“I walk the line.”

4 03 2014

Here’s a little-known fact about me: I used to be a Walmart blogger. That blog is still updated occasionally by my friend Jeff in Cleveland, but a few years back I came to the decision that I could do more to help my own profession through blogging than I could the Walmart workers of the world (although they all still have my general support). Yet that experience was hardly a total bust. For one thing, it explains why I’m a vegetarian. It also explains why I once talked on the phone with the British journalist Simon Head.

I don’t remember exactly why he contacted me. I think I had written something about Walmart that implied that I knew more than I really did. What he ended up doing is schooling me on the evils of Walmart’s computerized scheduling system. The long and short of it is that Walmart schedules its workers on the basis of when its computer system predicts that customers will be in the store. If there aren’t enough people there to justify paying you, then you stay home. To make matters worse, Walmart demands that its employees be on call for work at any shift, any time, thereby making other jobs (or even going to school) that much more difficult. Since Head first wrote about that system, it’s become absolutely commonplace in workplaces of all kinds. It’s one very important reason why so many cheap employers today can employ all part-time workers and not be understaffed.

Head has a new book out now, Mindless: Why Smarter Machines Are Making Humans Dumber. You may have seen an excerpt from it about Amazon in Salon last month. I’ve read the whole thing now, and I can tell you it’s almost certainly going to be the most important book I’ll read all year. In essence, it is an update on Head’s earlier work on Walmart. Rather than just use the computer to dictate when your employer needs you to work, technology is now powerful enough for management to use it to dictate exactly how workers do their jobs. For example, here’s a bit from that excerpt about what Amazon warehouse workers do all day:

Amazon’s system of employee monitoring is the most oppressive I have ever come across and combines state-of-the-art surveillance technology with the system of “functional foreman,” introduced by Taylor in the workshops of the Pennsylvania machine-tool industry in the 1890s. In a fine piece of investigative reporting for the London Financial Times, economics correspondent Sarah O’Connor describes how, at Amazon’s center at Rugeley, England, Amazon tags its employees with personal sat-nav (satellite navigation) computers that tell them the route they must travel to shelve consignments of goods, but also set target times for their warehouse journeys and then measure whether targets are met.

All this information is available to management in real time, and if an employee is behind schedule she will receive a text message pointing this out and telling her to reach her targets or suffer the consequences. At Amazon’s depot in Allentown, Pennsylvania (of which more later), Kate Salasky worked shifts of up to eleven hours a day, mostly spent walking the length and breadth of the warehouse. In March 2011 she received a warning message from her manager, saying that she had been found unproductive during several minutes of her shift, and she was eventually fired. This employee tagging is now in operation at Amazon centers worldwide.

If you read Head’s entire book, you’ll see that these same principles are now being applied to white-collar jobs of all kinds. Work with a computer, you may be subject to this kind of Taylorism no matter what your particular income level happens to be.

In the book, Head notes the effect of this kind of management system on British universities. Unfortunately, he does not go the extra step of reporting (or even just predicting) the effect that these kinds of programs might have upon teachers involved in online education. Nevertheless, the implications should be obvious. Teach online and your every interaction – heck your every keystroke – is subject to scrutiny if you use a system that your employer controls. I’m not saying this is happening now everywhere, but it is easy to imagine that this will be happening somewhere soon. Even the best online educators will be subject to this kind of scrutiny if their employers care more about efficiency than they do about education.

Can this really happen? Well, look at MOOCs. Here’s Jim Groom, reviewing some recent history in that area:

MOOCs, as Siemens and Downes imagined them, are one of the few sources of true innovation you can point to in educational technology in recent history, and it was born from a higher ed/government relationship. Yet, within a couple of years the MOOC movement had become increasingly denatured and over-run by corporate boosterism that was redirecting the logic of experimentation and possibility to a rhetoric of how broken higher education is, and how Silicon Valley (poaching superstar faculty from Stanford with the allure of million of dollars) has come to its rescue. What was remarkable to me as I watched the MOOC experiment transform into a corporate takeover was how quickly and completely the alien pods took over the experimentation before it could breath. before it could even develop it was already a fully formed disruptive solution to a moribund institution. Innovation lost.

