Difficult

Written by James
02
Nov

This is a very difficult decision to make and one I’ve been thinking about the last week. Here’s the story.

As many of you know I’m employed by a University, which shall remain nameless (and if anyone does know which Uni it is I’d appreciate it if you didn’t mention that at the moment, will become more clear soon), and that in my academic role I do a lot of consulting with faculty staff who are teaching or considering teaching online. I’m a bit like a pedagogical consultant in that sense… although much more of the facilitator really… everything that comes about from what I do is already well established in the people I work with, believe me!

Anyway, the University I work for employs one of the two big ‘Courseware Management Systems’ as it’s central teaching and learning technology. It may surprise some people that I’m actually pretty cool with this. Over the last few weeks I’ve interviewed over 90 students and they love it, it’s great for lecture notes, talking to the lecturer / tutors and getting extra information & links.

However, there are lots of things I believe it doesn’t do so well, such as facilitate effective communication (see my paper of a bit back) . And several that it doesn’t do at all, such as allow people to collaboratively create documents, chat using IM, email etc. So, as part of my research interests, working entirely through 3rd party software & hosting providers and mostly on my own time I’ve been working with several academics investigating the uses of wikis, weblogs and other technologies in educational contexts. With this CMS as the main, focal, authenticated important area which leads to these.

Last Tuesday I received a memorandum from a manager cc’d by am exec. director instructing me to cease supporting and promoting weblogging, wikis or any other technology not officially supported by the University. The basic reason given being that I have, anecdotally, not used the CMS (this isn’t true, I always use it) and that ‘commentary’ on the issue of CMSs (quoted I think from this blog or another I set up for a course) is unacceptable. A set-up for disciplinary action should I not follow instructions.

So I’m gutted. I’m not going to go into the arguments here, I guess that’s not appropriate at the moment, but I am going to reply internally and in essence beg that as part of my academic research agenda and in the best interests of the University I be allowed to continue my work.

The difficult decision has been whether to write about it here or not. I’ve done so because you’re my professional community, my support and in many ways my friends & I don’t think I could keep up what I do here without being totally down the line with where I’m coming from.

I hope I haven’t broken any labour laws or done anything that’ll damage my position here, I’ve tried to keep this as anonymous as possible and will be making every effort to eradicate any indication of who I work for in this weblog (I don’t think there’s any there yet & again, I’d appreciate it if no mention of them was made by anyone else). I’d also like to make the point that my employer is actually a fantastic University and has done and continues to do some amazing things in teaching and learning. If anyone would like me to take this post down or edit it please get in touch, I’ve said my piece.

  1. How did this pan out James? I had no idea you had been through it too… would very much like to fill you in on how my issue finished up and get your views on it… skype/gizmo/gTalk me some time.

  2. Please visit the Australian International University web site for the solution to all your academic problems. The AIU is a new Australian University located in the international metropolis of Alice Springs.

    You can find the AIU at http://aiu.school.tc/

  3. Don Dietrich

    I would like to lend my support to James Farmer’s use of non-institute sanctioned technologies. Experimentation with such technologies is critical to success in this field. And, as others have mentioned in earlier comments, there is a HUGE free speech issue at play here.

    Please let him continue his important work in this area.

    Don Dietrich
    BBA, BEd, MDE

  4. I wouldn’t gie much about that. I bet the manager only fears extra costs (maybe he doesn’t know that OpenSource can be used) if the university supports blogs and wikis.

    The universities of Salzburg, Linz and Berlin had a course on weblogs last year, quite successfully.
    See: http://collabor.f4.fhtw-berlin.de:8080/antville/

  5. Don’t give up! Wikis and weblogs are great tools, and it would be a pity if the students wouldn’t be aware of their existence!

  6. Steve H.

    Their attempts to stifle you only underline their desperation. (Are they getting 85 messages of support from around the world–and how often do academics unite on an issue, anyway?) It’s Twilight of the Monoliths; they’re no match for your integrity. Thank you for advancing Truth and Freedom.

