COLUMBIA, Mo. — From videotaped lectures to podcasts, universities are rushing to embrace the digital revolution. Yet even as some schools invite the public to view course material online, they're starting to grapple with how to keep classroom discussions out of the wrong hands
At the University of Missouri, a leaked classroom video that went viral in the spring and triggered an uproar on conservative media has prompted what may be the first restrictions on students recording lectures since the advent of portable tape recorders more than 50 years ago. Under the new policy, students must first obtain written permission from their professors and classmates.
Administrators say they want to make sure that students and faculty don't discover their conversations posted online or become afraid to talk openly. The new policy "protects the sanctity of the classroom for our students so they can freely discuss their thoughts and opinions," said Steve Graham, senior associate vice president for academic affairs for the four-campus Missouri system.
But some Missouri professors are crying foul. They say the restrictions are impractical and contradict the public university's goal of promoting shared knowledge.
"...We are public, taxpayer-funded faculty, and so we should think long and hard about any sort of restrictions on the rights of our students to record us as we work," said Charles Davis, a journalism professor and former executive director of the National Freedom of Information Coalition.
The proposal, which awaits approval by campus attorneys, is a response to a video of a labor studies lecture by University of Missouri-Kansas City professor Judy Ancel. Conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart's Big Government website obtained a leaked copy and edited hours of classroom lectures to suggest that she and a classroom colleague advocated union violence.
While the school stood behind Ancel, director of the university's Institute for Labor Studies, a former union business manager who helped teach the class at the university system's St. Louis campus offered to resign amid the uproar. He has since been asked to return to his adjunct professor post, Ancel said.
The proposed policy, a copy of which was provided to The Associated Press upon request, notes that "unauthorized distribution of such materials is a violation of academic standards and may violate copyright and/or privacy rights." Students and professors who violate the policy could face university disciplinary sanctions.
Ancel has previously said that her comment about union violence was a paraphrased remark of a statement made in a documentary shown in class about the 1968 Memphis garbage workers' strike and Martin Luther King's assassination. The recordings were obtained from a university website available only to students enrolled in the class.
But the problem was not the recording but the "twisted interpretations by others of the content," Davis said. "No policy could deal with what others do with content."
Faculty objections led to a clarification that students would still be able to record lectures unless someone objects. But the gist of the restrictions remains.
Student government leader Zach Toombs called the proposal "confusing, vague and (one that) prohibits students from taking advantage of studying and note-taking methods that have been used for a long, long time." The Missouri Students Association had asked school officials to distinguish between classmates sharing notes and unauthorized public distribution on the Internet.
Journalism professor David Herzog said the restrictions send a "mixed message" at a time when Missouri and other universities are aggressively promoting open access and technology.
"If we want to innovate, we need to break down barriers to information and conversation, not erect new ones," he said.
The debate in Missouri raises broader questions about the use and ownership of what are known as "captured lectures," said Kenneth Green, who directs The Campus Computing Project, a southern California-based research group that studies the role of information technology in American higher education.
A 2009 national survey by the group found that just 56 percent of campuses had "formal policies regarding the ownership of web-based curriculum resources and intellectual property developed by faculty."
Though universities have not restricted recording, he said, a modern "gotcha" culture attuned to circulating everyday missteps and misstatements increases the impact of the practice.
"The technology to do it has gotten much better," Green said. "And the stakes have gotten much higher."
For Ancel, the proposed policy doesn't go far enough. She cited a classroom conversation in which one student who appeared in the Big Government video worried that her liberal views would create problems at the workplace with a conservative boss.
"I don't want to have to think about what I said in class because my boss might see it," the student told Ancel.
Alan Scher Zagier can be reached at http://twitter.com/azagier