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April 25, 2000

Online Kudzu For Sale in the Networked Halls of Academe

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by Tom Brennan

Ivy covering the walls of Ivy League schools, once a symbol of academic excellence, is becoming an endanger species as college and universities fall all over themselves to retail corporate kudzu -- Online Learning -- the latest creeper of choice for administrators who believe partnerships with Big Business will bring in huge profits as droves of students sign up for their virtual classrooms. Student demand, however, is assumed rather than demonstrated. To date, no distance-education operation has been making any money, and at least two, the Western Governors' University and California Virtual U. have bit the dust.

Not to be caught short, the University of South Alabama, with a President, Gordon Moulton, anointed by a business-minded Board of Trustees, is currently laboring to transform itself into a "Market-Model University." Mayer Mitchell's $8-million donation to the College of Business with strings attached that the money must be spent to strengthen graduate programs in business, and the USA Foundation's $2-million supplement to the Mitchell gift to be used for techno-infrastructure are aimed at bringing the College's programs in-line and on-line with the hi-tech marketplace. To show their appreciation for these initiatives, the Board of Trustees granted Mitchell the right to have his name on entire college and demanded more money from the USA Foundation. Recently another business creeper sprouted proudly forth in two of USA's halls at once. The Mitchell College of Business in a joint venture with the School of Computer Science unveiled a new undergraduate degree program in e-Commerce, emphasizing both technology and business applications. Mr. Moulton, who holds a masters degree in business and who, before being elevated to the President's office by the Board of Trustees, served as Dean of the School of Computer Science, blessed the Mitchell business imprimatur with these proprietary words, "Our Mitchell College of Business is focused on preparing our students for the rapidly changing world. We're current with this curriculum. We're the first in the state and one of the first in the nation" [5th to be exact!]. Mohan Menon, the new director of the e-Commerce program, chimed in enthusiastically that the program positions USA at the "cutting edge of the business world"(The Vanguard, Mar.20, 2000).

Maybe so, but the recent stock-market plunges in high-tech and e-commerce stock indicate that the cutting edge of the business blade really has two edges and an unpredictable swinging cycle that levels all overly ambitious souls whose greedy enthusiasm swamps their intelligence. Dr. Menon, who hasn't yet gotten the huckster lingo down pat (assuming The Vanguard reporter quoted him correctly) also said: "We are combining technology and business components to create a unique blend and to give our consumers a superior graduate" (Ibid.). Does he mean that the "superior graduates" on the cutting edge will be served up to the consumers -- the business orgs and dot coms that hire these superior graduates -- as a kind of sacrificial offering? Moreover, Menon assures us that with the aid of his advisory committee these gourmet products will be upgraded as needed to meet the challenges of changing times. That is, his products will always be au courant because he will have the advice of an advisory committee made up of local businessmen whose talent presumably lies mainly in their ability to forecast which edge of the business blade is swing in which direction. Ah well, these business gurus are blessed with high-tech crystal balls called computers. But as the computer geeks like to say, "garbage in garbage out!" And garbage is what you'll get when students are treated like products that need to be tweaked with the proper vocational training every time the business profiteers think they've seen another high-tech bonanza in their crystal ball. One University President that does speak the huckster lingo in a "robust" voice is the President of George Mason University, Alan Merten. Merten as it happens is a computer scientists and former business dean at Cornell. In response to a $25 million-a-year carrot dangled in front of Merten's nose by the Governor of Virginia, James S. Gilmore, Merten agreed to do all in his power to tie GMU tightly to the region's high-tech industries. About this deal Merten burbled exuberantly the kudzu slogan: "We must accept that we have a new mandate, and a new reason for being in existence. The mandate is to be networked" (Press and Washburn, "The Kept University," The Atlantic Monthly, Mar.2000, 51, hereafter cited as P&W). To fulfill the mandate and get the $25 million, Merten proceeded to give the governor what he wanted: degree programs in information technology and computer science; poured money into the Prince William campus to support programs in bioscience, bioinformatics, biotechnology, and computer information technology; and suggested that all students should have to pass a technology literacy test. Now that's cutting edge stuff with a vengeance. And as we've come to expect what the cutting edge giveth the cutting edge taketh away. Several humanities programs were cut adrift; degree programs in classics, German, Russian, and several other humanities departments were eliminated. Merten' s huckster lingo was equal to the task of rationalizing his sell out to business interest; he said: "There was a time when universities weren't held accountable for much -- people just threw money at them," but today, "people with money are more likely to give you money if you have restructured and repositioned yourself, got rid of stuff that you don't need to have. They take a very dim view of giving you money to run an inefficient organization." Merten concedes the process of making GMU more efficient was "a little bloody at times," but there was logic to it. "We have a commitment to produce people who are employable in today's technology work force." And finally he said, "students at GMU are good consumers who want degrees in areas where there are robust job opportunities, and the university has an obligation to cater to that demand" (P&W, 51). It's all there; the whole vocational ball of wax, which in essence says university administrators and the faculties they control must efficiently cater to the demands of the students to provide them with "robust" job opportunities. And it doesn't matter whose blood gets spilt as long as that overriding goal is achieved.