As I know I once read Marc Bousquet write somewhere, many universities admire the for-profit online approach and have rushed into it not to improve education, but to improve their own bottom lines. You may be convinced your online class is the best online class that can be given online (and it might very well be better than a lot of in-person lecture-only classes at giant state universities), but how long will your employer let you keep teaching it in the inefficient way that you’re teaching it now? I’m not saying this disaster is going to befall every online instructor, but it will certainly befall some of them as budgets grow tighter in higher education worldwide. The question then becomes, “Where will the line between the lucky and the unlucky get drawn?”

I’ve started to feel as if I walk that line every day. Our recent troubles here with our research downloads has reminded me that nothing lasts forever. This is particularly true for those of us who work at universities with administrations that do not value what skilled faculty bring to the educational table. If I am not swept up in a wave of digitization that will allow my job to be Taylorized, the CSU-System could still simply invest its resources in creating new campuses where a surveillance state can be constructed at birth.

As longtime readers know, I keep a close watch on this job of mine. I keep my eyes wide open all the time. But what happens if this kind of vigilance makes no difference?

What if the future of higher education isn’t online?

24 09 2012

In a recent survey conducted by the Pew Internet and American Life Project and Elon University’s Imaging the Internet Center, 60% of people they describe as “Internet experts” agreed that:

By 2020, higher education will be quite different from the way it is today. There will be mass adoption of teleconferencing and distance learning to leverage expert resources.

Indeed, four hundred million dollars of Silicon Valley venture capital in education startups is both a testament to the faith that investors have in the power of technology to change American universities and a huge force to make change happen.

But what if all these people are incorrect? What if the future of higher education isn’t online? What if the fear of missing out is not enough to make our glorious all-online higher educational future a reality? While such questions may seem crazy, conventional wisdom is sometimes wrong. After all, a lot of experts once believed that the Sun revolves around the Earth, that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction and that the value of real estate in the United States only goes up. The Internet stock bubble of the late-1990s should by itself give pause to anyone who believes that venture capitalists can predict the future.

Anyone actually acquainted with higher education can easily imagine how the future could turn out differently. Online education has to satisfy three separate constituencies in order to displace the existing higher education establishment. The first group is students. After all, if they choose to forego college rather than take all their classes online then the most effective educational technology in the world won’t be able to help them.

Obviously, 18-year olds might prefer being able to attend frat parties and football games, but perhaps their problem with online education lies with the education itself as well as with what they’d miss on campus. Staring at a computer screen for hours on end can be difficult – even dehumanizing – especially if people don’t get to choose what they’re doing online. If students resent being treated like a number in large classes already, taking online classes that might teach thousands of people at a time would only make that problem worse.

If learning online becomes their only option, they might begin to listen to a growing chorus of higher education critics trying to convince them to skip college altogether. These critics argue (incorrectly) that face-to-face education is a bad deal. Making that same argument when college is primarily online will become even easier. Few schools discount tuition for their online classes since they want to keep the cost savings that online education makes possible entirely for themselves. No assurances exist that students will continue to accept this distribution of the proceeds from the efficiencies that new technologies bring, particularly if the jobs picture remains bleak for the long term.

Because the tuition that schools charge for taking online classes is generally as expensive (or in the case of for-profit schools, even more expensive) than on-campus learning, online education also needs to satisfy student loan providers who make it possible for so many students to attend college in the first place. In the United States, the government is everyone’s loan provider of first resort since their interest rates are usually lower than those of private providers. However, the government’s rates are already going up thanks to budget-induced austerity. In the future, that same austerity will likely decrease the entire pool of available government loan money.

