Phil Agre on Sat, 5 Dec 1998 20:01:14 +0100 (CET)

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

<nettime> [RRE] Digital Diploma Mills, Part III

[[orig to "Red Rock Eater News Service" <>]]

[Dave would be happy for you to forward this article to anyone who might
be interested.  He can be contact at the phone number given at the bottom
of the article.]

This message was forwarded through the Red Rock Eater News Service (RRE).
Send any replies to the original author, listed in the From: field below.
You are welcome to send the message along to others but please do not use
the "redirect" command.  For information on RRE, including instructions
for (un)subscribing, see
or send a message to with Subject: info rre

                      DIGITAL DIPLOMA MILLS, PART III
                           The Bloom Is Off the Rose
                   (c) by David F. Noble, November, 1998


Abe and Moe run into each other on Flatbush Avenue.
"Boy, have I got a deal for you" Moe," says Abe.
"I've got these fancy new university courses,
computers and everything, you can take it right
from your own living room. What do you think?"
"Sounds nice," says Moe, "How much?"
"For you, my friend, a bargain," says Abe,
"Only three hundred dollars."
 "I'll take it" says Moe.

Four months later they run into each other again.
"Hey Abe, you crook," says Moe, "Remember that
course you sold me?" 
"Sure," says Abe, "what about it?"
"It was lousy," says Moe,  "I didn't learn a thing."  
"Moe, you dummy, of course you didn't," says Abe.
"That was a buying and selling course, 
not a learning course!"

       Far sooner than most observers might have imagined, the
juggernaut of online education appears to have stalled.  Only a year
ago, it seemed there was no stopping it.  Promoters of instructional
technology and "distance learning" advanced with ideological bravado
as well as institutional power, the momentum of human progress
allegedly behind them.  They had merely to proclaim "it's the future"
to throw skeptics on the defensive and convince seasoned educators
that they belonged in the dustbin of history.  The monotonal mantras
about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon
snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with
sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing
and the printing press) and sound-bites about the imminent demise of
the "sage on the stage" and "bricks and mortar" institutions.  But
today, alas, the wind is out of their sails, their momentum broken,
their confidence shaken.

      At countless campus forums on the subject throughout North
America, the burden of proof has squarely shifted from the critics to
the promoters.  Though still amply funded and politically supported,
it is they who are now on the defensive, compelled, in the wake of
repeated failures and in the face of mounting skepticism, to try
to buttress their still lame arguments with half-baked data about
pedagogical usefulness, economic return, or market demand.  Attendance
at campus events has multiplied an order of magnitude as faculty and
students have finally become alert to the administrative agendas and
commercial con-games behind this seeming technological revolution.

       Off campus, the scene is much the same.  Study after study
seems to confirm that computer-based instruction reduces performance
levels and that habitual Internet use induces depression.  Advertisers
peddle platinum Mastercards and even Apple laptop computers by subtly
acknowledging that "seven days without e-mail" is "priceless" and that
being in touch with your office from anywhere anytime is a "bummer".
Meanwhile, all the busy people supposedly clamoring for distance
learning - who allegedly constitute the multi-billion dollar market
for cyberinstruction - are curling up at night with the New York Times
top bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, a sentimental evocation of the
intimate, enduring, and life-enriching relationship between a former
student and his dying professor.  "Have you ever really had a teacher?
One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with
wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine?  If you are lucky enough
to find such teachers, you will always find your way back".  So much
for distance learning.

       Above all, a spectre is haunting the high-tech hijackers of
higher education, the spectre of faculty (and student) resistance.
Last Fall this Digital Diploma Mills series began with the
juxtaposition of two events.  The first, UCLA's Instructional
Enhancement Initiative (and partnership with The Home Education
Network), signalled the commoditization of instruction and
commercialization of higher education by means of digital technology.
The second, the unprecedented two-month strike by faculty at York
University, represented the first significant sign of opposition to
this new regime and the unholy alliance among academic administrators
and their myriad corporate and political partners.  In this new age
of higher education, I wrote then,"the lines have already been drawn
in the struggle which will ultimately determine its shape".  Over the
last year, this struggle has intensified.