Merten would in my opinion fit exactly Mayer Mitchell's and Jack Brunson's job description of a university president. Maybe they should try to hire him away from GMU, but to do that they'll have to stand line. Jerks like Merten are in great demand these days.

The sort of commercial-mindedness displayed in the President of GMU is not unique. Business-oriented regents, trustees, and administrators, growing in number, are aggressively asserting control over colleges and universities and as you might expect the blood that's getting spilt is the blood of the humanities. In 1995 the Board of Regents in Ohio eliminated funding for eight doctoral programs in history. James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield did a two-year national study of the state of the humanities. From 1970 to 1994, they found the number of bachelor's degrees conferred in English, Foreign Languages, Philosophy, and Religion all declined, while there was a five- to tenfold increase in the degrees in computer and information sciences" (P&W, 51-52). In an article in the Harvard Alumni Magazine, Engell and Dangerfield write: "Since the late 1960s the humanities have been neglected, downgraded, and forced to retrench, all as other areas of higher education have grown in numbers, wealth, and influence." The authors trace this to what they call the new "Market-Model University," in which "subjects that make money, study money, or attract money are given priority" (P&W, 52).

Be all this money lust as it may, at least one outspoken academic is raining baseball-size hailstones on the parade of the money-grubbers. David Noble, a professor at York University in Canada, in a four-part series -- "Digital Diploma Mills" (hereafter cited as DDM, I, II, III, IV) -- warns not only against the dangers of distance education but also against the wholesale commodification of higher education. The new internet and online craze is really a vehicle for that commodification -- the turning of courses and students into products. Noble embraces the charge that he is a Luddite; he says, "the Luddites were certainly people to be emulated. They were not at all the mindless, hapless victims that people portray them as. They were essentially demanding a policy on technology" (The Chronicle of Higher Education, Mar.31, 2000, hereafter cited as CHE). The fact of the absence of a policy anywhere on technology makes it possible for technology to become, as Noble puts it, "a technological tapeworm in the guts of higher education" (DDM, I). However, Noble is not proposing that we ignore technology altogether, rather he proposes that "beneficial use demands widespread and sustained deliberation." (CHE, Mar.31, 2000). Noble is not a Johnny-come-lately to deliberation on technology. He has written several books on the subject: Forces of Production: A Social History of Industrial Automation (Knopf, 1984); The Religion of Technology: The Divinity of Man and the Spirit of Invention (Knopf, 1997); and Progress Without People.

