Thursday, March 13, 2014

Why Did Sunrise Semester Fail?

By Professor Doom


Last time around I reminded the gentle reader of a problem with the online craze in education, beyond the simple fact that most of it is, obviously, fraudulent. Sunrise Semester, college courses via tv programming, had everything online coursework does, but wasn’t anywhere near as successful.

What does the internet have to offer that Sunrise Semester did not? The latter had books, offered the student to watch the lecture whenever he liked, and to work at whatever pace he wanted much like online courses….and yet the internet is so much better, at least when it comes to attracting students to take the course, and passing students as well.


Me: “I see I was rated a 4 in a category where I can be awarded either 5 points, or 0 points; either the book does, or does not count. How is it a 4?”

Admin: “The committee’s consensus was that you get 4 points.”

Me: “Can you tell me the voting?”
Admin: “Sure. There were 5 members, and the votes were 5, 5, 5, 5, and 0.”

Me: “So the consensus was 5.”

Admin: “No, the consensus was 4. That’s what it averages out to. You math people should know better!”

Me: “Consensus and average aren’t the same thing. You can’t use average for this because one person can just vote 0 on everything and control the process, a real problem since I need 80% of the total points over all categories to qualify.”

Admin: “Consensus and average mean the same thing.”

Me: “Can you please look in the dictionary and see that policy is not being followed here?”

Admin: “No. You’re not being collegial.”

--Sigh. It literally took years and pages of careful explanations and polite requests to just look up the words before I had no choice but to give up…I never did convince anyone in admin that the words really do have different meanings.


Administrators spew endless edubabble over why online education is a big deal now, but because they aren’t trained to think all that much, they aren’t aware that similar strategies have been tried before, and failed. Allow me to explain the three things that make online coursework so much more successful (sic) than previous attempts at using the new technology:

  1. The Federal student loan scam. In the past, it cost money to take college courses, and that was a big deal, even when most colleges didn’t charge all that much. Now, students can actually “make” money by getting loans for more than just the tuition, giving them an economic reason to take the course. Yes, it’s a loan, but most students don’t care—“I’ll gladly pay you back in 20 years in exchange for money today” is a sucker’s deal, but the Federal government will make the loan, since it’s not really the government’s money, it’s the taxpayers’. There was no loan scam in the past, and this is a big factor why you didn’t have tens of thousands of students clamoring to sign up for correspondence courses.
  2. The student as customer. Higher education is backwards today—rather than try to give students skills that would make them of value (to employers, or humanity in general), higher education today is all about convenience and ease and making the college look like it’ll be fun for the student. Again, correspondence courses and Sunrise Semesters required just as much work, if not moreso, than typical college courses, so you didn’t have many people all that interested in it. Nowadays, online courses are very light, and institutions are motivated to make them lighter, and lighter, the better to please the customer.
  3. The ease of cheating. Because correspondence courses and Sunrise Semester courses only had a few students, it just wasn’t economically viable for someone to sell his services to student cheaters. Supposing I wanted to “help” a few dozen students taking a correspondence course, and supposing I took out an ad…I couldn’t charge them enough to make a living, and I’d certainly lose my position if I got caught.
    Now, with so many online students, and the ease of advertising to find students interested in cheating, it’s quite economical to do so. A Google search of “take my online class for me” reveals a number of places where you can hire someone for that purpose:,,,,,,…seriously, this is ridiculous, and the ridiculousness is further enhanced when you realize that not only is the federal loan money being used to pay for the online class, it’s being used to pay to hire one of these sites to take the online class. It’s a simple matter to check that the number of hits these sites receive are many multiples of the number of online students. It’s obvious who their customers are. Because content is so light and courses no longer prepare for anything, a student that subcontracts his coursework like this is at no disadvantage later on in his “education”.
    Now, in the past, cheating was a big deal, but now administrators punish faculty for catching cheaters. Faculty all get the memo not to catch cheaters (at least, those who intend to last more than a year or two in higher education).
    The Federal/taxpayer money doesn’t just pay for the online class, it pays the site to help the student cheat in the class, AND it pays for the administrator to encourage the cheating.
    Maybe it’s not so much of a fluke that administrators never stop to think about why online courses are so successful now?
    Take away the Federal loan scam and online education will shrink, but there will still be plenty of students willing to take easy courses. Take away the “student as customer” paradigm and online courses will shrink further, but there will still be students with the money to burn to hire someone else to take the course for them. Take away the encouragement and promotion of cheating, and online education will shrivel down to the same level as the fads of yesteryear.
    Until these changes are acted upon, online education will grow and grow…but sooner or later, someone will look behind the curtain and see what a sham it all is.







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