David Noble: The Future of the Faculty in the Digital Diploma Mill

David Noble: The Future of the Faculty in the Digital Diploma Mill
Academe, September-October 2001

Distance education may not make money, but with the military’s help it may restructure the university—and not in the faculty’s interest.


Since I began chronicling the impact of distance education on the academic community more than four years ago, events have confirmed the concerns and followed the course outlined in my original manifesto and elaborated in later articles. Nearly all postsecondary institutions have climbed aboard the digital bandwagon in search of new revenues and in fear for their piece of higher education turf, only to discover the hard way that the bloom is already off the rose. At the same time, in league with their private-sector partners, they have secured taxpayer subsidy of their online efforts, thereby partially offsetting their losses and the absence of any real market demand. In addition, university administrators have learned that the technology of online education, whether cost effective or not, provides a way to restructure their institutions to their managerial advantage. Meanwhile, faculty resistance to this restructuring, and to the deprofessionalization of the professoriate that it entails, has increased and gained coherence and confidence.

Blurred Distinctions

As more colleges and universities have moved into the realm of commercial online education, alone or in collaboration with private-sector partners, the distinction between non-profit and for-profit institutions has blurred to the vanishing point. Not long ago, the postsecondary establishment railed against its for-profit online counterparts (in particular, the University of Phoenix and Jones International) in defense of its own monopoly of higher education. Major higher education associations like the American Council on Education and the Association of American Universities indignantly opposed formal accreditation of the pariah for-profit institutions and lobbied virtuously against any relaxation of federal student-aid requirements that might help their "virtual" rivals. Today, these same organizations are striving to keep up with the Joneses. Joining forces with their erstwhile adversaries, they now rail against regulations that might cramp their own for-profit propensities, especially by limiting their distance-education offerings. In particular, they now vigorously oppose federal requirements for student-aid eligibility—such as the "twelve-hour rule" defining the minimum full-time course load and the "50 percent rule" restricting institutions from offering more than half of their courses at a distance. These requirements were intended to safeguard quality education against the fraud of diploma mills. As universities set up their distinctly for-profit subsidiaries, like Columbia’s Fathom or New York University’s NYU Online, they are fast becoming de facto "for-profits" themselves, and with abandon.

Unmet Expectations

The academic road to commercial enterprise has been rocky, however, especially in the wake of the collapse of the Internet economy. Unanticipated costs associated with the development of online capability, combined with an unstable, uncertain, and highly competitive market, have belatedly given even the most ardent enthusiasts pause. "Reality is setting in among many distance education administrators," reports the Chronicle of Higher Education. "They are realizing that putting programs online doesn’t necessarily bring riches."

Accordingly, now "distance-education leaders predict that some administrators will slow or stop their expansion into online learning." Even the vanguard of private-sector online-education companies are feeling the squeeze and cutting back. eCollege has laid off thirty-five of its employees, UNEXT has eliminated fifty-two people, and Onlinelearning.net has reportedly trimmed a third of its staff. What industry analyst Trace Urdan said about UNEXT could be said about them all: puffed up by investors dreaming of lucrative initial public offerings, they are now "dealing with the realities of the private market."

Facing an uncertain future, the intrepid academic and industrial entrepreneurs of online education are turning to the taxpayer to bail them out. In addition to lobbying for indirect public subsidy through federal student aid, they have also become direct beneficiaries of taxpayer largesse through the U.S. Department of Education’s expanded Learning Anytime Anywhere Partnerships, which they lobbied vigorously both to create and to enlarge. Most important, however, these strident capitalists have done what so many of their forbears did when they found themselves in trouble: they have called in the cavalry.

Military Bailout

After several years of lobbying by vendors, universities, and trade associations, the Clinton-Gore White House secured the cooperation of the military in creating an artificial market for distance education at taxpayer expense. First the U.S. Army, in August 2000, and then the navy and the air force announced that the combined armed services had decided to dedicate almost $1 billion to provide taxpayer-subsidized university-based distance education for active-duty personnel and their families. Overnight, the U.S. Department of Defense became the largest consumer of distance education in the land.

The story is familiar. Throughout the history of industrial capitalism, the military has served as midwife and handmaid to private enterprise, supplying taxpayer support for technical innovation and providing a market for new processes and products. The army did it with interchangeable musket parts, which became the model for the so-called "American system" of manufacturing. The navy did it with the revolution in shipping and longshoring called "containerization." And the air force did it with the automation of metalworking by means of "numerical control," which gave rise to computer-based, batch-process manufacturing.