Noble's intention is not to engage in the fruitless technology-good-bad debate. The purpose of his writing and speaking is to focus attention on the political economy of education. According to Noble, the lines which will ultimately determine the transformation of higher education have already been drawn. On one side of the line "university administrators and their myriad commercial partners" stand adversarially in opposition to those on the other side "who constitute the core relation of education: students and teachers" (DDM,I). On-line education, in Noble's view, is not the real issue but simply a technological innovation. "Beneath that change and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education." He argues that over the last two decades universities have been identified "as a significant site of capital accumulation, a change in social perception which has resulted in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual capital and, hence, intellectual property." This commercial transformation has gone forward in two areas. The first still underway "entailed the commoditization of the research function of the university, transforming scientific and engineering knowledge into commercially viable proprietary products that could be owned and bought and sold in the market. The second, which we are now witnessing entails the commoditization of the educational function of the university, transforming courses into courseware, the activity of instruction itself into commercially viable proprietary products that can be owned and bought and sold in the market. In the first phase the universities became the site of production and sale of patents and exclusive licenses. In the second, they are becoming the site of production of -- as well as the chief market for -- copyrighted videos, courseware, CD-ROMs, and Web sites" (Ibid.).

The destruction of the sacred space of the classroom through Distance Learning, if the second phase becomes irreversible, will make universities and colleges over into something barely recognizable in terms of their traditional missions. The first phase with its re-allocation of university resources toward its research function resulted in larger classes, reductions in teaching staffs and instructional resources, frozen salaries and reductions in curricular offerings. "At the same time, tuition soared to subsidize the creation and maintenance of the commercial infrastructure (and correspondingly bloated administration [with their bloated salaries]) that has never really paid off." Students paid more and got less. The second phase, "the commoditization of instruction" [read Distance Learning], is touted as the solution to the crisis engendered by the first. Ignoring the true sources of the financial debacle -- an expensive and low-yielding commercial infrastructure and greatly expanded administrative costs -- the champions of computer-based instruction focus their attention rather upon increasing the efficiencies of already overextended teachers. And they ignore as well the fact that their high-tech remedies are bound only to compound the problem, increasing further, rather then reducing, the costs of higher education" (Ibid.).

In a parenthetical aside, Noble points out that "experience to date demonstrates clearly that computer-based teaching, with its limitless demands upon instructor time and vastly expanded overhead requirements-equipment, upgrades, maintenance, and technical and administrative support staff-costs more not less than traditional education, whatever the reductions in direct labor, hence the need for outside funding and student technology fees" (Ibid.).

Who's responsible for this costly transformation? The leading promoters comprise several categories. The first large group is "the vendors of the network hardware, software, and 'content' -- Apple, IBM, Bell, the cable companies, Microsoft, and the edutainment and publishing companies Disney, Simon and Schuster, Prentice Hall, et al -- who view education as a market for their wares, a market estimated by Lehman Brothers investment firm potentially to be worth several hundred billion dollars." Lehman Brothers, in one of its reports to its investors forecasts that the educational market will eventually become dominated by EMO's -- educational maintenance organizations -- just like HMO's in the healthcare market (Ibid.). "As all Americans know," Noble says, "any analog to HMOs will be a disaster" (CHE, Mar.31, 2000).

Another group of promoters are corporate training advocates who view online education as a way of bringing their employees up to profit-making speed. A third group of major promoters are the university administrators "who see it as a way of giving their institutions a fashionably forward-looking image." Surface is all with this group that views "computer-based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and plant maintenance costs-fewer teachers and classrooms -- while at the same time undermining the autonomy and independence of the faculty" (DDM, I). I'm surprised that no one, as far as I know, has tried to convince the Mobile County School Board that online courses are the perfect panacea for their financial difficulties. Aside from matters of efficiency, administrators are also "hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of software and content." Standing in support of entrepreneurial administrators are "a number of private foundations, trade associations, and academic-corporate consortia which are promoting the use of the new technologies with increasing intensity. Among these are the Sloan, Mellon, Pew, and Culpeper Foundations, the American Council on Education, and above all, Educom, a consortium representing the management of 600 colleges and universities and a hundred private corporations" (Ibid.).

