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<nettime> [RRE]Digital Diploma Mills, Part IV:
Ted Byfield on Sat, 27 Nov 1999 20:16:26 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> [RRE]Digital Diploma Mills, Part IV:

From: Phil Agre <pagre {AT} alpha.oac.ucla.edu>
[I have heavily reformatted this; apologies for any glitches.]

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Date: Fri, 26 Nov 1999 10:03:03 -0500
From: Johanne Smith <smith {AT} caut.ca>

Rehearsal for the Revolution

By (c) David F. Noble, November 1999

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it"
      George Santayana

     All discussion of distance education these days invariably turns into
a discussion of technology, an endless meditation on the wonders of
computer-mediated instruction.  Identified with a revolution in
technology, distance education has thereby assumed the aura of innovation
and the appearance of a revolution itself, a bold departure from
tradition, a signal step toward a preordained and radically transformed
higher educational future.  In the face of such a seemingly inexorable
technology-driven destiny and the seductive enchantment of technological
transcendence, skeptics are silenced and all questions are begged.  But we
pay a price for this technological fetishism, which so dominates and
delimits discussion.  For it prevents us from perceiving the more
fundamental significance of today's drive for distance education, which,
at bottom, is not really about technology, nor is it anything new.  We
have been here before. 

In essence, the current mania for distance education is about the
commodification of higher education, of which computer technology is
merely the latest medium, and it is, in reality, more a rerun than a
revolution, bearing striking resemblance to a past today's enthusiasts
barely know about or care to acknowledge, an earlier episode in the
commodification of higher education known as correspondence instruction
or, more quaintly, home study.  Then as now, distance education has always
been not so much technology-driven as profit-driven, whatever the mode of
delivery.  The common denominator linking the two episodes is not
technology but the pursuit of profit in the guise and name of higher
education.  A careful examination of the earlier, pre-computer, episode in
distance education enables us to place the current mania not only in
historical perspective but also in its proper political-economic context. 
The chief aim here is to try to shift our attention from technology to
political economy, and from fantasies about the future to the far more
sobering lessons of the past. 

Before proceeding with the historical analysis, it is important to spell
out what is meant by both education and commodification, since these terms
are often used with little precision.  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 that person.  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

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 of 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. 

Like education, the word commodification (or commoditization) is used
rather loosely with regard to education and some precision might help the
discussion.  A commodity is something created, grown, produced, or
manufactured for exchange on the market.  There are, of course, some
things which are bought and sold on the market which were not created for
that purpose, such as "labor"and land -- what the political economist Karl
Polanyi referred to as"fictitious commodities".  Most educational
offerings, although divided into units of credit and exchanged for
tuition, are fictitious commodities in that they are not created by the
educator strictly with this purpose in mind.  Here we will be using the
term commodity, not in this fictitious, more expansive,sense but rather in
its classical,restricted sense, to mean something expressly created for
market exchange.  The commoditization of higher education, then, refers to
the deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity
form, for the purpose of commercial transaction. 

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
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.  This is perhaps the
most critical step in commodity formation.  The alienation of ownership of
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.  In the
wake of this transformation, teachers become commodity producers and
deliverers, subject to the familiar regime of commodity production in any
other industry, and students become consumers of yet more commodities. 
The relationship between teacher and student is thus re-established,in an
alienated mode, through the medium of the market, and the buying and
selling of commodities takes on the appearance of education.  But it is,
in reality, only a shadow of education, an assemblage of pieces without
the whole. 

Again, under this new regime, painfully familiar to skilled workers in
every industry since the dawn of industrial capitalism, educators confront
the harsh realities of commodity production: speed-up, routinization of
work, greater work discipline and managerial supervision, reduced
autonomy, job insecurity, employer appropriation of the fruits of their
labor, and, above all, the insistent managerial pressures to reduce labor
costs in order to turn a profit.  Thus, the commoditization of instruction
leads invariably to the "proletarianization" or, more politely, the
"deprofessionalization" of the professoriate.  (As investors shift their
focus from health care to education, the deprofessionalization experienced
by physicians is being extended to professors, who now face what some Wall
Street spokesmen are already calling EMO's, the education counterpart to

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 a century of 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, however, undermine
the labor-intensive foundation of quality education, (and with it, quality
products people will willingly 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 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.  The history of correspondence
education provides a cautionary tale in this regard, a lesson of a debacle
hardly heeded by those today so frantically engaged in repeating it. 

The rhetoric of the correspondence education movement a century ago was
almost identical to that of the current distance education movement. 
Anytime, anywhere education (they didn't yet use the word "asynchronous")
accessible to anyone from home or workplace, advance at your own pace,
profit from personalized, one-on-one contact with your instructor, avoid
the crowded classroom and boring lecture hall.  In brief, correspondence
instruction emerged in the last decade of the nineteenth century along two
parallel paths, as a commercial, for-profit enterprise, and as an
extension of university-based higher education.  At the heart of both was
the production and distribution of pre-packaged courses of instruction,
educational commodities bought, sold, and serviced through the mail. 

The commercial effort arose in the expectation of profiting from the
growing demand for vocational and professional training, generated by
increasingly mechanized and science-based industrial activity, and rapidly
devolved into what became known as diploma mills.  The university effort
arose in response to the same demand for vocational training, as an
attempt to protect traditional academic turf from commercial competition,
to tap into a potent new source of revenues, and as a result of a
genuinely progressive movement for democratic access to education,
particularly adult education.  While the universities tried initially to
distinguish themselves in both form and content from their increasinly
disreputable commercial rivals, in the end, having embarked down the same
path of commodity production, they tended invariably to resemble them,
becoming diploma mills in their own right. 

