The money pit.

27 08 2012

If you haven’t figured it out, Historiann and I work for the same people: The Board of Governors of the Colorado State University System. So when she complains about administrators, sometimes she’s complaining about the same people in Denver whose decisions affect me, but sometimes she’s only complaining about the people who run things up north. I have my own set of administrators here at what used to be called the University of Southern Colorado.

This post from her was very interesting to me since it led me to two separate and distinct epiphanies. I think it’s complaining about a mixture of the two sets of administrators: hers and the ones we share in Denver. This point, for example, seems like it’s particular to her campus:

* Departments across the university are offering online classes taught by grad student and adjunct labor in order to fund research and professional travel for their regular faculty and grad students.

These two bullet points, on the other hand, seem to apply to the entire system:

* Apparently, the administrative class at my uni have adopted the values that bankrupted the banking industry: sell something of dubious and unproven quality or value just to make a buck. To hell with intellectual or educational values–we’re all about the money, honey!

* The administrative class here are engaging in bubblethink: Dow 36,000! $500 for a single tulip bulb is quite reasonable–after all, the market will expand infinitely! Go head, take out that $450,000 mortgage with zero down and an annual salary of $35,000! After all, there is an endless supply of potential students we can rook with online ed! Go ahead, hire more regular faculty with the money you make through online courses–the pie can only grow, never shrink!

As she has been incredibly kind enough to link here a lot over the last year or two, I know we have a lot of readers in common. Therefore, I thought I’d try to explain what I know about the whole system in greater detail so that both her complaints and mine might make a little more sense.

Unlike up north, I know of no courses on my campus that are entirely online. I do know about many different courses taught online through our continuing education division (which is actually based in Colorado Springs). These are the folks who approached me about a year and a half ago about teaching in their program. They wanted me to do Senior Seminar their way since it’s one of the last two courses they needed in order to give history degrees entirely online. It was during those conversations that I realized not only did I want nothing to do with online education, online education actually threatened the way I taught my face-to-face classes since it offered students substantially less resistance to get to the same goal, namely a college degree. That’s when I started reading up on this subject, and sharing my thoughts about it in this space in almost every post.

The CSU System, however, also has another online arm: CSU-Global. CSU-Global was the brainchild of the last CSU-Fort Collins President. The idea behind it was to bring a Colorado State education to students who were so far away from either Pueblo or Fort Collins that online was their only option. When it started, faculty at both campuses complained that it would be a money pit. Nevertheless, a reliable source told me a few months ago that CSU-Global made seven million dollars last year.

The first epiphany I got from reading Historiann’s post is right there on the surface in that first quote I just used:

Departments across the university are offering online classes taught by grad student and adjunct labor in order to fund research and professional travel for their regular faculty and grad students.

[Emphasis added]

I’m not certain how it works in Fort Collins, but I do know that some of the money generated by CSU-Global pays for the faculty development funds that sent me to the OAH earlier this year and on two research trips the two years before that. I knew where the money came from, but was willing to take it anyway because that was the only professional development money I could ever get from our administration. So Historiann is right: The CSU system is backfilling the money needed to perform the functions of a normal university with online dollars because the State of Colorado’s contribution towards its public universities is rapidly approaching nothing. In short, by criticizing online education I am literally biting the hand that feeds me.

But here’s a story I haven’t told yet from the early days of online ed around here that I remembered while reading Historiann’s post that led me to a second epiphany. CSU-Global’s courses are all based on existing courses at Fort Collins or Pueblo. Shortly after Global began, I was informed that they wanted to use my America 1945-Present course as a basis for an online equivalent. Would I be willing to let them use my syllabus in return for a payment of a few hundred dollars? I said yes not because I was desperate for money, but because I actually thought they had a right to use it anyways. After all, the darn thing was already posted online. They didn’t even have to ask, let alone pay me for it. I never would have known,

A few weeks later, my dean sent me a copy of the new version of my syllabus and I remember the question he asked like it was yesterday: “Does this syllabus meet the minimum standards for coursework in your department?” I looked at the syllabus very closely, and I noticed that my normal research paper had been replaced by a PowerPoint presentation. A PowerPoint presentation! In an online class!!! Students were going to be asked to write PowerPoint presentations that they would never even give since the class would never meet in the same room together.

I was appalled. However, I do know of more than a few upper-level classes in my department with no research papers on the syllabus. In fact, I teach a couple of upper-level classes in which I do not assign research papers. Therefore, although I wish I had been asked a different question, I answered that the syllabus did indeed meet the minimum standards of my department.

In all my railing against online ed, I’ve sat on that story because my preference is to try to work out in house problems in house before taking them to the blog. But here’s my second epiphany: Even watered down online versions of actual college courses at real universities are still a heck of a lot better than some of the garbage already out there. Take the World History course from Princeton that I’ll be starting through Coursera in a few weeks. I will bet anyone a million dollars that any course with no required reading does not meet the minimum standards of the face-to-face classes given by the Princeton History Department. Yet, presumably the Universities of Washington and Helsinki will still give you college credit for completing what Coursera is offering.

So, getting back to Historiann’s point about short-term thinking in the CSU System, what happens when students take free online courses instead of paying the same tuition as face-to-face students for an online CSU education? When the new house gets old before its time? When one potential money pit gets replaced by another? Let’s just say I better get all the faculty development I can while it lasts.

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9 responses

27 08 2012
Historiann

Thanks for your post here, Jonathan. I was too depressed last week even to link to you on this. I’m trying not to panic, but it’s an effort. When departments up here are bragging about how much ca$h they’re making (on the backs of grad student and adjunct labor) in the College of Liberal Arts (!), it doesn’t give me much hope.

CSU is apparently not only willing but impatient to trash its brand.

27 08 2012
Jonathan Rees

Historiann,

We need to have a good sit down on this subject. I’m headed your way in few weeks to study sugar beets and visit my kid. I’ll email as soon as I have a date.

27 08 2012
What chaps my a$$ this week? : Historiann : History and sexual politics, 1492 to the present

[...] the second week of classes, of course!  This is very exciting for Baa Ram U., as President Obama and the leadership here share the same neoliberal vision for higher education apparently, but for those of us who actually work here and teach face-to-face classes to actual human students [...]

27 08 2012
Leslie M-B

I’m hoping to find time to blog about my own university president’s welcome-back address. It was a mile wide and an inch deep, and self-contradicting in all kinds of unpleasant ways. He specifically highlighted Coursera, Udemy, MITx, and one other such startup. He also reminded us about the financial exigency clause, which means none of us really have tenure, implying that if we don’t join the online revolution, it’s off with our heads.

27 08 2012
Jonathan Rees

Leslie:

Call the AAUP. Call them now, before it’s too late.

27 08 2012
Leslie M-B

I have a colleague who has, though I suppose it’s time for me to do so as well. Thanks for the nudge.

31 08 2012
There is no light at the end of the tunnel. « More or Less Bunk

[...] for higher education (and many other things) and that online courses in my system are nothing but a means to backfill brutal budget cuts brought about by politicians who don’t really care whether students learn anything in college [...]

6 09 2012
My classroom is my platform: A manifesto. « More or Less Bunk

[...] do you see where I’m going with this yet? Who owns your online class? I know I sold a syllabus to the online arm of my university once, but that’s no skin off my teeth since I literally [...]

15 09 2012
Link loving it up « Grumpy rumblings of the half-tenured

[...] More or less bunk captures something important about online “teaching”. [...]

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