Monday, April 30, 2018

Expert knowledge and faculty governance

An educated citizen should be able to see the limits of his or her knowledge, and defer to experts. That is, more or less, the outcome of a long debate about the role of specialized scientific knowledge in a democratic society. One common example is the climate change. Only a tiny minority of the voting public can actually understand the evidence. How does a demosratic make decisions as a democratic policy without understanding the science to support it? We allow the scientific community to govern itself so that the small group of scientist that do understand arrive at a consensus. It is not a perfect mechanism, because the majority of scientists have been mistaken on occasion. Yet it is definitely better than the alternative, where the public at large would decide based on its ignorance. The alternative is the sickening paranoia of climate change deniers and conspiracy theorists, who are simply unable to see beyond the limits of their own knowledge.

Last week, we discussed an interesting version of the same democracy vs. expert knowledge dilemma. As we are trying to create deeper pool of online courses and programs, faculty are quite reasonably concerned about the quality of those offerings. We do not want to gain a reputation of an online diploma mill. Yet in in many program areas, most faculty do not have enough experience and expertise in on-line teaching. So we end up with opinions like “This course cannot be taught on-line, because it is too intense.” The fact is, any course can be taught on-line, although in some cases it may be prohibitively expensive to design right (language learning, performance arts, micro-teaching, etc.). Other courses could converted on-line with minimal initial investment of time, and some are somewhere in between. I wrote about it last year, so won’t repeat.

Back to the governance. Universities have recognized the governance dilemma a long time ago. Quality Matters started 15 years ago, and CSU has put together a very robust peer review process based on the QM ideas. We created communities of experts that can be trusted to make the appropriate decision, so wider faculty bodies can rely on their expertise. However, the process is intended for fairly mature courses, it is takes six weeks, and requires some homework. I want to encourage more people to try the online teaching, and therefore want to have lower entrance barriers. It is another delicate balance between high standards and over-regulation.

Some people start on-line teaching gradually – first, they develop a rich course support in LMS. Then they may try one or two online activities within a regular f2f course. The next step might be a hybrid course, with a significant online component. Then they venture into the online course, and finally get ready for an online program. Others may jump straight into a fully online course and programs. In addition, of course, we have a number of people who have taught on-line successfully.

On-line teaching is not rocket science. If you understand basic pedagogy, you should be able to figure out eventually how to do it well on-line, especially if you learn early on the non-replication principle (do not try to replicate on-line everything you did in a f2f classroom). For our long-term survival, we need the skills of online teaching widely distributed among faculty, so we can serve more students, be more accessible, and have a plan B.

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