Stephen Brown and TEU member Kay Hammond of Te Wānanga Aronui o Tāmaki Makau Rau | Auckland University of Technology will be speaking on day one of TEU’s upcoming two day Academic Freedom Conference: Challenges & Opportunities, 31 August – 1 September 2021, as part of a panel exploring the range of ways academic freedom is being challenged and/or thrown into crisis. Here, Brown and Hammond discuss Learning Management Systems (LMS) and the need for ongoing training and support in LMS and digital tools.

The Learning Management System (LMS) is an integral part of higher education, and over the last two decades, universities have adopted digital LMS platforms to promote their delivery of online education. Universities have invested heavily in developing online education and position the LMS at the heart of this investment.

The LMS has become a critical interface between academic and learner, expanding delivery methods of content, knowledge assessment, practical exercises, and collaboration among users. These attributes make the LMS an essential asset for any university, however, the continued push by higher education providers to flourish in the competitive online environment requires a commitment by academics to embrace the LMS model. This commitment, and a narrative that describes the academic’s adoption and acceptance of the LMS during the rapid growth of online learning by all universities, remains largely unexplored. Furthermore, the compulsion and expectation to teach online during the COVID-19 pandemic provided a powerful impetus for academics to fully engage with their university’s LMS.

Academic freedom is being challenged by rapid development of online learning accelerated by the events of the current pandemic. An academic’s adoption of online learning during the 2020 lockdown required levels of engagement with the LMS previously unexperienced, and in our presentation at TEU’s Academic Freedom Conference: Challenges & Opportunities, we suggest that it is the academic who is pivotal to online course development. An academic’s engagement with the LMS, and their willingness to be in balanced partnership with experts in e-learning, should remain central to their university’s strategic development of any distance learning initiative - any erosion of academic freedom will undermine the engagement and commitment needed to implement this strategy. It is the academic who should determine alternative means of instruction, and any alternative means of assessment, during any transition to online learning.

In our presentation at the TEU Academic Freedom Conference, we propose that it is incumbent on academic staff to stay current with digital tools such as the LMS, become conversant with technology-assisted learning applications, and to understand how these applications can best contribute to student learning. Institutions need to respect and support this knowledge to empower academics to provide sound educational experiences that can respond to regional and global context with being unnecessarily constrained by a predetermined aesthetic.

Academics require ongoing training and support to be successful (and remain successful) in their online teaching. Appropriate training will increase the likelihood that an academic will fully engage with online course development, and it may address concerns and misconceptions some academics hold about online teaching at university. It is incumbent on the university to support and empower academics in this central role to develop their online teaching skills. In addition, the academic should demonstrate a responsible autonomy in which they aim to acquire technical competence, remain guided by evidence-based pedagogies, and maintain awareness of the student experience.