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. this is my biggest fear – the reason I have almost given up blogging on more than one occasion. I now try only to post things before or after work, or on my lunch hour for fear of this exact scenario. Whatever you need James – I’m behind you…

  2. James,
    I know which university and which LMS. What you report does not surprise me in the slightest. The uni concerned has a history stifling innovation in elearning and represents the epitomy of the rampant managerialism that restricts the adoption of new elearning tools and techniques in unis today. They could have had their own LMS years ahead of other unis and been a true market leader rather than a follower but they threw it all away and spent millions on one commercial LMS (which failed) and then millions more on another.

    Enough said. Try not to worry about it. They are all idiots.

  3. I’ll support you any way I can, James.

    I’m a bit confused as to why your employer would want to stop you from looking at other tools, that have not (yet) been purchased or used by the institution. As a consultant, I have had a few clients who have paid me quite well to look at their technology options. In some cases they already have an LMS/LCMS/CMS and want to find a replacement. In others they may be looking for a system to supplement their existing one. With an internal consultant like you, your employer is saving a lot in consulting fees – from someone like me. You are doing them a huge favour, on your own time, and I would say that you are a real asset for them.

    I have had several academic clients, and used to be employed by a university, and have never come across a cease & desist order as you have received. This could be because the “big guys” are getting desperate and are putting pressure on their clients. Who knows?

    I’ll gladly carry on this conversation off-line.

  4. If you are an education facilitator/lecturer/whatever, it might be in the best interests of the students to know about using a variety of tools – blogs, wiki, etc. Teachers need to be very flexible and feel that they can incorporate the tools that they need to give their students the best possible education. It is important that the teacher of the teachers role models this. Our fall back position is often to teach as we were taught.

  5. No good deed goes unpunished, as they say.

    I don’t see any basis for their request. I don’t see any kind of conflict of interest. Stop promoting free and open source educational tools that people can choose on their own to use or not use _in addition to_ the course management system? I just don’t get it. Sounds something like “only pencils made by Microsoft are allowed in class or to even be talked about in or out of class.”

    Well if you do continue helping educators learn about and use wikis and weblogs and need any help from me lemme know.

  6. Let me get this straight – a University, that last great bastion of independent thought, research, experimentation, and dissemination, has decided that you should not be allowed to do any of these activities, because it may be perceived as running contrary to the goals of a company whose software was licensed by said University? Wow. That just boggles my mind. So, if the University has a fleet purchase agreement with Ford, you wouldn’t be able to talk about Volkswagens, BMWs, or Ladas? Is this how they treat their research programs? If so, I would be extremely skeptical of the academic “reputation” of this institution. If they do allow their research programs to operate unfettered by Institutional Decrees, then why have you been singled out? I personally don’t know which University you work at, or which of the Big CMS they licensed, and I can’t imagine why they would object to your publishing a valued resource for other practitioners.

    Actually, I may be a bit spoiled – It had never occurred to me to anonymize my weblog – the University is right there in the URL, and I talk at length about University stuff.

    It’s not like you posted photos of yourself in uniform or anything, either ;-)

    Anyway, James, if there’s anything I can do to help, please give me a shout.

  7. Sounds like the worst sort of internal university political backstabbing. Threats to the established order of things always seem to trigger these kinds of short-sighted reactions. I’d take it as a fundamental sign of your success. As you probably know better than most, what you need is some support from power brokers in the faculty. What you have is our support from the outside that you’re poking in the right places. Disruptive innovation is always hard.

  8. Anne Bartlett-Bragg

    Disruptive technology indeed! I guess it comes with innovation under the watchful eye of beaucracy or corportisation (control) of learning. Keep the banner flying – never give up on what you believe in! ABB

  9. This is absolutely outrageous! I hope you feel backed enough by all your fellow bloggers/supporters to keep on doing the excellent job you’ve doing sofar.

  10. I thought being informed was one of the first duties of a consultant.
    And I thought that informing (diffusing knowledge) was one of the first duties of a University.

    So discouraging…

  11. Patrick Klaassen

    … sad … very sad … when petty politics come in the way of pedagogical innovation.

  12. You say your employer is actually a fantastic university James so I hope that they can demonstrate both their responsiveness and flexibility by changing their mind on this one!

    Your professional community and friends are behind you…

    Good luck and best wishes…

  13. James, best of luck in what is at best a difficult situation. I hope that you’ll gently pursue this in terms of asking people to explain the reasoning behind shutting down such open inquiry. Be truly willing to listen, but push for an explanation in terms of broader policies and effects. Most of all, document this all well, and make sure that you’re protecting your own interests. Universities are environments where public appeals to increasing knowledge, openness and avoiding secrecy have a better chance of working than in many other environments, but you still want to be careful.

  14. James, sorry to hear about this turn of events. I hope you’ll continue to do what you think is best for your faculty and students, regardless of the possible short-sightedness of the uni admins. Best,

  15. This is an example on how commercial education can become, with lobbies from big CMS who want to close around their systems locking out experimentation and improvement. Flexibility, the possibility to choose and change are essential in pedagogical and professional development. I do hope they will give it a second thought! Do not give up but think how to argue your case so a solution can be reached.
    Warm regards from Brazil,
    Bee

  16. 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.

  17. 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.

  18. 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

  19. 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

  20. 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!

  21. 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!

  22. 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?

  23. 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”.

  24. 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?

  25. 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.

  26. 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

  27. 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.

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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

  31. 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!

  32. 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

  33. 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.

  34. 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

  35. 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

  36. 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.

  37. 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!

  38. 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…

  39. 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.

  40. 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…

  41. 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…

  42. 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!

  43. 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.