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September 19, 2000

Web-Based Education:

Barreling Down the Tracks on the Online Gravy Express

by Tom Brennan

The rallying metaphor of colleges and universities eagerly and anxiously competing for a piece of the online action is: "The train has already left the station." As a rallying cry, that metaphor betrays the semi-hysteria that besets administrators who feel compelled to catch a train that has already departed for a putatively profitable future which they will not enjoy if they don’t do something immediately to stitch together a parachute that will land them aboard that train. What has happened in its short history is that the promise of online computer technology has been effectively appropriated by corporate/business interests so that instead of carrying an infinite number of information trains down an infinite set of hi-tech tracks, the information tracks are clogged more and more with the freight trains of commerce. Information is drowning in huckster noise. In the case of colleges and universities online-distance education commerce is rapidly displacing traditional academic purposes and values. True, for-profit activities have been creeping into universities in many ways for a good while now: pharmaceutical companies sponsor drug testing; university bookstores have become department stores; athletic departments contract with eager sportsgear manufacturers such as Nike; and patents on faculty inventions generate massive revenues at some institutions. The difference now is that web technology with its global reach provides virtual-education commerce with an infinite set of tracks down which the omnivorous business train can barrel with its throttle wide open.

But used narrowly in reference to web-based distance education, the-train-left-the-station metaphor implies: a sexy digital train, leaving the traditional academic station at corporate speed, carrying all passengers -- willing virtual and non-willing traditional -- down cyber tracks leading to a pot of gravy -- i.e., a handsome return on the online investment. Or so goes the alluring prospect for those who are quick and the implied disaster for those who are dead because they were too slow to obtain a place on that train that has already left the station. Too bad for them, if they’re not lucky enough to be a member of an elite institution that can afford to ignore enthusiasm for newfangled ventures, they’ll just have to make do with the old obsolete academic jalopy. However, what is not well-understood is that moving courses on cyber-tracks is not just a dandy way of delivering educational commodities to make money, but is really the final nail in the coffin of traditional higher education. Web-based education as it develops within traditional structures will inevitably and unavoidably marginalize academic policies that support those traditional structures and ideals, chiefly among which will be intellectual property rights, academic freedom, and tenure. Traditional academic values, pedagogies, and protections are for all intents and purposes a thing of the past. There will be no stopping the business onslaught fully enabled by internet speed and global access, no return to the good old days, though traditional higher education will survive in special programs for honor students and in elite institutions for those who can afford to pay for it. What’s seen now is seen through the glasses of technical prowess and capitalistic competition, namely that since we have the tools available to us as well as our competitors and since everybody’s doing it, we’ve got to do it better and quicker than the other guys competing in our neighborhood. Those few advocating caution and discretion have been totally ignored or labeled as retrograde and anti-progress, especially those among the faculty. There is no discussion, no debate in which the pros and cons of online issues affecting faculty and students are thoughtfully and critically weighed. Rushing in where the faculty angels fear to tread, can-do administrators, arguing that speed is essential, seek to circumvent faculty governance entirely, and characterize faculty governance as the work of timid and dithering faculty who will, they believe, through their foot-dragging proclivities and tedious procedures, allow all the coaches on the online train to fill up with formidable and unbeatable competitors.

But not everyone is hopping aboard. There are a few of the most prestigious elite institutions, such as Amherst, Brown, Princeton, Williams College, and Macalester College, actively resisting internal pressures and the blandishments of dot-com companies seeking to recruit them as partners in online education. Global Education Network (GEN), a dot-com company that sells portal platforms for delivering online courses, has made little headway wooing these liberal-arts colleges. The general attitude of these institutions is that we don’t really need to jump into something as untested as distance education. "That’s just the wrong business for us to get into," said Michael McPherson, president of Macalester College. "We need to deepen what we now do best, rather than to go out into some new business like selling courseware"(The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/7/00, hereafter cited as ChE). And besides, in the view of these institutions, not only are there too many online ventures competing to offer high-quality distance education but also no one really knows how to transform liberal-art education into online education because, for it to be successful, it presupposes real persons in contact with a real teacher. The committee at Williams College that examined GEN’s proposal was particularly concerned with issues of course ownership, start-up costs, and the amount of faculty time involved in online endeavors. Sherron Knopp, a professor of English at Williams and co-chairwoman of the committee considering the proposal, said GEN initially approached William administrators, but the administrators, as is the practice in these institutions, asked a committee, formed for the purpose to make a recommendation. Ms. Knopp, worried about pressure, said, "There is an enormous pressure coming from companies in terms of putting courses online. There is a mindset that if you don’t get on the plane and seize the future, you will be left behind and ruined forever, and I think we have to resist that" (ChE, 1/28/00). All of these institutions have for the time being said no to GEN’s proposal.

