Get Used to Sharing Digital Content, Says U. of Texas at Austin President

Professors at the University of Texas at Austin should get comfortable with the idea of using online course materials created by their colleagues at other institutions, according to William C. Powers Jr., the university president.

“Where appropriate,” the university and its faculty members “should learn from, leverage, and grant credit for high-quality online content and technology created by other leading universities,” wrote Mr. Powers in a campuswide memo released this morning.

The memo, which university communications officials distributed to news outlets, covers a range of issues relating to “technology-enhanced education,” but the thrust is that the time for small pilot projects is over, and that Austin, the flagship of the University of Texas system, needs to figure out how to make various online projects operate at a campuswide scale.

“We now have reached a new stage in our evolution,” wrote Mr. Powers. “We must make decisions that will lay the groundwork for the decades ahead. And we must bring larger numbers of faculty and campus leaders into this effort.”

Among other things, that means creating incentives for faculty members to “create scalable online modules, courses, certificate, and degree programs,” the president wrote. For example, the university said its “general position” is that faculty members own the copyrights to content they develop for such purposes.

The Texas system was an early partner and investor with edX, the nonprofit provider of massive open online courses founded last year by Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Professors at the Austin campus have been the first to offer Texas-branded MOOCs on the edX platform.

The university faces a challenge, however, in persuading faculty members who are not early adopters to start incorporating digital materials—including courses and content developed by professors at other universities—into their own teaching, Mr. Powers said in an interview.

“The challenge is taking these to scale,” he said. “And that, at some point, will require faculty to be using other people’s material.”

The president said he was not talking just about resources available through edX, but also about other digital libraries and platforms that store, catalog, and curate materials in a way that makes it easy for professors to browse and select whatever they need.

Persuading faculty members to use teaching materials created by their peers is theoretically not much different from getting them to use textbooks written by other academics. But on some campuses, professors have looked at outside content—from edX in particular—as a Trojan horse. Last spring, professors in the philosophy department at San Jose State University publicly refused a dean’s request that they use recorded lectures by a Harvard professor that had been made available to them via the edX platform.

The San Jose State professors saw the edX offer as part of a budget-driven plan to make them cede portions of their curriculum to talking heads from “elite” universities—even though the San Jose State provost insisted they would have complete control over how much edX content they wanted to use.

Perhaps anticipating similar academic-freedom questions from faculty members at Austin, Mr. Powers wrote in his memo that “our faculty and academic units control the curriculum,” and that this would not change in the digital era.

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