Who are some of the universities and colleges that have hopped on the virtual-education bandwagon? When Noble wrote the first in the Digital-Diploma-Mill series in 1997, the number was large but now it has swollen include almost every college and university of any size. I've already indicated how USA has gotten religion with its degree in e-Commerce, but thus far USA's online inaugural is proceeding mainly in the College of Education and the Mitchell College of Business. Delivery of these courses is handled by e-College, formerly the University of Denver. The main effort of these virtual collaborations is "to wire all their campuses into an online educational network" (Ibid.). The commercial intent and market orientation is explicitly stated in the Western Governors' Virtual University Project: 1) to "expand the marketplace for instructional materials, courseware, and programs utilizing advanced technology"; 2) "expand the marketplace for demonstrated competence"; and 3) "identify; and remove barriers to the free functioning of these markets, particularly barriers posed by statutes, policies, and administrative rules and regulations" (Ibid.). Recently, leaders of 22 virtual universities across North America signed a pledge to cooperate "to grow the business" even though they are competitors in cyberspace. The major theme of the summit was that they have much to gain by working together. Working together largely means removing barriers to accepting each other's credits. In the Alabama, the State's articulation requirement forces universities to accept credit for courses from all junior colleges. Agreements among virtual universities will put more grease on that dumb-it-all-down skid.

In the view of Simon and Schuster CEO, Jonathon Newcomb: "the use of interactive technology is causing a fundamental shift away from the physical classroom toward anytime, anywhere learning-the model for postsecondary education in the twenty-first century." And he adds that this transformation is being made possible by advances in digital technology, coupled with protection of copyright in cyberspace" (Ibid.).

In a nutshell Newcomb's words, should they prove true over the long haul, have drastic implications for students and teachers. They are twofold: those that have an impact on faculty and those that have and impact on students. For the faculty commoditization of instruction or Online Learning means that teachers will have to engage in a production process that has as its overriding aim the efficient creation and distribution of instructional commodities. This means that teachers will hence be subjected "to all the pressures that befall production workers in other industries undergoing rapid technological transformation from above" (Ibid.). That is, faculty will have little or no say in whether the transformation should proceed at all. "In this context faculty have much more in common with the historic plight of other skilled workers than they care to acknowledge. Like these others, their activity is being restructured, via the technology, in order to reduce their autonomy, independence, and control over their work and to place workplace knowledge and control as much as possible into the hands of the administration. As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, deskill, and displace labor. "Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness."

Moreover, course material dedicated to online use is appropriated: "the knowledge and course design skill embodied in the that 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.

"Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware, their services are in the long run no longer required. They become redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt Vonnegut's classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but without their further participation. Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it's about making money. In short, the new technology of education, like the automation of other industries, robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, the product of their labor, and ultimately, their means of livelihood" (Ibid.).

What affect does the commoditization of instruction or Distance Learning have on students? Though all the affects are not yet known, they can be astutely surmised from an understanding of the differences between education and commodification. Again I quote Noble at length. "To begin with, education must be distinguished from training (which is arguably more suitable for distance delivery), because the two are so often conflated. In essence, training involves the honing of a person's mind so that that mind can be used for the purposes of someone other than the person [e.g., Rudy Hertz's machinist skills in Player Piano]. Training thus typically entails a radical divorce between knowledge and the self. Here knowledge is usually defined as a set of skills or a body of information designed to be put to use, to become operational, only in a context determined by someone other than the trained person; in this context the assertion of self is not only counter-productive, it is subversive to the enterprise. Education is the exact opposite of training in that it entails not the disassociation but the utter integration of knowledge and the self, in a word, self-knowledge. Here knowledge is defined by and, in turn, helps to define, the self. Knowledge and the knowledgeable person are basically inseparable" (DDM, IV).