     At UCLA, the widely-touted Instructional Enhancement Initiative,
which mandated web sites for all 3800 arts and sciences courses, has
floundered in the face of faculty recalcitrance and resistance.  By
the end of the academic year, only thirty percent of the faculty had
put any of their course material online and several dozen had actively
resisted the Initiative and the way it had been unilaterally inspired
and implemented.  UCLA Extension's partnership with The Home Education
Network (which changed its name in the Spring to
ran aground on similar shoals when instructors made it clear that they
would refuse to assign any of their rights in their course materials
to either UCLA (the Regents) or the company.  In already up to their
necks, the partners decided simply to claim the rights anyway and
proceed apace, flying without wings on borrowed time.  While the
strike at York awakened the faculty there to a new vigilance and
militancy with regard to the computer-based commercialization of the
university, it also emboldened others elsewhere to do likewise.  At
Acadia University, for example, which had linked up with IBM in hopes
of becoming the foremost wired institution in Canada, the threat
of a faculty strike forced the administration to back off from some
of their unilateral demands for online instruction, and faculties
at other Canadian institutions have been moving in the same
direction.  And even within Simon Fraser University's Department
of Communications, home of the recently refunded Canadian flagship
Telelearning Research Center, serious faculty challenges to the
virtual university enterprise have emerged and gone public.

        In the United States as well, resistance is on the rise.  Last
year faculty and students in the California State University system,
the largest public higher educational institution in the country,
fought vigorously and effectively against the California Educational
Technology Inititiative (CETI), an unprecedented deal between CSU and
a consortium of firms (Microsoft, GTE, Hughes, and Fujitsu), which
would have given them a monopoly over the development of the system's
telecommunications infrastructure and the marketing and delivery of
CSU online courses.  Students resisted being made a captive market
for company products while faculty responded to the lack of faculty
consultation and threats to academic freedom and their intellectual
property rights.  In particular, they feared that CETI might try to
dictate online course content for commercial advantage and that CSU
would appropriate and commercially exploit their course materials.

     Throughout the CSU system, faculty senates passed resolutions
against CETI, tried to obtain an injunction to stop the deal, and used
the media and public forums to campaign against it.  Together with
students, faculty participated in widely publicized demonstrations;
at Humboldt State University in northern California, students
demonstrating against the deal altered the sign at the campus entrance
to read "Microsoft University", a creative act of defiance which
caught the attention of media around the country.  Through the efforts
of the Internet activist group NetAction, the controversy over the
CETI deal became a cause celebre, galvanizing opposition and leading
to high-profile government hearings and legislative scrutiny and
skepticism.  Opposition to the deal from California-based business
competitors such as Apple, Netscape, and Sun (none of the CETI
partners were California-based) also contributed to the erosion
of legislative support for the half-baked deal (which was seen as
probably unconstitutional under state law).  Before long, Microsoft
and Hughes dropped out, then GTE, and the deal was dead.  A new deal
is in the works but is sure to encounter determined and well-organized

     Further north at the University of Washington in Seattle, a
campus with little recent history of faculty activism, four hundred
faculty members attended a February forum on "digital diploma mills"
sponsored by the local chapter of the AAUP.  Later that Spring,
Washington governor Gary Locke and Wallace Loh,his chief advisor on
higher education, gave speeches extolling the virtues of the "brave
new world of digital education" and outlined plans for statewide
initiatives in that direction.  The AAUP immediately drafted an
open letter to the governor vigorously opposing this vapid vision
and circulated it among the faculty.  Within two days, seven hundred
faculty from across the campus, from slavic studies to computer
science, had signed the letter - surely a record for concerted faculty
action of any kind.  Another two hundred signatures were later added
and the letter was made public, in early June.  Within a week, this
bold and eloquent faculty protest had made headlines around the

