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October 3, 2000

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Web-Based Education:

The Technocore Culture and the Technician Mind-Set of On-line Education Is Antithetical to the Ideals of Liberal Arts Education

by Tom Brennan

What, pray tell, is rational about flooding campuses with enterprise administrative systems, service support personnel, desktop computing management systems, and basic network technologies when they capture more and more human and financial resources, and put tremendous pressure on the technicians to be efficient so that, above all, technical functions are always at the top of the top technicians’ list? This may make sense in an exclusively for-profit endeavor, but does it make sense in a domain for which profit was not the primary reason for being? Nevertheless, Paul is dressed to the nines, which includes high salaries for technician/administrators and Peter goes begging. Peter is that sector of higher education that is not amenable to efficiency and can’t readily be made profitable. Technicians detest this messy area of the university and would if they could get rid of it entirely. The next best thing is to ignore it and hope it will die of benign neglect. Still, despite their best efforts to lavish resources on Paul, the expansive appetite for new techno toys and infrastructure make it almost impossible for management technicians to give the information-technicians (IT) all they demand. In fact, as the technology invades the sites of higher education, the information-technology technicians are becoming more and more the de facto sector determining the strategic planning of these institutions. Once committed to a policy of techno innovation as all encompassing as cyber technology, techno-needs drive planning.

One way to gauge how much electronic-learning environments and computer-based teaching worry IT administrators under the most pressure to deal with long-term strategic needs— vastly expanded overhead requirements including equipment upgrades, maintenance, adding and replacing technical support staff, etc. — is to ask them what worries them the most. Recently Educause, the education-technology consortium whose reason for being is to transform education through information technology and whose members include hundreds of institutions, surveyed its membership, comprised of Information-Technology administrators, and received 464 responses. Respondents were asked to choose the top three issues out of a list of 33 issues. Their responses show that the paramount issue for IT administrators — the thing at the forefront of their thinking — concerns successful strategic planning, and they clearly indicated that the top issue influencing strategic planning is distance education, which is also seen as potentially the most explosive. Generally responses to the survey see electronic learning environments as having the most potential to explode and are therefore the most difficult to plan for strategically, since they not only involve distance education but also affect technology needs in classrooms on campus. As on-campus classrooms become fully integrated into new electronic learning environments, the role of IT centers in support of the educational process will increase drastically and that will suck more and more resources away from Peter, and though the technical sectors will do their best to ignore Peter in order to do as much for Paul as they can, that effort too will fall short.

Ironically, Brian L. Hawkins, president of Educause urged colleges and universities struggling to find top managers for their information-technology systems to focus more on good leaders than on technical experts. He suggested that institutions look to their own ranks for talented faculty and then provide whatever technical training they need. He said that the position of chief information officer is "very much a generalist position, much like an orchestra conductor who needs to know how to get all instruments to play together, not how to play each instrument" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, 7/25/00, hereafter cited as ChE). Further he said, "coping with the transformational change resulting from the information-technology revolution is an institutional issue. It’s not the role of a single individual" (Ibid.). And it should not, as he clearly states, be exclusively placed within the hands of technicians. But what Hawkins doesn’t grasp is that more and more power is being concentrated in the technical sectors of colleges and university; his advice will fall on deaf ears as power centralizes in these sectors and devolves mainly into the hands of academic vice presidents.

As yet, these technician/administrators have only a dim understanding of their growing importance in relation to the dynamics of power within institutions. They know they must be important because they’re under so much pressure, but seeing the larger picture is not their forte. However, that’s not to say that some don’t fully appreciate the role the technocore — the alliance of educational business technicians and IT administrators — will play as the brave new world of higher education unfolds. The fact that the University of South Alabama has a president with a Master’s degree in Business and years of administrative experience in information technology and computer science tells a great deal about the shape of things to come, and the fact that he was installed by the Board of Trustees without the advice and consent of the faculty tells even more about the diminished role faculties will play in future developments. Nor is it surprising given the online swing almost wholly in the direction of training courses, i.e., vocationalism, that the Vice President for Academic Affairs at USA, Dr. Patsy Covey, is from the technical sector of the faculty. At USA, it’s common knowledge that Patsy Covey micromanages the entire university, or at least attempts that feat. As web-based education gains in importance and magnitude, fewer and fewer top-level university administrators will hold traditional academic credentials.