"Education is a process that necessarily entails an interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people-student and teacher (and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge. (Whenever people recall their educational experiences they tend to remember above all not courses or subjects or the information imparted but people, people who changed their minds or their lives, people who made a difference in their developing sense of themselves. It is a sign of our current confusion about education that we must be reminded of this obvious fact: that the relationship between people is central to the educational experience). Education is a process of becoming for all parties, based upon mutual recognition and validation and centering upon the formation and evolution identity. The actual content of the educational experience is defined by this relationship between people and the chief determinant of quality education is the establishment and enrichment of this relationship.

"The commodification of education requires the interruption of this fundamental educational process and the disintegration and distillation of the educational experience into discrete, reified, and ultimately saleable things or packages of things. In the first step toward commodification, attention is shifted from the experience of the people involved in the educational process to the production and inventorying of an assortment of fragmented 'course materials': syllabi, lectures, lessons, exams (now referred to in the aggregate as 'content'). As anyone familiar with the higher education knows, these common instruments of instruction barely reflect what actually takes place in the educational experience, and lend an illusion of order and predictability to what is, at its best, an essentially unscripted and undetermined process. Second, these fragments are removed or 'alienated' from their original context, the actual educational process itself, and from their producers, the teachers, and are assembled as 'courses,' which take on an existence independent of and apart from those who created and gave flesh to them. . . . The alienation of ownership and control over course material (through surrender of copyright) is crucial to this step. Finally, the assembled 'courses' are exchanged for a profit on the market, which determines their value, by their 'owners', who may or may not have any relationship to the original creators and participants in the educational process. At the expense of the original integrity of the educational process, instruction has here been transformed into a set of deliverable commodities, and the end of education has become not self-knowledge but the making of money. . . .

"But there is a paradox at the core of this transformation, Quality education is labor-intensive, it depends upon a low teacher-student ratio, and significant interaction between the two parties-the one utterly unambiguous result of century educational research. Any effort to offer quality in education must therefore presuppose a substantial and sustained investment in educational labor, whatever the medium of instruction. The requirements of commodity production [i.e., as entailed in Distance Learning], however, undermine the labor-intensive foundation of quality education, (and with it, quality products people will pay for). Pedagogical promise and economic efficiency are thus in contradiction. Here is the Achilles heel of distance education. In the past as well as in the present, distance educators have always insisted that they offer a kind of intimate and individualized instruction not possible in the crowded, competitive environment of the campus. Theirs is an improved, enhanced education. To make their enterprise profitable, however, they have been compelled to reduce their instructional costs to a minimum, thereby undermining their pedagogical promise. The invariable result has been not only a degraded labor force but a degraded product as well" (Ibid.).

Noble devotes the rest of Part IV of the Digital-Diploma-Mill series to an analysis of how correspondences courses, an earlier example of commodification of distance education, invariably resulted in a degraded labor force and a degraded product. The cautionary tale of the entire series, however, comes to a focus for faculty in the question: Who owns the material faculty place on Websites or email? "University control over copyright," Noble asserts, "is the sine qua non of the Digital Diploma Mills," and "without it the universities and their corporate partners cannot proceed"(Ibid.). "As the CEO of Simon and Schuster, Jonathan Newcomb, has stated, commercial online education presupposes 'advances in digital technology coupled with the protection of copyright in cyberspace." Thus it 's imperative that faculty clearly and definitively assert their copyright claims now or universities will usurp such rights by default (DDM, II). He says further, "This matter is of some urgency and it is especially pressing for those faculty who work in a non-union workplace. Unionized faculty have at least an organization and collective bargaining rights through which they might fight for their rightful claims. But non-unionized faculty must invent other means. One strategy might be for faculty to file for injunctions against their universities to prevent them from entering into or complying with agreements in which they make claim to copyright on course materials that legally belong to faculty. These agreements might well be illegal, perhaps involving fraud, and hence invalid. Faculty might also investigate whether or not their university is involved in the delivery of courses without having first obtained a signed copyright agreement with the instructor. Once again, this might well involve an illegal infringement of copyright. But by whatever means, collective bargaining, litigation, or direct action, faculty must act, and act now, to preserve their rights" (Ibid.).

