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<nettime> Digital Diploma Mills [part 2 of 2]
Diana McCarty on Thu, 16 Apr 1998 07:35:38 +0200 (MET DST)


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<nettime> Digital Diploma Mills [part 2 of 2]


[continuation of part 1]

 Columbia has recently spun off the private WEB-CT company to peddle
 its own educational website software, WEB-CT, the software designed
 by one of its computer science professors and now being used by
 UCLA. In recent months, WEB-CT has entered into production and
 distribution relationships with Silicon Graphics and Prentice-Hall
 and is fast becoming a major player in the American as well as
 Canadian higher education market.  As of the beginning of the
 Fall term, WEB CT licensees now include, in addition to UCLA and
 California State University, the Universities of Georgia, Minnesota,
 Illinois, North Carolina, and Indiana, as well as such private
 institutions as Syracuse, Brandeis, and Duquesne.

     The implications of the commoditization of university instruction
 are two-fold in nature, those relating to the university as a site
 of the production of the commodities and those relating to the
 university as a market for them. The first raises for the faculty
 traditional labor issues about the introduction of new technologies
 of production. The second raises for students major questions about
 costs, coercion, privacy, equity, and the quality of education.

      With the commoditization of instruction, teachers as labor are
 drawn into a production process designed for the efficient creation
 of instructional commodities, and hence become subject to all the
 pressures that have befallen production workers in other industries
 undergoing rapid technological transformation from above. 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.

      Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the
 knowledge and course design skill embodied in that material is taken
 out of their possession, transferred to the machinery and placed
 in the hands of the 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, meanwhile, 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.

    None of this is speculation. This Fall the UCLA faculty, at
 administration request, have dutifully or grudgingly (it doesn't
 really matter which) placed their course work - ranging from just
 syllabi and assignments to the entire body of course lectures and
 notes - at the disposal of their administration, to be used online,
 without asking who will own it much less how it will eventually be
 used and with what consequences. At York university, untenured
 faculty have been required to put their courses on video, CD- ROM
 or the Internet or lose their job. They have then been hired to
 teach their own now automated course at a fraction of their former
 compensation. The New School in New York now routinely hires outside
 contractors from around the country, mostly unemployed PhDs, to
 design online courses. The designers are not hired as employees but
 are simply paid a modest flat fee and are required to surrender to
 the university all rights to their course. The New School then offers
 the course without having to employ anyone. And this is just the
 beginning.

     Educom, the academic -corporate consortium, has recently
 established their Learning Infrastructure Initiative which includes
 the detailed study of what professors do, breaking the faculty
 job down in classic Tayloristic fashion into discrete tasks, and
 determining what parts can be automated or outsourced. Educom
 believes that course design, lectures, and even evaluation can all
 be standardized, mechanized, and consigned to outside commercial
 vendors. "Today you're looking at a highly personal human- mediated
 environment," Educom president Robert Heterich observed.  "The
 potential to remove the human mediation in some areas and replace
 it with automation - smart, computer-based, network-based systems
 - is tremendous. It's gotta happen."

     Toward this end, university administrators are coercing or
 enticing faculty into compliance, placing the greatest pressures
 on the most vulnerable - untenured and part-time faculty, and
 entry-level and prospective employees. They are using the academic
 incentive and promotion structure to reward cooperation and
 discourage dissent. At the same time they are mounting an
 intensifying propaganda campaign to portray faculty as incompetent,
 hide-bound, recalcitrant, inefficient, ineffective, and expensive -
 in short, in need of improvement or replacement through instructional
 technologies. Faculty are portrayed above all as obstructionist,
 as standing in the way of progress and forestalling the panacea of
 virtual education allegedly demanded by students, their parents, and
 the public.

      The York University faculty had heard it all. Yet still they
 fought vigorously and ultimately successfully to preserve quality
 education and protect themselves from administrative assault. During
 their long strike they countered such administration propaganda
 with the truth about what was happening to higher education and
 eventually won the support of students, the media, and the public.
 Most important, they secured a new contract containing unique and
 unprecedented provisions which, if effectively enforced, give faculty
 members direct and unambiguous control over all decisions relating
 to the automation of instruction, including veto power. According
 to the contract, all decisions regarding the use of technology as
 a supplement to classroom instruction or as a means of alternative
 delivery (including the use of video, CD-ROM's, Internet websites,
 computer-mediated conferencing, etc.) "shall be consistent with
 the pedagogic and academic judgements and principles of the faculty
 member employee as to the appropriateness of the use of technology
 in the circumstances." The contract also guarantees that "a faculty
 member will not be required to convert a course without his or
 her agreement." Thus, the York faculty will be able to ensure that
 the new technology, if and when used, will contribute to a genuine
 enhancement rather than a degradation of the quality of education,
 while at the same time preserving their positions, their autonomy,
 and their academic freedom. The battle is far from won, but it is a
 start.

