A study group I attend regularly had an interesting discussion yesterday about the role of the Institutional Review Board (IRB) in influencing teaching. The basic idea is that if students are the objects of faculty research, then the faculty member must obtain informed consent from the students. Here faculty research is *defined* by the characteristic that it will lead to external publication. If the faculty member does this work only to improve the instruction itself, there is no need for informed consent. That is simply good teaching practice.
In the case of research, there is the further stipulation that the consent must be given voluntarily by the student without any coercion from the faculty member. This stipulation provides the reason for why the IRB asks that faculty file a form either for exemption from review or an application for review, because the faculty member herself is not necessarily in a good position to determine what is or is not coercive for her students. Indeed, upon occasion after submitting a proposal to IRB the faculty member must alter their proposed approach because what they intended to do was perceived as coercive by the IRB. In this way the IRB can exert some influence on the type of research that is conducted.
In this blog I have from time to time talked about the courses I've taught and in doing so have included some information regarding student performance measured in aggregate on some particular assignment. The outcomes were provided to illustrate some point about the teaching approach. For the sake of the above discussion, I'd like for my posting to be regarded simply as part of good teaching practice, reflecting on what I did in my course. But by blogging the reflections I'm communicating those publicly, outside the class setting. Is that a problem?
I know what I'd like the answer to be. Externally communicating about aggregates of class performance as well as about any information that is already available online and that identifies a particular individual (e.g., that person wrote a blog post so I can readily reference it) requires no prior consent. But I'm not sure this is the answer that IRB would want to provide if they were asked to weigh in on the question.
When I was the Campus learning technology guy, there were analogous type of questions about Fair Use. The Library wanted instructors to go through eReserves and then the Library would do the obtaining of permissions, if necessary. But many instructors simply made PDFs of their documents and put them up in the LMS, because from a convenience point of view that was easier. These faculty very likely did not obtain permissions when they should have (the second time through using a copyrighted piece of material that was timely in the first use so no permission obtained then) but who'd be the wiser?
So perhaps the answer is that instructors are agents of the university who are delegated some discretion and armed both with an imperfect knowledge of what is required from them as well as an imperfect understanding of the likelihood they will get caught for being in violation, they take risks they deem prudent. The University can then maintain a fairly hard line overtly, understand quietly that compliance won't be universal, and operate in that realm. That seems to be where we are now.
But I don't like that. I'd rather be in a world where we can openly agree to have rules that are liberal concerning Human Subjects in the teaching setting, rules that balance the need to protect human subjects with the need to have an open exchange of ideas about teaching and hence rules under which my preferred scenario would be permitted. Having tighter rules that inevitably produce a substantial amount of non-compliance is worse. That breeds an air of cynicism.
Identifying where the sensible middle lies is always tough. I understand that. Yet I find myself feeling on a regular basis that we as a campus don't get the cost-benefit calculation right because we can more readily see potential institutional liability than we can identify incipient institutional benefit. And we seem unaware of how deciding these things on a case by case basis has an overall impact on the campus culture. I suppose such is the fate of large public institutions.