What about the University of South Alabama, what is the situation there? Are instructors signing copyright agreements or is the University delivering online courses without having first obtained a signed copyright agreement from instructors? The USA online website has this notice: "All course content is copyrighted by the University of South Alabama." It also says, that the delivery system is copyrighted by In my years at USA, I don't recall that the University administration ever made any attempts to discuss with the members of the Faculty Senate issues having to do with copyright. My guess is that the university has entered into an agreement with without ever having obtained signed copyright agreements with instructors.

Currently, the issue of proprietary rights to scientific research is generating lawsuits. "In 1996 a jury awarded $2.3 million to two professors, Jerome Singer and Lawrence Crooks, who filed suit against the University of California for shortchanging them on royalties resulting from their path-breaking research on magnetic resonance imaging, a widely utilized medical test known as the MRI. An appeals court found that the university improperly sheltered revenue by dramatically discounting the patents it licensed to manufacturers in exchange for more than $20 million in research funding" (P&W, 48). How is online courseware different from any other kind of intellectual property? The courts, I believe, will find that it too is intellectual property entitled to remuneration in the form of royalties or outright purchase.

As you might expect the lure of a free lunch is tempting some state governors to convince state legislators to appropriate more money for online education. Washington State's governor, Gary Locke, supports a new master plan asking the state legislature to increase spending on online education so the state can avoid constructing new buildings or new campuses. The plan calls for spending at least $2-million to train instructors for distance education. The plan also recognizes more money will be needed to purchase and set up equipment. The plan increases the number of online courses and increases the use of the internet to create a hybrid format, permitting some class meetings to be held online, meaning that some students will sit in front of a computer instead of attending classes. Governor Locke's enthusiasm has in the past angered faculty. In 1998, he appointed a "blue ribbon commission of business and civic leaders" to develop the master plan for higher education. 850 University of Washington faculty members signed a letter criticizing the governor for backing unproven policies (CHE, Mar.23, 2000) In part, the letter says:

"Visions of education, 'without bricks and mortar,' of education by CD-ROM and internet, have dominated the initial meetings of the [the Blue Ribbon] Commission. In a recent speech at the UW Law school, Wallace Loh, ex-officio member of the Commission and Governor Locke's chief advisor on higher education, added to the impression that the planners are bent on replacing face-to-face classroom teaching with what he described as the 'brave new world of digital education.' Governor Locke himself, in a speech to graduating high school seniors, has anticipated the obsolescence of the University as we know it, saying that in the future there will be no need for 'designer label' educations at prestigious institutions" (Ibid.).

On the contrary, should Governor Locke's unproven policies prove to be the path into the future, "designer label" education at prestigious institutions will survive for those who can afford to pay for it. The rest of the poor slobs will sit in front of computers and will become good little unself-knowing citizens. (They've already been primed for it by TV Media.) The faculty at the University of Washington are to be commended for doing what genuinely educated people intelligently do when faced with the enthusiasms of deluded persons consenting to acts of ignorance. They actively resist the evil that that ignorance naturally engenders -- in this case cyberscams that cheat students, teachers, and the public at large. The faculty at the University of Washington apparently know that if they don't use their tenure, they'll not only lose it, but lose everything that tenure was designed to protect. With the disappearance of tenure, genuine education will indeed be stifled--if not totally strangled -- by the online kudzu claiming the halls of academe.

Cutting edges spill blood and cutting edges in the form of litigation and unionization will be necessary to mow back the kudzu.


[The full text of David Noble's four-part series, "Digital Diploma Mills," can be found online at]

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