Preserving Academic Freedom in Our Digital World

Three ways institutional technology leaders can support post-pandemic learning.

GUEST COLUMN | by George Moore

Today’s institutional CIOs and CTOs find themselves in a brave new world where hybrid learning has quickly become a pillar of higher education. Our recent Digital Learning Pulse Survey found that nearly half (47 percent) of higher education faculty expect that changes in their teaching practices will remain in place post-pandemic, and more than half (51 percent) now have a more positive view of online learning.

However, as online learning assumes a more prominent role in today’s educational experience, we must thoughtfully integrate digital resources to ensure we maintain academic freedom – a central tenet of higher education.

‘…we must thoughtfully integrate digital resources to ensure we maintain academic freedom – a central tenet of higher education.’

At their most basic, digital learning platforms can be rigid, restricting a professor from altering their curriculum or teaching style to best align with student needs. At their best, these tools provide rich resources and enhance the learning experience for both the educator and student. In an attempt to create secure and efficient platforms, many digital tools have standardized the learning experience with strict digital class formats and limited use of non-curriculum resources.

While these tools can be easy to integrate from an operations standpoint, the standardization can strip both students and educators of the ability to present, debate and discover new ideas; this is an essential part of the learning experience that enables educators to create their own course experiences, increasing student engagement and helping them to gain new perspectives and skills.

Prior to the pandemic, when CIOs’ and CTOs’ selected technology for their institutions, academic freedom was not a key consideration. With the rapid and continued growth of digital learning tools, there has been a significant shift in how we utilize technology to support learning, and it is now incumbent upon these leaders to protect this standard of academic excellence.

Institutional technology leaders can support academic freedom in the hybrid education model by investing in technology that prioritize features including:

1. Autonomy to design (and redesign) courses based on real-world events

In our global news environment, educators must be able to quickly adapt their online coursework to keep it fresh and relevant. In a classroom setting, educators can easily incorporate news into their course plan, and use it as a jumping off point for broader debates related to the curriculum. In the same vein, digital platforms should include intuitive tools that allow educators to make last minute adjustments quickly and easily.

Without the ability to adapt their courses and materials, the professor and the course could run the risk of seeming “tone-deaf” and fail to capitalize on opportunities to leverage real-world examples where students can apply their skill-sets and academic knowledge. This restriction could also cause educators to work outside of the learning platform to share relevant resources, creating a disjointed, clunky and frustrating learning experience for students. As digital learning tools are increasingly integrated into the higher education experience, they need to support the independence of both the institution and the educator.

2. Deep resources that can be utilized based on need

Universities and their technology partners sit on a vast repository of content – from academic research and studies to textbooks and speeches, and the internet provides additional resources to bolster courses. Online learning tools should be designed to incorporate a rich variety of resources and support educators’ ability to think beyond the assigned textbook, vs. limiting them to a narrow scope of material.

‘Online learning tools should be designed to incorporate a rich variety of resources and support educators’ ability to think beyond the assigned textbook…’

Allowing educators to leverage a wide range of content also enables them to tailor courses based on students’ reactions to content. This creates a more personalized student experience as the educator can augment a course easily to respond to individual students’ needs and challenges or to capitalize on student interests, ultimately creating a more engaging and fulfilling experience.

3. Education technology needs to constantly evolve with us

It goes without saying that the pandemic has brought education technology to the forefront of higher education. As many institutions expect to incorporate the hybrid model moving forward, it is imperative that platforms evolve with student and faculty needs. Technology should be designed to be adaptable and responsive to the feedback and demands of both educators and students. This will help to ensure institutions maintain academic freedom, and that teachers and learners will always have a voice in their learning experience.

Standardization will always be an organizational priority as it improves efficiencies and ensures data privacy and security. However, digital learning technologies must also prioritize flexibility and responsiveness. Luckily, the choice does not have to be one or the other. With new technology, colleges and universities can provide learners with a rich, engaging educational experience while also preserving and protecting academic freedom.

George Moore is Chief Technology Officer at Cengage and has been since 2013. He leads their global technology division, driving innovation throughout the company and creating its vision for education technology. He has played an instrumental role in their expansion from a legacy book publisher into an education and technology company built for learners. His experience spans industries ranging from healthcare to education, with the common thread of driving business reinvention and transformation. He serves on the Board of Directors for Junior Achievement of Northern New England and the IMS Global Learning Consortium. He studied Business Administration and Management at Northeastern University. George is based out of Boston, Massachusetts. Connect with him through LinkedIn

  • Raymond M Rose


    Wish that there’d also been mention of the need to ensure that all those digital resources were fully accessible to people with disabilities. Often what appears to be an exciting new tool, misses the accessibility review completely.

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