  7. Ratbags Unite

    someone early on in the list was wondering why the University was bothered. When you compare the resounding thud of non-interest the official attempts (choke, choke..Damn, another tender to deal with, which company rep does the best lunch?) generate with the swarm that has happened here, well need we say more? Then again, the knobs have to deal with issues that users coulddn’t possibly comprehend the delicay and difficulty of…like have you ever seen an Australian teacher try and deal with anyting more compicated than am email attachment? My daughter’s 4th grade ( that’s 4th grade, not 4th year) class were in stitches about their teacher’s struggle with powerp*int. Anad this is after ANTA have spent 20 million on a flexible learning community. In the states I gather, some schools pay students to help scaffold their teachers ICT literacy. First thing we have to do to get Australia’s education up to anything like global standard is ” Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the admin on the top, put company reps on the bottom, then we’ll burn the bloody lot”.
    Problem is you see, Australia’s first business was the Rum Corps, a bunch of small time standover mercahants, and the place got a taste for uber-regulation masquerading as good governence (choke choke), which, post our “if it moves shoot it, if it doesn’t chop it down, or dig it up” phase of laissez-faire national economy buiding, reared it’s ugly head again as ” or charge them the earth for a good-for-nothing pseudo-education as a way of deploying chronic under-employment”. I see enrolments are going down, so maybe it is wake up australia time. Bring on the independent, as opposed to peer-assisted scams, performance reviews, I say. Anyone wanna buy a slightly soiled second-hand university?

  8. What can I say about this incredible response but thanks to everyone who has posted & trackedback here. Your support, advice, strength and, well, everything has filled me with hope. I’m utterly blown away.

    Since I figure a few people will be coming here to just this post I should also mention that there’s been some (possibly positive) movement and I’ve written about that here: http://incsub.org/blog/index.php?p=48

    Thankyou again, everyone, I feel like this is a very special moment.

    James

  9. Hi James, I couldn’t believe the story when I read it at Seblogging / Many2Many… I’m currently giving a class on social software which is not only using weblogs and wikis as collaborative tools but also connected to other similar classes (with Seb Fiedler and Thomas Burg, respectively). I’m sure to discuss your experiences with my students, since it is a prime example of an organization not realizing the potentials of diverse educational tools… good luck to You from Germany!

  10. Hi James,

    Quite a bizarre story! Sounds like they’re the ones who’re scared of the unknown, and thus strike out blindly. Would have thought Uni’s were different, but apparantly not. If there is anything we can do, e.g. write an essay to enlighten those in your organisation, let us know.

    best from the other side of the globe,

    Ton

  11. Anne Davis

    This is most distressing! It is unbelievable that a university would issue a memorandum instructing James to cease supporting and promoting weblogging, wikis or any other technology not officially supported by the University. I have been fretting all week and the words come hard – how do you express the outrage you feel when a voice such as James is threatened? Stephen Downes summed it up when he said, “Silencing James Farmer is to silence us all – and we will not be silent.

  12. Diane Jackson

    Sad to hear … University’s thoughts representative of much of what’s wrong with America at the present time. Why do they assume that because there’s a CMS, there can be nothing else? Why the belief that one system and one system only satisfies everyone’s needs and wants. Blogging is a way for many of us to multitask areas of interest and to try to stay ahead of the game — particularly critical to those in the education profession. Boo to your university and the CMS vendor with its processes that must be maintained at all cost. Yeah to the possibility of conciliation. Good luck.

  13. James, my sympathies for this. It must be very frustrating to be trying to deliver improvements in learning, with a lot of your own time and effort, and then meet this sort of rebuff.

    I find the suggestions of some posters strange that the CMS vendor is applying the pressure – the vendors I’m currently dealing with (admittedly in the process of purchasing!) are far more interested in finding out how we think their solutions can be improved.

    Do you think there has been a misunderstanding somewhere? Certainly thre is a misunderstanding in the statement you have not used the CMS – and you can prove what you have done I guess.

    Do you have any key stakeholders on your side? Mentors / suporters / influential folk you have helped / coached? I’m guessing the original issue (whether commenting on CMSes, or pushing tools IT don’t like, or whatever) may have been blown up out of proportion, and your colleagues (and the leadership of learning in the institution) would prefer to review your objectives and add some of these aspects to them?

    Good luck with however you decide to move forward
    regards
    Sali
    (subversively piloting wikis in my company – IT are supporters, the knowledge community less so!)

  14. James, hang in there man. Edublogging is on the way, whether your employer is ready for it or not. What one organization that fears change sees as a danger to their strategy, another university will realise is an agent for positive change.

  15. Hello James, since I’m in a similar position like you I have to answer anonymously. As you do I suffer under the difference between “strategy” and “sanity and reason”. Hope you’ll get through!

  16. ¡Ánimo James!, la labor que realizas es encomiable y nos ayuda en nuestro quehacer diario. Hay gente que no es capaz de ver más alla de lo que alcanzan sus ojos, y no es capaz de admitir que no se pueden poner puertas al mar.
    Buena suerte.

