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Roy Rosenzweig | The Nation

Roy Rosenzweig

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Roy Rosenzweig

Roy Rosenzweig teaches and directs the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

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"Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics," business "guru" Peter Drucker proclaimed in Forbes five years ago. "It took more than 200 years for the printed book to create the modern school. It won't take nearly that long for the [next] big change." Historian David Noble echoes Drucker's prophecies but awaits the promised land with considerably less enthusiasm. "A dismal new era of higher education has dawned," he writes in Digital Diploma Mills. "In future years we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen."

Most readers of this magazine will side with Noble in this implicit debate over the future of higher education. They will rightly applaud his forceful call for the "preservation and extension of affordable, accessible, quality education for everyone" and his spirited resistance to "the commercialization and corporatization of higher education." Not surprisingly, many college faculty members have already cheered Noble's critique of the "automation of higher education." Although Noble himself is famously resistant to computer technology, the essays that make up this book have been widely circulated on the Internet through e-mail, listservs and web-based journals. Indeed, it would be hard to come up with a better example of the fulfillment of the promise of the Internet as a disseminator of critical ideas and a forum for democratic dialogue than the circulation and discussion of Noble's writings on higher education and technology.

Noble performed an invaluable service in publishing online the original articles upon which this book is largely based. They helped initiate a broad debate about the value of information technology in higher education, about the spread of distance education and about the commercialization of universities. Such questions badly need to be asked if we are to maintain our universities as vital democratic institutions. But while the original essays were powerful provocations and polemics, the book itself is a disappointing and limited guide to current debates over the future of the university.

One problem is that the book has a dated quality, since the essays are reproduced largely as they were first circulated online starting in October 1997 (except for some minor editorial changes and the addition of a brief chapter on Army online education efforts). In those four-plus years, we have watched the rise and fall of a whole set of digital learning ventures that go unmentioned here. Thus, Noble warns ominously early in the book that "Columbia [University] has now become party to an agreement with yet another company that intends to peddle its core arts and science courses." But only in a tacked-on paragraph in the next to last chapter do we learn the name of the company, Fathom, which was launched two years ago, and of its very limited success in "peddling" those courses, despite Columbia president George Rupp's promise that it would become "the premier knowledge portal on the Internet." We similarly learn that the Western Governors' Virtual University "enrolled only 10 people" when it opened "this fall" (which probably means 1998, when Noble wrote the original article) but not that the current enrollment, as of February 2002, is 2,500. For the most part, the evidence that Noble presents is highly selective and anecdotal, and there are annoyingly few footnotes to allow checking of sources or quotes.

The appearance of these essays with almost no revision from their initial serial publication on the Internet also helps to explain why Noble's arguments often sound contradictory. On page 36, for example, he may flatly assert that "a dismal new era of higher education has dawned"; but just twenty-four pages later, we learn that "the tide had turned" and the "the bloom is off the rose." Later, he reverses course on the same page, first warning that "one university after another is either setting up its own for-profit online subsidiary or otherwise working with Street-wise collaborators to trade on its brand name in soliciting investors," but then acknowledging (quoting a reporter) that administrators have realized "that putting programs online doesn't necessarily bring riches." When Noble writes that "far sooner than most observers might have imagined, the juggernaut of online education appeared to stall," he must have himself in mind, two chapters earlier. Often, Noble is reflecting the great hysteria about online education that swept through the academy in the late 1990s. At other times (particularly when the prose has been lightly revised), he indicates the sober second thoughts that have more recently emerged, especially following the dot-com stock market crash in early 2000.

In the end, one is provided remarkably few facts in Digital Diploma Mills about the state of distance education, commercialization or the actual impact of technology in higher education. How many students are studying online? Which courses and degrees are most likely to appear online? How many commercial companies are involved in online education? To what degree have faculty employed computer technology in their teaching? What has been the impact on student learning? Which universities have changed their intellectual property policies in response to digital developments? One searches in vain in Noble's book for answers, or even for a summary of the best evidence currently available.

Moreover, Noble undercuts his own case with hyperbole and by failing to provide evidence to support his charges. For example, most readers of his book will not realize that online distance education still represents a tiny proportion of college courses taken in the United States--probably less than 5 percent. Noble sweepingly maintains, "Study after study seemed to confirm that computer-based instruction reduces performance levels." But he doesn't cite which studies. He also writes, "Recent surveys of the instructional use of information technology in higher education clearly indicate that there have been no significant gains in pedagogical enhancement." Oddly, here Noble picks up the rhetoric of distance-education advocates who argue that there is "no significant difference" in learning outcomes between distance and in-person classes.

