From ivory tower to academic sweatshop

After a few dot-com-era bumps, online education is back and bigger than ever. But so is corporate influence and bottom-line pressure.

Published January 26, 2005 8:30PM (EST)

As he walked into the gloomy, windowless auditorium inside Denver's Colorado Convention Center, Geoff Hunt remembers thinking, "God, there are a huge number of people here."

Hunt, a history professor at the nearby Community College of Aurora, had accepted a friend's invitation to attend the University of Phoenix graduation ceremony for its Denver-area students. Hunt was keen to take a closer look at Phoenix, the for-profit juggernaut whose booming distance-learning programs were changing the calculus of higher education at schools nationwide, including his own. Outside the Aurora faculty lounge, dark rumors were swirling of state bureaucrats talking up a troubling notion: the "professor-less classroom."

Hunt listened intently as the commencement speaker, a Phoenix professor who had recently been named Faculty of the Year, gave a speech describing how Phoenix had transformed her role as a professor. "She defined her job," he remembers, as "delivery of chapters."

That phrase, Hunt says, "just sent chills down my back."

Hunt isn't the only faculty member feeling the chill. As distance learning grows into a $5 billion a year market -- up 38 percent in 2004 alone -- virtual classrooms are no longer the sole province of dot-coms and for-profit schools like DeVry and Phoenix. Top universities such as Harvard, Stanford and Duke now offer full credit for online courses. On campuses nationwide, distance learning is moving out of the pedagogical fringe and into the institutional mainstream.

While faculty continue to debate the educational merits of online teaching (a recent national survey found their opinions roughly divided), most agree that distance learning is here to stay. To some optimists this is an unqualified good thing -- a chance to increase access to educational opportunities and to break down the hierarchies of traditional university bureaucracies. For every worried Geoff Hunt, another teacher is happily working at home, content never to see the inside of a lecture hall. But others are more alarmed and are beginning to wonder whether their jobs will ever be the same.

Just as the Internet brought wrenching operational changes to many corporations, so online learning is triggering a seismic shift in the academic power structure. Those changes stretch far deeper than the visible presentation layer of courseware, online discussions and multimedia presentations. Distance learning is changing not only teaching methods but also the shape of the curriculum itself. As schools reach out to a market composed largely of professional, career-minded students, they face growing pressure to cater to employers' agendas; in some cases, even wiring themselves into the corporate information technology (IT) infrastructure. If a company like Lucent underwrites online courses at a business school, it expects a direct return on its investment.

"Universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation," writes York University professor David F. Noble, a vocal critic of distance learning. "Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education."

When a cat named Colby earned an MBA online from Trinity Southern University in Plano, Texas, last year, distance-learning critics found a ready caricature for a popular stereotype: distance-learning schools as glorified diploma mills, doling out easy credentials to anyone with a Web browser and a credit card.

Indeed, plug the words "distance learning" into Google and you'll see ads in the right-hand column of the Web page for dubious alma maters like Almeda University, promising your choice of associate's, bachelor's or master's degree with "No Books! No Courses! No Studying!" But if distance learning were so easily dismissed, one might expect a little less enthusiasm from the 97 percent of public universities that now offer online courses. Last year, an estimated 3 million students took at least one class online and 600,000 students completed all of their coursework online.

While many educators continue to insist on the irreplaceable quality of in-person teaching, numerous studies show that under the right circumstances, and with certain subjects, online students achieve learning outcomes similar to those in physical classrooms.

Even critics acknowledge that distance learning opens doors for working professionals and residents of remote areas who would otherwise have limited access to higher education. But these students differ significantly from on-campus students, who often take years off to immerse themselves in a particular discipline. Distance learning students are typically older, mid-career, and careful about managing their time. They favor practical, skill-building courses like those in business, nursing, accounting, computer science and other marketable trades.

"Hitting the sweet spot in online education today means going after the working professional who wants to advance their career by taking courses," says Philip DiSalvio, program director of Seton Hall University's SetonWorldWide program.

