18 03 2014

I’ve been writing about stories lately. Certainly, MOOCs have stories, but so does online education in general. One of the virtues of reading the higher education coverage in Forbes is that you can read the stories that entrepreneurs tell each other rather than just cover stories that they tell the general public. I find this one particularly horrifying:

Academic Partnerships helps colleges move some of their degree programs–usually those with a professional or vocational slant–online. The company spends an average of $2 million per school (it currently has 40 U.S. campuses and 17 international ones) to acquire online students, digitize lessons, set up back-end administrative and technical support, and tutor professors in the ABCs of the virtual classroom.

In return it takes a 50% cut of the tuition, which at some schools can be as costly as a traditional degree. The company says it has so far recruited 82,000 students, with an 85% retention rate. When they graduate, those students are granted transcripts and diplomas that are indistinguishable from ones earned the old-fashioned way.

Faced with biting criticism from a professor at Arkansas State (one of the schools that outsourced its masters degree programs), Academic Partnerships Founder and CEO has a storyline for public consumption:

“The whole idea of exclusiveness, as if it’s some kind of virtue to turn down large numbers of students, seems like a moral dilemma for a public institution, doesn’t it?” he asks, eyebrows arched. “They do consider it a virtue. But turning students away, historically, was based on a limited number of seats. You wanted the best students for those seats. Today, thanks to the Internet, you have unlimited seats. Exclusiveness is going to lead some universities to extinction. Inclusiveness is the future.”

High volume. Low quality. While this may be a virtue for selling manufactured products, education is not a manufactured product. Writing for the Chronicle, David M. Perry of Dominican University explains why an education is different from ordinary consumer exchanges very well:

Tell faculty members that they are obligated to treat students like customers, and the instructors will either eschew rigor in favor of making satisfaction guaranteed or work defensively lest they be harangued by the irate customer. Tell students that they are consumers, and they will act like consumers but ultimately learn less and perhaps not even receive the credential that they think they are buying.

Of course he’s right, but we can tell this story until we’re blue in the face and the people who control university budgets will just pat us all on the head, say “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway. We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.

Cathy Davidson has a story. Having just finished her MOOC about higher education, and argues:

We at Hastac wanted to see if the 18,000-plus participants who ended up registering for the course could help galvanize a movement on behalf of educational changes that any professor, department, or school could begin to carry out today. The short answer (surprise, surprise!) is that it takes infrastructure, planning, and human labor to make real change. I believe parts of this could be replicated by anyone wishing to create a real-world movement from a MOOC.

The idea of a mass movement to change higher education is also a nice story. While I agree that such a thing is possible, what’s going to prevent the people who control university budgets from simply patting us all on the head, saying “That’s a nice story,” and then continue to outsource the classes we all teach to outfits like Academic Partnerships anyway? If everyone in search of change in higher ed is all telling a different story, it will be easier for the people in power to ignore us all.

While I have yet to develop the sublime version of a professor-centered, technologically-enhanced higher education system of the future, I know it involves some combination of professorial craft knowledge, faculty organization and student/faculty coalitions. Their story involves disruption. My story involves using technology to preserve the human interaction that’s essential for real learning while eliminating the threat of automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.

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11 responses

19 03 2014
tom abeles

Hi Jonathan

Interesting statement in your story, above:

We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.

19 03 2014
Sporch Ezza

To me, the most interesting part was “automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.”

20 03 2014
tom abeles

We do have a perceptual problem. “Sporch” says, in part, “…doing nothing for ‘our’ students”. In public institutions, students are trying to enroll while concerned about rising costs. Gov’t is concerned that students are graduating lacking, even, basic skills, and the rising costs.

What are faculty concerned about? Keeping their jobs and potential alternatives from the private sector to alternative methods for delivery, including competencies, e-learning and MOOC’s.

There is extreme cognitive dissonance here. Both Sporch and Jonathan seem not to realize, or maybe they have, that the game has changed. As Wordsworth said, “we will grieve not, rather find, strength in what remains behind.”

20 03 2014
Jonathan Rees


Perhaps we are interested in keeping our jobs because we believe we can teach better than MOOCs, most online classes, competency-based learning plans or just about any of these other newfangled things can. Just because S.E. and I may be partially self-interested doesn’t mean we’re wrong.

20 03 2014
Sporch Ezza


What I really care about, more than my job, is that my children experience a non-terrible education that requires them to produce and write instead of just consume and click. My child tried e-learning for high school geometry, and it was pretty lame and expensive, nowhere near as good as the live (and free) course my child took next year in a brick-and-mortar high school. Maybe the game has changed, but for my family, technological solutionism has already lost. S.E.

21 03 2014
tom abeles


I agree with your hope for the future, which, by the way, I believe that Jonathan would also agree. Can we start to think about how this might be accomplished, leaving all open for the moment. Let me put a few pieces on the table, and look for other pieces that might be melded, constructively:

a) The Oxbridge model has merit where there are different rolls such as lecturers and advisors. Rather than one faculty having to perform in many areas (research, teaching, admin…), limited rolls and multiple ways of evaluation rather than one size fits all

b) competencies where knowledge can be acquired and demonstrated as is shown in Western Governors University.

Both of these should meet your criteria of the “human” touch, skills manifestation and current goals of knowledge demonstration. Both do separate the didactic (lectures, readings, on the job acquisition, etc) from the demonstration of “competency” or skills mastery. And neither requires knowledge to be segmented into time-based experiences, giving students the ability to move forward, with support, at their own pace.

As we realize, many institutions default to the pub/perish model and often, even, outsource this via publications and other methods external even to the department.