  17. I’m sorry – I missed the part where universities gave up that whole “education” thing. What a travesty. We’ll miss your voice, James. My best to you, and I especially hope that someday you will find yourself at an institution that *appreciates* your hard work.

  18. James, your work has helped a community of educators take these new pedagogical tools forward in ways that are progressive, relevant, and innovative. You enact an international model of inquiry, taking advantage of the communications revolution to exchange ideas across the globe, to test your work on curriculum development against the ideas of faculty members on other continents, and to encourage teachers near and far to achieve excellence through innovation in teaching. Your peers in this field recognize you for your research into teaching and learning online. This will, I hope, someday also be seen as a credit to your institution.

  19. Clark Quinn

    It’s bizarre that an institution purportedly charged with furthering knowledge can’t experiment with it’s own teaching approach. As others do, I think there’s a subtext here that needs to be investigated. If I can be of any assistance, do let me know. Good luck!

  20. Hi James, wow!…this is idiotic. I personally find your blog to be a valuable source of information and perspective. I would think that any organization would be pleased to have a creative, motivated communicator sharing knowledge (both internally and externally). Like you, my blogging is a labour of love…I do it on my own time and dime.

    Diversity of perspective and method are important…particularly in technology-based education. I share your interest and enthusiasm for simple social technology tools.

    Question: Is there anything that those of us on the “outside” can do to assist? Would letters of support be of value? I’m really grasping here…but I feel the need to be of some assistance…

    All the best…and please keep us informed…

  21. Hi James, wow!…this is idiotic. I personally find your blog to be a valuable source of information and perspective. I would think that any organization would be pleased to have a creative, motivated communicator sharing knowledge (both internally and externally). Like you, my blogging is a labour of love…I do it on my own time and dime.

    Diversity of perspective and method are important…particularly in technology-based education. I share your interest and enthusiasm for simple social technology tools.

    Question: Is there anything that those of us on the “outside” can do to assist? Would letters of support be of value? I’m really grasping here…but I feel the need to be of some assistance…

    All the best…and please keep us informed…

  22. I’m shocked, but then again, I thought Kerry actually stood a chance! Anyway, this smacks of book burning to me. We’re all supposed to shut up and lock step, that way new ideas don’t escape out into the open and the fortress of power and knowledge stays in the hands of a few. Well James, I hope you find a way to continue with your good work. The world needs thinkers and creators to keep pushing the envelope.

  23. I read your post, and the first 25 or so replies, with great interest. I think we all agree, we’re glad you went public with your dilemma, but let’s all put this into perspective…

    This is clearly not the first time a “higher education” institution has attempted to censor innovation, but is this not part of their raison d’etre; that is, to represent traditionalism? At the same time, is it not the duty of us educators to test the boundaries of tradition? As I see it, both parties are just doing their jobs.

    Meantime, this is certainly no reason for you to cave in to the University’s demands. The hopeful side of me believes the administrators simply need to be educated (ironic?) on what it exactly is that you’re doing. Then, if they still fail to see how your methods are simply educational, then I fear the usefulness of our educational institutions has finally reached its end, and people with your vision have no place there.You should get out before it’s too late…

  24. I’ve encountered “Computing Services” departments who are so desperately understaffed, or are so territorial they feel like they have to put a stop to any “technologies not officially supported by the university.” I would see if this is the real problem here. I’d also talk to my Union Rep – I’m guessing you belong to one.

    Good luck!

  25. Again, pretty much everything has been said already; I just wanted to throw some support your way and wish you the best of luck with the short-sighted, creativity-stifling management that you’re up against. I find it astounding that a university, which is supposed to support exploration and new ideas, instead finds it more appropriate to quash these ideas without the slightest discussion or debate.

    It’s stories like yours (and the woman from Delta Airlines) that make me too paranoid to state my name or my employer on my own blog. I know my immediate supervisors are intelligent, creative and supportive people, but I have no idea if there’s someone in a remote branch of the administration who might disapprove of some offhand remark I make. I don’t like this sort of proactive self-censorship, but I see that it may be, to some extent, necessary. Sad.

  26. I read you and share my reading with a lot of brazilian teachers. We will miss you if you decide to accept this disgusting choice. We will respect your decision, whatever it will be. Abraços do Brasil,
    Suzana

  27. Marsha Hammond, PhD

    Hello and wake up to the Brave New World which has been accumulating power in the States for the past couple of decades e.g., Ronnie Ray-gun and then the shrubs. As another person said, I’m not surprised in the least and I don’t even known the name of the university but I KNOW—-w/o a doubt—that its in the States.

