“Canned” Courses and Faculty Responsibilities

Curriculum Chair

For years, many faculty members have relied on proprietary materials provided by publishers.  Ancillaries in the form of overhead maps, test banks, homework labs, and other supporting documents have been crucial for faculty in disciplines ranging from anthropology to women’s studies.  Recently, however, questions have begun to arise regarding the use of proprietary and publisher materials, especially those that seem to supplant the role of the faculty member in the creation of course content.  This issue became a topic of discussion for the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges’ Online Education Committee, which presented on the subject as part of its “Hot Topics” breakouts at the Fall 2015 plenary session and at its regional meetings in the Spring of 2016.

Out of these discussions, several different concerns regarding proprietary materials were raised.  One was that some faculty seemed to be overly reliant on publisher materials, including so called “canned” courses, in which all material for the course was provided by the publisher, leaving the faculty member free of any responsibility for creating materials.  Second, these issues clearly were not limited to online courses, as publisher generated materials impacted all modalities of course delivery.   Finally, several attendees noted that these materials were not always generated by publishers and that in some cases colleges were creating their own propriety materials that faculty were being pressured, or in some instances required, to use in their courses.  To this end, at its Fall 2015 plenary session, the ASCCC passed resolution 9.10 which directed that “the Academic Senate for California Community Colleges, along with other system partners, provide professional guidance on effective practices for the use of publisher generated materials by faculty in all modalities of courses and report to the body by Spring 2017.”

While the resolution called for an examination of publisher-generated materials, it did not reference materials created by colleges for the use of their faculty.  The question of college-generated resources is not a new one:  faculty members have long relied on their colleges to provide course management systems (CMS), curriculum management systems, and other programs and materials that allow faculty to do their jobs.  As a faculty member at Foothill College, I used the ETUDES course management system, which was created by a now retired Foothill College computer science faculty member, from day one of teaching online and subsequently for hybrid and web enhanced courses, and it never occurred to me to create my own course management system.  Most faculty experience a similar case: the college provides a shell in which faculty create their courses.  The CMS typically links to the college’s student information system or other programs that enable the faculty member to submit grades, to document completion and success rates, and perform other functions.  Faculty are, to a certain degree, reliant on these structures without necessarily being aware of them.

At some colleges and universities, however, the provision of college-generated resources has taken a potentially more ominous turn.  More than ten years ago, concerns about canned courses provided by colleges were being raised by faculty publications such as “The Adjunct Nation,”[1] which questioned whether or not these canned courses were impacting the academic freedom of the faculty who were teaching them.  The “Adjunct Nation” article stated positives as well:  faculty could spend more time on research, or on the job search, rather than wasting time creating a course that the faculty member might not have the opportunity to teach again.  And anecdotally, plenty of reasons exist that a canned course provided by a college could be a good idea:  these courses ensure that the same information is being taught across a spectrum of faculty, for example, and make certain that the rigor and intent of the course is being followed through regardless of who the faculty member of record is.  Proponents argue that many of these classes allow for faculty voice through the discussions in the course or through the correction of assessments, which, in many cases, are also provided to the faculty as a part of the structure.  These arguments are persuasive and in some cases are enough for faculty to agree to teach courses that are prepared for them rather than creating their own content.   This situation can be particularly true for part-time faculty, who are often hesitant to speak out against a practice such as being required to use a canned course for fear of not receiving an assignment.

However, these canned courses present a series of problems beyond the significant concerns over academic freedom.  Ultimately, the most important question that needs to be raised is whether the use of these courses is best for students.  In a face-to-face class, regardless of the materials that are used, students have the experience of interacting with a faculty member who may agree or disagree with the materials presented.  As a historian whose fields include Russian and women’s history, the emphases in my classes will be different from a faculty member who has a background in Latin American studies or in sub-Saharan Africa.  Being able to hear different opinions, and have different foci, is one of the expectations of college.  Unlike high school curricula, which are set by the state, college curricular structures are created by discipline faculty, and while some general guidelines or structure may be provided by C-ID, discipline boards, accrediting agencies, and others, the bulk of the material that community college faculty teach is presented as the faculty member of record chooses, with that individual’s own emphases.  The same is true for assessment:  while colleges may all test for the same information, the format that assessment takes, whether in group projects, oral presentations, research papers, or other forms, varies by faculty member.

The use of “canned courses, regardless of whether they are publisher or college generated, can also do a disservice to students.  Beyond just the tenets of various academic fields, college faculty teach a wide range of life skills to prepare students for the job market, to transfer to a four year school, or for advancement in a field of their choosing.  Students learn to navigate different styles, expectations, and temperaments in college classrooms; they learn to write papers and persuasive arguments, to calculate and analyze, and to be civic-minded citizens in the greater world.  Providing these students with a cookie-cutter method of education, without allowing them to discern the differences between forms and styles of education, is to remove one of the most valuable life skills they will learn from their college experiences.

Faculty must remain vigilant about the creation of courses; curriculum is the first of the Academic Senate’s “10+1” academic and professional matters.  Ensuring rigor and quality in our courses is not only or even primarily the responsibility of administration; it is first and foremost a job for all faculty, and one which must be taken seriously if faculty are to maintain control over courses and their content.