Technology and academic freedom

I’ve been invited to participate in a research project that will look at academic freedom in the United States of America, which is a fascinating topic, but before I jump in, I thought I’d try and link it with my previous project. (My doctoral thesis which I am about to submit. Fingers crossed!). That looked at models of educational development units and how they might fit into the contemporary university.

In my thesis, I noted in passing that there was some dissatisfaction among academic colleagues with what might be categorised as technical-rational interpretations of educational development, or if you prefer a certain impatience with attempts to reduce university teaching to a set of tips and techniques. Because my work involves supporting educational technology, and because I think technology tends to impose certain practices, or ways of working, I suspect instrumentalism is a route we can be very easily tempted along.

The question that I’m beginning to wonder about is whether the way we use technology could be a threat to academic freedom. I’m aware of the Edupunk movement, open source and web 2.0 of course, but corporate software does seem to continue to exercise a powerful hold over higher education. Most of the corporations offering services to universities appear to be relatively benign, (for now anyway!) but what started me thinking was an excellent introduction by Beshara Doumani to a collection of essays entitled “Academic Freedom after September 11”. He identified three threats to academic freedom – Government, private advocacy groups, and the privatisation of the university, this last in the sense that the benefit of higher education was perceived as shifting from the state and wider society, to the individual, the student as consumer.

Doumani was writing in 2004, at the height of the Bush administration’s paranoia about Islamic terrorism, and while government interference does have the potential to threaten academic freedom, for now I want to think about the other threats. Since the financial crisis of 2009, universities are being urged to broaden their income streams, which isn’t entirely unreasonable, but seems to me to run the risk of allowing funders to direct what is taught, or how it is taught. Drifting slightly off topic for a moment, would an evangelical church want to fund a hypothetical Darwin Research Institute for example?  More locally for Lincolnshire would the food industry be keen on funding a programme that taught students how to grow their own food?  (I’m not saying they wouldn’t, just that there are potential hostages to fortune).

Getting back to the point, if we persist in using corporate technology then we can only do what those corporations want us to do. One of those things (if the corporation has any sense) is likely to be to train students in using their products so they’ll take them into the workplace.  Incidentally we’re also committed to paying their bills, if their services are all we are able to use. Just to add to the fun we are often subjected to licensing agreements that mean we lose access to our data if we decide we no longer need the software.   We’re effectively locked in and therefore not free to do anything that these suppliers might one day disapprove of.  (I’m not saying that this is all some sort of conspiracy theory. It’s much more subtle than that! )

Now I might be talking myself out of a job here, (since one of my roles is to provide support for Blackboard users) but if we are serious about protecting academic freedom I think it well worth our while exploring, and researching the potential of alternative open source and web 2.0 technologies as well as advocating their use.  That can lead to accusations of self-indulgent hobbyism, but these things take time because we can’t ram these alternatives down our colleagues’ throats, or we get back to the technical-rational problem I talked about above. There’s also a risk that the seeds we plant don’t germinate, but to end on a positive note if we are going out to raise funds from the local community, perhaps we could sell our expertise to others. The exploitation of open source technology such as Mahara for E-portfolios , WordPress MU for building  web sites, for local businesses seems to me to be one source we could explore by assisting them in installing the software, providing training and consultancy for their staff and so on. Thus we’d be engaging with the community without compromising our own academic freedom.

Phew. What a long post!