    I was fired from one of those big online universities a couple of years ago re: a contracted role of mine which was associated with advising students of their ability to be licensed. When a new corporation procured controlling interest, their agenda was to fool the students re: a critical aspect of their education. I’ll not go into details here as there’s a whistle-blower (qui tam) lawsuit hanging in the balance.

    Don’t know if you’re thinking in terms of this ‘whistle-blowing’ as what you’re describing is subtle and it was long a point of mine re: using stiff, unpalatable course teaching platforms that could not be tweaked as everything had to be standardized—-according to the corporation. Be careful how your report matters should you desire to sue the university. Yes, welcome to the corporation that is called the USA.

    With Bush being re-elected, we are screwed.

    marsha hammond, phd

  28. There’s not much to say that hasn’t already been said. The timing of this incident certainly seems to coincide with your recent incsub project — perhaps talking about new educational technologies was tolerable for them, but creating tangible “competition” freaked them out.

    Although I want to encourage you to fight this one and stick it to the man…be assured that you will also be supported for wanting/needing to keep your job. Your network and community would miss your unfettered voice and considerable contributions, but the last time I checked, we haven’t been paying your bills. Your employer really sucks for making you choose…but at least they didn’t fire you first and ask questions later. Good luck with whatever path you create.

  29. travis christopher

    James,
    I’m here show my support of your blogging, wiki and knowledge management research. Your employer should realize that no matter how deep of investment they have with their current vendor; squashing innovation is a sure recipe for disaster. Thanks for the discourse…
    ~travis

  30. It will be quite an achievement to dismiss the fears so prevalently held in academia of establishing reciprocal communication with the thinking and learning community of the world. We need to see your process as one of consequence to all of us and find ways to help you complement the learning environment chosen by the University with true dialogue. The information in blogs and wikis are records and available for their scrutiny. Hopefully they can understand that the learning process is much richer to their constituency with wider use of technology. We are waiting to see how we can all gain from this junction.

    Feel our support and encouragement and hopefully this is just a stepping stone in a long productive path.

    Good luck!

  31. James: Very sad to hear about this. Makes little sense. In my job, I am currently encouraging students in design engineering courses to use blogs as a project management tool, and it’s working well. I’m very disappointed to hear that your administration would ask you to cease and desist, as it were. I hope some resolution can be reached that allows you to continue to do your good work. – Randy

  32. Your work is important and the contributions you have made are invaluable. This is not surprising on one hand, but absolutely alarming onthe other. CMS agreements that universities sign with providers are not like large food services contracts that select Coke and prohibit Pepsi. Teaching technology is at the core of a university’s mission and must be evolutionary, not tied to a single provider. At any rate, I posted today’s Radio Broadcast in support. Thanks for all the great posts.

  33. Your contributions to this community are more important than the contributions you have made to the university…at least we appreciate your effort. You have to find a way to carry on, James. Your work is important and meaningful, and it would be all over our loss if your voice here was silenced. Start with showing these responses to the university why not… Hang in.

  34. Hello James,

    I can strongly relate to what you’re describing as I am an internal e-learning consultant working for a community college.

    First, there shouldn’t be anything wrong with expressing an idea with the goal of improving the e-learning processes in place. Your idea may be rejected, but proposing it shouldn’t be seen as threatening. I believe that your employer (the university) is probably comfortable with this. Tell me if I’m wrong but I think that the manager you are refering to is the person who selected or is in charge of the LMS. If your suggestion wasn’t pinpointing a critical weakness, the director wouldn’t have told you anything about it. You can see the aggressive reaction as an acknowledgement of the relevance of what you’re proposing.

    Disciplinary action? I don’t think so. Who would lose the most form it? A dedicated employee working towards better quality or a manager trying to hide the weaknesses of a system under his/her responsibility?

    Please keep going.

  35. so the Big Brother syndrom is not limit to China?

    What James faces here is nothing new. He stepped on some long toes that has power to eliminate. But …

    they can only silence those who allow them to silence! I guess with us supporting James here, it is not going to be easy. Even if James win the battle, life is not going to run smoothly as before … Unfortunately.

    It never ceases to amaze me how often ‘The Animal Farm’ replays.

    Cindy

  36. From, Mayaguez, University of Puerto Rico: James, you have all my support. Thanks for sharing this with the World. We need people with your courage and wisdowm. Follow your bliss.

  37. Shocking (and a blunder on their part, it seems). Creativity is not an optional extra in education. Where do they think the web (and CMS on top of them came from)? From strategic decisions at HQ?

