In January of 2021, Aaron Ansuini, a student at Concordia University (Canada) posted the following tweet:
“HI EXCUSE ME, I just found out the the prof for this online course I’m taking *died in 2019* and he’s technically still giving classes since he’s *literally my prof for this course* and I’m learning from lectures recorded before his passing
……….it’s a great class but WHAT”
The instructor, François-Marc Gagnon passed away in 2019 at age 83. The disclosure that Gagnon had died—but was still teaching from the grave—went viral on social media and was picked up by Slate, Reuters, and The Chronicle of Higher Education, among other outlets. About the situation, Ansuini later said in an interview, “It was very strange, I thought maybe it was a mistake at first.” But it was no mistake. Concordia hired a visiting professor, Marco Deyasi, to effectively administer Gagnon’s course with limited student interaction. Deyasi only found out about Gagnon’s death after Ansuini’s tweet went viral. As reported in The Chronicle, Deyasi was, understandably, surprised: “I saw that thing from the student, and I was like, ‘Really? Oh, damn.’ You know? I just thought Professor Gagnon retired.” Tamara Kneese, writing for Slate, homed in on the key issues at stake: “This case may be particularly egregious, but it intersects with larger questions about copyright and control over faculty members’ online course materials and the various ways faculty labor within higher education is degraded and devalued,” all of which have become sharper and more important given the en masse move to online education during COVID-19
There are norms, ethics, and policies at stake concerning the creation, use, and distribution of online course designs and learning objects (e.g., quizzes, lectures). A central issue is that online courses are often embedded in institutionally managed learning management systems (LMS), such as Canvas and Blackboard, and other educational technologies. All of the digital artifacts, then, are able to be duplicated, remixed, shared and reused – with or without the original instructor’s knowledge or express permission. While it is the case that face-to-face courses can and do use elements of an LMS or are supported by some educational technology, their designs are not nearly as dependent on technology as online courses are; in addition many online instructors are paid stipends to develop new online courses, thus complicating the notion of ownership. The result is that online instructors are much more susceptible to having their intellectual labor and property exploited by their institutions to serve administrative and financial interests.
Institutional policy is often written to allow for this wide-ranging reuse of online course content without meaningful instructor consent or consultation. For instance, Indiana University claims that it may use “Online Instructional Materials” for “administrative purposes” or “other functions”; further, it forces instructors who leave the university to grant “a non-exclusive, royalty-free, worldwide, unlimited license to use the Online Instructional Materials for Online Instruction, including the right to revise such Online Instructional Materials.” Administrations have and continue to turn to online education as a way to alleviate financial pain points, regarding both low enrollment and tenured/tenure-track faculty costs. Claiming ownership of online materials further enables administrators to take advantage of—and literally profit from—the difficult labor of putting together quality online courses.
The American Association of University Professors’ (AAUP) Statement on Online and Distance Education states that:
The institution should establish policies and procedures to protect its educational objectives and the interests of both those who create new material and those who adapt material from traditional courses for use in distance education. The administration should publish these policies and procedures and distribute them, along with requisite information about copyright law, to all concerned persons [….] Provision should also be made for the original teacher[/]creator, the teacher[/]adapter, or an appropriate faculty body to exercise control over the future use and distribution of recorded instructional material and to determine whether the material should be revised or withdrawn from use [emphasis added].
Sponsored by the Information Policy special interest group (SIG), this proposal is for a traditional speaker panel format to address the intersection of policy and ethics regarding online instructors’ intellectual property, with special emphasis on AAUP’s point that online instructors should be able to control their use of their course designs and artifacts. The panelists will address relevant case studies, institutional policies, lived experiences, and strategies for protecting one’s intellectual property and advocating on behalf of their colleagues—especially those who are professionally at risk (e.g., teaching assistants, graduate student instructors, adjunct instructors, pre-tenure professors). The panelists will be selected on the basis of their knowledge of and/or experience with the issues addressed in this call for proposals.
Call for Proposals
The SIG seeks abstracts from potential panelists that address the focus area above. Abstracts should contain the following information:
- A title.
- A brief panelist biography including: name; email; most recent position/title, department/program affiliation, and institutional affiliation; and, a one sentence description of core research interests.
- The proposal narrative that extends no more than 500 words, excluding any references if they are provided.
The abstracts should be attached to an email in PDF format and sent to Dr. Margaret Zimmerman, the SIG convener, at Margaret.Zimmerman@cci.fsu.edu.
The Information Policy SIG aims to expand the diversity and breadth of its membership and participation in SIG activities. To that end, the SIG highly encourages potential panelists whose research and scholarship, demographic background, and/or professional status does not situate them in traditionally privileged positions or that are not widely reflected in scholarly conversations. More specifically, but not exclusively, the SIG welcomes participation by doctoral students, new or potential members of ALISE, and individuals who are situated outside of the United States. The SIG convener and selected SIG members are willing to work with panelists who identify as scholars at risk in order to explore alternative presentation strategies.
Finally, the Information Policy SIG recognizes that the COVID-19 pandemic is still active and affecting the work and livelihood of many of ALISE’s members and non-member allies. It understands that while the 2022 ALISE annual conference is slated to be on site in Pittsburgh, PA (USA), there is still a chance that:
- The conference format will be moved to a hybrid or fully online mode,
- and some ALISE members and non-members may not be able to physically attend due to institutional and national travel restrictions.
The SIG intends to conduct the panel physically in Pittsburgh, but is ready and able to transition to an online environment if circumstances dictate such a change. The SIG is willing to accommodate panelists who are unable to participate on site by providing a synchronous, online presentation method (e.g., Zoom).