Sunday, 25 May 2014

Should Teaching be Open Access?

Many universities have begun making teaching material freely available online. In 2012 the UK’s Open University launched a platform, FutureLearn, where one can take a ‘Massive Open Online Course’, from a substantial range offered by 26 university partners and three non-university partners. There are also providers in America, Asia, and Australia.  Meanwhile, some universities – Yale is a prominent example – simply place recordings of their modules on a website, many collated at iTunesU, and, indeed, one can watch some directly via YouTube, including Michael Sandel’s course on justice:

These developments raise various ethical questions.  Here is a central one: why, if at all, should teaching be open access?  I suspect that the answer to this question depends on the kind of teaching and what precisely is meant by ‘open access’. Thus, (leaving open whether the arguments are generalizable) here I will consider a narrower suggestion: all university lecture series (where feasible) should be freely available online. Here are two reasons that speak in favour of this idea.

First, people (worldwide) should have the opportunity to know what is known. Knowledge is both intrinsically and instrumentally valuable and university lecture series are one (important) place where knowledge is housed. These points alone suggest there is some reason to give people access where possible. (Similar thoughts can be advanced in favour of internet available commons, such as Wikipedia or the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, as discussed previously on this blog). Perhaps there are cases in which access to certain knowledge must be restricted – certain intelligence information during a just war, for example. But the vast majority of information delivered through university courses is harmless (in that sense) and granting access to it would simply mean granting access to cutting edge research in a form engineered for easy consumption.

Second, the move could have a (Pareto-efficient) egalitarianising effect on university education. To wit, by giving students access to lectures from courses similar to those on their own degree, we might reduce various differences in educational and developmental opportunities that exist between attendees of different universities. Benefits would include better access to teaching more suited to one’s learning style and better accessibility for a more diverse range of users, points often emphasised about digitalising learning materials.

Here, meanwhile, are responses to some worries and objections:
Who would pay for it? The exercise would be fairly costless: many universities are already equipped with the necessary facilities and posting lectures online is fairly straightforward. In that sense, it would be funded largely by existing revenue streams from governments, research councils, and students.

Why should these actors pay for others to learn? To the extent that what is provided is a public good, I see no problem with it being government subsidised. Revenue from students is more difficult, but (a) students would continue to receive distinctive returns for their payment (such as library access and tutorials) and (b) the issue, anyway, casts as much question on whether university education should be student or government financed as on the proposal above.

Are not the courses the intellectual property of the lecturers and, thus, within their right to disseminate as they choose (including, if they wish, only for a fee)? I have some doubts about whether university courses, especially those publically funded, can be deemed individual intellectual property, but, even if so, lecturers would not need to exercise this right and the case here would imply that they should not do so.

Would it impact badly on student attendance? Might it even, as some lecturers have worried, undermine the viability of some universities and cost jobs if students can study by watching online lectures posted by other institutions? I doubt either of these effects: evidence shows access to online material typically does not decrease attendance and, as noted above, universities will continue to attract numbers and attendance based on the other, more site-specific components of their teaching profile.
Do online educational resources actually help people learn?  Much here might depend on ideas about learning theory.  Those who think we learn through stimulus and repetition (‘behaviouralists’ and, to some extent, ‘cognitivists’) are likely to place greater value on the idea than those who think we learn through communication and collaboration (‘collectivists’ or ‘constructivists’). But formats might be tinkered to respond to what would be most beneficial here, and, in any case, does not the potential of the benefits outlined above suggest that it is worth a try?

Monday, 19 May 2014

On reference letters in academic hiring

It is standard practice to ask applicants for academic jobs – at least for jobs in philosophy – to submit reference letters. Yet, an increasing number of people have been recently expressing scepticism about the practice. (See, for instance, the comments to this blog post.) This may be a good time for public discussions about it; the present post is a sketch of the pros and cons of using letters of reference in the process of selecting people for academic jobs in philosophy.

One worry with hiring on the basis of reference letters is that this tends to reinforce the regrettable importance of 'pedigree' – that is, of the university where candidates got their doctoral degree and of the people who recommend the candidate. There are relatively few permanent jobs in the current job market, and significantly more qualified candidates than jobs, whether permanent and temporary. One consequence is that there are many (over-)qualified candidates for (almost?) each job, and making the selection process really difficult. Considering dozens, sometimes hundreds, of applications for one position is an onerous task, so it is appealing to take pedigree into consideration because this is an expedient method to decide whom to short-list or even whom to hire. (As I mention below, this doesn't mean expedience is the only appeal of relying on pedigree.) But this is unfair to candidates: those who weren't supervised by influential letter-writers, or who otherwise didn't make their work sufficiently know to an influential letter-writer, have fewer chances on the job market. Moreover, relying on letters of reference can also be bad for quality, to the extent to which letters fail to closely track merit. This kind of problem will not entirely go away just by eliminating reference letters – the prestige of a candidate's university will continue to matter – but it's dimensions would be more modest.