     The second set of implications stemming from the commoditization
 of instruction involve the transformation of the university into a
 market for the commodities being produced. Administrative propaganda
 routinely alludes to an alleged student demand for the new
 instructional products. At UCLA officials are betting that their
 high-tech agenda will be "student driven", as students insist that
 faculty make fuller use of the web site technology in their courses.
 To date, however, there has been no such demand on the part of
 students, no serious study of it, and no evidence for it. Indeed,
 the few times students have been given a voice, they have rejected
 the initiatives hands down, especially when they were required
 to pay for it (the definition of effective demand, i.e. a market).
 At UCLA, students recommended against the Instructional Enhancement
 Initiative.  At the University of British Columbia, home of the
 WEB-CT software being used at UCLA, students voted in a referendum
 four-to-one against a similar initiative, despite a lengthy
 administration campaign promising them a more secure place in the
 high tech future. Administrators at both institutions have tended to
 dismiss, ignore, or explain away these negative student decisions,
 but there is a message here: students want the genuine face-to-face
 education they paid for not a cybercounterfeit. Nevertheless,
 administrators at both UCLA and UBC decided to proceed with the their
 agenda anyway, desperate to create a market and secure some return on
 their investment in the information technology infrastructure. Thus,
 they are creating a market by fiat, compelling students (and faculty)
 to become users and hence consumers of the hardware, software, and
 content products as a condition of getting an education, whatever
 their interest or ability to pay. Can all students equally afford
 this capital-intensive education?

     Another key ethical issue relates to the use of student online
 activities.  Few students realize that their computer-based courses
 are often thinly- veiled field trials for product and market
 development, that while they are studying their courses, their
 courses are studying them. In Canada, for example, universities have
 been given royalty-free licenses to Virtual U software in return for
 providing data on its use to the vendors. Thus, all online activity
 including communications between students and professors and among
 students are monitored, automatically logged and archived by the
 system for use by the vendor. Students enrolled in courses using
 Virtual U software are in fact formally designated "experimental
 subjects."  Because federal monies were used to develop the software
 and underwrite the field trials, vendors were compelled to comply
 with ethical guidelines on the experimental use of human subjects.
 Thus, all students once enrolled are required to sign forms releasing
 ownership and control of their online activities to the vendors.
 The form states "as a student using Virtual U in a course, I give
 my permission to have the computer-generated usage data, conference
 transcript data, and virtual artifacts data collected by the Virtual
 U software. . . used for research, development, and demonstration
 purposes. "

      According to UCLA's Home Education Network president John
 Korbara, all of their distance learning courses are likewise
 monitored and archived for use by company officials. On the UCLA
 campus, according to Harlan Lebo of the Provost's office, student use
 of the course websites will be routinely audited and evaluated by the
 administration. Marvin Goldberg, designer of the UCLA WEB-CT software
 acknowledges that the system allows for "lurking" and automatic
 storage and retrieval of all online activities. How this capability
 will be used and by whom is not altogether clear, especially since
 websites are typically being constructed by people other than the
 instructors. What third parties (besides students and faculty in the
 course) will have access to the student's communications? Who will
 own student online contributions? What rights, if any, do students
 have to privacy and proprietary control of their work? Are they
 given prior notification as to the ultimate status of their online
 activities, so that they might be in a position to give, or withhold,
 their informed consent? If students are taking courses which are just
 experiments, and hence of unproven pedagogical value, should students
 be paying full tuition for them? And if students are being used as
 guinea pigs in product trials masquerading as courses, should they be
 paying for these courses or be paid to take them? More to the point,
 should students be content with a degraded, shadow cybereducation?
 In Canada student organizations have begun to confront these
 issues head on, and there are some signs of similar student concern
 emerging also in the U.S.  In his classic 1959 study of diploma mills
 for the American Council on Education, Robert Reid described the
 typical diploma mill as having the following characteristics: "no
 classrooms," "faculties are often untrained or nonexistent," and
 "the officers are unethical self-seekers whose qualifications are no
 better than their offerings." It is an apt description of the digital
 diploma mills now in the making. Quality higher education will not
 disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve
 of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the
 powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has
 dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once
 great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it
 happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.

 (Historian David Noble , co-founder of the National Coalition for
 Universities in the Public Interest, teaches at York University. His
 latest book is The Religion of Technology . He is currently writing a
 book on this subject entitled Digital Diploma Mills).

 Notes

 * Tuition began to outpace inflation in the early 1980's, at
 precisely the moment when changes in the patent system enabled the
 universities to become major vendors of patent licenses. According
 to data compiled by the National Center for Educational Statistics,
 between 1976 and 1994 expenditures on research increased 21.7%
 at public research universities while expenditure on instruction
 decreased 9.5%. Faculty salaries, which had peaked in 1972, fell
 precipitously during the next decade and have since recovered only
 half the loss.

 ** Recent surveys of the instructional use of information technology
 in higher education clearly indicate that there have been no
 significant gains in either productivity improvement or pedagogical
 enhancement. Kenneth C. Green , Director of the Campus Computing
 Project, which conducts annual surveys of information technology use
 in higher education, noted that "the campus experience over the past
 decade reveals that the dollars can be daunting, the return on
 investment highly uncertain." "We have yet to hear of an instance
 where the total costs (including all realistically amortized capital
 investments and development expenses, plus reasonable estimates
 for faculty and support staff time) associated with teaching some
 unit to some group of students actually decline while maintaining
 the quality of learning," Green wrote. On the matter of pedagogical
 effectiveness, Green noted that "the research literature offers, at
 best, a mixed review of often inconclusive results, at least when
 searching for traditional measures of statistical significance in
 learning outcomes."

[end]
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