These epochal military-sponsored developments radically restructured industries, not only in terms of product design and manufacture, but also in terms of labor relations. They signaled the deskilling and ultimate demise of gunsmiths, dockworkers, and machinists. Together, the armed services—which are the world’s leading training organizations and have been the primary source of instructional technologies during the last half century—are now underwriting a radical restructuring of the higher education industry, at the expense of the professoriate.

In August 2000 the defense department sponsored a conference to kick off the military’s new distance-education initiative, to get feedback from key industry players, and to give the same players an opportunity to position themselves at the public trough. Over a thousand vendors, administrators, and military personnel were invited, but no students or faculty. Speakers at the conference hailed from organizations involved in promoting distance education rather than from the arts and sciences.

Later that month, the army revealed its $600 million distance-education initiative. Citing free distance education as an incentive for recruitment and reenlistment, the army announced plans to contract with a private-sector company to serve as program "integrator." This company would establish subcontracts with other private vendors and with colleges and universities. "The army will become the largest broker and customer of distance learning in the U.S.," the Chronicle of Higher Education noted, describing the army program as a "bonanza for colleges looking either to create or expand online offerings," a bold initiative that "could reassure college administrators venturing into distance learning."

"This is very concrete," then-secretary of the army Louis Caldera declared. "If you are trying to develop this type of program, you can now go to your own president and say, ‘Look, there is a huge market out there.’ "

In January 2001 the army announced the successful bidders for the army’s University Access Online contracts. The accounting powerhouse PriceWaterhouseCoopers was selected to be the program integrator. The program team initially included ten private firms and twenty-nine colleges; other participants would be added later.

Far-Reaching Consequences

Judging by the effects of similar military programs upon other industries, the defense department distance-education program will have far-reaching consequences for higher education. Distance-education enthusiast Bob Kerrey, the former soldier and senator who is now president of the New School University, explained the potential significance of the program. "Not only is this a forward-looking investment, but an investment that will have an impact on everything that is going on in all of our educational communities." As the Chronicle of Higher Education observed, the program "will likely spur the development of new methods and technologies to provide distance learning and online courses at every level of education"; in the process, "it will create a new kind of model for delivering education."

What kind of model might that be? Judging by the experience of other industries with the military, it is likely to entail familiar patterns of command, control, and precisely specified performance, in accordance with the hallmark military procurement principles of uniformity, standardization, modularization, capital-intensiveness, system compatibility, interchangeability, measurability, and accountability—in short, a model of education as a machine, with standardized products and prescribed processes. The influence of such extra-academic military criteria on higher education is bound to reinforce and extend further its already-accelerating, extra-academic, commercial tendencies toward training and deprofessionalization.

As the world’s leader in on-the-job training, the U.S. military has, over the last century, developed and perfected a vast array of training techniques and technologies, many of which subsequently have been adopted by the civilian education system. The goal is the efficient training of precision-skilled personnel prepared to do a predetermined job according to specifications, whenever and wherever necessary. The military and corporate training slogan, "just-in-time education," which derives from the famous Japanese system of inventory control, says it all: skilled personnel or, more precisely, the disembodied skills themselves (the person, presumably the focus of education, drops out of the picture) are viewed as inventory items in organizational planning. The military training regime is designed to produce this product, in the shortest amount of time, with the least resources, and to the greatest effect. This is the model of education that will now be imposed upon higher education by way of the defense department distance-education program.

According to Diane Stoskopf, director of the army Continuing Education System, the specifications for university involvement in the military distance-education program "will be very detailed." Course content, curricula, and teaching methods, transparent in online format, will all be subject to military prescription, monitoring, and review and, hence, to implicit ideological censorship and a routine abridgment of academic freedom. The elements of instruction will be standardized and rendered interchangeable (through modular "reusable content objects") in order to eliminate error and redundancy among subcontractors and guarantee quality control. "Getting schools to standardize their way of doing business is going to be a major obstacle," Stoskopf acknowledged. That such military standardization might entail an abandonment or relaxation of academic standards is also readily acknowledged. "Colleges in the army program may also find themselves pushing against traditional academic boundaries to make the distance-education program work," Stoskopf noted, for example by giving academic credit in "nontraditional forms."