While many schools also endeavor to offer "soft" subjects in the humanities online, the market overwhelmingly favors professional education. "There is strong pressure to make education more technical, more like training," says Andrew Feenberg, research chair in philosophy of technology at Vancouver's Simon Fraser University. "That pressure comes both from the corporate world, and from students themselves, who are very career oriented." The result: a growing commoditization of the curriculum and a tendency for schools to market education as a "product."

At some schools, the boundaries between physical and virtual classrooms are dissolving into so-called blended learning environments that incorporate the Internet as an adjunct to the traditional lecture hall. Many faculty now routinely take advantage of courseware like Blackboard or WebCT to publish their lesson plans and lecture notes and to moderate online discussions as an extension of the classroom experience.

Noah Butter is working on his master's degree in library and information science at San Jose State University, a blended program that incorporates online and offline courses. Of the 11 classes he has taken so far, four have met exclusively online, including his two current semester classes in online searching and information technology. All of his courses involve some form of online component, some meeting in person as infrequently as twice a semester.

Butter has discovered that online courses are no cakewalk. "Online courses are a lot more work," he says, pointing out that classes require students to participate actively in online discussions and to stay on top of a constant stream of e-mail. Indeed, Butter feels that he has gotten more for his money from online classes than from some of his in-person classes. "It depends on the teacher," he says. "When teachers don't use the technology, and you only meet a few times during the semester, you end up feeling a little ripped off."

But while Butter knows he is acquiring the professional skills he needs to pursue his chosen career, he sometimes longs for a more traditional campus education. "I have missed having more student and teacher face-to-face interactions," he says. "In the courses where I have met students in class, I wished we could have spent more time together."

Given the demonstrated effectiveness and broader outreach made possible by distance learning, only the most strident Luddite would argue that distance learning has no place in the arsenal of modern instruction. But the larger effect of distance learning technology extends beyond student-teacher dialectics and into the realm of institutional power relationships.

In addition to external market pressures, corporate influence also manifests itself in the expanding role of commercial software vendors, administrators and information technology professionals, who not only wield a growing influence over teaching methods, but who also bring to bear corporate values like teamwork, accountability and an overarching emphasis on "the customer."

Arlene Hiss is a former Indy race-car driver, now the owner of a commercial recording studio and an occasional washboard player in a bluegrass band. She lives in a geodesic dome in Lake Elsinore, Calif., where she logs on each week to conduct an undergraduate class in critical thinking at the University of Phoenix Online. A Phoenix professor since 1991, Hiss loves teaching in the distance-learning program. "They give you everything: the syllabus, the textbook, weekly assignments," she says. " They put the lectures on the Web." By "lectures," she means the written documents furnished to her, and her students, by the Phoenix courseware servers.

With a Ph.D., MBA and 30 years of teaching experience, Hiss is perfectly qualified to create her own course materials. But Phoenix has built its business through economies of scale, developing a course once and then replicating it, so that many teachers can administer the same course to the school's vast 200,000-plus student body.

That model of replicable courseware is taking hold at other schools as well. When she's not teaching at Phoenix, Hiss leverages her Phoenix experience to develop courseware for the University of Liverpool, where she works as a so-called module manager, creating class syllabuses and assignments for online business classes. After she develops the course, Hiss then oversees a network of lower-paid instructors who teach the class using her materials. The other instructors are welcome to make suggestions, but as the module manager, Hiss has the final say, ensuring that teachers won't make idiosyncratic changes to the curriculum.

When she's not teaching at Phoenix or Liverpool, Hiss also finds time to teach online courses at Capella University, Southern New Hampshire University and Upper Iowa University.

Hiss may have her hands full, but she's happy. "As long as my eyes work, as long as my fingers work, and as long as my computer works, I can't even imagine going back to the ground." Teaching at Phoenix gives her time to juggle other teaching jobs, manage her recording studio, play with her bluegrass band, and enjoy the freedoms of the contractor lifestyle. But personal freedom is one thing, academic freedom quite another. Like the other 8,000 faculty members who teach at Phoenix Online, Hiss will never have tenure.

