Why academic freedom can’t be an afterthought in the online classroom

All tools are not created equal, and some can inadvertently limit responsive teaching styles
By: | July 27, 2021
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George Moore, CTO, Cengage

George Moore, CTO, Cengage

Within higher education, digital learning tools that schools implemented out of necessity during the pandemic have rapidly become fixtures.

In fact, Cengage’s recent Digital Learning Pulse Survey found that almost half (46%) of college students strongly prefer some courses to be fully online. Both students and faculty have quickly recognized the benefits of digital learning: it’s versatile, accessible and in many cases, more affordable.

However, this new integration of digital tools also brings new considerations. Some may be clear, like internet access and security, and others, such as academic freedom, may be less obvious.

Academic freedom empowers the free exchange of ideas in any classroom setting and enables both students and faculty to debate and explore any topic, keeping innovation and critical thinking at the forefront of learning. While digital learning tools offer new types of flexibility for students, they can also create a more standardized learning experience that restricts academic freedom.

All tools are not created equal, and some can inadvertently limit responsive teaching styles, student interactions and the ability to use of different types of educational resources. As digital learning evolves to be a core component of the higher education experience, institutions must prioritize strategies that provide agency to students and faculty alike.

Giving students an active role in digital coursework

To create an engaging learning experience, students must have the ability to dig further into topics that inspire their passion or curiosity. Preserving the joy of learning remains a focus, which means moving away from rigid curriculum, and giving learners more ownership in the evolution and focus of the course.

The digital classroom environment should be adaptive and responsive to students’ interests and needs, not mirror a training course.

Creating a more adaptable and personalized learning experience helps students not only to digest textbook academics but also to apply learnings to real-world events. Investing in technologies that allow educators to pivot a lecture quickly in response to world news and events empowers students to make sense of global events through an academic lens.

This type of applied learning helps students to develop critical skills that will be important for their future employability and career success.

Enabling educators to create unique environments

Every professor has their own approach to teaching, from their course structure to the materials they use. For faculty to engage students through digital learning, it is imperative that they have the same freedom and flexibility as they would have in person.

This includes utilizing tools that enable them to expand beyond traditional textbook resources to create unique classroom experiences, and also allow them to quickly and easily alter their course content and revise lectures at a moment’s notice.

This flexibility supports diversity in course offerings and enables professors to bring their outside knowledge and experience into the classroom. Professors teach because they’re passionate about their field and sharing their knowledge, and this experience is a differentiator.

Today students are drawn to many institutions based on the educators in each department. As institutions adopt a more hybrid approach to higher education, it is imperative that they protect the personalized approach and adopt technology that enables customization.

Academic freedom is a mainstay for the U.S. higher education system—a necessity, not an option. In fact, the U.S. Supreme Court concluded there is a constitutional right to academic freedom based on their interpretation of the First Amendment.

With the prominent role that hybrid learning will play in the future of education, it is critical that investments in online learning tools support a flexible approach to the digital classroom, and that institutions actively work to preserve academic freedom.

George Moore is the CTO at Cengage, a global education technology company.