  38. Hang in there James – perhaps you could set up an ‘anonymous’ blog – since your employer claims to own your identity :)

    It goes to show that a culture of innovation can only thrive where management is supportive. Bad management leads to zero innovation, leads to large monolithic institutions going under and losing any competitive edge. This reminds me of Australia’s entrenced tendency to refuse support for invention and research – the best inventors and creative people have to go overseas.

    It also reminds me of the time an employer claimed to own “any materials developed by sessional teachers” – even though the sessional pay rate barely allowed time to photocopy a lesson, let alone the huge time needed to fill the “accountability forms”.

  39. M Barber

    BY the way James – hasn’t your VC explicitly stated the intention for your university “…to be the most progressive in… (insert country here)”?

    How does the executive director and your manager reconcile themselves to being so out of kilter with the stated vision of the institution they work for?

  40. M Barber

    There are two clear outcomes that probably need to occur to address the situation you find yourself in James.

    First option: The manager who wrote you the memo ought to immediately tender their resignation because if they so comprehensively fail to understand the way instruction is headed and the benefits that your guidance bring to colleagues, then they have NO PART to play in a university. Their incompetence for the role has clearly been stated.

    Second Option: Let’s cut your manager some slack and give them the benefit of the doubt. If we think they are competent and that they do understand the way instruction is headed (and the key preferences students have in many instances) then the only other reason for the memo is the result of pressure from the CMS vendor. In that case the University should dig its heels in and the Vendor ought make a very public apology for trying to smother innovation and effective instruction through the use of heavy handed corporate muscle. When you’re ready to go public, let us know – given the current focus on unethical business practises around the world, I’m sure the media would be happy to pursue the story!

  41. So, as more and more of the corporate mass media falls into the hands of fewer and fewer people, we begin to see concerted efforts to squeeze people away from more democratic media, like blogs. I’m not saying your Uni is part of a global consipracy, but it does seem to be influenced by a corporate/mass media culture that says, not only can ideas be treated as property, but that ideas should be subservient to property. Don’t give in!

  42. James- I am appalled at your situation, the very antithesis of the notion of learning, collegiality, and the concept of a “university”. To the person who has issues this decree, I can only hope it was a sad mistake to be corrected. James Farmer’s work has extends far and wide, and having never met him personally, can vouch I have profoundly gained knowledge and ideas from what he has shared via the alleged illicit tools.

    Shame shame shame

    best regards,

    Alan
    An Arizonan temporarliy in New Zealand

  43. James,

    I can fully understand your predicament and more than that I cannot say, but from my experience, all I will say is: keep records. Document what you have done and what you do and what you say, and start doing it now. One suggestion is to set up a gmail account (I have invites if you need them) and e-mail or cc correspondence and conversation write-ups there. Assuming you have them, focus on your work performance goals and how your activities accomplish them. Make sure you are clear on your assigned duties and the ways in which you are to accomplish them.

    Your contributions to the educational technology community are significant, particularly around weblogs, but in other areas too. Your employer should be bragging about them.

    Another angle is to look at how the major CMS’s are incorporating weblog and wiki-like technologies (because if they don’t, they’ll die). If you use Blackboard, check out Teams LX and Journal LX from http://www.learningobjects.com/.

    Finally, count to ten, then again, before talking to people about it and avoid writing about it in e-mail too much. It’s a punch in the gut and it’s easy to react strongly, especially right now. This is clearly a sign that you are being successful.

    best wishes

    David

  44. One wonders what the motivation for such a demand would be. One wonders how it can be that in a university, of all places, it can be deemed appropriate to stifle enquiry, squelch dissent, and clamp down on expressed opinions freely voiced in an independent forum.

    I will state this very clearly, for anyone who cares to read this: James Farmer is an important part of our community. We need him. The names on this list – and the names of many more people – are testament to that.

    Silencing James farmer is to silence us all – and we will not be silent.

  45. Albert Ip

    http://elearningrandomwalk.blogspot.com/2004/11/difficult.html

    Quote:
    At this point, we can only give James our greatest moral support. ;-)

    I resigned from my first job at a uni here in Melbourne when I arrived in Australia about 10 years ago. There were several reasons. One of them was one of the conditions of employment whcih I could not agree. As an employee of the university, the university would own all the work I did. I asked explicitly what about the work I might do at my spare time with my own equipment. The answer was that it was very difficult to ensure that any work I did was actually did outside office hours using my own equipment. Hence the clause in the employment contract was to eliminate any ambiquity! Shortly after that, I resigned and I am glad I did.

    p.s. I don’t know whether the same clause is still there. In today’s standard, I think some lawyers may be interested to represent the employees for a class action.