Harvard Considers Limits on Teaching Online Courses for Other Institutions
The Chronicle of Higher Education- Tuesday, April 25, 2000
By JEFFREY R. YOUNG
A Harvard University committee has proposed new guidelines that would forbid the university's professors to teach online
courses for other institutions -- or even to provide material for such courses -- unless they first obtained the permission of
The guidelines, now being distributed to Harvard faculty members for discussion, cover various "outside activities" by
professors -- mainly teaching, research, and consulting for other institutions or organizations. Committee members say the
proposal simply clarifies the university's long-standing policy on such activities in an era of high-tech distance education. But at
least one professor says that the new policy is far more restrictive, and that it creates obstacles for professors who want to
experiment with new technologies.
The university's current rules on outside activities were adopted in 1948 and last amended in 1997. Though the rules forbid
professors to teach, do research, or serve as consultants at other educational institutions without permission during the
academic year, the rules have allowed such activities during the summer. The new rules would specifically apply year-round in
the case of online courses, although in general they would permit faculty members to teach traditional summer-school courses
without seeking permission first.
"Modern technology enables a faculty member to videotape an entire course of lectures (together with other materials) in a
short period of time, and make the resulting materials available to an educational organization," the proposed guidelines state.
"The fact that such a course or course materials could be produced during a vacation or 'after hours' does not allay the concern
that such activities can conflict with professional obligations to Harvard and its students."
Dennis F. Thompson, the university's associate provost, is chairman of the 12-member faculty committee that drafted the
proposal. He says the university's main concern is making sure that full-time faculty members remain focused on their
responsibilities to students and colleagues at Harvard. Another concern, he adds, is protecting the Harvard name by making
sure that other institutions don't misrepresent any role Harvard professors play in their online courses.
Some online activities would require no special permission as long as they "do not constitute a course and are distributed on a
non-exclusive basis," the guidelines note. One example is "making ideas and materials available on Web sites."
Mr. Thompson says the committee plans to seek a vote by the Harvard Corporation, before the end of the academic year, on
the policy and any suggested changes. The seven-member corporation serves as the university's executive board.
For Harvard, the issue of professors working with online institutions isn't hypothetical.
Last year the university objected when one of its law professors, Arthur R. Miller, supplied videotaped lectures to Concord
University School of Law, an online institution. (See an article from The Chronicle, December 3, 1999.)
Harvard officials say Mr. Miller violated university policy by providing course material to another law school without
permission. But Mr. Miller says he has done nothing wrong, because he doesn't interact with students at Concord. Videotaping
lectures, he says, is analogous to publishing a book or giving a lecture on television.
Mr. Miller isn't pleased with the newly proposed guidelines, which he says would force him to seek permission before doing the kind of work he did for Concord last year.
"It seems to me odd that a great educational institution is inhibiting its faculty in pursuing a new technology in terms of
education," he says. "That strikes me as very bad public policy."
Mr. Miller says that he has been actively using new technologies and various public forums in his work for decades without
having to gain prior approval. "I'm suddenly being required to beg permission," he adds.