      "We feel called upon to respond before quixotic ideas harden
into disastrous policies," the faculty wrote the governor.  "While
costly fantasies of this kind present a mouth-watering bonanza to
software manufacturers and other corporate sponsors, what they bode
for education is nothing short of disastrous. . . . Education is
not reducible to the downloading of information, much less to the
passive and solitary activity of staring at a screen.  Education is
an intersubjective and social process, involving hands-on activity,
spontaneity, and the communal experience of sharing in the learning
enterprise. . . . We urge you to support learning as a human and
social practice, an enrichment of soul and mind, the entitlement of
all citizens in a democracy, and not a profit-making commodity to be
offered on the cheapest terms to the highest bidder.  The University
of Washington is a vital resource to our community, not a factory, not
a corporation, not a software package.  Its excellence and integrity
are not only assets that we as a community can afford to maintain, but
also assets that we cannot afford to squander".

     The widespread academic and media support engendered by this
letter compelled the governor to meet with a faculty delegation
and ultimately to retreat somewhat from fully embracing the virtual
education agenda, at least for now.  "We're not unique," history
professor Jim Gregory, one of the organizers of the letter campaign,
told the press.  "We just may be a little more mobilized at this
particular moment".  He was right.  All the way at the other end
of the continent, near Ft. Myers, Florida, similar sentiments
were emerging.  The Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) , the new
tenth campus of the state higher education system, was advertised
as the "university of the future," "built as a testing-ground for
Internet-based instruction," where faculty are hired on short-term
contracts without a tenure system.  In recent months the FGCU faculty
and their union the United Faculty of Florida have begun openly to
question the pedagogical value of online education, protest against
the increased workload entailed in distance learning - a major
complaint everywhere, resist the university's attempt to appropriate
their intellectual property, and lobby for a standard tenure system
rather than have to reapply for their jobs every two years.

     In an administration survey, more than half of the faculty -
who were hired on the understanding that the new campus would
specialize in distance education - opposed increasing the proportion
of distance-learning classes from 16 to 25 percent of classes.  "Some
professors say they remain unconvinced of the method's effectiveness,"
the Wall Street Journal reported in July.  The questionable economic
viability of existing distance education classes has also been an
issue.  "Some observers say significant savings can be achieved only
if the size of distance-learning classes increases," the newspaper
reported, but enlarging the classes only undermines the pedagogical
promise even more.

   Intellectual property issues are at the center of faculty concerns.
Faculty became especially alarmed when the Dean of Instructional
Technology Kathleen Davie was quoted in a Chronicle of Higher
Education article saying that, with regard to faculty course materials
"the first rights belong to the university".  A new draft policy on
intellectual property, formulated without faculty involvement by Davie
and her associates, is explicit on this point: "IP developed by FGCU
employees (faculty, staff, and students) under university sponsorship
or with university support shall belong to the university.  University
sponsorship or support means the work is conceived or reduced to
practice: as a result of the employee's duties; through the use
of University resources, such as facilities or equipment; or with
university funds, or funds under the control of or administered by the
university".  In a response to a faculty member's query about this,
Dean Davie summed up the university position: "For the most part, the
university holds the copyrights for instructional materials created as
part of one's compensated workload".

      The creator of one course has already complained about
the university's efforts to seek outside sponsorship without his
permission.  Chuck Lindsay, the president of the FGCU Faculty Senate,
noted in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education that the
faculty had not been involved in the formulation of the policy and
emphasized that "we do not subscribe to the notion that online course
materials are, as such, a product of work for hire. . . .We hold
that any policy that attempts to lay down across-the-board levels
of ownership and revenue sharing for new online course materials
reflects a perspective that ascribes an inferior status to original
instructional creations and a work for hire mentality; both are
contrary to the mission and guiding principles of FGCU.