Many commentators have pointed out Noble's own resistance to computer technology. He refuses to use e-mail and has his students hand-write their papers. Surely, there is no reason to criticize Noble for this personal choice (though one feels sorry for his students). Noble himself responds defensively to such criticisms in the book's introduction: "A critic of technological development is no more 'anti-technology' than a movie critic is 'anti-movie.'" Yes, we do not expect movie critics to love all movies, but we do expect them to go to the movies. Many intelligent and thoughtful people don't own television sets, but none of them are likely to become the next TV critic for the New York Times. Thus, Noble's refusal to use new technology, even in limited ways, makes him a less than able guide to what is actually happening in technology and education.

Certainly, Noble's book offers little evidence of engagement with recent developments in the instructional technology field. One resulting distortion is that some readers will think that online distance education is the most important educational use of computer technology. Actually, while very few faculty teach online courses, most have integrated new technology into their regular courses--more than three-fifths make use of e-mail; more than two-fifths use web resources, according to a 2000 campus computing survey. And few of these faculty members can be characterized, as Noble does in his usual broad-brush style, as "techno-zealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them."

Indeed, contrary to Noble's suggestion, some of the most thoughtful and balanced criticisms of the uses of technology in education have come from those most involved with its application in the classroom. Take, for example, Randy Bass, a professor of English at Georgetown University, who leads the Visible Knowledge Project (http://crossroads.georgetown.edu/vkp), a five-year effort to investigate closely whether technology improves student learning. Bass has vigorously argued that technological tools must be used as "engines of inquiry," not "engines of productivity." Or Andrew Feenberg, a San Diego State University distance-education pioneer as well as a philosopher and disciple of Herbert Marcuse, who has insisted that educational technology "be shaped by educational dialogue rather than the production-oriented logic of automation," and that such "a dialogic approach to online education...could be a factor making for fundamental social change."

One would have no way of knowing from Noble's book that the conventional wisdom of even distance-education enthusiasts is now that cost savings are unlikely, or that most educational technology advocates, many of them faculty members, see their goal as enhancing student learning and teacher-student dialogue. Noble, in fact, never acknowledges that the push to use computer technology in the classroom now emanates at least as much from faculty members interested in using these tools to improve their teaching as it does from profit-seeking administrators and private investors.

Noble does worry a great deal about the impact of commercialization and commodification on our universities--a much more serious threat than that posed by instructional technology. But here, too, the book provides an incomplete picture. Much of Noble's book is devoted to savaging large public and private universities--especially UCLA, which is the subject of three chapters--for jumping on the high-technology and distance-education bandwagons. Yet at least as important a story is the emergence of freestanding, for-profit educational institutions, which see online courses as a key part of their expansion strategy. For example, while most people think of Stanley Kaplan as a test preparation operation, it is actually a subsidiary of the billion-dollar Washington Post media conglomerate and owns a chain of forty-one undergraduate colleges and enrolls more than 11,000 students in a variety of online programs, ranging from paralegal training to full legal degrees at its Concord Law School, which advertises itself as "the nation's only entirely online law school." This for-profit sector is growing rapidly and becoming increasingly concentrated in a smaller number of corporate hands. The fast-growing University of Phoenix is now the largest private university in the United States, with more than 100,000 students and almost one-third in online programs, which are growing more than twice as fast as its brick-and-mortar operation. Despite a generally declining stock market, the price of the tracking stock for the University of Phoenix's online operation has increased more than 80 percent in the past year.

As the Chronicle of Higher Education reported last year, "consolidation...is sweeping the growing for-profit sector of higher education," fueled by rising stock prices in these companies. This past winter, for example, Education Management Corporation, with 28,000 students, acquired Argosy Education Group and its 5,000 students. The threat posed by these for-profit operations is rooted in their ability to raise money for expansion through Wall Street ("Wall Street," jokes the University of Phoenix's John Sperling, "is our endowment") and by diminishing public support for second-tier state universities and community colleges (the institutions from which for-profits are most likely to draw new students). Yet, except for an offhand reference to Phoenix, Digital Diploma Mills says nothing about these publicly traded higher-education companies. And these for-profit schools are actually only a small part of the more important and much broader for-profit educational "sector," which is also largely ignored by Noble and includes hundreds of vendors of different products and services, and whose size is now in the hundreds of billions of dollars--what Morgan Stanley Dean Witter calls, without blushing, an "addressable market opportunity at the dawn of a new paradigm."

A strong cautionary tale is provided by Noble, that of the involvement of UCLA's extension division with a commercial company called Onlinelearning.net--the most informative chapter in the book. He shows how some UCLA administrators as early as 1993 greedily embraced a vision of riches to be made in the online marketing of the college's extension courses. UCLA upper management apparently bought the fanciful projections of their commercial partners that the online venture would generate $50 million per year within five years, a profit level that quickly plummeted below $1 million annually. But Noble conflates the UCLA online-extension debacle with a more benign effort by the UCLA College of Letters and Sciences, beginning in 1997, to require all instructors to post their course syllabuses on the web. He seems unwilling to draw distinctions between the venal and scandalous actions of top UCLA administrators and the sometimes ham-handed efforts of other administrators to get UCLA faculty to enhance their classes by developing course websites, a fairly common educational practice and a useful convenience for students. Three-fifths of UCLA students surveyed said that the websites had increased interactions with instructors, and social science faculty recently gave the website initiative a mostly positive evaluation.