Automation and Deprofessionalization

If the military distance-education program tilts toward a university-sanctioned regimen of skills training at the expense of academic norms and educational quality, it also accelerates the move toward the automation and deprofessionalization of university instruction. The first casualties of the program will be the military’s own in-house training staff, whose work will be outsourced over the Internet to the universities. But university staff will surely pay a price as well. As the military, in collaboration with university administrations, underwrites an expansion of higher education’s online infrastructure and dictates the form and content of course development and delivery, faculty members will face further abridgment of their academic freedom and autonomy, greater managerial supervision and discipline, degradation of their working conditions and deskilling of their work, elimination of "redundant" courses, appropriation of their intellectual property rights, weakening of their collective bargaining power, and, ultimately, a reduction in their numbers. In short, the military presence will magnify, at taxpayer expense, the untoward impact that commercial distance education is already having on institutions of higher education.

Academic Assembly Line

Whether financially remunerative or not—and with enough taxpayer subsidies, who’s to know or care?—the development of online education is nevertheless enabling administrators to restructure their institutions and labor relations to their managerial advantage. At the heart of this transformation is the Taylorization of labor, the process of breaking down job functions into discrete components and assigning each to a different detail worker, which was described by Adam Smith and Charles Babbage at the dawn of the industrial revolution and perfected by Frederick Taylor, the father of so-called scientific management. This process is well under way in academia. At NYU Online, for example, which considers itself in the vanguard of institutional change, a team of different specialists in course design, development, content, delivery, and distribution handles instruction. Where once a single professor would perform all of these tasks as an integrated whole, the detail workers now do their separate parts, with far less control over the process and substantially less pay—precisely the pattern established long ago with the shift from craft to industrial labor that culminated in the assembly worker of modern industry. In short, what we are witnessing is the "disassembling and de-skilling of the profession," as William Scheuerman, president of the State University of New York’s United University Professions, puts it.

The deskilled job description that emerges from this process of deprofessionalization will no doubt become the template for future generations of academic labor. "I think the whole concept of adjunct professorship is going to be very important," predicts NYU Online’s CEO Gordon Macomber. Indeed, in the wake of the transformation of higher education thus far, we have already witnessed the appearance of a new archetypal university instructor, one perfectly suited to the investor-imagined "university of the future." With wonder and excitement, the Chronicle of Higher Education heralds the advent of a "new type of professor," namely, the "rapidly emerging type of distance education faculty member" who hails not from academia but from the corporate world. Among members of this new breed, hired more for their "business savvy than their degree," the Chronicle says, "a focus on the bottom line is normal; tenure isn’t." Says one such distance educator, "I love not only the teaching but the selling of it."

In this decidedly commercial ethos, administrators are predictably trying to win the cooperation of faculty by offering them a piece of the action. This is the latest strategy for getting professors to give up their intellectual property rights to course materials. Several high-profile "experiments" are under way, at the University of North Texas and Stevens Institute of Technology, for example. At both institutions, faculty members are now given the incentive of royalty payments for the use of their course materials by the university, as well as a part of the revenues from the licensing of these materials to other institutions. And, indeed, a good number of shortsighted faculty are trading their ownership and control for a fatter pay envelope, and even boasting about it. But the last laugh may not be theirs. At Stevens, for example, faculty may take their course materials with them if and when they leave only if they pay Stevens a licensing fee. More important, fixated on their own bottom line, they have lost sight of the larger picture of the deprofessionalization of the faculty, to which they contribute. They fail to understand that the point of retaining professional ownership and control over the content of courses is not the enrichment of the professoriate but the preservation of quality higher education.

Skepticism and Resistance

Of course, not everyone is buying the new model of higher education. According to a Chronicle of Higher Education report, a recent Pentagon appropriations bill that includes some funding for distance education stipulates that the army must continue using traditional classroom instruction in a training program for students at historically black colleges and universities rather than the distance education preferred by the army. Apparently, some members of Congress representing the interests of black constituents view distance education as a degraded form of education and have insisted that their constituents receive the genuine article instead. According to some, a "digital divide" separates the haves from the have-nots in that only the privileged have access to computer technology. In the case of distance education, however, the digital divide is turned on its head, with the have-nots being compelled to take their courses online while the haves get to take them in person. The demurral in the appropriations bill is evidence that at least some people are catching on to this reality and defying it.

