Two great problems that go great together.

4 04 2012

Via UD, I see that a new for-profit college is about to start exploiting the adjunct problem through online learning:

The curriculum will be offered online, with each class broken into two parts: First, Minerva will contract an established professor — most likely from a top university — to create a proprietary online lecture. It then will hire teachers to run online, interactive seminars for no more than 25 students per class — based on the lecture. Kind of like breakout sessions, except that the teachers all will hold advanced degrees, rather than be current graduate students.

Lovely.  People who would otherwise be adjunct faculty and might at least have had their own classrooms are going to be used as online teaching assistants.  What’s ironic about this is that this is supposed to be a high-end online college (if such a thing is even possible).  Yet since Minerva is also for-profit, instructor (as opposed to lecturer) pay is likely going to be worse for these Ph.D. TAs than it is for graduate student TAs at better programs.  Ed at Gin and Tacos is perplexed about where his students’ money originated.  Minerva will solve that problem by making sure that instructors can’t see their students displays of conspicuous consumption.  Then everybody will be happy, right?

I kid, but I still think there’s reason to be worried about this kind of operation.  Because this is supposed to appeal to America’s elite, Minerva is making the right kind of cooing sounds in order to make it seem as if this is going to be a serious academic institution:

“There are lots of people out there with PhDs who haven’t been able to find work because they either don’t like research or aren’t very good at it,” [CEO Ben] Nelson says. “But they may be great, knowledgeable teachers — and those are the people we’re looking for… If they disagree with the lecture, or offer a different perspective on the subject matter, we will encourage it. We’re trying to teach students how to think, not just how to listen and repeat.”

For-profit education to the rescue?  I don’t think so.  I agree with UD on why this enterprise is doomed for failure:

[O]nce a person who’s qualified for Harvard is turned down, she doesn’t start looking for online schools. She goes to Cornell (or any of a healthy number of other very good to great schools) instead.

However, an existing not-for-profit university is eventually going to come up with a model to replace (comparatively) high-payed tenured professors with an entirely adjunct workforce. Maybe it will be online.  Maybe it won’t be.  Either way, having a bunch of impoverished people around willing to do what you do for a lot less money is not good for anybody’s long term economic well-being.

If we don’t hang together, we’ll all hang separately.

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7 responses

4 04 2012
Jonathan Dresner

“We’re trying to teach students how to think, not just how to listen and repeat.”

Online? It’s even harder than it is in person. And what the hell does he think we’ve been trying to do? It’s like they swallowed the David Horowitz/NAS line whole and are going to create an escape hatch — aka consumption option — for people who just want to think the world’s against them.

4 04 2012
VanessaVaile

There’s the depressing thought for the day. Considering what working on the line in an online edu-factory is like and how profitable, this is, alas, all too plausible and really not so different, just putting lipstick on that particular pig. .

Hang together, of course, but doing what? Realistically.

5 04 2012
Music for Deckchairs

OK, it’s awful.

But one of the things we’re not yet seeing is the potential for positive impact of competitive hiring conditions in the adjunct sector. Bear with me, as I know all this sounds like capitulation of the worst kind. But is it at all possible that there are some as-yet-poorly-understood factors that might enable adjuncts to start to negotiate for more attractive rates of pay, if there are more options on the table that would lower the chronic underemployment rate in this highly educated group? And couldn’t the entry of more employers into the adjunct market at least create an exploitable condition of possibility? We’re not seeing it now (certainly not), but could some window of hope be jammed open here?

Thing is, there are industries and professions in which by-the-hour charging becomes a more attractive option than salary. Most of these are highly skilled knowledge-work sectors, and we’re used to the fee scales that high status individuals set in those professions. Some of this looks very like professional nerve and self-belief. If I look you in the eye and say “Trust me, I’m a consultant”, then the PhD on my business card might well play a part in that strategy. And there is money being paid in higher education to consultants who strike a good bargain, especially in higher ed marketing and student comms.

But something else on the esteem scale happens to academic adjunct workers, that I think is related to the ways in which adjuncts are discouraged from unionising, and connects adjuncts to other kinds of labour exploitation, rather than other kinds of professional opportunism. So then the prospect of more than one way to be employed becomes a race to the bottom, instead of a chance to lobby for change.

But is this inevitably the case, do you think?

5 04 2012
VanessaVaile

I rather like the UK model of precarious knowledge workers together as in the Precarious Workers Brigade and just don’t see US education unions, many weighted to favor secondary education and then tenured over non-tenured, bellying up to the bar on this one. I would like to be wrong. I would also like to hear what the likes of Joe Berry, Keith Hoeller, Don Eron and others had to say on the subject.

6 04 2012
People running universities should actually care about education. « More or Less Bunk

[…] post is a follow up on the Minerva Project, the “elite” online university I mentioned on Wednesday: “We are in a world where knowledge is becoming more ubiquitous and free, so you’ll never seen […]

9 04 2012
What if students stop going to college? « More or Less Bunk

[…] prices down so that even his factory workers could afford the product that they’re making. I pick on Ben Nelson of the Minerva Project, but he is the first online higher ed entrepreneur that […]

13 11 2012
Those who cannot teach become venture capitalists or edtech entrepreneurs, then claim they understand education. « More or Less Bunk

[…] actually knew that this self-proclaimed online Harvard was going to be run by adjuncts, but I didn’t […]

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