      FGCU is not alone in moving in this direction, of course; draft
policies of the University of California, the University of Victoria,
the University of Kansas, and Penn State, to name a few, reflect
similar intent.  But here the unionized faculty have kept themselves
abreast of the situation, have gone public with their concerns,
and have begun to mobilize their resources for the struggle.  The
administration is on the defensive.  In an interview this summer, Dean
Davie acknowledged that she had personally declined a faculty request
that I be invited to the campus to hold a forum on these issues, out
of fear of jeopardizing her position.

     The faculty actions at CSU, the University of Washington, and
FGCU are not isolated events.  There is similar ferment throught
academia.  This became apparent at the international Digital Diploma
Mills conference held at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California
in April.  The conference attracted well-informed faculty and student
participants and an audience of campus activists and rank and file
union members from throughout the United States and Canada, as well
as Mexico.  (The keynote speaker was Mary Burgan, general secretary of
the AAUP, who suggested that "distance makes the heart grow colder".)
The two days of sessions critically examined the political economy,
pedagogical value, and economic viability of online education and
explored the implications for faculty and students, while those
in attendance used their free time to compare notes, make contacts
and extend their networks.  The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a
two-page story on the conference, which ended on an revealing note,
pointing out that "officials at Harvey Mudd took pains to distance
themselves from the event".

      At the same time, faculty and student activists have been
holding similar forums on their own campuses.  I myself have
participated in many such events at campuses such as the University
of Pittsburgh, Alma College, James Madison University, Embry-Riddle
University, George Mason University,the University of Western Ontario,
the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, the
California State University campuses in Sacramento and San Bernadino,
California Polytechnic University in Pomona, and the University
of California campuses at Irvine and Los Angeles.  Increasingly,
and everywhere, faculty and students alike are waking up to the
realization that it is High Noon for Higher Education.  They are
overcoming their traditional timidity and parochialism to make
common cause with like-minded people across the continent, to fight
for their own and the larger public interest against the plans and
pronouncements of peddlers and politicians who in general know little
about education.  Having learned that they are not alone, faculty
are displaying a new-found confidence in their own experience and
expertise, and thus in their rightful capacity to decide what is a
good education.  Socrates, they have reminded themselves, was not a
content provider.

     In the wake of this resistance, the media has caught the scent,
publicly validating and magnifying its message.  After several years
of puff pieces and press releases about the wonders of wired learning,
the media is finally beginning to give the matter more scrutiny and
critics their due.  "Virtual Classes Trend Alarms Professors," the
New York Times reported in June; a front page article in the Wall
Street Journal in August carried the headline "Scholarly Dismay:
College Professors Balk at Internet Teaching Plans;" describing what
it called the "backlash against virtual education," the Christian
Science Monitor carried another summer story entitled "Professors
Peer Doubtfully into a Digital Future;" the Industry Standard, "The
Newsmagazine of the Internet Economy," began its feature article
"Academics Rebel Against an Online Future" with the words : "Hell no
- we won't go - online. . . .The backlash has begun".

        The San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, the Los
Angeles Times, the Boston Globe - all have run critical articles
examining the commoditization and commercialization of university
instruction.  In June the Industry Standard's cover story was "Ideas
for Sale: Business is racing to bring education online.  Now academics
fear they're becoming just another class of content provider".  The
headline for the article read "Higher Earning: the Fight to Control
the Academy's Intellectual Capital".  In response to the open letter
to the governor from University of Washington faculty that same month,
The Seattle Times ran an editorial entitled "Potential Pitfalls,"
noting that "Signs of high tech corporate corruption are already
sneaking into higher education classrooms".  Indeed.

