ONLINE EDUCATION IS THE FUTURE, OR: ANOTHER REASON THE FUTURE WILL SUCK

Over time I have come to believe that there are only two facts that are inviolate in the context of discussing social, political, or economic issues. First, the preface "Now, I'm not a racist, but…" invariably indicates that an individual is about to say something staggeringly racist. Second, when free market enthusiasts attempt to sell an idea with the promise that it will "democratize" something – bringing broader access to a previously exclusive good, service, or market – two things are about to happen. A small group of people are going to get obscenely wealthy, and they are likely to do so as a direct result of a much larger and less exclusive group of people getting bent over and unceremoniously screwed. I'm tempted to paraphrase Hermann Goring's quote about culture ("When I hear the word culture, I reach for my Browning") but in reality I do nothing so aggressive when the siren song of democratization is sounded. Instead I try to figure out who is about to be ground up in the wheels of techno-libertarian "progress." In the case of the shining promise of online (ahem, "non-traditional") classes democratizing higher education, the mill grist happens to be me, people like me, and the students we teach.

When I first read DIY U, with its "Are you shitting me? Jesus, you're serious, aren't you?" subtitle Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, I knew nothing of author Anya Kamenetz but I was willing to put my life savings on her being affiliated with either Cato or Fast Company. Sure enough she turned out to be a Fast Company Imagineer or whatever they call their practitioners of this brand of sycophantic free market leg humping:

The promise of free or marginal-cost open-source content, techno-hybridization, unbundling of educational functions, and learner-centered educational experiences and paths is too powerful to ignore.

That is an actual quote. Is it not self-evident that once we are all learning from "open-source content" (like Wikipedia!) the educational experience will be improved? This kind of bluster is par for the course for the magazine that spent the nineties promising us that the unregulated market would bring us to economic nirvana. Life was going to be one long technogasm laden with "innovation" and unfettered prosperity for all; we would all be wealthy once The Internets let every Tom, Dick, and Harry buy mutual funds. But I digress.

Being at the bottom of the academic hierarchy offers me unfair perspective on the changes that are sweeping higher education, and the reader will of course note that I bring some bitterness to the conversation given that most of these democratizations involve me getting paid $1000 per course for 16 weeks of work without benefits or any commitment beyond semester-to-semester temp labor. Would that this transition in academia from stable, albeit not particularly highly paid, tenured employment to the just-in-time Labor Ready model that is replacing real faculty with adjuncts/part timers be forced upon us without the patronizing mantra about how this is all for the good of the students.

Online courses are, for lack of a better term, shit. No one who has taken or taught one can claim in earnest to have learned more than they do in traditional courses. Few could honestly claim that they learned anything at all. When the author of DIY U describes a model of students "cobbling" together a self-guided degree consisting of "course materials readily available online," I cannot convince myself that the Yale-educated author believes that even as she is paid handsomely to type it. Perhaps 1/10 of a percent of undergraduates are mature and motivated enough to effectively direct their own course of study. What Kamenetz describes feels more like replacing the 12-course tasting menu at El Bulli with a trip to Old Country Buffet and calling it a wash. The idea that anything meeting her description would qualify as an education is prima facie ridiculous and requires no further discussion.

The real benefit, though, is that it will let more people go to college because everything will be cheaper. The adjuncting wave of the early 1990s was supposed to make education cheaper. It didn't. Now online courses are supposed to be making education cheaper (price being conflated with accessibility in this line of argument). Despite spreading like wildfire in the last decade – from dedicated online schools like University of Phoenix to the best (and worst) brick-and-mortar schools – the price of higher education only increases. So who benefits from replacing tenured faculty with adjuncts if not the students? If students aren't getting cheaper or better education from online courses, why are colleges so eager to establish them?

The answer, as anyone on this side of the looking glass knows, is that it's cheaper – for the university. Adjuncts are cheap, desperate temp labor who don't complain. Online courses have essentially no overhead and are taught in the vast majority of cases by – you guessed it – adjuncts or graduate students who, if they finish the long trek toward a Ph.D., can look forward to taking a paycut to hop on the adjunct treadmill. These changes are not in the interest of students. Nobody sincerely believes that. They do not make education cheaper or better because that is not their intent. The goal is simply to make education more profitable. Universities like that. State legislatures (when the schools in question are public) like it even more.

Online education or the kind of choose-your-own-adventure college experience described in this book has a place. This role has been filled historically by community colleges, the primary clientele of which has always been adults who need work-related training. If, as a result of creeping credentialism, some low-level county government bureaucrat or State Trooper needs a 3-credit course in such-and-such to qualify for the next step up on the pay scale, then online classes are clearly a good option. They make sense because no one cares what is or is not learned in this instance. Passing the course is merely a means to a very specific end in the career path.

Over time, though, universities noted the profit margins inherent to this kind of business model. What was good for community colleges could be good for Big Ten U. or Private East Coast College. Like adjuncting, online courses have become a pandemic, especially at poorly funded, lower tier public institutions (Eastern State U., etc). Online courses are moneymakers, and thus of great interest to institutions that are chronically short on money. The proliferation of "Online MBA programs" you see on billboards and TV commercials represents nothing more than financially strapped and savvy institutions reacting logically by combining a highly profitable program in which no real learning takes place anyway – unless one counts Jack Welch books and management platitudes as learning, which I do not – with the lowest-cost delivery method. If anything colleges do can be described as profit-maximizing, this is it.

These changes are coming, and higher education in a decade or two will probably look quite similar to what Kamenetz and her supporters envision. I have neither doubts nor illusions about this. But I insist that we call it what it is. It is a lot of highfalutin language being thrown around by administrators to justify cutting costs – and not the costs to students. It is the replacement of tenured faculty with a permanent Ph.D.-holding underclass barely cracking the poverty line and undeserving of pesky expenses like benefits or offices. It is a way for state legislatures to continually slash higher education funding while rationalizing it as a good, or at least value-neutral, deed. It is a way to make changes that promise short term rewards to a group of decision-makers who will be long gone before the true costs – cohort after cohort of "college graduates" with even fewer useful skills and less useful knowledge than the already substandard ones churned out today – become painfully clear. It is a way, like everything else the think-tank conservatives and market acolytes sell to the public as a means of reducing costs or democratizing something, to make it more profitable. Not better, not cheaper, and not more accessible. Only a mind that conflates "better" and "more profitable" can continue to promise the former with a straight face.

(Read about the spread of adjuncting, including a copious literature review and arguments for and against, in this paper, appropriately entitled "Does Cheaper Mean Better?").

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