There are other alternatives and variances not only for teaching but also how faculty are evaluated. Shifting to these put stress on academics who have grown up in and have expectations to function in a traditional environment where other changes are challenging traditional boundaries

If Academics restructured, not only how courses are delivered, but also the current silo model of knowledge, possibilities open up.

I do not believe that faculty can regain a decision-making voice within the institution until they seriously look at their domain. At that point, it may be possible to reassess how the university itself is structured and whether much of the persiflage in which academics are imbedded are really necessary as configured and costed.



22 03 2014
Sporch Ezza

Tom: I thank you for your generously long response and the spirit of problem-solving in which it is offered. But I still disagree with you on a number of points. First, I think that the virtue of the Oxford system is not the specialization of different kinds of academic staff, but the tutorial system, faculty meeting in person with small groups of students to critique their arguments and writing. I hope my children can have this kind of experience at least once in their college careers.
Second, Western Governors’ University is not a model for anything except training cogs in larger machines—managers of Target stores or the IT person who maintains the company intranet. If you want to start your own business or develop the next killer app or do anything more than keep things running, you will need to go to a more challenging school.
I agree with you that the faculty evaluation system needs an update, even at institutions where teaching is more important than scholarship, and I wonder whether impact on the Web can be usefully factored in. You may be interested in the Webometrics project at the University of Salamanca, which currently measures the impact of a university on the Web through free resources offered, web traffic, and links from other sites.
Finally, as to your last point about faculty governance, you have it backwards—if you take away faculty agency, they will leave, loaf, or drag their feet, but if given a chance to restructure and reimagine under their own steam, they can! I have seen that many faculty are happy to kill off low-enrollment courses and even majors if they can find a new niche in their institution’s ecosystem.
Right now, Jonathan’s institution is looking down the barrel of a $3.3 million budget deficit, but the deficit seems to be the result of increased spending on football rather than anything the faculty are doing or not doing. I hope you include football on Jonathan’s campus (and vanity construction projects on mine) in the “persiflage” that can be cut or, perhaps, flensed. In peace, S.E.

24 03 2014
tom abeles

Good day Sporch

- the two courses outlined were to represent the spectrum. There are a lot of alternatives between and at both ends of the spectrum
- As the university lives based on financing from various sources, it maybe that those who provide the money may gravitate to the end which you find less than satisfactory such as the WGU program. That might include what you and I consider persiflage (sports, on campus amenities, focus on STEM, etc)
- As secondary starts to overlap and blend seamlessly with tertiary and student populations start migrating whole cloth across the divide, perhaps expectations of those who fund, from state to students are tempered by factors which broaden the idea of the university from the “ideal” of the past and all have to adjust their vision and costs, time and currency?
- Faculty, scholars and those who previously “defined” the essence of a university are finding that they have lost or given up their control. Adding more money may not define how or where it is invested or for what.

Perhaps Wordsworth said it well, “We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind” ?

25 03 2014
Sporch Ezza

Those who provide the money: In many states, this is not the legislature, but students/parents/alumni. Some students may choose the WGU model, but many will not want to go to college at their dining-room table. Maybe by 2040, grateful alumni will increase WGU’s endowment so much that it is larger than Harvard’s, or maybe not.
Secondary/tertiary: It is in the interest of edu-preneurs to confuse these two levels of education so that they can make money selling high-school-level skills for college-level prices. Developmentally, secondary and tertiary students are at different places and need different things from education; even if secondary students are offered the same materials as tertiary, they respond in different ways. I take your point that the current system includes unsustainable practices that need to change, but building a knowledge economy requires sustained investment in education, including career/technical training, over a long period of time, as Germany, Ireland, and China are doing.
Faculty have lost or given up control: this is not a good thing, nor does it save money, since expensive additional layers of administration are needed to control and “define” everything.
Finally, I need to point out that your Wordsworth quote is from a longer poem about growing up and realizing what values will carry you forward in life, not about fatalism in the face of systemic or technological change. S.E.

25 03 2014
tom abeles

Hi Sporch

I agree with you that education needs funds as you have cited existing in other countries. One of the issues, which I believe we are on the same page, is how that money is spent (the persiflage issue). In other words if money for education comes from the outside then the institution can move funds to other purposes. Universities have to make some serious decisions on allocation of funds, including administrative overhead. Perhaps faculty need to also consider their purpose at a university and how responsibilities need to be allocated (I know the argument about the need to do research, but perhaps, just perhaps, the faculty argument regarding their pay and what they provide to the university also needs to be readjusted. The idea of 4 courses/semester and the amount of actual time spent in providing other services to the university’s operation needs to be seriously examined. Time to redirect much administration back to faculty.

As an editor of an academic journal and being on a number of editorial boards, I can argue, well, that the amount of serious research published compared to that which is published just to add to intellectual persiflage (and aided and abetted by fellow academics) just for promotion and tenure is a significant cost to all, including universities. Publications are a highly profitable business for the publishers of these periodicals and some bound volumes. This is an expensive game that if attenuated and reassessed could automatically generate cash and in-kind benefit (it’s a long “aside” here).

In today’s world, post secondary institutions need to reconsider their mission/direction and allocation of resources and that includes faculty time/energy.

3 04 2014
David M. Perry (@Lollardfish)

I wrote the chronicle piece you reference above. I like: “We need to have a better story than that in order for the vast majority of us to keep our jobs.”
I’ll be interested to see what that story is. I like – “My story involves using technology to preserve the human interaction that’s essential for real learning while eliminating the threat of automation that will only benefit the edu-preneurs of the world while doing nothing for our students.”

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