The parallels with the present situation are striking.  For-profit
commercial firms are once again emerging to provide vocational training to
working people via computer-based distance instruction.  Universities are
once again striving to meet the challenge of these commercial enterprises,
generate new revenue streams, and extend the range and reach of their
offerings.  And although trying somehow to distinguish themselves from
their commercial rivals -- while collaborating ever more closely with them
-- they are once again coming to resemble them, this time as digital
diploma mills.  In the following pages we will examine in some detail the
history of the correspondence education movement in the U.S, looking first
at the commercial ventures and then at the parallel efforts of the
universities.  The account of the university experience is based upon
heretofore unexamined archival records of four of the leading institutions
engaged in correspondence instruction: the University of Chicago, Columbia
University, the University of Wisconsin and the University of California,
Berkeley.  Following this historical review of the first episode in the
commodification of higher education, we will return to the present to
indicate some similarities with the current episode. 


Thomas J. Foster established one of the earliest private, for-profit
correspondence schools in Pennsylvania in the late 1880's to provide
vocational training in mining, mine safety, drafting and metalworking. 
Spurred by the success of these efforts, he founded in 1892 the
International Correspondence Schools, which became one of the largest and
most enduring enterprises in this burgeoning new education industry.  By
1926 there were over three hundred such schools in the U.S., with an
annual income of over $70 million (one and a half times the income of all
colleges and universities combined), with fifty new schools being started
each year.  In 1924 these commercial enterprises, which catered primarily
to people who sought qualifications for job advancement in business and
industry, boasted of an enrollment four times that of all colleges,
universities, and professional schools combined.  Copyrighted courses were
developed for the firms in-house by their own staff or under contract with
outside "experts," and were administered through the mail by in-house or
contract instructors.  Students were recruited through advertisements and
myriad promotional schemes, peddled by a field salesforce employed on a
commission basis. 

In their promotional activities and material, targeted to credulous and
inexperienced youth, the commercial firms claimed that their courses would
guarantee students careers, security, wealth, status and self-respect. 
"If you want to be independent," one firm pitched, "if you want to make
good in the world; if you want to get off somebody's payroll and head one
of your own; if you want the many pleasures and luxuries that are in the
world for you and your family;  if you want to banish forever the fear of
losing your job -- then -- sign the pay-raising enrollment blank!  Get it
to me!  Right now!".  The chief selling point of education by means of
correspondence, the firms maintained, was personalized instruction for
busy people.  "The student has the individual attention of the teacher
while he is reciting, though it is in writing," another firm explained. 
The student "works at his own tempo set by himself and not fixed by the
average capacities of a large number of students studying simultaneously. 
He can begin when he likes, study at any hours convenient to him, and
finish as soon as he is able". 

In all of the firms a priority was placed upon securing enrollment and the
lion's share of effort and revenues was expended in promotion and sales
rather than in instruction.  Typically between fifty and eighty percent of
tuition fees went into direct mail campaigns, magazine and newspaper
advertisements, and the training and support of a sales staff responsible
for "cold canvassing," soliciting "prospects"  and intensive follow-ups
and paid by the number of enrollments they obtained.  "The most intensive
work of all the schools is, in fact, devoted to developing the sales
force," John Noffsinger observed in his 1926 Carnegie Corporation --
sponsored study of correspondence schools written when the correspondence
movement was at its peak.  "This is by far the most highly organized and
carefully worked out department of the school".  "The whole emphasis on
salesmanship is the most serious criticism to be made against the system
of correspondence education as it now exists," Noffsinger noted.  "Perhaps
it cannot be avoided when schools are organized for profit," he added. 
Indeed, the pursuit of profit tended inescapably to subvert the noble
intentions, or pretentions, of the enterprises, especially in what had
become a highly competitive (and totally unregulated) field in which many
firms came and went and some made handsome fortunes.  In a burgeoning
industry increasingly dominated by hucksters and swindlers who had little
genuine knowledge of or interest in education per se, promotional claims
were easily exaggerated to the point of fraud and the salesforces were
encouraged to sign up any and all prospects, however ill-prepared for the
coursework, in order to fulfill their quotas and reap their commissions
(which often amounted to as much as a third of the tuition).  Enrollees
were typically required to pay the full tuition or a substantial part of
it up front and most of the firms had a no-refund policy for the ninety to
ninety-five percent of the students who failed to complete their course of
study.  (In Noffsinger's survey of seventy five correspondence schools
only 2.6% of the enrolled students completed the courses they had begun.) 

The remarkably high drop-out rate was not an accident.  It reflected not
only the shameless methods of recruitment but also the shoddy quality of
what was being offered -- the inevitable result of the profit-driven
commodification of education.  If the lion's share of revenues were
expended on promotion -- to recruit students and secure the up-front
tuition payments -- a mere pittance was expended on instruction.  In the
commercial firms the promotional staff was four to six times- and
oftentimes twenty to thirty times -- the size of the instructional staff
and compensation of the former was typically many times that of the
latter.  In some firms, less than one cent of every tuition dollar went
into instruction.  For the actual "delivery"  of courses -- the correction
of lessons and grading exams -- most firms relied upon a casualized
workforce of "readers" who worked part-time and were paid on a piecework
basis per lesson or exam (roughly twenty cents per lesson in the 1920's). 
Many firms preferred "sub-professional" personnel, particularly untrained
older women, for routine grading.  These people often worked under
sweatshop conditions, having to deliver a high volume of lessons in order
to make a living, and were unable therefore to manage more than a
perfunctory pedagogical performance.  Such conditions were of course not
conducive to the kind of careful, individualized instruction promised in
the company's promotional materials.  (As Noffsinger pointed out in his
Carnegie study, "the lack of personal contact between teacher and student"
was the "chief weakness" of the instruction.)  The central "pedagogical"
concern of the firms was clearly to keep instructional costs to a bare
minimum, a fact caricatured in vaudeville sketches of correspondence
education in which all work was done by a lone mail-clerk and the
instructors dropped out of sight altogether. 