      If the media-annointed "backlash" against virtual education
has prompted a bit more skepticism on the part of reporters and
editorial writers, so too has the pitiful performance of the virtuosi
themselves, whose market appears to have been a mirage.  After several
years of high-profile hype and millions of dollars, the flagship
Western Governors' Virtual University opened for business this Fall,
offering hundreds of online courses.  Expecting an initial enrollment
of 5000, the WGU enrolled only 10 people, and received just 75
inquiries.  Intended to put a positive spin on this disaster, WGU
marketing director Jeff Edward's doubletalk unwittingly hit the nail
on the head: "it points out that students are pretty serious about
this".  Serious enough, that is, to know crap when they see it.

     It's pretty much the same story at, the UCLA
partner that describes itself as "one of the leading global supplers
of online continuing education".  The company lost two million
dollars in its first year of business and was unable to pay UCLA the
anticipated royalties.  According to insiders, it is currently losing
about $60,000 a month.  John Kobara, the president of the company and
former UCLA vice chancellor for marketing acknowledged at a company
event this month that it is indeed a very risky business.  Kobara
noted that most apparent successes are misleading: at the Universities
of Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, the great majority of allegedly
"distance learning" customers "are in the dorms" while most online
programs, such as those at Berkeley and Vanderbilt, have retention
rates of well less than 50%.  "Retention is the challenge," Kobara
explained.  Getting people enrolled is one thing, and difficult
enough.  Getting them to remain enrolled and complete their courses
is another thing entirely.  A November 2nd article in the New York
Times entitled "More Colleges Plunging Into Uncharted Waters of
On-Line Courses," confirmed that these were not isolated experiences.

      Distance learning administrators are keeping their chins up and
issuing upbeat press releases which are increasingly hard to believe.
Officials at WGU, which recently joined forces with Britain's Open
University in an attempt to improve its prospects , the Southern
Regional Electronic Campus (SREC) which coordinates distance learning
courses in sixteen southern states, and the California Virtual
University, which coordinates the online offerings of one hundred
California campuses, have all expressed optimism about the future
of distance learning.  "We feel confident that there is tremendous
interest, especially in the non-traditional student environment,"
said WGU's Jeffrey Xouris.  "Figures indicate significant interest
in distance education," said CVU's Rich Halberg.  "The dirty little
secret," Gerald Heeger, dean of Continuing and Professional Studies
at NYU, told the New York Times, "is that nobody's making any money".

      Great expectations have yielded great expenditures, that is the
story so far.  The high-tech hallucinations of new revenue streams
that so enchanted administrators everywhere were conjured up by
voo-doo demographics, which mistook distance for demand.  What was
left out of the equation was whether or not people, on the basis of
convenience and computer gimmickry, would be willing to pay more for
less education.  Apparently not.

       In time-honored fashion, the purveyers of this dismal product
have turned to the taxpayer to bail them out.  They are placing their
bets on the Distance Education Demonstration Program contained in
the education bill recently approved by Congress and signed by Bill
Clinton, which waives classroom requirements for federal student
aid eligibility for distance learning customers, thereby priming
the distance education market and providing an indirect subsidy to
vendors.  According to existing law, students must spend a specified
number of hours in a classroom to be eligible for student aid.
Vendors have been lobbying for some time, against strenuous opposition
from traditional academic institutions and unions, for a waiver
of such requirements, which would render their customers eligible
for student aid and them eligible for a handsome handout.  The new
legislation grants such a waiver for fifteen organizations engaged
exclusively in distance learning, including the Western Governor's
University.  But, even fattened with such pork, it is unlikely that
the distance-learning market will materialize on anything like the
scale dreamed up by the wishful thinkers of Wall Street.

         An inflated assessment of the market for online distance
education has been matched by an abandonment of financial common
sense, as officials recklessly allocated millions of (typically
taxpayer) dollars toward untested virtual ventures.  Suckered by
the siren-songs and scare-tactics of the silicon snake-oil salesmen,
university and college officials have thrown caution to the wind and
failed to full cost their pet projects.  As former chief university
financial officer Christopher Oberg warned at the Harvey Mudd
conference, administrators have suspended normal accounting practices
at their peril, and the returns are in.  (Little wonder, perhaps, that
the presumably more sober Certified Public Accounts Review program
at Northern Illinois University has broken off its partnership with
online vendor Real Education, citing questionable business practices.)