With a shrinking pool of money available, sending loan dollars to an unproven educational method rather than a proven one makes little economic sense. Everybody complains that college is expensive, yet countless studies have shown that a traditional college education helps people get jobs and keep the jobs they get. That makes lending to college students a good risk, especially since those loans aren’t dischargeable in bankruptcy court.

Ultimately, the final constituency that online education has to satisfy is employers. If students with online degrees can’t get jobs, nobody will lend them money assuming potential students even want to borrow to pay tuition in the first place. Despite the spread of online education in recent years, its record on this score remains very unclear.

While proponents of online education like to point out that universities haven’t changed the way they operate for several centuries, introducing values that demand constant change is not necessarily conducive to education of any kind. Good educational technology can be extremely expensive, but if universities use revenue from online education as a way to backfill cuts in state aid or for other non-educational purposes, the quality of the education they provide will inevitably suffer. This is where the voices of college professors could make a difference, but one of the many reasons online education saves schools money is that they can farm those classes out to poorly paid adjuncts. If those adjuncts need to teach multiple sections to make ends meet, the quality of their teaching will inevitably suffer. Adjuncts are also more likely to have jobs that depend entirely upon their continued ability to put butts in seats and making classes easy is the easiest way to keep getting students online or otherwise.

If what you actually learn in college means something for employment purposes (and I think it does), then dumbing down or just being overly solicitous of students in order to get tuition revenue will destroy the economic foundation of higher education by encouraging students, lenders and employers alike to back away. While many informed observers think that a mass move towards online learning is inevitable, nobody seems prepared to cope with the fallout if this all turns out to be a passing fad. The financial costs of this current craze are already staggering whether it lasts into the long term or not. The human costs of failure on students and professors alike have yet to be felt, but they have the potential to be just as high.

Which side are you on?

24 05 2012

Normally, I have far better things to do than read the comments at Inside Higher Education, but you can’t blame me for looking when the article in question actually quotes me. Oddly enough, I think this seemingly banal complaint is quite telling:

Tom Friedman wrote. 7 educators responded. All negative.

But the topic of the article isn’t MOOCs. It’s educators’ reactions to MOOCs. On that score, the divide is 6-1. Six people (including me) have grave concerns about how they’ll effect the quality of education and conditions of employment for faculty. And then there’s this:

Margaret Soltan, an associate professor of English at George Washington University who was the first at the university to offer a MOOC, said that organizations such as the AAUP might not have any role in the conversation at the moment. “Things are too new – a few universities are only in the last year or two beginning to look into how to incorporate this activity into their professors’ lives,” said Soltan, who is also a blogger for Inside Higher Ed.

As for those professors worrying over MOOCs threatening their livelihoods, she has one word for them: relax. “Online is clearly inferior, even if done very well, [compared to] face-to-face education and to the social rites of growing up which college represents for many, many people,” she said.

Like many of you I’m sure, I’ve been reading University Diaries for a very long time. I don’t think I’d be blogging about what I’ve been blogging in this space about for months now if Margaret Soltan hadn’t gone there first. So I’ve been puzzled about how the woman who coined the term “Click-Thru U.” could be teaching a MOOC for a for-profit company.

Now I know. This can’t possibly last, she’s telling us. No student in their right mind will put up with online ed of any kind because they’ll know it’s a farce. Besides, they’ll miss the beer and football too much to sacrifice it.

But what if that’s wrong?

I understand her position because I used to believe it myself. Here’s why I’ve changed my mind: Even students who want the social aspects of college will have to settle for the online experience when they have no other choice.

Consider the long view for a moment. I saw the first article of this series when it came out, but I didn’t see this until it appeared in Reclaim UC’s contribution to Zunguzungu’s Sunday Reading:

Moody’s Investors Service, in a report earlier this year, said it had a favorable outlook for the nation’s most elite private colleges and large state institutions, those with the “strongest market positions” that had multiple ways to generate revenue. Ohio State, for instance, received a stable outlook from Moody’s last fall, though the report cautioned about the school’s debt and reliance on its medical center for revenue.

