A machine that would go of itself.*

4 07 2011

Last week, I took a question from Dan Allosso, “What’s to stop us from teaching online?”, the wrong way. I read it as a point about credentials, when what he really meant was this:

I’m looking at a very bleak market for traditional employment. I’ll have a PhD, I’ll have teaching fields, and possibly most important, I’ll have the all-important “platform” that agents and editors look for when processing non-fiction queries. But I probably won’t have a teaching gig. What’s to stop me from going direct to the market, with my own content on the web?

The answer to that question, Dan, is absolutely nothing. You can historicize all you want online (and I can think of a few people who’ve gained some prominence doing so), but the operative question should be how much are people willing to pay for Dan’s well-informed opinions. Unless he can get a bunch of people in other disciplines together and get that group accredited, the answer to that last question is almost certainly not enough money for Dan to live on. That’s because having a Ph.D. in history makes you labor, not management.

The people who can bring a bunch of scholars together and make a university out of it, oftentimes shadow universities only marginally connected to their original bricks and mortar institutions, are administrators and unfortunately many of them are thinking much bigger than any of us mere content providers. Follow me as I take you down the dark path of contemporary business advice literature.

Have you ever read The Four-Hour Work Week by Timothy Ferriss? I can’t find my copy at the moment so I can’t quote any of it here, but it will absolutely crack you up if you can make your way through it. For my purposes here, this is my summary of Ferriss’ plan for making it in life:

1. Find something that people want to buy.
2. Outsource sale of said product to a web hosting company somewhere.
3. Outsource your personal life to Your Man In India.
4. Check your e-mail for only four hours each week.
5. Go surfing while the money rolls in.

This plan won’t work if you’re teaching online courses. As the Deseret News explained a few days back:

Weber State said at least right now, it takes as much time, if not more time, out of the professor’s day to teach an online course. Not only are the teachers often in constant contact with students, answering their questions and concerns, but they are also vigilantly adding more interactive tools to their classes.

The operative phrase in that paragraph is “at least right now.” At the moment, it takes more time to teach online classes, but this suggests that someday we can look forward to the four-hour work week when professors can sit back and let the classes essentially teach themselves. Leaving aside the question of whether students will actually learn anything those classes (which strikes me as a rather big aside), the problem with this scenario is that once we’ve reached the point when the classes can teach themselves, why are they going to have to hire professors to teach them in the first place?

In short, it’s administrators who are putting Ferriss’ philosophy into action, not the faculty. Education is their product and faculty are the outsourcing service at the end of the telephone line. While they’re out learning how to surf or skydive, we’ll all be staring at our respective computer screens praying that we still have a job next semester.

Think this won’t happen to you? You say they can’t teach music online? That’s where faculty productivity evaluation enters into the equation. If you can’t teach it online, they won’t want to teach it. Besides, those humanities students with their petty humanist complaints about justice and the like take far too much time away from learning how to skydive.

* With apologies to Michael Kammen.




6 responses

5 07 2011
Going forward | Music for Deckchairs

[…] it’s no wonder that scepticism about online learning is on the up. Workflow automation is certainly one of the ways in which a larger number of students […]

5 07 2011
Dan Allosso

First, let me say: Dude! Thanks so much, Jonathan, for taking my question seriously! I really appreciate the attention and your insights.

I agree, pulling a bunch of teachers together and building a “school,” whether physical or virtual, is a job — and involves a skill-set — that nowadays “belongs” to administrators. Not unlike the way publishing, marketing and distributing books is currently “owned” by a specific (and shrinking) group of people. But this wasn’t always the case.

I’m fascinated by the little regional publishers of the early 19th century. Yes, the economics of their situation was different: transportation and communication costs were often much higher than they are now. But so were per-unit production costs. Given those factors, they had a very interesting skill-set. Most of them also published regional newspapers, almanacs, farming, cultural, and political periodicals. Many of them were involved in radical politics of one type or another: anti-masonic, free-soil, secularist. Whatever niche they chose, they had to know their audience’s interests, have something interesting to say, and master the technical process of getting that message out.

To bring this back to online history, I do think technology provides an opportunity to redefine the basic bundle of skills/tasks/products. A lot of the expense of college for students involves the “administrative” rather than the strictly academic parts: dorms, classrooms, sports teams,…administrators. These are some of the things the web could disintermediate, and lower the cost of education to students. But I agree, educators would have to take on some administrative roles, if we wanted to offer an online alternative that met the current set of accreditation requirements, built during (and FOR) the age of brick and mortar schools.

So the long-term task might be to redefine education so that it belongs to the student rather than the institution. This may make it more “pedestrian” and task-oriented, but also more democratic. The short-term task would be to reverse-engineer the education process, asking ourselves each step of the way, “what is this for?” The very-short term task for me, is to identify an underserved market and some unique, valuable content, and put it out there. Supporting myself this way is not job one. The Arctic Monkeys gave away a lot of free music at first — but the music was great and people came back and bought it.

5 07 2011
Jonathan Rees


You overestimate my opinion of the administrative skill set, which to me seldom justifies their exorbitant salaries. What they do have is access to capital.

If you can figure out how to build an online education mousetrap, one that wouldn’t be an embarrassment to all involved, take it to Silicon Valley and see if you can find a VC who’ll fund it. I don’t make enough to have any extra investment cash lying around, but I’ll give you all the human capital I can spare if it’s something I can get behind.

5 07 2011
Middle Seaman

Cannibalism is wide spread in this country as well as in certain parts of Europe (Yurp as Krugman writes it). The rich and their personal slaves, i.e. administrators, have convinced themselves that we are all redundant. Money is made hands over fists by gambling; production is passe, education is a sham, etc.

There is, however, hope. This process will end soon. Why?

The farmer had a horse; he tried to train the horse not to eat; he succeeded! Unfortunately, the horse died.

Online, off walls, off can last only so long. Personally, I would take up arms and seek human justice.

10 10 2011
My class, my choice. « More or Less Bunk

[…] the ultimate goal of educational futurists everywhere seems to be a machine that will go of itself so that nobody has to pay allegedly expensive professors to teach them. Granted, that’s the […]

4 01 2012
The 4-hour workweek (Higher education edition). « More or Less Bunk

[…] 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 […]

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