All of this made perfect economic sense, however, and was summed up in
correspondence industry jargon in the phrase "drop-out money".  Since
students were required to pay their tuition up-front without the
possibility of a refund, and instructors were paid on a piecework basis,
once students dropped out there was no further instructional expense and
what remained of the upfront payment was pure profit:  "drop-out money". 
Given the economics of this cynical education system, there was no
incentive whatsoever to try to retain students by upgrading the conditions
of instruction and thereby improving the quality of course offerings.  The
economics in fact dictated the opposite, to concentrate all efforts upon
recruitment and next to nothing on instruction.  Already by the mid-1920's
-- when the correspondence movement was at its peak - increasing criticism
of the commercial correspondence firms had largely discredited the
industry, which was coming to be seen as a haven for disreputable hustlers
and diploma mills.  In 1924 the New York Board of Regents condemned the
schools for their false claims and for their no-refund policies.  "There
is nothing inherent in correspondence as a method of instruction to
disqualify it as a way to education," wrote Noffsinger, an avid supporter
of adult distance education (and later official of the National Home Study
Council, established to try to regulate the industry.)  "Unfortunately,"
however, he lamented, "the majority of correspondence schools are not well
equipped and still less conscientiously conducted.  They are commercial
enterprises designed to make quick and easy profits.  Many of them are in
the shady zone bordering on the criminal.  A large proportion of those who
enroll in correspondence courses are wasting time, money, and energy or
even are being swindled".  Noffsinger condemned "the victimization of
hundreds of thousands who now are virtually robbed of savings and whose
enthusiasm for education is crushed".  In the commercial schools,
Noffsinger warned, "the making of profit is their first consideration, a
dangerous situation at best in education." 

The evolution of university-based correspondence instruction closely
parallelled that of the commercial schools.  Following some early
stillborn experiments in academic correspondence instruction in the
1880's, the university-based movement began in earnest in the 1890's;  by
the teens and twenties of this century it had become a craze comparable to
today's mania for online distance education.  The first entrant into the
field was the newly founded University of Chicago whose first president
William Rainey Harper was an early enthusiast for distance education.  By
the time he moved to Chicago from Yale, Harper had already had
considerable experience in teaching via correspondence through the
Chautauqua organization in New York state, and he made the Home Study
Department one of the founding pillars of the new university.  Following
the lead of Chicago other institutions soon joined the ranks of the
movement, notably the state universities of Wisconsin, Nebraska,
Minnesota, Kansas, Oregon, Texas, Missouri, Colorado, Pennsylvania,
Indiana, and California.  By 1919, when Columbia University launched its
home study program, there were already seventy-three colleges and
universities offering instruction by correspondence.  Emphasizing the
democratization of education and hoping to tap into the lucrative market
exploited by their commercial rivals, the universities echoed the sales
pitch of the private schools. 

Hervey F. Mallory, head of the University of Chicago Home Study Department
proclaimed the virtues of individualized instruction, insisting that
education by correspondence was akin to a "tutorial relationship" which
"may prove to be superior to the usual method of teaching".  "The student
acts independently and for himself but at the same time, being in contact
with the teacher, he is also enabled to secure special help for every
difficulty".  Correspondence study, the department advertised, offered
three "unique advantages": "you receive individual personal attention; you
work as rapidly as you can, or as slowly as necessary, unhampered by
others as in a regular class;" and your studies "may begin at any time and
may be carried on according to any personal schedule and in any place
where postal service in available".  Mallory insisted that correspondence
study offered an education better than anything possible in "the crowded
classroom of the ordinary American University".  "It is impossible in such
a context to treat students as individuals, overcome peer pressure for
conformity, encourage students who are shy, slow, intimidated by a class
setting".  Home study, by contrast, "takes into account individual
differences in learning" and the students "may do course work at any time
and any place, and at their own personal pace".  From the evangelical
perspective of its proponents, then, correspondence education was more
than just an extension of traditional education;  it was an improvement, a
means of instruction at once less costly and of higher quality, an
advance, in short, which signalled a revolution in higher education. 
"What warrant is there for believing that the virility of the more ancient
type of cloistered college and university could be maintained, except here
and there, in our business civilization?" Mallory asked rhetorically. 
"The day is coming,"  President Harper prophesied, heralding that
revolution,"when the work done by correspondence will be greater in amount
than that done in the classroom of our academies and colleges, when the
students who shall recite by correspondence will far outnumber those who
make oral presentations".. 

As was the case with the commercial schools here too the promises and
expectations of enthusiasts were thwarted by the realities of commodity
production.  Although they were not for-profit organizations per se, the
correspondence programs of the universities were nevertheless largely
self-supporting and hence, de facto, profit-oriented; a correspondence
program's expenses had to be covered "by profits from its own operations,"
as Carl Huth of the University of Chicago's Home Study Department put it. 
And while it was initially assumed that this new form of instruction would
be more economically efficient than traditional classroom-based
instruction, the pioneers quickly discovered that correspondence
instruction was far most costly to operate they they had imagined, owing
primarily to the overhead entailed in administration.  Almost from the
outset, therefore, they found themselves caught up in much the same game
as their commercial rivals: devising promotional schemes to boost
enrollment in order to offset growing administrative costs, reducing their
course preparation and revision expenses by standardizing their inventory
and relying on "canned courses", and, above all, keeping instructional
compensation to a minimum through the use of casual employment and payment
by piecerate.  Before too long, with a degraded product and drop-out rates
almost comparable to that of the commercial firms, they too had come to
depend for their survival upon "drop-out money." 

