This review of the book DIY University (which I still refuse to read and won’t link to either) is absolute genius. Go read the whole thing, but I’m going to quote from it backwards here in order to make my own point:
The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn’t. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument). Despite spreading like wildfire in the last decade – from dedicated online schools like University of Phoenix to the best (and worst) brick-and-mortar schools – the price of higher education only increases. So who benefits from replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts if not the students? If students aren’t getting cheaper or better education from online courses, why are colleges so eager to establish them?
The answer, as anyone on this side of the looking glass knows, is that it’s cheaper – for the university. Adjuncts are cheap, desperate temp labor who don’t complain. Online courses have essentially no overhead and are taught in the vast majority of cases by – you guessed it – adjuncts or graduate students who, if they finish the long trek toward a Ph.D., can look forward to taking a paycut to hop on the adjunct treadmill. These changes are not in the interest of students. Nobody sincerely believes that. They do not make education cheaper or better because that is not their intent. The goal is simply to make education more profitable. Universities like that. State legislatures (when the schools in question are public) like it even more.
The reason schools get away with this is that most students can’t tell the difference between an adjunct and a tenure-track faculty member. Sometimes that’s because the students are clueless, but oftentimes an adjunct can teach you a lot, especially the poor and unfortunate over-educated people who have been left behind in the struggle for living wage jobs teaching in the humanities.
Is this the same for online classes? Not so much:
Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students “cobbling” together a self-guided degree consisting of “course materials readily available online,” I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.
All students who care about actually learning something know this instantly. Therefore, while the problem of learning from an overworked adjunct is not so obvious, the problems with online education are. As a result, charging sky-high tuition for an inferior education isn’t going to look like a bargain to most people. In fact, I’m guessing that if the recession drags on much longer and their placement rates get worse, the student population at most online schools will drop like a stone.
Oddly enough, this is the happiest thought I’ve had about the future of Academia for a long time. Don’t try to talk me out of it, OK?