
George Moore is the CTO of Cengage, an education and technology company serving the education, K-12, professional, library, and workforce training markets worldwide.