>From the outset, the leaders of the university programs pointedly
distinguished their work from that of their disreputable commercial
counterparts.  It was unfortunate that the universities had "stepped aside
to leave large part of the field of adult education to commercial schools
or even to confidence men and swindlers," Mallory noted, but the new
university programs would correct for that failure.  "The most important
fact about the university system of correspondence instruction in contrast
to that of the commercial schools," he argued, "is the fact of
institutional background, and that background is a great public-service
institution -- a modern university.  .  .  .  an organic whole whose
spiritual or immaterial aspects are far more important than the concrete
parts".  The Home Study Department of the University of Chicago, he
insisted, was "interwoven with the university" and thus reflected its
exalted traditions and mission -- what would today be called
"brandworthiness".  Accordingly, the Home Study Department initially
emphasized that its courses would be taught by the same professors who
taught courses on campus and, indeed, at the outset even President Harper
himself offered a course by correspondence.  But within a few years, most
of the course delivery was being handled by an assortment of instructors,
readers, associate readers, fellows, lecturers, associate lecturers, and
assistants, their pay meagre and their status low.  They were paid on a
piecerate basis -- roughly thirty cents per lesson and, under university
statutes, received no benefits.  Representatives from the regular faculty
ranks were largely those at the lower rungs who took on correspondence
work in order to supplement their own quite modest salaries.  In order to
make out, the Home Study instructors were compelled to take on a large
volume of work which quickly devolved into uninspired drudgery, and it was
understood that there was no future in it. 

Initially, the Home Study Program was selective in its recruitment,
requiring evidence of a prospective students's ability as a prerequisite
for enrolling.  Students had to have sufficient reason for not enrolling
as a resident student and had to "give satisfactory evidence, by
examination or otherwise, that he is able to do the work required".  (The
University of Chicago required at least partial resident matriculation for
those seeking degrees and required examinations for credit given by
correspondence.)  Eventually, however, such entrance requirements were
dropped in order to increase enrollments.  According to the Home Study
brochure some years later, "You need not take an entrance examination, nor
present a transcript of work done elsewhere.  Your desire to enroll in a
particular course will be taken as evidence that you are prepared to do
the work of that course".  Although there were some early efforts at
advertising and salesmanship, these were kept within what were considered
proper bounds for a respectable institution of higher education -- a
university policy lamented by the Home Study Department, especially in the
face of competition from other, more aggressive, institutions such as

As in the case of the commercial schools here too the reduced quality of
the courses combined with the lack of preparation of those enrolled
produced a very high drop-out rate.  And like the commercial schools --
the University of Chicago adopted a no-refund policy; tuition was to be
paid in full at the time of registration and, once registration was
completed, fees were not refundable.  As late as 1939, and despite the
criticism of commercial schools on just this count, the University's
president Robert Hutchins, the renowned champion of classical education,
reaffirmed this policy.  "The registration and tuition fee will not be
refunded to a student whose application has been accepted and who has been
duly enrolled in a course," Hutchins wrote to a correspondence student. 
"This statement reflects standard practice in correspondence schools

Columbia University did not join the correspondence movement until 1919
but quickly became a leader in the field with revenues matched only by the
University of Chicago.  It owed its success to an unusually ambitious
program aimed at a national and international market and an aggressive
promotional effort that rivalled that of the commercial schools.  A Home
Study program was first proposed in 1915 by James Egbert, Columbia's head
of extension, and the idea was enthuasiastically endorsed by Columbia's
president Nicholas Murray Butler, an avid supporter of adult education who
had earlier in his career been the founding director of Columbia's summer
session for part-time students.  In full flower by the mid-twenties, the
Columbia correspondence program was providing instruction to students in
every state and fifty foreign countries. 

Although Columbia never gave academic credit for its correspondence
courses aside from a certificate of completion, the university
nevertheless strove to distinguish its offerings from those of the
commercial schools, emphasizing "personal contact and supervision",
concentrating on recognized academic subjects, limiting the number of
students in each course, and keeping standards high through regular review
of material by the appropriate academic faculty.  The two-fold aim of Home
Study, according to Egbert, was to extend the enlightening reach of the
university while at the same time generating additional revenue.  He and
his colleagues soon discovered, however, that the preparation of course
materials and the administration of the program were more demanding,
labor-intensive, and expensive than had been anticipated.  To offset these
costs, they moved to broaden the correspondence curriculum into more
lucrative vocational areas of every sort and to expand their promotional
activities in an effort to enlarge the enrollment.  In 1920 Home Study had
156 students; by 1926 there were nearly five thousand and that number was
doubled by 1929.  As Egbert undertook "to apply business methods" to his
expanding operation, the program employed a national salesforce of sixty
"field representatives" (as compared to one hundred instructors) who were
paid a commission according to the number of students they enrolled.  In
addition, Columbia mounted a full-scale national advertising campaign in
the manner of the commercial firms, with such themes as "Profit By Your
Capacity to Learn", "Will you Increase Your Fixed Assets?", "Turning
Leisure to Profit," "Who Controls Your Future?", "Who is Too Old to
Learn?" and "Of What Can You Be Certain?".  In 1929 Egbert proudly
unveiled plans for a vastly expanded enterprise which would be housed in a
new twelve-story building.  Compared to the lavish expenditure on
promotion, the Home Study program kept its instructional expenses to a
minimum.  Here too all payment for instruction was on a piecerate, per
lesson basis.  As at Chicago, while some faculty engaged in Home Study in
order to supplement their salaries, they were likely to be "academic lame
ducks", as one Home Study official described them, and the bulk of
instruction was performed by a casualized low-status workforce of
instructors, lecturers, and assistants.  Overworked and undervalued, they
were not quite able or inclined to provide the "personal contact" that was
promised.  While the Home Study Department continued to boast that all of
their courses were "prepared so as to enable the instructor to adjust all
study to the individual needs of each student", that "direct contact is
maintained between the student and the instructor *personally* (emphasis
in original) throughout the course,"and that correspondence students "can
attain the many advantages of instruction of Univerity grade, under the
constant guidance, suggestion, and help of regular members of the
University teaching staff," the reality was otherwise.  Together with
fraudulent advertising and an indiscriminate enrollment policy,
inescapably perfunctory instruction produced a drop-out rate of eighty
percent, a rate comparable to that of the for-profit commercial schools. 