But Moody’s issued a negative outlook for a majority of colleges and universities heavily dependent on tuition and state revenue.

“Tuition levels are at a tipping point,” Moody’s wrote, adding later, “We anticipate an ongoing bifurcation of student demand favoring the highest quality and most affordable higher education options.”

This explains how Clayton Christensen’s prediction will come true. Students priced out of the face-to-face experience will demand online college because it’s cheaper, not because it’s better. That’s how the bad can easily push out the good.

What happens to the professors who teach students from the put upon middle class face-to-face in this scenario?

Margaret Soltan writes about so many important issues because she wants to make higher education better. I can’t believe that she won’t eventually care about the fate of soon-to-be displaced professors of all kinds too.

I only hope by that time it’s not too late.

Out of grad school, money spent. See no future, pay no rent.

16 05 2012

I blame Phil Hill for getting me to read this rant by Mark Cuban:

Its far too easy to borrow money for college. Did you know that there is more outstanding debt for student loans than there is for Auto Loans or Credit Card loans ? Thats right. The 37mm holders of student loans have more debt than the 175mm or so credit card owners in this country and more than the all of the debt on cars in this country. While the average student loan debt is about 23k. The median is close to $12,500. And growing. Past 1 TRILLION DOLLARS.

We freak out about the Trillions of dollars in debt our country faces. What about the TRILLION DOLLARs plus in debt college kids are facing ?

The point of the numbers is that getting a student loan is easy. Too easy.

That’s, of course, easy for him to say. He doesn’t need a student loan anymore. The effect of tightening those loans wouldn’t just be catastrophic for American universities. It would cut off all hopes of upward mobility for tens of thousands of young people in this country.

Worse yet, aside from loan money going to for-profit no-diploma mills, it wouldn’t be warranted. Graduating in debt with poor job prospects is obviously a risk. If you don’t believe that, then look at the results of this survey coming out of Rutgers. Yet for most college graduates, that risk will still pay off over the course of a lifetime.

However, I defy you to say the same thing about getting a Ph.D. in the humanities. As I’ve explained elsewhere, about 75% of academic jobs are now part-time workers on limited-term contracts. There is virtually no private sector for a humanities Ph.D. So do the math. The vast majority of new doctorates will end up as adjuncts (if they get jobs in academia at all) because that’s all that will be available for them. Adjunct wages aren’t worth the considerable investment in time and money that a Ph.D. program requires.

Look for a non-academic job, you say? When you’re done, you might actually be less employable than when you started. [After all, they think you only give them your funny papers.]

Therefore, how can anyone possibly tell anybody that they should pay or (worse yet) borrow money in order to get any graduate degree in the humanities in this environment unless they have 1) a job already (like a secondary school teacher looking for a raise) or 2) a totally different path to employment to fall back upon?

Nowhere to go is no excuse.

“Don’t go for second best, baby.”

10 05 2012

Yeah, I’m really going to blog about Madonna and I’m going to make it relevant too. First, however, let’s start firmly within the usual subject matter for this space. Peter Cohan writes about edX in Forbes:

So if pricing is a market signal, what message is the free edX sending out to consumers and suppliers of higher education? To answer that, it’s worth pointing out that there are many reasons that people apply to these top colleges – and among those reasons, free edX sends a signal that knowledge of an academic subject is nowhere near the top of the list of what is important to parents who are making the tuition payments.

“That’s not true!,” I can here you say, very defensively. Price does not signal the value of a college education! The real value of a college education is in the intangibles and you can never get those without personal interaction. I happen to agree with you on all of that. The problem though is that that may very well not matter.