Another worry is that reference letters reflect and perpetuate biases, perhaps unconscious ones, against members of groups that are under-represented in philosophy for reasons of historical or present discrimination, such as women or racial minorities. There are studies suggesting that reference letters written for female candidates tend to make recommendations in terms less likely to ensure success than those used in letters recommending male candidates. If this is true, letters of reference can, again, be unfair.

Another group of reasons to give up reference letters has to do with avoiding corruption – of the hiring process and of personal relationships within the academia – and their unhappy consequences. As long as they are used in hiring, reference letters are highly valuable assets. Those able to write the most influential letters can treat letters as tokens in exchange for illegitimate benefits from the candidates they recommend. Hiring without reference letters would diminish the potential of unfairness towards candidates who resist such exchanges, and the likely unfairness towards others when they don't. At the same time, it would eliminate one source of illegitimate power of letter writers over the candidates they recommend. To depend on a supervisor, or on other powerful people in the field, for a reference letter seems to in itself undesirable: a relationship in which one person has enormous power to make or break another's career looks like a relationship of domination. But even if it isn't, there seems to be a good reason against such dependency: to protect the possibility of genuine friendships between established and budding academics. Genuine friendships are more difficult to flourish when structural conditions make it more likely that people who pursue the relationships have ulterior motives. It is great not to have to worry that your professor cultivates your company because they want from you something they could ask in exchange for a reference letter. It is great not to worry that your student or younger colleague cultivates your company because they hope you'll give them a good letter. (Not all such worries will be averted by giving up on reference letters; one can and some do advance their students' careers by unduly facilitating for them publications in prestigious venues or by over-promoting them.)

Finally, there is be a reason of general utility to hire without reference letters: writing them takes time and, unlike other writings, they rarely have value beyond getting someone hired. (Plus, it's not the most exciting way to spend one's time); interpreting reference letters properly can also be a drag in the context of praise inflation. And it is stressful to ask people to write letters recommending you. Admittedly, this is not, by itself, a very strong argument, but it nevertheless should count in an overall cost-benefit analysis of reference letters.

All this is not to say there are no advantages of having reference letters in the hiring process. They may be useful proxies to determine that a candidate received proper philosophical training: in philosophy at least we learn an awful lot by simply seeing how others do good philosophy, and being allowed to participate in the process. The mere fact that one has been taught by a respected philosopher should count for something. But, in fact, in this day and age it is becoming increasingly easy to witness good philosophy independent from who mentors you. There are numerous conferences, and it became easier to travel to them; the internet is turning into an inexhaustible source of filmed philosophical events. Almost everybody can study the best philosophers in action, and many can interact with them on a regular basis at philosophical events. These philosophers will continue to feel particularly responsible towards their own students' careers (and so write letters for them) but, thanks to contemporary media, they can benefit an ever higher number of students in philosophy. Of course, search committees will not know which candidates who were not taught by the most prestigious philosophers did in fact benefit from the easily available resources (conferences, recordings of lectures and other events.) But nor can they assume a wide gulf between candidates who have and candidates who have not been taught by very respected philosophers.

A very important function of reference letters is, to my mind, that of giving prospective employers a way to check certain aspects concerning candidates, in case of doubt. This pro is specific to references, and as such has nothing to do with pedigree. Is a prospective employee a good team player? How much did she contribute to a particular publication? How close to publication are the papers listed on a c.v. as 'in progress'? But this aim can be satisfied in the absence of a general requirement that job applications include letters. It is enough if candidates are asked to list, in their application, a few people who can comment on them, with the understanding that referees are only to be contacted occasionally/exceptionally.

To me it appears that, on the balance of reasons, the pros should count less than than the cons, if only because they can be satisfied even if we drop the status quo with respect to reference letters. Letters may be important when employing people in many other fields because, together with interviews, they form the main basis for assessing a candidate's ability. But in philosophy hirings, where both written samples and job talks are required, we could and probably should do without them.