The experience of two of the largest state university correspondence
programs, Wisconsin and California (Berkeley) was similar to that of the
private Chicago and Columbia, even though their institutions could draw
upon public funds, because here too the departments were required to be
largely self-supporting (public subsidy might be available for overhead
but not instruction, which had to be borne by student fees).  The Regents
authorized correspondence courses at Wisconsin as early as 1891, a year
before the University of Chicago, but it was not until 1906 that an actual
correspondence department was established as part of Wisconsin's famous
Extension program.  From the very beginning, it was made explicit that
correspondence courses "shall not involve the university in any expense." 
Originally correspondence instruction was conducted under the auspices of
the regular faculty although the actual instructional duties were
performed by "fellows" and "advanced students".  Because of the onerous
workload, faculty participation was minimal and enrollment remained small. 
The effort was revived under President Charles R. van Hise and his new
director of extension Louis E. Reber, two engineers attuned especially to
the training needs of industry. 

Van Hise had recognized the economic potential of correspondence
instruction, judging from the experience of the commercial schools, and he
commissioned a study of the for-profit firms.  "The enormous success of
the commercial correspondence schools suggested that here was an
educational opportunity which had been neglected by the Universities," van
Hise wrote in 1906.  "There are tens of thousands of students in the State
of Wisconsin who are already taking correspondence work in private
correspondence schools, probably more than thirty thousand, and they are
paying for this work outside of the State more than three-quarters of a
million dollars per annum". 

Up to this point Wisconsin's correspondence courses had offered primarily
academic and cultural fare under the auspices of the academic departments,
but van Hise, at the behest of businessmen who offered to make donations
to the University if it reactivated correspondence study, pushed the
enterprise in a decidedly vocational and industrial direction.  Reber,
formerly the Dean of Engineering at Pennsylvania State University, had the
same industrial orientation, viewing correspondence study primarily as a
way of providing a trained workforce for industry.  "It would be difficult
under present conditions to provide a better means for meeting the
persistent and growing demand for industrial training than the methods of
correspondence study adopted by the University," he observed.  "This fact
has been cordially recognized and the work encouraged and aided by
employers of men wherever it has been established".  Before coming to
Wisconsin Reber visited the International Correpondence Schools in
Scranton and undertook to refashion the Wisconsin correspondence program
along the same lines as that leading commercial enterprise. 

Reber succeeded in having the correspondence department established
independent of the regular faculty, with its own non-academic staff of
instructors and with its courses removed from faculty control.  Under
Reber's direction the Wisconsin correspondence program grew enormously,
drawing one of the largest enrollments in the country.  The drop-out rate
was roughly fifty-five percent and "drop-out money"  was the name of the

Berkeley's program was modelled on Wisconsin's.  Initially Berkeley's
correspondence courses were meant to be the academic equivalent of
resident courses, taught by university faculty and supervised by academic
departments, and the university pledged to "place each student in direct
personal contact with his instructor".  But here too, the program
administrators discovered that, as director Baldwin Woods later explained,
"correspondence instruction is expensive".  Thus, for economic reasons,
the program moved to expand enrollment by catering to the greatest demand,
which was for vocational courses for people in business and industry, by
engaging in "continuous promotion," employing "field representatives," and
relaxing admissions standards ("there is no requirement for admission to a
class save the ability to pursue the work with profit.")  Enrollment
increased four-fold and fees were later increased to whatever the market
would bear.  Most of the instructional work was done by low-status,
part-time "readers" described by one director as "overworked" who were
paid on a piece-rate basis of twenty-five to thirty-five cents per lesson. 
Not surprisingly, the drop-out rate averaged seventy to eighty percent. 
Students were required to pay full tuition up-front and a partial refund
was allowed only if no more than two lessons had been completed.  In 1926
The President's Report declared that "the fee for a course must be set to
bring in income.  Expansion must be largely profitable". 