Let me illustrate how those with a narrow vocational-technical focus went about the business of devising the online distance-learning program at USA. Upper echelon administrators, as they typically do, initiate and control the make up of all-important institutional committees. When those in this echelon at USA decided to start a distance-learning program in 1998, Dr. Patsy Covey, then the interim Senior Vice President for Academic Affairs and now the permanent holder of that office, sent a memo to a committee headed by Dean Wells of Continuing Education, charging the committee to "consider, develop, and recommend policy and procedures for distance (electronic) delivery of instructions . . . ." The 10 members of the committee were almost entirely faculty from technical sectors of the university — faculty holding degrees in vocational areas: an Associate Professor of Management, a Dean of Nursing, a Professor of Education, an Associate Professor of Physical Therapy, a Dean of Engineering, a Professor of Mathematics and Statistics, an Assistant Professor of Computer & Information Science, a Senior Librarian, a Professor of Educational Technology, and the Dean of Continuing Education. All are fine and upstanding faculty and all are stakeholders in USA’s distance-learning endeavor, but where on that committee are faculty with a deep and abiding interest in liberal-arts education. With the possible exception of the Professor of Mathematics, there are none. In effect the College of Art & Science was told their advice was unnecessary and at best impertinent, but such is the case at USA and most other public institutions. Faculty in the humanities rarely ever serve on committees that determine strategic moves on the part of the institution, especially when the move is a for-profit endeavor. Time and time again in my 30 years of teaching at USA, technocore administrators have appointed technician/vocationalists faculty to key strategic planning committees and have appointed technician/vocationalists Deans to head those committees.

Not all institutions leave the all-important business of higher education entirely in the hands of technician/vocationalists. Schools like Duke University, which have not yet handed over control to technocore administrators, develop policies with the advice and consent of all faculty members. Duke’s Academic Council approved the distance-learning endeavor only after making certain that the intellectual property of faculty would be protected (ChE, 5/23/2000). Such is not the case at USA; the university has appropriated ownership of all online courses. Dr. Tom Chilton, who directs USA’s online-education endeavors, told me that ownership of the courses by the university was the easiest route to follow, but allowed that eventually the matter would be settled by the courts. The fact of the matter is that a commercial entity outside of the university, in effect, dictated what USA’s policy on intellectual property rights for online courses would be., the university’s commercial portal would not handle USA’s online courses unless the university claimed ownership of them. All faculty who originate course material and teach online courses must complete and sign an agreement acknowledging USA’s ownership of the online course. Meanwhile not a peep is heard from the USA Faculty Senate on this crucial infringement of traditional safeguards of intellectual property within universities.

But with regard to the appropriation of the intellectual property of faculty, USA is not the only university complying with the demands of commercial vendors. Most institutions are requiring faculty to sign over their rights. Simon and Schuster CEO Jonathon Newcomb said that the transformation to web-based education — "the model for postsecondary education in the twenty-first century" — depends on advances in digital technology, coupled with protection of copyright in cyberspace, that is, protection for the technicians and their commercial allies. David Nobles puts the issue succinctly: "The knowledge and course design skill embodied in [online course material] is taken out of [faculty] possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of administration. The administration is now in a position to hire less skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged course. It also allows the administration, which claims ownership of this commodity, to peddle the course elsewhere without the original designer’s involvement or even knowledge, much less financial interest. The buyers of this packaged commodity . . . other academic institutions, are able thereby to contract out and hence outsource, the work of their own employees and thus reduce their reliance upon their in-house teaching staff."

