(Authored by the National Association of Scholars, April 2020)
Online education holds promise but also the potential for great peril, especially in the realm of academic freedom. As teachers and students move from in-class instruction to online education, we need a set of principles to guide and secure academic freedom for professors and students.
The transition to distance education brings challenges for teaching and learning, not least among these is potential to chill speech in the digital classroom. Colleges and universities have unprecedented control and oversight over the content and format of digital courses, as faculty are largely reliant on them to provide the tools and resources necessary to conduct online classes. As such, colleges and universities have a corresponding duty to reiterate their unqualified support for academic freedom.
The National Association of Scholars recommends the following principles for adoption by colleges and universities committed to the preservation of academic freedom in the digital classroom.
Freedom of the Teacher:
- Faculty may teach within their discipline in pursuit of truth with the university remaining neutral in regard to the content of courses and instruction presented.
- Faculty may expect reasonable accommodation and support from the university with the set up and scheduling of online courses.
- Faculty may not be removed abruptly or without cause from their role as an instructor in particular classes.
- Faculty may not be punished, censured, or removed from access to the digital classroom by the university as a result of statements made outside the classroom.
- Universities and colleges may not record or otherwise monitor online classes without the full knowledge and consent of the professor and the students.
- Universities and colleges may not publish video recordings, audio recordings, or digital files presented in online classes without the full knowledge and consent of the professor.
- Faculty may question, inquire, or otherwise challenge students with difficult and sometimes provocative questions as a means of encouraging them towards a proper understanding of the subject at hand.
Freedom of the Student:
- Students may have a reasonable expectation of support from the university to access their online classes in a timely manner.
- Students may not disrupt, harass, or otherwise prevent others from participating in an environment of respect and learning.
- Students may not have their picture, words, views, or other personal information shared on any public forum or media outside the classroom without their knowledge and express consent.
- Students have the freedom to engage in disciplined inquiry, to hear, read, and consider views that differ from those of their instructor.
- Students have the freedom to appeal concerns about their grades or treatment in the digital classroom to university authorities.
- Students have a right to receive a full and fair accounting of the subject matter at hand, the counterpart to the teacher’s duty to present that fair accounting.
- Students may not be dismissed from online instruction, silenced, muted, or otherwise prevented from asking reasonable questions relative to the topic at hand of the instructor.
Academic freedom exists to serve the public good. This public good is best represented by four activities core to higher education: preparing students for practical vocation, pursuing truth, forming students’ character into that of good citizens, and presenting to students the heritage of our shared civilization. These principles, applied to the digital learning environment that is abruptly widespread on campuses today, will help ensure the academic freedom of students and professors alike.