At the end of the twenties, after nearly four decades in the business of
correspondence instruction, the university-based programs began to come
under the kind of scrutiny and scathing criticism heretofore reserved for
the commercial schools.  The first and most damning salvo came from
Abraham Flexner, one of the nation's most distinguished and influential
observers of higher education.  Best known for his earlier indictment of
medical education on behalf of the Carnegie Foundation, Flexner had served
for fifteen years as general secretary of the Rockefeller-funded General
Education Board and later became the founding director of the Institute
for Advanced Study at Princeton.  After his retirement from the General
Education Board in 1928, Flexner delivered his Rhodes Lectures on the
state of higher education in England, Germany, and the United States,
which were published in 1930 under the simple title *Universities*.  In
his lectures on the situation in the United States, Flexner excoriated the
American universities for their commercial preoccupations, for having
compromised their defining independence and integrity, and for having
thereby abandoned their unique and essential social function of
disinterested critical and creative inquiry.  At the heart of his
indictment was a scornful assessment of university-based correspondence
education, focusing in detail upon the academically unseemly activities of
the University of Chicago and Columbia University.  Flexner acknowledged
the social importance of correspondence and vocational education but
questioned whether they belonged in a university, where they distracted
the institution from its special intellectual mission, compromised its
core values, and reoriented its priorities in a distinctly commercial
direction.  The rush to cash in on marketable courses and the enthusiasm
for correspondence instruction, Flexner argued, "show the confusion in our
colleges of education with training".  The universities, he insisted,
"have thoughtlessly and excessively catered to fleeting, transient, and
immediate demands" and have "needlessly cheapened, vulgarized, and
mechanized themselves," reducing themselves to "the level of the vendors
of patent medicines." 

He lampooned the intellectually trivial kinds of courses offered by the
correspondence programs of Columbia, the University of Chicago, and the
University of Wisconsin, and wondered about what would make "a great
university descend to such humbug".  What sort of contribution is Columbia
making towards a clearer apprehension of what education really is?",
Flexner asked.  He particularly decried Columbia's indiscriminate
enrollment practices and especially its elaborate and deceptive
promotional effort which, he argued, "befuddles the public"  and generates
a "spurious demand."  If Columbia's correspondence courses were genuinely
of "college grade" and taught by "regular members of the staff," as
Columbia advertised, then why was no academic credit given for them?  If
correspondence instruction was superior to that of the traditional
classroom, then why did not Columbia sell off its expensive campus and
teach all of its courses by mail?  "The whole thing is business, not
education," Flexner concluded.  "Columbia, untaxed because it is an
educational institution, is in business: it has education to sell [and]
plays the purely commercial game of the merchant whose sole concern is
profit".  Likewise, he bemoaned as "scandalous" the fact that "the
prestige of the University of Chicago should be used to bamboozle
well-meaning but untrained persons.  .  .  by means of extravagant and
misleading advertisements".  Finally, pointing out that regular faculty in
most institutions remained justifiably skeptical of correspondence and
vocational instruction, he assailed the "administrative usurpation of
professorial functions" and the casualization of the professoriate.  "The
American professoriate," Flexner declared, "is a proletariat". 

Flexner's critique of correspondence education, which gained widespread
media attention, sent shockwaves through academia, prompting internal
efforts to raise standards and curtail excessive and misleading
advertising.  At Columbia, the blow was eventually fatal to the
correspondence program.  A year after the publication of Flexner's book --
and the unveiling of Columbia's ambitious plans for a vastly expanded
program with its own grand headquarters - President Butler wrote to his
Extension director Egbert that "a good many people are impressed
unfavorably with our Home Study advertising and continually call my
attention to it.  I should like to have you oversee this advertising very
carefully from the viewpoint of those who criticize it as 'salesmanship,'
etc".  The result of this belated concern was a severe restriction of
advertising (which lasted at Columbia until the late 1960's).The continued
unwillingness of Columbia's Administrative Board to grant academic credit
for correspondence courses -- largely because of the low regard in which
these courses were held by the regular faculty -- coupled with the
restrictions on general advertising which the Board had now come to deem
"inappropriate and unwise" effectively undermined the effort to maintain
enrollments sufficient to sustain the Department (especially in the midst
of the Depression) and it was finally officially discontinued in 1937.  A
year after Flexner's critique, and partly in response to it, the American
Association for Adult Education launched a Carnegie Corporation-funded
survey of university-based correspondence courses under the direction of
Hervey Mallory, longtime head of the Home Study Department at the
University of Chicago.  Published in 1933 as *University Teaching By
Mail*, the study, which generally endorsed and called for the improvement
of the correspondence method, acknowledged the validity of much of

Referring explicitly to Flexner, the study noted that "many believe that
correspondence instruction is not a function of college or university" and
wonder "how does it come that literature and art have fallen to the absurd
estate of commodities requiring advertisement and postal shipment?".  The
study argued, however, that while "there is something fine and entirely
right in the demand for independence, integrity, and disinterestedness," 
on the part of universities, the "ideals of practical service, of
experiment in educational method, and of participation in the life of the
community" are not incompatible with it and insisting that many,
especially mature, students had benefitted from correspondence
instruction.  The study conceded, on the other hand, that "it may be that
schoolmen and businessmen have created the demand by a false propaganda of
success through education, of promise of additions to the pay envelopes
proportional to the number of courses, certificates, credits, and degrees,
and other rewards displayed in correspondence study advertising". 