The New Yorker has a fawning profile of Harvard’s Clayton Christensen this week. As much as I dislike his attitude toward nearly everything, I still think he’s right about this:

“He realized that, whereas in a regular classroom students could learn only in one way-the way the teacher taught them-online learning offered students who thought differently from their teachers a way to get help. What’s more, recorded lectures and online learning were much cheaper than teachers in a room, so they had the potential both to bring otherwise unavailable courses to underfunded schools and to disrupt not-underfunded schools, like Harvard. Few people at the not-underfunded schools agreed with him-they couldn’t imagine that an online course could ever be as good as the old-fashioned kind. They didn’t realize that a low-end product didn’t need to be as good as a high-end one to drive it out of a market.

[emphasis added]

It’s the same reason that students flock to for-profits. They do so not out of desire, but out of necessity as they have no viable alternatives. Online advocates tell you essentially, “If we build it they will come,” but then fail to mention that the main reason they’re coming is that poor public funding has priced even students from the middle class out of the market for the face-to-face alternatives.

Which brings me back to Madonna. Yesterday, I found a 1990 interview with Madonna on Nightline which I remembered from back in the day. Last night, it disappeared from YouTube because the user had closed their account. So you’ll have to trust my transcript of her defending the “Express Yourself” video at the top of this post:

“I chained myself though, OK? There wasn’t a man who put that chain on me. I chained myself. I was chained to my desires.”

It’s all about agency, people. Give students a real choice and there’s no way they’ll pick an inferior product. Destroy higher education through systematic under-funding and what students actually desire won’t matter. In that case, it should also go without saying that what professors desire won’t matter either.

What’s the difference between a MOOC and the University of Phoenix?

5 05 2012

I think the answer to that question is either going to be “branding” or “not much at all.” I guess you’ll have to read all the way to the end of the post in order to figure out which one I eventually decide upon.

So David Brooks of the NYT wrote a column about online learning and it’s not nearly as awful as you might imagine because he at least retains some skepticism. He concludes:

My guess is it will be easier to be a terrible university on the wide-open Web, but it will also be possible for the most committed schools and students to be better than ever.

His impetus for this was the announcement of edX, a non-profit partnership between Harvard and MIT to offer free online courses from both schools. From the original NYT report on that joint venture:

“Projects like this can impact lives around the world, for the next billion students from China and India,” said George Siemens, a MOOC pioneer who teaches at Athabasca University, a publicly supported online Canadian university. “But if I were president of a mid-tier university, I would be looking over my shoulder very nervously right now, because if a leading university offers a free circuits course, it becomes a real question whether other universities need to develop a circuits course.”

When reading stuff like that, you have to remember that not-for-profit doesn’t mean non-revenue. After all, Harvard is non-profit, but they certainly care about revenue otherwise tuition there would be free (or at least a lot less). If Harvard’s free online courses were as good as Harvard’s extremely expensive face-to-face courses, nobody would enroll at Harvard in Cambridge anymore. So you might be taking a free online course from Harvard, but you’re not “attending” Harvard when you do.

Harvard and MIT are, in essence, extending their brands to the online world. Since those brands are respectable, David Brooks hopes that the free courses will be respectable also. Count me among the unconvinced.

You can’t get something for nothing. Therefore, I’ve been wondering what the revenue model for free MOOCs is going to be. If it’s not tuition, what are Harvard and MIT expecting to get from this joint venture? Good will? That would be fiscally irresponsible. They can’t sell textbooks because that isn’t 21st century enough. If everyone in the MOOC bought their own Harvard sweatshirt that would be a start, but you and I both know that that wouldn’t satisfy them.

While Nick Carr is writing about Facebook here, I think he might have found (in 2006!) the underlying principle through which MOOCs will eventually make money:

One of the fundamental economic characteristics of Web 2.0 is the distribution of production into the hands of the many and the concentration of the economic rewards into the hands of the few. It’s a sharecropping system, but the sharecroppers are generally happy because their interest lies in self-expression or socializing, not in making money, and, besides, the economic value of each of their individual contributions is trivial. It’s only by aggregating those contributions on a massive scale – on a web scale – that the business becomes lucrative. To put it a different way, the sharecroppers operate happily in an attention economy while their overseers operate happily in a cash economy. In this view, the attention economy does not operate separately from the cash economy; it’s simply a means of creating cheap inputs for the cash economy.