While there are several ways academic institutions can become players in the online arena, the two currently preferred are: 1. forming for-profit distance-education subsidiaries —the for-profit arm of the universities. University of Phoenix has about 15,000 students and the online branch of the University of Maryland has about 20,000 students; 2. outsourcing with commercial portals that provide delivery infrastructure. Some of them are: Blackboard.com, WebCT.com, UNEXT.com, and FT Knowledge.com, and eCollege.com. The for-profit path is not for all; rather it’s becoming the preferred path of flagship universities and prestigious well-endowed colleges like Harvard, Michigan, and Cornell. Blessed with ample funds and prestigious brand names, these sky-box institutions can not only afford to form for-profit subsidiaries but also to make lucrative deals with e-commerce vendors like UNEXT.com that have major Wall-St. money backing them. The less fortunate, those with fewer resources and little reputation, must place their hopes of competing in this cutthroat environment, on the ready-made services of e-commerce vendors like eCollege.com whose shaky financial foundation could collapse at any moment. To strengthen their competitive positions, dot-com portal vendors are rapidly merging with several giant publishing houses. The London-based media conglomerate, Pearson PLC recently formed partnerships with America Online and the portal dot-com, Blackboard. Pearson’s strategy, like that of other giant publishing houses, is to reassert the centrality of the publishing business in education, and is therefore targeting the adult-education market, the international-student market, and internet-based learning. Pearson’s subsidiary’s FT Knowledge will create and sell online content and work with colleges to help them convert, deliver, and market courses. FT Knowledge has deals with the University of Cambridge, the University of Michigan, the Wharton School of Business at Penn, and Regents College. Interestingly, Regents, a virtual institution, will offer an M.B.A. program that competes with one offered by the University of Cambridge, but whereas Regents’s program, for whom FT Knowledge is developing much of the content, will cost $10,000, Cambridge’s MBA will cost ten times more. Apparently, FT Knowledge has taken steps to make certain it profits from the most profitable end of the market, even though its client, the University of Cambridge, is likely to be the loser as FT Knowledge creams off the profit from Regents’s affordable MBA. Also, FT Knowledge’s investment in Blackboard.com, to the tune of $8-million, will allow professors who use Pearson’s textbooks to get free copies of CourseCompass, a customized version of Blackboard’s software, which creates a platform for online courses (ChE, 9/8/00).

Another giant publisher, Thomson Learning, following in Pearson’s footsteps, recently announced it will buy a major stake in WebCt, which makes a software platform for online courses. McGraw just closed a deal to buy Tribune Education. And in the K-12 market, Houghton-Mifflin and Sylvan Ventures are collaborating to provide online products for K-12 teachers. Harcourt Publishing Company has not yet merged but has spun off its own virtual institution called Harcourt Higher Education. These mergers and affiliations are driven by the need for capital to finance the expensive undertaking. Those who have the capital will succeed by staying the course longest, and, according to Peter Stokes of Eduventures, an education-research company, these mergers and affiliations "will spur a realignment of the overall marketplace so that colleges and universities face head-to-head competition from these businesses in certain market niches" (ChE, 9/8/00).

As this shift to the commercial sector continues, public institutions put more and more control in the hands of dot-com managers and vendors whose profit motives and risk-taking styles do not comport well with academic modalities. Curriculum will be shaped in reaction to market forces so that courses foundational to a particular field will be discarded when they do not sell well enough. Pearson and its affiliates are likely to make much more money off a second-rate MBA program than a comparative literature degree because the assumption is that people want skills that can get them bigger paychecks. Peter W. Olson, an international business professor at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, agrees with Peter Drucker’s opinion that "universities of today are dinosaurs" that "will not survive." Olson believes that many traditional universities "will disappear as ‘virtual’ universities continue to grow and meet the new demands of time conscious students" (Ibid.) In any event, publishing companies furnishing content for online courses are likely to grow faster than the infrastructure portal companies that have been the leaders. Moreover, education-business managers are ill-equipped to protect themselves in an arena where the sands of the market shift from moment to moment, and where they are likely to encounter seasoned Wall-St. barracudas looking to scam a free lunch. Take for example, the case of UNEXT.com and its shadow spin-off called Cardean University. It has financial ties to Michael Milken, a titan of Wall St. in the 1980s who later went to prison and paid a $1-billion-plus fine for securities-law violations (ChE, 6/18/99)