In surveying the weaknesses of the method, the study acknowledged the
narrowly utilitarian motive and also the "very real isolation" of most
correspondence students, owing not only to the intrinsic limitations of
the correspondence method of instruction but also to the pressures on
instructors which further undermined its promise.  "One of the charges
against the correspondence study system is that it tends to exploit the
student by inducing him to enroll and pay fees, and then fails to give
adequate service in return," the study observed;  students routinely
complained about "insufficient corrections and comments by the instructor"
and the "lack of 'personal' contacts with instructors" which contributed
to the excessively high drop-out rates.  In the light of such apparently
inescapable weaknesses of correspondence instruction, the authors of the
study abandoned altogether earlier evangelical expectations about this new
method some day supplanting traditional education and insisted instead,
much more modestly, that correspondence instruction should be employed
only as a supplement to, rather than a substitute for, classroom
instruction."  No reputable proponent of home study seriously suggests
that correspondence teaching should replace classroom instruction,"  the
authors declared.  "Correspondence study is not advocated as a substitute
for campus study, but is established as a supplement with peculiar merits
and demerits.  Correpondence courses are of the most value to the
individual when taken in conjunction with a residence program.  They are
not a substitute for education.  They should not be taken merely in
conjunction with one's job or avocation, nor are they to be used simply as
a hobby or as an exercise of will power by itself.  They serve individual
purposes best when they fit into a long-time, socialized program of
education".  Earlier claims about the alleged superiority of
correspondence over classroom instruction were likewise abandoned and
various attempts to "experimentally" compare the two were dismissed as
scientifically spurious and inconclusive. 

The study devoted considerable attention to the unsatisfactory working
conditions of instructors -- notably that they were overworked and
underpaid -- in accounting for the failings of the method, which depended
ultimately upon "the willingness of the instructor to give a generous
amount of attention to the student".  "When that fails, the authors noted,
"the special merit of the correspondence method, individual instruction,
remains individual chiefly on the students' side alone -- this is the
chief weakness in method -- perfunctory reading of reports, lack of
helpful suggestions, and delay and neglect by over-burdened" instructors. 
Instructors excused their perfunctory performance on the grounds that the
pay was too small to merit the effort and the authors of the survey
confirmed that the workload of instructors was typically excessive and
that "the compensation in nearly all the institutions is very small". 
"The excuse of instructors that pay is too little has some merit.  The
merit of the excuse lies in the fact that in most cases in the present
system the pay is small by the piece, and piecework may be irksome to the
teachers both when it is light and when it is heavy, in the first place
perhaps because the tengible reward is slight, in the second because the
work piles up beyond one's schedule".  Most instructors, the study also
found, worked on a part-time, fee-for-service basis, with little
supervision which meant both that they suffered from job insecurity and
that there was a noticeable "difficulty of maintaining standards".  "The
employment of readers or graders or fee instructors, as they are variously
called, has been severely criticized on the assumption that such readers
are not qualified teachers or are doing a merely perfunctory job of paper
criticism".  "Nearly all university correspondence teachers might be
designated as fee instructors," the study found, "since few are on a
salary basis". 

While the authors of the Carnegie study criticized such pedagogically
counterproductive employment practices -- and also the "usual policy of
the universities not to refund fees" to students who drop out - they
placed the blame not so much on the university correspondence programs per
se but rather on the commercial pressures with which they were unfairly
burdened.  "Most university correspondence courses are underfunded and
understaffed," they noted, and each is forced to be self-supporting,
leaving them no choice but to adopt the unseemly commercial practices of
their for-profit cousins.  "Correspondence instruction in the university
should not be required to 'pay its way' in a business sense any more than
classroom instruction," the authors insisted.  "The business methods
should not be those of a commercial concern whose prime motive is to
dispose of commodities or services for a money profit".  Yet the survey
showed that such was clearly the case.  Although the authors warned that
no "university correpondence administration should not lay itself open
even remotely to objection on grounds of dubious commercial practices,
such as 'charging what the traffic will bear," exacting from students fees
that will yield a profit, or giving instructors poor compensation in order
to keep costs low," they knew that, given the circumstances in which they
were compelled to operate, the circumstances of commodity production, they
had no other option. 

The belatedly modest and critical tone of the Carnegie survey signalled
that the heyday of correspondence education was over.  The great
expectations of this first foray into the commodification of higher
education had been exploded and the movement was spent.  Strong criticism
of the private, for-profit correspondence schools was ritually repeated
over the years, with little noticeable effect, particularly in a series of
studies sponsored by the American Council on Education.  Likewise,
subsequent examinations of university-based correspondence education
continued to confirm the findings of the 1933 survey.  Thirty years later
the General Accounting Office was warning veterans on the G.I. Bill not to
waste their federal funds on correspondence courses.  In 1968 the
Carnegie-funded Correspondence Education Research Project, which had been
commissioned by the National Home Study Council (later renamed the
Distance Education and Training Council) and the National University
Extension Association, found that correspondence courses suffered from
poor quality, perfunctory instructor performance, and a very high drop out
rate;  that instructors endured low pay (on a piecerate basis) and low
status; that programs continued to rely upon "drop-out money" to survive;
and that there was little prospect for improvement "as long as
correspondence instruction is held in such low esteem." 

All such investigations and attendant efforts at reform and regulation
invariably failed to change the picture, even as correspondence programs
adopted the latest media of delivery, including film, telephone, radio,
audio-tapes, and television.  Universities continued to offer
correspondence instruction, of course, but the efforts were much more
modest in their claims and ambitions.  Poor cousins of classroom
instruction, they were for the most part confined to institutionally
separate and self-supporting extension divisions and carefully cordoned
off from the campus proper, presumably to spare the core institution the
expense, the commercial contamination, and the criticism.  

* * *

Like their now forgotten forebears, today's proponents of distance
education believe they are leading a revolution which will transform the
educational landscape.  Fixated on technology and the future, they are
unencumbered by the sober lessons of this cautionary tale or by any
understanding of the history they are so busy repeating.  If anything, the
commercial element in distance education is this time even stronger,
heralded anew as a bold departure from tradition.  For, now, instead of
trying to distinguish themselves from their commercial rivals, the
universities are eagerly joining forces with them, lending their brand
names to profit-making enterprise in exchange for a piece of the action. 