I’m not saying that they’ll sell advertising or give students an opportunity to play Farmville, but the concentration of so many eyeballs on a single web platform can be extraordinarily lucrative to the people who control that platform. Maybe they’ll charge for “badges.” That wouldn’t destroy the original Harvard education. Maybe they’ll charge edtech companies to make them apps. Maybe they’ll go data mining. Maybe they’ll start charging entrepreneurial professors for the privilege to teach there.

No matter which way they make back their investment, it’s clear that the rich are looking for new ways to get richer while the poor (namely everyone in the public sector) continue to flounder and will probably flounder indefinitely. [Sounds like the rest of American society, doesn't it?] After all, the states and the federal government, the crucial source for revenue in public higher education, are too fiscally strapped to do their duty. Where have I seen this before? Oh yeah, competition from the for-profit sector. This time, however, the competing product is going to be much cheaper.

OK, that’s the answer to my title question. Maybe this is the thing that’s been keeping me up at night. Or perhaps greed will take over.

Only time will tell.

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.

Why do administrators want to cut some college costs and not others?

5 03 2012

Through some remarkable administrative foresight by our (sadly) ex-interim Provost, my department is filling two tenure-track positions this year. No, this is not the academic equivalent of turning water into wine or lead into gold. Nevertheless, it did take a small miracle for two new colleagues to come out of it.

This situation arose from two retirements. One of these retirements is of a senior associate professor. The other is a lecturer. Add those two salaries and benefits packages up, cut them in half and you get two tenure-track assistant professors. While this may seem like a simple equation, it’s not. Usually the salary savings from a retirement go into a giant administrative black hole, diverted to some other purpose besides faculty pay, never to be seen by the department in question again. Our ex-interim Provost (who, by the way, was not demoted but moved on to much greener pastures) actually thought departments should be able to reallocate their own cost savings within their own budgets.

Unfortunately, this attitude is extremely uncommon in public higher education. Consider this statement, which ought to be screamingly obvious to all, but alas isn’t:

Some of the rising cost has to do with other services schools have been adding over the last few decades, like mental health counselors and emergency alert systems. And certainly there are other inefficiencies that have crept into the system as higher education has become more things to more people.

But at least at public colleges and universities — which enroll three out of every four American college students — the main cause of tuition growth has been huge state funding cuts.

In other words, tuition increases backfill revenue that used to come from the state.

But really the situation is worse than that. At the same time schools like UC-Berkeley have been taking the phones out of professors offices, they’ve been launching expensive new initiatives like online arms and campuses in China. Therefore, they have to do more than backfill those cuts. They have to pay for a spending spree designed to make such campuses less dependent upon state funds in the first place. That’s why the adjunctification of the professoriate has done little or nothing for the situation faced by the lucky ones among us who remain on the tenure track. Those labor savings are almost always spoken for even before they’ve been generated.

Yet administrators and reformers alike have all gotten behind the idea of cutting textbook costs. This is from USA Today about two weeks ago:

“Everyone is trying to figure out how to keep higher education affordable, and doing it in a way that does not impact income to the university,” says David Ernst, who is spearheading a University of Minnesota project that encourages faculty to adopt cheaper books.

[Emphasis added]

Silly me, I thought the goal of higher ed reform was to lower the cost of higher education. Period. End of story. It certainly should be. Instead, technology and tuition increases are being used to revive a revenue stream that administrators have come to depend upon for their various pet projects.

Our glorious all-online higher ed future is central to a lot of those pet projects. As a result, what some people think is the future is starving what everyone knows is the present. Someone who I’m almost certain is my friend Kate, wrote the other day here that:

I just think we’re beyond the point that we can say “X is always a fish, and Y is inevitably a chair.”

