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  April 16, 2001

Time to Negotiate Info Tech Policies
is Now, Says Speaker

Distance learning, the proliferation of e-mail, and WebCT bring many positive returns to America's college campuses, according to Linda L. Wolcott, an associate professor and interim dean of information and learning resources at Utah State University.

But there are downsides, including one that has a particular relevance to Wolcott.

"I call it 24/7/365 guilt," she quipped during a symposium April 5 on critical issues facing faculty as e-learning takes hold across the globe. "Students, deans, colleagues - they all have such high expectations that, because the technology makes communication so easy, you will respond to a question at any hour of the day or night."

From rewards and incentives to increased workload and demotivators, Wolcott told the about 80 people in attendance that much work lay ahead for faculty and administrators as the boom in e-learning intensifies. Her comments came during an interactive presentation that was part of the Institute for Teaching and Learning's critical issues series.

Not the least of the issues, she and the audience agreed, is that of intellectual property rights. Who owns the on-line course? Who has the right to revise it? Is an on-line course more like a textbook, which universities have typically allowed professors to claim as their own, or an invention, where ownership has more shades of gray?

"In industry, what you produce belongs to that company. You work for hire. Typically, we've not done that at universities, but things are very different now," Wolcott said, adding that not long ago, few people thought of on-line academic material as a money maker. But, when she discovered that a Utah State colleague had pulled down more than $100,000 for a basic English text that also had an on-line component, fireworks went off.

"Whether that will be the norm, star professors earning six figure royalties, we don't know," she said. "But the time to create a policy, some guidelines, is now," not after someone strikes gold.

"Get an agreement up front," she said, "before you make a lot of money and say 'I own it,' and the university says, 'Hey, we put a lot into that project too. We want a piece.'"

Richard Gorham, director of the University Center for Instructional Media and Technology, said discussions on intellectual property rights at UConn, including distance education, occurred about five years ago. But, he said, the discussion of on-line property was eventually abandoned for lack of consensus.

Krista Rodin, dean of the College of Continuing Studies, chaired a distance learning task force about a year ago that offered preliminary guidelines, primarily putting the burden of decision-making on individual schools and colleges.

Further discussions may soon begin, said Keith Barker, associate vice provost for undergraduate education and director of the Institute for Teaching and Learning, with hopes of creating a more focused set of guidelines.

When those talks do begin, Wolcott advised, faculty and administrators would be wise to look not at the product, but at rights and responsibilities.

"My advice is to look more at (who contributes) how much (to the product). What constitutes a substantial use of the resources of the university? Look at what faculty normally get: a computer, use of the library, an office. But what if the university builds a lab specifically for your research? What if the university says 'Here's $10,000 to design x,y, or z'? Is that substantial? I think you're probably getting there," she said. "You have to define 'substantial.' And the time to raise the issue is before you start. Negotiate it."

Barker and Gorham said UConn is off to a solid start. There are more than 500 courses with on- line components through WebCT, including all First Year Experience courses and more than 400 other undergraduate courses. Gorham says another 12-14 courses are on-line, using interactive compressed video, beaming from Storrs to the regional campuses or from one regional campus to another.

Most current on-line courses, he added, are "hybrids," with faculty teaching on-line several days a week and face-to-face on other days. Several courses are taught on-line through the College of Continuing Studies, including several undergraduate health and safety classes.

Beyond property rights involved in on-line education, several other substantial issues must be discussed, Wolcott said, including internal and external issues, from funding to the definition of scholarship.

Asked individually and by a show of hands, most faculty in the audience indicated their on-line work - both teaching and responding to myriad e-mails from students and department heads or deans - was in addition to their regular course work. Several said that facet of technology was cutting into the time available for research - even as the technology enhanced their abilities to conduct research, providing a steady stream of data and publications at their fingertips.

"The demands have increased. We now put grades, a syllabus - everything is expected to be on-line," she said. "So much of the free time I use to have to write or do scholarly work is now lost to these new expectations. And we have to learn new skills - word processing used to be the extent of it, but now there are PDF and JPEG and FTP. Time has to be carved out for that too."

Ilze Krisst, assistant vice provost for research and a member of the task force that created some guidelines for copyrights, inventions, patents and intellectual property five years ago, agreed there was much to be done, despite the rules currently in force.

"It's the many 'what ifs' that we have not mastered," she said.

What ifs that, unless properly negotiated, Wolcott warned, could soon become what could have beens.

Richard Veilleux

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