The four institutions examined here as prominent players in the first
episode of distance learning are, of course, at it again.  The University
of Wisconsin has a deal with Lotus/IBM and other privatecontractors to
develop and deliver online distance education, especially under the
auspices of its Learning Innovations Center while University of California
has contracts with America Online and Onlinelearning.net for the same
purposes.  And the University of Chicago and Columbia are among the most
enterprising participants in the new distance education goldrush.  The
University of Chicago signed a controversial deal with a start-up online
education company called UNEXT.com, which is headed by Chicago trustee
Andrew Rosenfield and bankrolled in part by junk bond felon Michael
Milken.  Principal investors in the company include the dean of the law
school and two of Chicago's Nobel-prize-winning economists.  The new game
is less about generating revenues from student fees than about reaping a
harvest from financial speculation in the education industry through stock
options and initial public offerings. 

The first university to sign up with UNEXT was Columbia, which has
licensed UNEXT to use the school's logo in return for a share in the
business.  "I was less interested in the income stream than in the
capitalization.  The huge upside essentially is the value of the equity in
the IPO," Columbia's business school dean Meyer Feldberg, a friend of
Milken's, told the *Wall Street Journal*.  "I don't see a downside," he
added, betraying an innocence of Columbia's history that would make
Flexner roll over in his grave.  "I guess our exposure would be if in some
way our brand name is devalued by some problem with this experimental
venture".  Columbia has also set up its own for-profit online distance
education company, Morningside Ventures, headed by an executive formerly
with the National Football League, satellite, and cable TV companies. 
Columbia's Executive Vice President Michael Crow explained the need for
the company with hyperbole reminiscent of that of his prophesying
predecessors in the correspondence movement.  "After a thousand years,
university-based education is undergoing a fundamental transformation," he
declared;  "multi-media learning initiatives" are taking us beyond the
classroom and the textbook.  And he acknowledged the essentially
commercial nature of this transformation.  "Because of the technologies
required and the non-traditional revenue streams involved," he noted,
"corporations will play a major role in these new forms of education.  We
felt the need for a for-profit company to compete effectively and

Last but not least, Columbia has now become party to an agreement with yet
another company which intends to peddle its core arts and science courses. 
Columbia will develop courses and lend its brand name to the company's
product line in return for royalties and stock options.  According to one
source, the company has already been busy recruiting faculty to the
enterprise as course developers and has suggested the possibility of using
professional actors to deliver them. 

For the time being, however, until the actors arrive, the bulk of
university-based online distance education courses are being delivered in
the same manner as correspondence courses of old, by poorly paid and
overworked low status instructors, working on a per-course basis without
benefits or job security and under coercion to assign their rights to
their course materials to their employer as a condition of employment. 
The imperatives of commodity production, in short, are again in full
force, shaping the working conditions of instructors until they are
replaced once and for all by machines, script writers, and actors. 

Just as the promoters of correspondence instruction learned the hard way
that the costs of their new method were much higher than anticipated and
that they had to lower their labor costs to turn a profit, so the
promoters of online instruction have belatedly discovered that the costs
of this latest new method are prohibitive unless they likewise reduce
their labor costs.  As Gregory Farrington, president of Lehigh University,
observed recently, "unless the new technologies can be used to increase
the average teaching productivity of faculty, there is virtually no chance
that those technologies will improve the economics of traditional higher
education".  But increasing the "teaching productivity of faculty" --
whether through job intensification, outsourcing, or the substitution of
computers for people -- essentially means increasing the number of
students per teacher and this invariably results in an undermining of the
pedagogical promise of the method, as the experience of correspondence
instruction clearly demonstrates.  And the degradation of the quality of
the education' invariably destroys the incentive and motivation of
students.  Already the drop-out rates of online distance education are
much higher than those of classroom-based instruction. 

So here we go again.  We have indeed been here before.  But there are
differences between the current rage for online distance education and the
earlier debacle of correspondence distance education.  First, the
firewalls separating distance education programs from the core campus are
breaking down; although they first took hold on the beachheads of
extension divisions, commercial online initiatives have already begun to
penetrate deeply into the heart of the university.  Second, while the
overhead for correspondence courses was expensive, the infrastructural
expense for online courses exceeds it by an order of magnitude -- a
technological tape worm in the guts of higher education.  Finally, while
correspondence programs were often aimed at a broad market, most efforts
remained merely regional.  The ambitious reach of today's distance
educators, on the other hand, is determinedly global in scale, which is
why the World Trade Organization is currently at work trying to remove any
and all barriers to international trade in educational commodities.  In
short, then, the dire implications of this second distance education craze
far outstrip those of the first.  Even if it fails to deliver on its
economic or pedagogical promise, as it surely will, its promoters will
push it forward nevertheless, given the investment entailed, leaving a
legacy of corruption and ruin in its wake.  In comparing Napoleon III with
Napoleon I, Karl Marx formulated his famous dictum "first time tragedy,
second time farce".  A comparison of the past and present episodes of
distance education suggests perhaps a different lesson, namely, that
sometimes the tragedy follows the farce. 

Historian David F. Noble is currently a professor at York University.  He
can be reached at the Division of Social Science, York University,
Downsview, Ontario M4K1Z1 Canada, (416) 736-2100 ext.  30126.  

The first three parts of this Digital Diploma Mills series are available
online under "digital diploma mills" or at communication.ucsd.edu/dl.

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