Computer-based distance learning has been around in one form or another since the 1970s. But most of those efforts remained confined to academic computing labs until the Internet boom of the 1990s. The explosion of Web access, coupled with advances in educational software, set the stage for an expansion that quickly mushroomed into a dot-com-era boom.

Amid the contagious optimism of the IPO era, universities began investing aggressively in online learning initiatives. Starting around 1998, big schools like UCLA, NYU, Temple, Columbia and Cornell all kicked off heavily funded virtual-campus initiatives. Other schools hedged their bets by joining online consortia like UNext (funded by Larry Ellison and Michael Milken, among others) and the Western Governors' University.

In many cases, these dot-edu projects took shape as for-profit subsidiaries, owned by the parent institutions but operating with a clear mandate to generate profits. In some cases, universities launched their dot-edus as joint ventures with commercial software companies. In 2000, four companies -- Kaplan Ventures, Knowledge Universe, Pearson and Sylvan Ventures -- invested $3.6 billion in online initiatives.

To the MBAs and university administrators who led the charge, the dot-edu business looked like an unbeatable proposition: a proven product, new markets unbounded by geographic constraints, economies of scale in the form of "write-once, run-anywhere" courseware, and potentially higher operating margins than all those labor-intensive physical classrooms.

"The dream was to transform colleges into record companies, selling CDs and 'colleges in a box' for $49.95," says Feenberg. "But the people who made these predictions had never themselves used the technology for education and knew almost nothing about it."

Amid a flurry of press releases and mostly breathless media coverage, the dot-edus built their businesses in a hurry, only to find themselves staring down a stark reality: the students never showed up. "University presidents and administrators were talked into this by computer companies and journalists," says Feenberg. But like many other would-be Internet entrepreneurs, the dot-edus discovered that building an Internet business turned out to be considerably more complicated than buying a few million dollars' worth of hardware and software, hiring pricey consultants, and waiting for the money to pour in.

Worse, faculty members were getting restless.

The UCLA faculty threatened to walk out when the administration issued a dictum requiring the submission of lesson plans to the for-profit subsidiary (without offering the faculty a dime in extra compensation). More galling yet, the administration wanted to invite corporate sponsors to paste their logos across the professors' syllabuses, in exchange for a $10,000 "curriculum development" fee. Similar protests erupted at other schools, as the faculty rose up to defend the curriculum against what they perceived as shameless profiteering.

By 2001, the dot-edu bubble was bursting fast. NYUOnline closed its doors after burning through $25 million of the school's money; Temple shut down its dot-edu before it even opened; Wharton's online business school -- in no small irony -- filed for bankruptcy; UNext laid off half its staff; and Harcourt Higher Education, an ambitious online venture that had launched with much fanfare and a plan to enroll 50,000 students by 2005, shut down in 2001 after enrolling a grand total of 32 students.

Other schools managed to keep their dot-edus afloat, but with drastically lowered expectations. "The overselling was so enormous that it was self-defeating," says Feenberg. The result: a boom-and-bust cycle familiar to anyone who bought Internet stocks in those days.

"E-learning was massively misconstrued early on," says Matthew Pittinsky, the chairman and co-founder of Blackboard, "with predictions of the transformation of higher education -- where everyone would go to the elite schools online -- that just proved to be plain false."

With millions of dollars' worth of software and infrastructure sitting on the shelf, however, administrators and university information technology departments weren't about to just pack up and admit defeat. After all, distance learning was hardly a failed business model. DeVry and Phoenix were flourishing; and the corporate education market was going like gangbusters. The business was still out there; they had just gotten the formula wrong.

For many faculty members in the late 1990s, the dot-edu bubble may have seemed a distant rumble: an emblem of that era's speculative excesses and of the vainglory of administrators and dubious Internet visionaries. Now, fast-forward to 2005. Just as many companies spun out their Web operations as dot-com subsidiaries in the late 1990s, only to bring them back into the fold after the IPO market evaporated, so have many of the dot-edu initiatives found new life back on campus.