Just for a moment, let’s stipulate that online courses are not a fish, but the coolest educational invention since the pencil. If the goal of educational technology is to improve education and reduce costs, why hasn’t anyone passed any of those lower costs on to students? In other words, why not charge less for online courses rather than the same or more (like they do at for-profit schools)? After all, the problem with access to higher education in America has a lot more to do with cost than it does with convenience.

It all goes back to that quote from McPaper: they don’t want to impact the income of the university. Disrupting publishers, on the other hand, doesn’t line the university’s coffers, but it does free up more money for students to pay in tuition. I happen to think that students should benefit the same way from technology that my department has benefitted from those two retirements: Let the people most affected by the cost savings decide where to spend the additional revenue themselves.

Until that happens, it doesn’t matter to me whether online classes are inevitably a fish or not. What matters to me is that technology isn’t serving the interests of universal higher education, whether it is a fish, a chair or just the Goose That Laid the Golden Egg.

Why is there no history department at the University of Phoenix?

15 01 2012

There is no way that I’m going back to political blogging this election year (as there are more than enough angry liberals out there in the blogosphere already), but sometimes political stories have subtle higher ed ramifications that I may want to consider. Take this NPR report on Mitt Romney’s Bain Capital, for instance:

The public relations problem for private equity capitalists at firms like Bain, KKR and Blackstone is that they’re the agents of the creative destruction part of capitalism. They aim to take over underperforming firms and operate them more efficiently. [Steven] Davidoff, who worked on merger and acquisition deals as a lawyer before becoming a professor at Ohio State, says there’s no doubt that in that process people can get hurt.

“Sometimes operating them efficiently means that employees lose their jobs, plants are closed down and companies are restructured,” he says.

This is the philosophy that the people who control education are putting into practice right now. Our local school district announced the closing of three schools in Pueblo last Friday, including the elementary school two blocks from my house. Similarly, I find this prospect from Fortune magazine’s The Future Issue absolutely terrifying:

[C]orporations, frustrated by the skills gap of high school grads, may open schools of their own. Wal-Mart High, anyone?

Vocational education for all, anyone? I guarantee you that in this future there will be no classroom time devoted to the great historical questions of modern times, such as why we let Wal-Mart destroy this nation’s social and economic fabric in the first place.

And if you don’t think higher ed is already facing these same kind of efficiency considerations then you’re living on Mars. Why is there no History Department at the University of Phoenix? Because it’s not profitable. Colleges, especially for-profit colleges, live by efficiency. History departments die by efficiency because sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless questions doesn’t really do all that much for the gross national product. Therefore, I think we in history and many closely-related fields will disappear in the coming wave of technology-induced efficiency unless we offer a different set of values through which to justify our existence.

I happen to be rather fond of joy. Sitting around contemplating the answers to ageless questions may not be efficient, but it is lots of fun.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania as an undergrad during the mid-1980s. At that time, the Wharton School of Business really determined the mindset of the entire place. I hung out with the engineers and the comp lit majors, but I did know a lot of Wharton students.* While most of them can undoubtedly buy and sell me several times over by now, I know for a fact that as a history and political science major I enjoyed my classes a lot more than they did.

I, for one, am sick and tired of trying to defend the humanities by arguing that it teaches a particular skill set that will help you get employed (although it does). That’s a losing argument. Students who are worried about that will major in business or computer science anyways…and they’ll often be miserable as a result. I think people should major in history because history is fun, just like they should go to college because learning is fun too.

At least it should be. While I have never taken a class at the University of Phoenix, I’d bet good money that an online, mostly-vocational education is no fun at all. [It certainly doesn't sound fun in this article from Harper's.] The University of Phoenix model is, however, very efficient. Which one of those considerations is more important to you? Which one of those considerations do you think is more important to Mitt Romney? Via the Edge of the American West, I see that Romney is quite enamored with Full Sail University, a Florida for-profit school that charges $80,000 for a 21-month program in video game art. That program has a graduation rate of 14 percent. If this is the future of higher education then we are all doomed.