However, UNEXT’s ties to shady operators has not deterred Stanford, the University of Chicago, Columbia University, the London School of Economics and Political Science, and Carnegie Mellon University from signing deals with UNEXT.com. And what a deal they’re getting too! The faculties of these schools will supply the core content for business courses which will be taught by adjunct faculty hired by Cardean University — the virtual arm of UNEXT. The adjuncts will take the core material originally designed for a semester long course and break it down to "Internet scale," i.e., into four or five Unext courses and then design specific learning exercises. In other words, one semester cow will be milked to produce profits four or five times. Aside from that robust efficiency, Cardean gets to hire low-salary/no-benefits adjuncts to do the milking. This separation into high-pay professionals from name-brand institutions who create content and low-pay faculty who deliver it will, I believe, become the two-track employment model in higher education. The few who provide content will be tenured or hold cushy jobs with giant publishers; the many who deliver it will have no protections at all. The time demands and expense for producing online formats make this division of labor inevitable. Those not lucky enough to find tenurable positions, which are growing scarcer by the minute, will have to settle for delivery work and the prospect of being cut completely adrift after each job is done. Peter Stokes is upbeat; he says, "the dotcom education landscape opens up a whole new array of employment opportunities. I know a number of graduate students and recent Ph.D.’s who are keeping one foot in each camp, working as adjunct faculty for traditional institutions by day and working for education dotcoms, such as Hungry Minds, by night" (ChE, 9/8/00). Adjuncts, however, may conclude that this rosy picture ignores completely the fact that most faculty would like to teach full-time in tenured positions, and to realize that — or something more nearly like it —they may decide their only recourse is joining a union that means business.

Meanwhile the content producing tenured cows in the UNEXT deal will guarantee brand legitimacy by signing off on form and content of the courses they produce. But they will not own the copyrights on those courses. The institutions will own them. Though it is too early to tell how profitable the venture will be for the investors and university partners, the university partners do not stand to lose much. "Each participating university will receive limited rights to use the courses they or other institutions help to produce, as well as the underlying technologies to deliver them. Each institution is also to receive a guaranteed stream of royalties that, according to some sources at the universities, would amount to a minimum of $20-million over five to eight years" (ChE, 6/18/99). Frank Newman, a former president of the Education Commission of the States, points out that the UNEXT deal could turn sour. "One of the things that is going to come when a university gets involved with a for-profit company like UNEXT," he says, "is that when you get downstream and things start rolling along, and the profit of the company is dependent on making some changes [presumably to keep the investors happy], it is going to be difficult for one university to step back and say, ‘this isn’t where we want to go’" (ChE, 5/12/00). In other words, power to determine curriculum hinges to some degree on the not yet determined power of investors to take their money and run.

All of the above leads me to conclude that the overall situation taking shape creates a major new power domain in the heart of institutions fully committed to computer and online technologies and programs, shifting power almost totally out of the hands of faculty — not that they had much in their hands to begin with. The term "faculty governance" has really always been a euphemism for a very minor role in the affairs of institutions of higher education, especially in relation to the political economies of state institutions. What’s important to grasp is that it is not the globalizing technology of the internet that is the problem. No one is proposing that technology should somehow be quarantined. Nor is the debate the fruitless technology-good-bad debate. Obviously, online access has potential to do great things. To take one small example, some few children of migrant workers can now get a high-school education using laptops and the internet. The problem is the link between technology and power. Advances in cyber technology foster new concentrations of economic power in the for-profit domain and within institutions of higher learning. And as consequence of this concentration of power, university administrators and their myriad commercial allies make choices that radically alter the make up of institution of higher learning, especially altering what David Nobles argues, "constitute the core relation of education: students and teachers" (Digital Diploma Mills). The real issue of online education is the issue of how capitalist power-holders have appropriated internet technology they perceived to have the potential to make a sector of the economy hugely profitable. David Nobles argues that over the last two decades, universities have been identified "as a significant site for capital accumulation, a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property" (Ibid.). I argue that the "change in social perception" goes hand in hand with a particular techno innovation, and that that innovation will have many unanticipated consequences in which losses are likely to outweigh gains.

What Nobles sees as the core relation of education — students and teachers —is being rapidly supplanted by another core relation, a technocore relation comprised essentially of management technique around which orbit an ensemble of technicians: management technicians, information-technology technicians, and faculty technicians —those faculty whose expertise lies in vocational/technical fields. The technicians, with their eyes fastened on techno innovation, see the university quite differently from non-technical faculty, who may be users of the technology but are not producers of it or guardians of it. Management technicians, driven by the need for orderly and expeditious processes, are the guardians of technology. To them, the university is nothing more than a sphere in which management instruments must be applied effectively and efficiently. No harm in that in its rightful place. But the university seen through the optics of business technicians becomes a site where efficiency for profit is the only desideratum. The technician’s worldview revolves around what is useful rather than what is good. Purposes to educate minds to weigh and evaluate drop from the site as efficiency for profit becomes the central concern. And this concern is best implemented, in the technician’s view, by consulting only with other technicians who are quite comfortable with top-down dictatorial decision making. The range of choices is narrowed to strictly rationale choices preferred by the technicians, and when the choices are not always rational — as is the case when football is the issue — technicians substitute capitalist propaganda for rationality.

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Editor’s note: Next issue, how the technocore relation and technician mind-set are driving online-distance education at universities, including University of South Alabama.


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