SetonWorldWide launched in 1998, at the height of the dot-edu boom. Growing slowly and deliberately, Seton today enrolls about 300 online students. DiSalvio, the program's director, expects the online school to fold itself back into the university mother ship over the next few years. "We started out as an entrepreneurial unit, but as online education has become mainstream within the school, as it's become more prevalent and accepted, we see the logic of decentralizing the program and putting it into the respective schools and colleges, under the management of the deans."

Although many schools made the mistake of approaching distance learning as an entirely new product during the dot-edu boom, they are now beginning to recognize its potential as a new channel in the supply chain. And just as the Web has enabled many companies to reengineer their supply chains to integrate more closely with partners and customers, so some schools are beginning to integrate their distance-learning programs more deeply with corporate agendas.

At Arizona State University, students can now earn not only a fully accredited MBA online from the W.P. Carey School of Business, but many of them do so under the auspices of the school's Corporate Program, in which local employers like Lucent and ChevronTexaco partner directly with the business school to create tailor-made MBA programs for their employees.

When a Lucent employee enrolls in a managerial economics class online, the course Web site comes pre-populated with a set of Lucent financial data, which provides the fodder for most of the class exercises. To earn the MBA, the student must undertake an applied project that produces a measurable business outcome for the employer. "The goal is to realize a cost saving for the corporation," says Steve Salik, the manager of delivery systems and strategic development for the business school. "By having the students achieve that cost savings, [the corporation] can recoup the entire cost of the program."

Corporations aren't the only customers looking for that kind of deep integration. In 1999, the U.S. Army launched eArmyU, a distance-learning network that ties together 29 accredited universities into an online learning consortium. The network offers degree programs through a centralized portal developed under contract by IBM. To date, 30,000 active-duty soldiers have enrolled in eArmyU; program administrators hope to have 80,000 student-soldiers enrolled by the end of 2005. The Army program has proved a great boon for schools like Excelsior College in Albany, where active military make up more than 25 percent of the student body.

While soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan undoubtedly benefit from access to educational opportunities, their academic freedom is hardly unbound. The Army will reimburse students only for classes taken within strict degree requirements, and it won't reimburse for elective classes that fall outside those requirements; you won't find Uncle Sam footing the bill for Renaissance poetry seminars. "The military wants courses that are relevant to what they're doing," says Susan Nash, the associate dean of liberal arts at Excelsior and a longtime distance-learning professor. Recently, she has worked with the Army to develop practical course offerings with titles like "Leadership in Difficult Times." "I can understand their reasoning, but I think it's bad for education," Nash says. "If we're not careful we're going to lose the ability to think spontaneously. We're being programmed."

As schools react to growing institutional pressures, faculty are discovering that those influences extend beyond the contents of the course catalog. "Institutions have put in place a production process that hadn't existed before," Pittinsky says. Just as the Web transformed the role of the information technology staff in many corporations -- bringing them out of the back office and into the front line of marketing and sales operations -- so online learning technologies are changing the makeup of academic organizations.

The most dramatic change for most academic departments has been the emergence of IT professionals from the administrative back office to the forefront of curriculum development. "Seven or eight years ago, the only systems administrators [on campus] would be managing things like e-mail systems, systems that really didn't touch teaching and learning at their core," Pittinsky says. "They were this kind of back-office priesthood. Now, you see an entire group of professionals who have the tech savvy to manage systems at a large scale, but they are also consultative to faculty on instructional design."

The ascendancy of information technology staff is changing the way courses get produced and is introducing a corporate organizational model into the traditionally benign dictatorship of the lecture hall. For faculty brought up in the old school, amid the Byzantine hierarchies of academic departments, the new model of integrated teamwork may take some getting used to.

"There are some faculty who get it, and some faculty who don't," DiSalvio says. "We have found there are some faculty who may be charismatic in person, but they are terrible online."