At least with the Democrats, the humanities as they’re supposed to be might drag on for a little while longer.

* Including my freshman roommate, Bernie Madoff’s surviving son, Andrew.

The 4-hour workweek (Higher education edition).

3 01 2012

For my first post of the new year, I’m going to try to cover all of my favorite subjects at one time.

Last Friday, I went to the Barnes and Noble in Colorado Springs with my family. Even before the Borders there closed, it was the biggest book store within fifty miles of us by far. Now I noticed they’ve put a toy store right in the middle of the place. Not coincidentally, they were pushing their Nook e-reader awfully hard. After all, why should I care how many physical books I can browse through if I have most every book Barnes and Noble sells at my fingertips without leaving my home? The Nook frees up space at Barnes and Nobles everywhere to serve other, more profitable functions. Best of all, it works without the need of living, breathing workers. All Barnes and Noble has to do is set up the infrastructure (which is presumably in place now), and then watch the cash roll in – both from e-books and the expensive Lego toys that so distracted my son’s attention that he didn’t pick up a single book the entire time we were in there.

Once I made this toys/e-book connection, I couldn’t help but think of Timothy Ferriss’ The 4-Hour Workweek. I’ve mentioned Ferriss a few times before on this blog. His basic plan for anyone who wants to join the new rich is to start a web site that sells something people want, outsource the maintenance, then just answer your e-mail for four hours each week while you watch the money roll in too. If you read those old posts I just linked to, you’ll see that I used to find Ferriss funny. OK, I still find Ferriss funny, but I’m beginning to fear that this exact same mentality is beginning to creep into higher education and that’s not funny at all because a college education is a lot more expensive than one dumb book.

Where’s my proof? See Audrey Watters on the first robot graders. Or there’s this little nugget from EDUCAUSE:

[T]he issue of a federal definition of the credit hour as included in the regulations remains unresolved. Many in higher education view the definition as vague and unworkable, especially for online courses and programs. It is also considered to be a significant encroachment on the ability of institutions and academic programs to appropriately define the credit hour in relation to the demands of a given program.

When is an hour not an hour? When neither administrators nor students care how much anyone actually learns. Since it’s all about the paper, classes are something preventing you from learning how to do the tango in Argentina rather than a means to earning the money that will help you make that possible. I think this is the inevitable consequence of encouraging students to take classes at home in their pajamas. Teachers teach from anywhere, students learn from anywhere and college administrators work for only four hours per week since the university supposedly runs itself.

Now I’ve been on this techno-skeptic kick long enough to know that there are lots of dedicated teachers out there who believe that various technological doodads can make the learning experience better rather than worse. I, believe it or not, happen to be one of them. So is Cathy Davidson, who writes all the correct things in this follow up to that New York Times story on K12 Inc. that I covered a few weeks ago.

I really do agree with everything she writes there, just like I agree with just about everything that’s ever appeared over at Kate’s place. My problem with Davidson here is with her unspoken assumptions. As I read between the lines, she seems to assume that the people who run education at both the secondary and collegiate levels share our priorities and will respond to reasoned arguments about what constitutes a good education. Call me a pessimist, but I don’t think most administrators share our priorities, nor will they care about whether we think technology will adversely affect the quality of our pedagogy if it is employed in the wrong ways.

I happen to like all the administrators that I work under at the moment, but as a class I think the vast majority of them have forgotten that learning is, to quote Davidson, “personal, intimate [and] specific,” rather than a product that can be mass-produced. I bet most of them envy the for-profit college sector (despite its obvious failings) rather than decry it. Indeed, if university administrators really cared about learning one of them would have tried to fix the adjunct problem in higher education a long, long time ago.

There! I think that’s all my favorite blogging topics in one post. Maybe I should just close up this blog now and try again in 2013. Wait! I’ve got a better idea! I’ll follow Ferriss’ advice and hire Your Man in India to write this blog and teach my classes for me. If only I believed I could ever learn how to tango.


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