There are “two things you can be sure of when you teach online via a campus platform”, writes Margaret Soltan, an English professor at George Washington University in the US, on her University Diaries blog.
Number one? “Your university is watching.” Number two? “There’s a written record of everything you say.”
“All sorts of eyes are peering into your online course,” she continues. “Your students, naturally; but also university administrators, on-campus tech people, the for-profit firm your school has probably hired to manage various course functions.”
This, Professor Soltan concludes, “is not a freedom-rich environment” where you can fail to run the course properly before “giving everyone an A” and most certainly “not for sexual harassment”.
She is referring to two separate stories. The first, in 2011, relates to an incident at her university when students who were enrolled on a programme received A grades for two online classes for which they never received any instruction. The students, remarkably, were allowed to keep the credit that they had earned (after their coursework was actually reviewed) and also received a refund.
Shortly after the incident, Venetia Orcutt, who had been assigned to teach the courses, resigned.
The reference to “sexual harassment” made in Professor Soltan’s blog relates to a more recent incident at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In December, the university announced that it had removed the online courses of Walter Lewin, physics professor and New York Times-declared “web star”, after the lecturer was found to have violated its sexual harassment policy.
The statement does not give many details about the incident, but does state that the decision to remove lectures from its online portals had been taken in response to a complaint received in October from a woman “claiming online sexual harassment by Lewin”.
“She provided information about Lewin’s interactions with her, which began when she was a learner in one of his [online] courses, as well as information about interactions between Lewin and other women online learners,” the statement reads.
MIT immediately began an investigation, and as a precaution instructed Professor Lewin not to contact any MIT students or online learners, either current or former.
“Based on its investigation, MIT has determined that Lewin’s behavior toward the complainant violated the Institute’s policy on sexual harassment. Following broad consultation among faculty, MIT is indefinitely removing Lewin’s online courses, in the interest of preventing any further inappropriate behavior.”
Videos of Lewin’s lectures, which he himself described as “very special”, “inspiring” and “very funny”, had amassed millions of views online.
“Students place tremendous trust in their teachers,” said MIT president L. Rafael Reif. “Deserving that trust is among our most fundamental obligations.
“We must take the greatest care that everyone who comes to us for knowledge and instruction, whether in classrooms or online, can count on MIT as a safe and respectful place to learn.”
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