Those faculty who do participate in online-course development often have to adjust to the unfamiliar dynamics of team-based course design. In many cases, that means faculty members work as part of interdisciplinary curriculum-development teams, alongside other skilled "knowledge workers" like instructional designers, systems administrators and media specialists.

"If you look at how a lot of [courseware] is really being produced, they're sweatshops," Nash says. "You have these busy people creating these objects -- like multiple-choice tests, or little games, or learning objects -- these are people who are paid nothing, whereas other people are paid a lot for overseeing it, like factory owners."

"Our professors are content experts. That's all they are," says ASU's Salik, voicing a not-uncommon administration view of the professor's role in online-course development. For institutions, the reduction of faculty to "content experts" does yield clear economies of scale. That sentiment also echoes an old dot-com ethos: separating content from delivery. Says Salik: "If the executive education director calls me up and says, 'This guy from Honeywell is here, and they want a one-day executive education seminar, but they want one piece from course A, one piece from course B, one piece from course C,' we can roll that together and send it out the door in about 20 minutes."

The reuse of online courseware will likely extend not just between courses in a single school, but between institutions as well. "Once universities start learning how to cooperate with each other through productive associations," Nash says, "I think we'll see a lot more sharing of learning objects, a lot more sharing of strategies and even revenue."

The prospect of assembly-line course production and the repurposing of courses between schools seems to confirm some of the critics' worst fears. "Faculty have much more in common with the historic plight of other skilled workers than they care to acknowledge," Noble writes. "As in other industries, the technology is being deployed by management primarily to discipline, de-skill and displace labor." And while breaking instruction into modules may yield tangible benefits to students and employers, faculty find themselves in an increasingly reactive posture to institutional pressures on the curriculum.

The trend, Feenberg says, leads toward "deprofessionalization," which he describes as "taking highly respected and reasonably well-paid professionals and substituting them with part-time people who would have no regular employment, sub-contractors, and so forth."

Whether online learning spells a new age or a dark age for higher education, even its most strident critics agree that distance learning will be part of the educational firmament for a long time to come.

But if the Internet has taught us anything, it is this: Open networks have a way of undermining institutional agendas, and putting power back in the hands of individuals.

While corporate software vendors and university administrators seem to be steering the distance-learning agenda today, there are signs of a nascent open-source movement on the horizon that just might upset the balance.

In 2002, MIT announced an ambitious initiative to publish all of its course materials online -- free of charge -- through the MIT OpenCourseWare projects. By 2007, the school hopes to have the full contents of all 2,000 of its courses available on the Web. By making its course materials freely available, the school hopes to encourage academics at other institutions to do likewise and percolate a broad resource-sharing movement among universities.

Already, many professors are contributing their materials to public open-learning object repositories, freely available on the Web and easily accessed through ad hoc courseware using personal publishing tools like blogs or HTML editors.

It's too early to say whether these experiments will ever pose a threat to the corporate distance-learning economy, but they hold out at least the possibility of a new model of courseware development. "I think there's a strong force back to the individual," Nash says. "I think that eventually stuff won't be so locked away. I think we'll see more porous borders."

That kind of porousness might someday even call into question the structure of educational institutions themselves. No less a futurist than Peter Drucker has predicted that by 2020, "the universities of America, as we have traditionally known them, will be barren wastelands."

Whether or not such a dire scenario comes to pass, a more open model of distance learning does seem to hold out at least the possibility that institutional pressures might give way to a renewal of personal bonds between teachers and students. "There's an old saying that the ideal college is Mark Hopkins on one end of a log, and a student on the other," Pittinsky says. "When you break the classroom out of the limitations of time and place, that becomes a lot more achievable."

But that Arcadian ideal seems a long way away from the commercial reality of today's distance-learning market. "The reduction of education to a kind of simplified training violates one of the most basic features of all human societies: the personal transmission of culture," says Feenberg, who wonders just how far we have come from the deeper origins of teaching, when an elder would gather children around the fire on some ancient evening and say: "'This is the story my father told me, and I'm going to tell it to you, and you will tell it to your children.' And then he tells them a story about plants and animals, and the gods."

By Alex Wright

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