At the other end of the socioeconomic spectrum, some of the elite are also recognizing that distance education represents but a shadow of a genuine education. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology recently announced that it is planning to put all of its course material on Web sites for free Internet distribution. Of course, MIT enjoys a secure market niche and plenty of funding, which affords it a degree of freedom unknown to most universities and enables it therefore to avoid some of the competitive compulsions of the higher education community. But the decision also reflects an understanding that students pay close to $40,000 a year to enroll at MIT for more than course materials. There are the benefits of a coveted degree and career-making connections, but there is also the quality education that comes from direct contact with fine teachers. This skepticism about distance education on the part of both the elite and the socially disadvantaged reflects a growing sophistication about what is at stake.

The increasing and maturing resistance to distance education on the part of faculty organizations is another sign of growing sophistication. A critical moment in this evolution was reached at roughly the same time that the defense department launched its distance-education initiative. In August 2000 a potentially historic meeting was held at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C. Called by the National Coalition for Universities in the Public Interest, an advocacy organization cofounded by the author and others in 1983 to fight against the corporatization of higher education, it brought together the leaders of the most progressive faculty unions in the United States and Canada. In attendance were representatives from the California Faculty Association, the union of the California State University system and the largest higher education affiliate of the National Education Association; the United University Professions, the union of the State University of New York system and the largest higher education affiliate of the American Federation of Teachers; the Professional Staff Congress, the union of the City University of New York system, the largest urban university system in the United States; the American Association of University Professors; and the Canadian Association of University Teachers, the umbrella federation of faculty associations in Canada. The purpose of the meeting was to explore the possibility of establishing a common strategy to fight against the commercial hijacking of public higher education and the entrenchment of a new "intellectual property regime" in academia.

At the Washington meeting, participants expressed their concerns about the conversion of intellectual activity into commodity form for commercial sale by means of patents, copyrights, and licenses; about the resulting incremental enclosure of the "intellectual commons" into a patchwork of private monopolies; about the sacrifice of core educational values as universities adopt the corporate outlook and model of operation; about the erosion of university culture as campuses become a closed world of secret deals, nondisclosure agreements, and prepublication reviews; and about the campus atmosphere of silence, intimidation, and self-censorship that attends these arrangements and signals the demise of free speech and academic freedom.

Faculty organizations are becoming ever more alert to the fact that seemingly benign, progressive, and "technology-driven" distance-education initiatives may constitute a threat to faculty autonomy, intellectual property, and job security. At the same time, they are recognizing that faculty represent the last line of defense against the wholesale commercialization of academia, of which the commodification of instruction is just the latest manifestation, and they are recognizing that their struggle is part of a larger effort to preserve and enhance public higher education. They are fighting back, therefore, in myriad ways on both the local and the national levels. The Washington meeting signaled a crystallization and potential consolidation of these struggles, and focused not upon this or that particular battle but upon the entire concept of intellectual property itself as inimical to the culture of academia. Decades after academia divested itself of classified research on behalf of the national security state on the grounds that performing such research conflicted with the free and open exchange of ideas, the academy has adopted practices on behalf of private corporations that have the very same corrosive consequences.

Participants in the Washington conference noted that these fundamental changes in higher education were the work of a relative handful of cynical and self-seeking, but perhaps otherwise well-intentioned, administrators who constitute a distinct minority in academia, as compared with the faculty, students, and the taxpaying public whose support for higher education is often imbued with the traditional ideals of academic purpose and promise. The participants resolved to try to reaffirm those ideals and to strive to recapture the ideological, rhetorical, and political initiative and the moral high ground in the debates about higher education in order to reinvigorate a noncommercial conception of higher education and to reconsecrate the intrinsic rather than the mere utility value of universities. On behalf of those who truly embody education, teachers and students, as well as the larger community that education is meant to serve in a democratic society, the participants determined to reclaim this precious and unique social space as a realm of freedom, open access, debate, inquiry, and learning—a place, in short, where the habits and highest ideals of democracy are a way of life. This, in essence, is the challenge before us. It’s a tall order, to be sure, but it usually is.

David Noble is professor of history at York University and the author of many books and articles on the relationship between corporations and universities. This article is exerpted from his book Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education, forthcoming in November 2001 from the Monthly Review Press.