Sounding an "early alarm" so that faculty members can undertake "defensive preparation and the envisioning of alternatives" is how Noble explains his purpose in writing Digital Diploma Mills. But will faculty be well armed if they are unaware of the actual landscape they are traversing? In the end, Noble leaves us only with a deep and abiding suspicion of both technology and capitalism. His analysis of technology and education does echo Marx's critique of capitalism, with its evocation of concepts like commodification, alienation, exchange and labor theories of value. But unlike Marx, who produced a critical analysis of the exploitative nature of early capitalist production without outright rejection of the technology that made industrialization possible, Noble cannot manage the same feat.

In the current political climate, Noble's undifferentiated suspicion of technology hinders us more than it helps us. Are we prepared to follow him in his suspicion of any use of technology in higher education? Are faculty members willing to abjure e-mail in communicating with their students and colleagues? Are instructors at small colleges with limited library collections prepared to tell their students not to use the 7 million online items in the Library of Congress's American Memory collection? Are they ready to say to students with physical disabilities that limit their ability to attend on-campus classes or conduct library research that they can't participate in higher education? Are faculty at schools with working adults who struggle to commute to campus prepared to insist that all course materials be handed directly to students rather than making some of it available to their students online?

Similarly, what lines are we prepared to draw with respect to commercialization of higher education within the capitalist society in which we live? Are faculty willing to abandon publishing their textbooks with large media conglomerates and forgo having their books sold through nationwide bookstore chains? Are they prepared to say to working-class students who view higher education as the route to upward mobility that they cannot take courses that help them in the job market?

Noble's answer to most of these questions would undoubtedly be yes, insisting, as he does, that anything less than the "genuine interpersonal interaction," face to face, undermines the sanctity of the essential teacher-student relationship. In a March 2000 Chronicle of Higher Education online dialogue about his critique of technology in education, Noble complained that no one had offered "compelling evidence of a pedagogical advantage" in online instruction. (He pristinely refused to join online, and had a Chronicle reporter type in his answers relayed over the phone.) A student at UCLA, who had unexpectedly taken an online course, noted in her contribution to the Q&A that because she tended to be "shy and reserved," e-mail and online discussion groups allowed her to speak more freely to her instructor, and that she thought she retained more information in the online course than in her traditional face-to-face classes at UCLA. Noble rejected the student's conclusion that the online course had helped her find her voice, arguing that writing was "in reality not a solution, but an avoidance of the difficulty." "Speaking eloquently, persuasively, passionately," he concluded, "is essential to citizenship in a democracy." Putting aside the insensitivity of Noble's reply, his position, as Andrew Feenberg points out in Transforming Technology: A Critical Theory Revisited, is reminiscent of Plato's fear that writing (the cutting-edge instructional technology in the ancient world) would replace spoken discourse in classical Greece, thus destroying the student-teacher relationship. (Ironically, as Feenberg also notes, "Plato used a written text as the vehicle for his critique of writing, setting a precedent" for current-day critics of educational technology like Noble who have circulated their works on the Internet.)

The conservative stance of opposing all change--no technology, no new modes of instruction--is appealing because it keeps us from any possible complicity with changes that undercut existing faculty rights and privileges. But opposition to all technology means that we are unable to support "open source" technological innovations (including putting course materials online free) that constitute a promising area of resistance to global marketization. And it makes it impossible to work for protections that might be needed in a new environment. Finally, it leaves unchanged the growing inequality between full-time and part-time faculty that has redefined labor relations in the contemporary university--the real scandal of the higher-education workplace. Without challenging the dramatic differences in wages and workloads of full professors and adjunct instructors, faculty rejection of educational technology begins to remind us of the narrow privileges that craft workers fought to maintain in the early decades of industrial capitalism at the expense of the unskilled workers flooding into their workplaces.

We prefer to work from a more pragmatic and realistic stance that asks concretely about the benefits and costs of both new technology and new educational arrangements to students, faculty (full- and part-time) and the larger society. Among other things, that means that academic freedom and intellectual property must be protected in the online environment. And the faculty being asked to experiment with new technology need to be provided with adequate support and rewards for their (ad)ventures. As the astute technology commentator Phil Agre wrote when he first circulated Noble's work on the Internet, "the point is neither to embrace or reject technology but to really think through and analyze...the opportunities that technology presents for more fully embodying the values of a democratic society in the institutions of higher education."