     In the face of faculty and student resistance, increasing media
skepticism, and notably lackluster performance, some university
administrators are beginning to break ranks.  It is perhaps no
surprise to hear a note of caution emanating from an elite private
institution, which must retain some semblance of genuine education
for its privileged clientele even while competing for their favors
with high-wired acts.  Yet it is nevertheless remarkable to find it
coming from one of the nation's premier technical institutions, which
famously foisted all of this technology upon us in the first place.
Last year Michael Dertouzos, director of M.I.T.'s Laboratory for
Computer Science - home of the World Wide Web - waxed eloquently about
the virtues of non-virtual education.  "Education is much more than
the transfer of knowledge from teachers to learners.  As an educator
myself, I can say firsthand that lighting the fire of learning in
the hearts of students, providing role models, and building student-
teacher bonds are the most critical factors for successful learning.
These cardinal necessities will not be imparted by information
technology. . . . teachers' dedication and ability will still be
the most important educational tool".  And now, Dertouzos' boss,
M.I.T. president Charles Vest, has added his voice to the chorus.
"Even though I'm from M.I.T., I'm not convinced technology is the
answer to everything," Vest conceded.  In particular, the relationship
between teacher and student "is an experience you can never replace
electronically".  Echoes of Tuesdays with Morrie.

     More striking still is the recent inaugural address of J. Bernard
Machen, the new president of the University of Utah.  The University
of Utah is located in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the WGU, and
among the distinguished guests at the inauguration was Utah governor
and WGU co-chairman Michael Leavitt, who once proclaimed that "in the
future an institution of higher education will become a little like a
local television station".  Formerly the provost at the University of
Michigan, Machen forcefully decried the vocational emphasis of online
learning and the shifting allocation of public higher education
resources toward virtual instruction at the expense of traditional
campus-based education.  "Let us not succumb to the temptation to
force a college education to its lowest common denominator," Machen
insisted.  "It inherently limits the broader, more interactive
aspects of a university education.  Spontaneous debate, discussion,
and exchange of ideas in the classroom are essential in developing
the mind.  Poetry must be heard, interpreted and discussed, with
professors and classmates.  Learning about the different professions
and academic disciplines available at the University of Utah requires
personal involvement, and that is only available on our campus, and
it can only be experienced by being here. . . . The kind of education
I am describing is not the cheapest, but it is the best".

     Predictably, Machen's remarks were derisively dismissed by
governor Leavitt's office.  "It is not the first time that we have
heard a kind of fearful, skeptical reaction of the higher education
community," one aide to the governor remarked, in a condescending
manner all too familiar to faculty critics.  But they are not
listening carefully, for this is not what they have heard before.
The tune may be the same, but the tone has changed, dramatically.  No
longer are students and faculty (and the rare administrator) speaking
up for quality education out of fear and defensiveness in the face of
a preordained and prematurely foreclosed virtual future.  Emboldened
by recent experience (and forewarned by the diastrous demise of public
health care), their voices now resonate with new-found conviction
and resolve, with the confident and joyful determination to forge
a different future.  No time for complacency, to be certain, to
abandon vigilance or vital preparation for critical battles to come
(especially the battle over intellectual property), but the tide
appears to have turned.  Indeed, it is now the tired response of the
governor's office that appears time-worn and out of touch, the damning
words strangely hollow without the weight of history behind them.  The
bloom is off the rose.

                                           * * *

David F. Noble teaches at York University.  He is currently visiting
professor at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California and can be
reached there at (909) 607-7699.
#  distributed via nettime-l : no commercial use without permission
#  <nettime> is a closed moderated mailinglist for net criticism,
#  collaborative text filtering and cultural politics of the nets
#  more info: and "info nettime-l" in the msg body
#  URL:  contact: