Online Learning + Scholarship

The COVID-19 global pandemic has made salient the importance of situating academic freedom within the context of online learning and scholarship.

As of March 2020, UBC shifted primarily to remote teaching and learning, research and service—albeit temporarily. Nevertheless, online UBC activities long preceded the pandemic, and will most likely persist after it abates.

Guiding Principles

In principle, the practice of academic freedom using electronic media is no different from the practice of academic freedom as originally conceived for traditional practices of teaching and research.

In practice, however, there are some important differences. Most users of electronic media tend to blur the distinction between the public and the private spheres, and hence the sense in which academic freedom differs from freedom of expression. The two freedoms, however, are distinct in certain critical respects. They overlap, like a Venn diagram, but are governed by different norms (ethical and legal), and are motivated by different ends. They also have different historical trajectories. As a result, it is better not to treat them as interchangeable, or to see academic freedom as an outgrowth of freedom of expression. 

Academic freedom is granted to persons affiliated with UBC — professors and instructors, staff, students, alumni, etc. — as an institutional privilege. Freedom of expression, by contrast, is granted to citizens within Canada pursuant to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms and other legislation. The first serves the primary goal of the advancement of knowledge, whereas the second serves the primary goals of democratic governance and individual flourishing. For more on these distinctions, see question 8 in our Frequently Asked Questions.

Once academics adopted online media, for example public platforms such as blogs, Twitter, or YouTube, the two types of freedom—academic versus expression—became conflated. The reason stems from the fact that the UBC policy for academic freedom includes guests. To quote: “this freedom extends not only to the regular members of the University, but to all who are invited to participate in its forum.” When members of UBC offer their ideas on social media, it is unclear as to whether or not the responders are considered “invited” into the UBC forum. This ever-expanding sphere was not envisioned when the UBC policy was first adopted in 1977.

An additional source of censorship comes from the corporations who provide the platforms. Facebook and Twitter, for example, each have policies for limiting some content. See And Zoom, now widely used by academics, has also silenced some forums at specific universities – with law suits pending: see An additional problem arises from the fact that these corporations are subject to the laws of the U.S.A. and not necessarily to the rights recognized in British Columbia. 

Online Learning

It is an open question whether holding classroom lectures and discussions online inhibits or expands the range of views of expressed. Some studies show that digital learning improves student discussions. However, it would be difficult to measure if this expands the diversity of views, as intended by academic freedom. Whilst students are still adapting to the new learning environment, it would be wise to reserve judgment. There may also be an evolutionary process at work, whereby after a sufficient number of online courses, students and instructors acquire new habits and dispositions; we simply do not know.

Online learning brings a host of additional risks, as students and instructors exercise their academic freedom. Classroom lectures and discussions are normally recorded, and could be acquired by outside persons. This worry might seem trivial while one is a student, but something recorded could be used against you, perhaps decades into the future, even if you live your entire life in Canada. Some statements that are recorded could significantly limit opportunities for employment, promotion or public service.

This seems to cut into academic freedom, by inhibiting the full and unrestricted expression of ideas, however controversial. In one clear sense, however, it does not. Learning is about cultivating sound judgement and seeing your own ideas from and through the eyes of others. One important justification for the study of the humanities is that it instills empathy and teaches one to speak and write with precision. An important justification for the study of the sciences (natural or social) is that it teaches a method, namely the formation of sound hypotheses as corroborated by the empirical record—qualitative or quantitative. The study of both the arts and sciences are thus in the service of modifying and tempering academic engagement.

To avoid acting hastily or disrespectfully is in effect part of what it means for a student to cultivate an academic sensibility, as modelled by their professors. Effective communication—oral or written—is inextricably joined to clear thinking on any given subject, and as students come to realize, the journey of improvement is long and hard. No one can spell out in advance what constitutes a sound or unsound statement in the classroom, let alone on a blog posting or tweet. Precisely because there is a residual record, however, the need to cultivate sound judgment over time, no doubt with some trial and error, is all the more imperative. The UBC motto, tuum est (it’s up to you) seems particularly apposite.

A further consideration regarding online learning is that some students reside in other parts of the world, where rights are reduced. In this way, students and faculty living outside of Canada may run afoul of their local laws. Students living abroad may be subject to unwanted surveillance; this could also transpire on Canadian soil. A student might be enjoined to inform on fellow students who voice positions that their own nation deems illegal.

Recorded lectures might also limit the opportunities for scholars to travel abroad, to access archival materials or attend conferences. One of the worst outcomes could result in the incarceration of a student or instructor when abroad, for voicing beliefs that are considered illegal, even though this occurred on Canadian soil, and in the context of the thrusts and parries of academic debate. UBC upholds academic freedom but is in no position to interfere with the laws or practices of other nations. Yet another issue is of a practical nature: in some countries not all online servers are available. Challenges of delivering a course equitably thus arise. The fact that students are on different time-zones might also limit the effort to achieve pedagogical equity, a core value of academic freedom.

In keeping with this theme that each individual learns to cultivate a judicious use of academic freedom, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, the following recommendation has been issued to instructors and students:   

During this pandemic, the shift to online learning has greatly altered teaching and studying at UBC, including changes to health and safety considerations. Keep in mind that some UBC courses might cover topics that are censored or considered illegal by non-Canadian governments. This may include, but is not limited to, human rights, representative government, defamation, obscenity, gender or sexuality, and historical or current geopolitical controversies. If you are a student living abroad, you will be subject to the laws of your local jurisdiction, and your local authorities might limit your access to course material or take punitive action against you. UBC is strongly committed to academic freedom, but has no control over foreign authorities. Thus, we recognize that students will have legitimate reason to exercise caution in studying certain subjects. If you have concerns regarding your personal situation, consider postponing taking a course with manifest risks, until you are back on campus or reach out to your academic advisor to find substitute courses.

Online Scholarship

At present, online scholarship is actively encouraged, and funds are allocated to support these undertakings. For graduate students, funding is awarded through the Public Scholars Initiative. The UBC Public Humanities Hub and the Peter Wall Institute for Advanced Studies each offer competitive grants for faculty to develop their public face using online media (blogs, MOOCs, etc.). Faculty merit and promotion adjudications make note of these contributions.

Online scholarship that is more readily accessible to the public is partly intended to break down the ivory tower. Recent efforts to foster open access through online journals and e-books is undertaken in the spirit that the research itself is significantly sustained by taxpayer dollars. That said, it is also important that no specific line of research or academic appointment be swayed by donor influence. Nor, for that matter, should research be conducted primarily for remuneration. New patents or bestselling textbooks are a welcome outcome of academic research, but the work is still best motivated by non-pecuniary goals, such as a passion for truth, or the desire to enhance the wellbeing of society.  

Online scholarship comes with certain risks. Countless students or professors have become victims of cyber-bullying, media-shaming, harassment, doxing or trolling. There are some steps that may be taken to reduce these harms, some of which are noted in the following article:

The main point is to anticipate them. Forewarned is forearmed, goes the maxim. It is a matter of common observation that, when interviewed for a newspaper, the published result tends to differ from what one recalls having said. This recasting suggests that recipients project onto what was said or written, or that recollection is imperfect. Anticipating potential distortions might reduce misrepresentations. If one wishes to advance a position on social media, one must be aware that there is little to no control over the reactions. 

Keep in mind that academic freedom in a very important sense diverges from freedom of expression. Ask yourself if what you are expressing on social media is backed by your expertise. If it is not, then underscore that you are making this claim as an ordinary citizen so as to avoid conveying the impression that the claim has additional authority. 

Academic freedom (and tenure) are hard-earned privileges not found in other walks of life, and they will only thrive and spread if academic integrity is also on display. Think of the importance of extending academic freedom across the globe, to every institution of higher learning—a mission voiced by UNESCO. Knowledge, particularly given online resources, is not limited to a university or nation. The same principles of academic freedom that motivate unfettered teaching and research at UBC would apply equally across the globe—whether practiced or not. In this respect, UBC’s policy for academic freedom sits in harmony with other core values of UBC: the forging of global citizens and the advancement of equity, diversity, and inclusion.

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