The great puzzle to me is why faculty are seemingly so willing to allow technocore usurpation. The usual reason — fear of reprisal — is not an adequate explanation. Robert K. Merton, in his introduction to Jacques Ellul’s great book The Technological Society, probably most nearly gets at the root of the matter when he says that American academics tend to be technolaters more or less in the tradition of B.F. Skinner. Skinner and his followers "represent the familiar type of the American intellectual caught in an ecstatic technical vertigo and seldom proceeding beyond certain vague meditations on isolated problem areas such as the ‘population explosion,’ if indeed he considers the real problems posed by technology at all" (Vintage Books, 1964, xi). Paraphrasing and summarizing Ellul, Merton says further, "Ours is a progressively technical civilization: by this Ellul means that the ever-expanding and irreversible rule of technique is extended to all domains of life. It is a civilization committed to the quest for continually improved means to carelessly examined ends. Indeed, technique transforms ends into means. What was once prized in its own right now becomes worthwhile only if it helps achieve something else. And, conversely, technique turns means into ends. "Know-how" takes on an ultimate value" (Ibid.,vi). In academia, technical types focussed on "know-how" are focused on turning out products for the marketplace — so many teachers, doctors, nurses and engineers, etc., and they believe that this production can be readily accelerated by online courses. Vocationalists are not interested in education as thing of beauty in and for itself, which is arguably the focus and purpose of traditional liberal education, especially traditional liberal education in science, but science too has become the water boy of big business (to see how this has come about, read Press and Washburn’s article in the The Atlantic Monthly, "The Kept University.").

But at least at some institutions not all faculty are so subservient to technocore usurpation. Last March at Cornell University trustees voted to establish their own for-profit dot-com company named eCornell without consulting the faculty. However, the Cornell Faculty Senate, by a vote of 65 to 1 asked the president and trustees not to act until the senate had a chance to discuss the matter further. The trustees ignored the request, but Cornell’s president, Hunter R. Rawlings, agreed in April to create a faculty committee fully representing several viewpoints to help devise university policy on distance learning. A member of that committee, Barry K. Carpenter, said in reference to the administration’s for-profit company, "On the one hand, it seemed to be a radical departure from the kind of things the university had been involved with in the past. And on the other hand, it seemed to come out of thin air" (ChE, 7/25/00). Cornell, of course, has a long-standing reputation for outstanding academic programs in the liberal arts.

Knowing that financial resources were scarce and that the techno infrastructure at USA was weak and outdated, technocore administrators with the advice of the committee on distance-learning, decided that to be players they would have to affiliate with a commercial vendor — — for software, access technology, and 24-7 help-desk support. Incidentally 24-7 desk support does not come cheap. Calls typically cost 60 to 90 cents a minute and over the course of a year, a college with many online students will pay hundreds of thousands of dollars.’s help desk receives, on a typical day, 250 to 350 calls from the 150 plus or minus institutions it serves. The average call lasts 15 minutes. Go figure. Also, is one of those shaky dot-coms that may not make it. Its stock dropped from a high of $17 a share last December to a low of $3.00 a share in June. It’s doing a little better now, but not by much.

I give the following data obtained from USA’s Office of Institutional Research to show how the online endeavor at USA is progressing. The online program that started in Fall 1999, providing online courses to 225 students, has continued to grow. In Spring 2000, USA provided online courses to 465 students. In Summer 2000, the program served 513 students. In Fall 2000, 634 students enrolled. Students served through Summer 2000 total 1,233, half of whom enrolled in nursing courses. The data does not specify dual enrollments or headcount totals. And it does not specify how many students are on-campus enrollments. Enrollments through Summer 2000 in the 17 undergraduate and 30 graduate online courses break down to: 31 in Allied Health, 280 in Business, 204 in Education, 665 in Nursing, 41 in A&S, and 12 in continuing Education. The breakdown for Fall 2000 figures is not available yet. The total enrollment including Fall 2000 comes to 1,867. According to Tom Chilton, a German company has planned to enroll approximately 25 managers in online management courses this Fall. For graduate courses, tuition ranges from $245 for a one-hour online course to $825 for 5-hour online course. Undergraduate tuition ranges from $219 to $695. There is a registration fee of $33 per semester.

On the whole USA’s progress so far is good, but for the kinds of courses USA is offering the competition will grow fierce as more and more colleges and universities in Alabama, Georgia, and Mississippi go online with similar offerings. Besides academic institutions, almost daily another commercial for-profit organization announces plans for distance learning. The most recent to throw their hats in the ring are Harcourt Higher Education, whose parent company is Harcourt General Publishing Co., and DeVry Institutes. This November Harcourt will offer five programs leading to five degrees: associate and bachelor’s degrees in information technology and in business, and bachelor’s degrees in health science. DeVry, one of the largest commercial education providers, will offer four business courses in September and will start its information-technology program in 2001 with a bachelor’s program concentrating on business-information systems, e-commerce, project management, and accounting. These online offerings will be similar to courses DeVry now offers to traditional-aged students and others at their 18 campuses. DeVry’s online format condenses 15-week courses to 8 weeks. Cost per credit hour will be $335 and the online program will require 124 credits for a degree. Not counting fees, that totals out to $41,540 (ChE, 8/18/00).

