4 Ways to Ensure Academic Freedom in Remote Learning


The term “academic freedom” has been around for over a century. It refers to teachers’ and students’ freedom to teach, study, and pursue knowledge and research without unreasonable interference or restriction from law, institutional regulations, or public pressure. Educators, faculty, and institutional leaders have historically worked to maintain academic freedom, but recent spikes in online learning have brought forth new concerns for staff and students alike.

This post will discuss four ways educators can address and maintain academic freedom in remote or hybrid learning environments.

#1 Beware of Platform Censorship

In a physical setting, instructors have near-complete control over which topics and materials are discussed in class. They adhere to an institutional code of ethics, but generally, they and their students can speak freely in the classroom, even when the subject matter may be considered sensitive or taboo in a non-educational context.

When we made the abrupt shift to distanced learning over a year ago, many K-12 schools and higher education entities transitioned from in-person classes to remote conferencing on Zoom, MS Teams, or other similar platforms. With this transition came a significant loss in control for instructors and faculty in general as they were suddenly at the mercy of each platform’s Terms of Use to continue teaching.

While this caveat may seem irrelevant in theory, it ultimately places control over classroom discussions in the hand of an external vendor that’s in no way associated with the school or university using it. In fact, Zoom’s support teams even went so far as to cancel a guest speaking event at San Francisco State University last year when the proposed topics were said to violate Zoom’s terms of use. Terms that are, of course, set unilaterally by Zoom.

As faculty and instructors create long-term strategies for hybrid online learning or look to offer remote options post-COVID, it’s essential to thoroughly vet each digital tool to ensure it won’t encroach on academic freedom rights for teachers or students. This could mean digging deep into Terms of Use or negotiating contracts carefully to keep primary control and accessibility in the hands of the educators, not the technologies they employ.

#2 Give Instructors Control Over Curricula

Course curriculum is the backbone of each lesson. It enables teachers to share new concepts with their students and ensure important topics are covered adequately. So educators must maintain the freedom to teach their subject matter in whichever ways they see fit.

As instructors look for online content to support their lesson plans, private publishers may restrict their options. Unfortunately, some publishing companies stockpile the rights to educational materials and sell them at a high price, leaving instructors and their students without the content they need to succeed in class.

Even promising “inclusive-access” models limit academic freedoms, as institutions will likely pressure instructors to only assign books from one pre-selected publisher, effectively eliminating their ability to choose their textbooks and supporting materials. Furthermore, publishers may even require educators to use a specific format, which comes under fire when remote students have to wait for physical textbooks to arrive by mail instead of simply downloading a digital copy.

Instead of committing to a single publisher, institutions should encourage the use of open educational resources. Open resources include teaching, learning, and research materials that are either in the public domain or licensed to provide everyone with free, continuous access to use these materials for the 5R activities:

  • Retain – students and instructors can obtain a copy of the resource
  • Reuse – anyone can use the content in its original form
  • Revise – individuals can modify, improve, or alter the content
  • Remix – readers can create new content from original or revised resources
  • Redistribute – instructors can share unlimited copies with students and other staff

In short, open resources have been released by their original authors for the betterment of teaching and to help students and institutions avoid significant financial burden. They are the only digital educational materials that offer true academic freedom for instructors. And they’re an especially valuable resource for online learning as they’re more typically released in digital format compared to privately licensed texts.

#3 Provide Flexible Tools

The transition to distanced and online learning opened the doors for new technology advancements in and out of the classroom. By necessity, educators digitized all of their teaching and record keeping, likely reducing their administrative workload in the process.

However, they opened up new obstacles as well. When new LMS tools rolled out system-wide seemingly overnight, teachers were no longer in control of their work. They suddenly had to adjust to a finite set of tools – many of which they had never seen before or been trained to use. This solution may have put a band-aid on the shift to distanced learning, but it left many educators struggling to modify their lesson plans into a platform they had no say in selecting.

The one-size-fits-all approach to learning and assessment may make it each for a board member to choose a new digital system, but it leaves students and instructors in a tight spot. For example, pre-built online dashboards leave no room for teachers to define clear priorities in line with their coursework. While numerical grade books leave them unable to account for overall improvement or other soft skills, they only reflect how well each student adhered to a single exam’s rigid guidelines.

To maintain academic freedom for both teachers and students, organizations should offer various tech enablement tools, including formative assessments, dynamic grade books, adaptive learning tools, and configurable online environments where classes can interact together freely. This approach won’t simply make teachers’ lives easier – it will also promote better learning outcomes for students at home and in the classroom.

#4 Improve The Testing Experience

Assessment quality was likely one of the most significant compromises educators and students made in 2020. And as students remain at home or move towards hybrid learning systems, test accuracy and effectiveness are still top of mind for educational institutions worldwide.

Just as instructors deserve the freedom to teach and conduct research without restriction, students deserve to study and pursue knowledge freely. That means having the tools, technology, and support system to achieve the best possible learning outcomes and avoid performance penalties due to inaccessible tools or subpar assessments.

In recent years, educators have shifted away from black-and-white exams in favor of authentic assessments designed to highlight each student’s strengths and give instructors more details into comprehension levels. However, the quick shift to online learning led some instructors to regress into high-pressure true/false or multiple-choice exams once or twice each semester.

As faculty and staff settle into remote learning long-term, they should adopt authentic assessments that measure student creativity and subject mastery instead of their ability to memorize key terms or ‘trick’ the online proctoring systems.

Furthermore, if tests are graded automatically or only rely on multiple-choice responses, students risk failing an exam because the testing software was incompatible with their assistive tools or because the system glitched in the middle of a timed assessment.

To maintain testing integrity, avoid legal ramifications, and give each student an equal chance to succeed, educators need to implement accessible assessment and learning tools across their organizations.

TAO Testing offers innovative online testing systems that enable instructors and empower students to succeed remotely or in person. Our solutions seamlessly integrate with your existing toolset to unify your operations and keep you connected.

Are you ready to optimize online learning and testing at your school? Contact us today to get started.

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