Another new major player in the online field that will turn up the competitive heat to slash and burn intensity is the US Army which has a planned program worth $600-million. If the Army succeeds in getting what they want from Congress, their program could reshape the competitive world of online learning as a flood of soldiers seek online courses. The Army’s plan is to contract with an "integrator," a college, company, or consortium that can set up the technology to deliver courses. The integrator will act as a delivery funnel for subcontracting colleges, universities, and commercial vendors that have courses to offer and agree to use the integrator’s system of delivery. Soldiers will choose from among the courses offered by the subcontracting institutions. Under this program, the Army pays 75 percent of the tuition costs, and each soldier pays the remaining 25 percent. According to Richard P. Hezel, president of Hezel Associates, a planning and search company specializing in distance education, the Army’s proposal will make it "the largest broker and customer of distance education learning in the United States, eclipsing many of the current large-scale providers in this country and even the huge open-learning institutes in some other nations" (ChE, 8/18/00).

On the international front, media mogul Rupert Murdoch has linked his giant News International with the 18-member university network Universitas 21, which incorporated in London last year. "We don’t think the individual campus brands or the old-fashioned forms of pedagogy and their adaptation to distance education from face-to-face teaching is the way e-education will go," said Alan Gilbert, chairman of Universitas 21. "Nor do we think the individual university brand is any longer the most potent in the global market. A U.S. university brand, for example, would look somewhat imperialistic if offered in China." The merger with News International brings assets totaling $40-billion and annual revenues of $14-billion. The members of Universitas 21 enroll about 500,000 students a year, employ some 44,000 scholars, and have a combined operating budget of almost $9-billion. The combined resources of Universitas 21 and News International will, Gilbert believes, allow member universities to continue offering courses like philosophy and classics which are hard to pay for in commercial terms. He also claims Universitas online courses will be superior in their interactivity (ChE, 5/17/00).

Another element that could determine who will be successful in web-based education is accreditation, standards for which are now under consideration by the six bodies that grant accreditation to colleges and universities in the United States. Whereas traditional standards focus on institutional preferences, the new standard nearly agreed upon will focus on how much students learn. This is an important shift in emphasis because under the new guidelines distance-education programs would not be accredited unless faculty members controlled the creation of the content, the institution provided technical and program support for both faculty and students, and the program had evaluation and assessment methods for measuring student learning. Rick Sawyer, president of the University System of Georgia’s distance-learning program, says that the focus on interactivity and support services sets standards for distance education at a higher level than those for traditional education (ChE, 8/11/00). Moreover, emphasis on the learner will be reinforced by the Department of Education’s pilot project in financial aid to an additional 35 higher-education groups, a program scheduled to start next year. The Department of Education, concerned about protecting students from fraudulent correspondence schools, will be looking for distance-education programs that experiment with new methods of teaching (ChE, 8/22/00).

So despite the growing dominance of the technocore in many higher-ed institutions, regulatory forces will probably curb some of their excesses. The fact of the matter is that the overall situation is still extremely fluid and unpredictable — and that in itself is enough to scare the merde out of most administrators. Nonetheless the transformation to web-based education, though still in its early stages, is a done deed. A better metaphor to substitute for the train-left-the-station metaphor, might be a wave-riding one since it more nearly approximates the competence and reflexes involved in making internet-based education a healthy, viable transformation. If the organizing and managing intelligence guiding online endeavors can rid itself of technician-myopia and if web-based education expands beyond narrow paycheck skills to educate the whole human being, including those lacking ready access to higher education, and if all other skills are good, institutions can become competent online surfers surfing the waves of change. But when online directions are left in the hands of incompetent technicians, the next wave for these institutions may be their last wave since riding the waves of change requires, above all, a sense of balance, and balance cannot be achieved as long as technicians find their raison d'être only in a net of technological means.


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