Saturday, November 19, 2016

McDonaldization of Higher Ed

By Professor Doom

     Already, working in higher education is a Mcjob for many, as most professors are adjuncts, paid less than minimum wage with no benefits. A new trend is just barely on the horizon, a trend that will make not just the educators, but education itself, no different than what you might find at your typical fast food franchise: questionable and irrelevant fare, completely indistinguishable between one place and the next.

     Almost all of our institutions of higher education have an immense focus on moving coursework and classes online. While I certainly understand “expand the market” is a key idea in achieving growth (the primary goal of every institution), it’s been clear for a long time that online coursework, much of it, is questionable at best. There are simply far too many businesses that specialize in writing your papers, taking your classes, even writing your doctoral dissertations for you that it’s obvious on the face of it that there is wide scale fraud.

      Now, because of the massive online fraud, institutions which specialize in online coursework have a very justifiable poor reputation. Prestigious schools have online coursework, and, yes, often, it is more legitimate education…but one must be very careful to maintain legitimacy. The best way, by far, is to limit the coursework—if a course or two is online, while the other 40 courses the student takes are “traditional,” then, sure, the degree is likely every bit as legit as a traditional degree.

      At least, that’s how it works at the prestigious schools. Trouble is, of course, that if you do things this way, you’re not really going to get growth, all you’re doing is selling a different kind of coursework to your already established student base, while sacrificing a tiny amount of prestige by having online coursework.

      Oberlin College, a relatively prestigious private school, has been in this blog before, where its policies have illustrated the eventual failure of higher education. It seems the school has figured out a way to both expand their market by going online, while giving no risk to themselves in loss of prestige…and again it’s by a new idea that could lead to the collapse of higher education:

     Now, there’s much to like about how the program is set up—restricted admission and small class size are signs that they really are trying to do this legitimately. That said, there are a number of flags here that worry me. There’s a concept of “best practices” in higher education, and it can become a slippery slope. “Best practices” used to cap class sizes at 25, but schools nudged it to 30, then 40, then 60…now we have many classes taught in massive auditoriums, with most every campus having courses with hundreds of students in them. Now, “best practices” is used to justify classes of huge size.

     Let me focus then on the “best practices” that are being established here, but even with the good intentions of this program, it’s easy to see the corruption coming. First, the big highlight:

“… college credit from Oberlin College for instruction neither delivered by the institution nor taught by its faculty members…”

     The above is the biggest issue, in terms of education. Oberlin has a prestigious reputation, but this new online program allows Oberlin to sell out, without risking much. Should it turn out the program is a complete fraud, Oberlin can use plausible deniability: “we had no idea the program that enhanced our growth was just another online school scheme.” 

     Even worse, this allows higher education coursework to become a franchise product. If you can get, say, Harvard course credits, even a degree, on your transcript without even setting foot on the campus or ever interacting with any faculty there, while someone else can get State U course credits in much the same way, for the same price, from the same sub-contractor, higher education will become just as bland (and subject to debasement) as your typical fast food franchise. I know, I’m naturally resistant to change, but I’m just not sure this trend will be a positive for education.

     While having transcripts with a school’s name on it that have nothing to do with the school is my biggest worry, there are few other flags that make me worry here.

Students pay $6,355 to participate in the program. Part of that cost goes to Oberlin to cover the cost of the credit and database use. 

    It doesn’t take much to do the math here, these courses are pricey. While a student can’t take a full time course load this way, if he did, tuition would run around $40,000 a year. Does anyone really think the “database use” costs are anything like this? This doesn’t make any sense, these are new students, so…not in the database. The students are doing research and writing papers…no cost there.

     Let’s go to the next flag:

Faculty members are paid for their participation, but Jaskol declined to say how much.

     It really is embarrassing how much money goes in to tuition, but how little goes out to the faculty. Typical adjunct pay for a course is around $2,000, but I could see them halving, even quartering, that pay here because of the tiny class sizes. I can totally understand why the school is embarrassed to say how the class rakes in $25k in revenue with around $2,000 in overhead, but they shouldn’t be, as that’s what “best practices” for faculty pay are about now, with 90% or more of tuition costs having nothing to do with education.

     Another flag:

Faculty members reached for comment about their participation in the program did not respond to emails prior to publication.

     The “seal of silence” always scares me, even though it’s considered best practices not to let faculty talk openly any more. There’s no doubt that faculty here were threatened not to discuss the program, threatened with termination if they communicated in any way about this course. These faculty are online faculty, so you can bet they check their e-mail very often: they would have responded if allowed to do so. What’s being hidden? I don’t know, but with them acting like they have something to hide, I must have concerns.

     One more flag:

Wait. The dean of the college steered contracts to a company he owns and benefits from?.

Isn't that a conflict of interest? Rumors are this was not disclosed to faculty and they are up in arms.

     One reason for the incredible corruption of higher education is administration can do anything. Time and again I’ve seen admin rake in plenty of cash from sweetheart deals. Usually, faculty don’t have a clue what’s going on, and figure it’s just typical mismanagement that light bulbs cost $30 apiece or basic computers cost $2,000 each even when you buy thirty at a time.  Yeah, sure, faculty are “up in arms”…it won’t change anything.

      The creator of the program did respond to the previous allegations (and there are a few suspicious posts in the comments section):

This is Matthew Jaskol, the Founder of Pioneer Academics who was interviewed in the article. Dean Elgren has absolutely no ownership or equity stake of any kind in Pioneer Academics and has never taken a penny of remuneration as a program advisor. Also, I don't know where you get your "rumors", but the program was vetted through multiple faculty committees in advance of approval.

     So, maybe the Dean isn’t taking a penny from this huge revenue stream. It won’t be direct, although I assure the gentle reader that he’ll be rewarded indirectly for this. As far as “multiple faculty committees,” well, I’ve been on multiple faculty committees threatened by admin, and I’ve been on multiple committees who made a ruling, only to have that ruling overruled to the exact opposite by admin…I don’t put much stock of this vetting at all, and will never will put faith in faculty committee rulings until admin is no longer in a position to unduly influence such rulings.

      One more comment highlights yet another problem with this program:

This is probably where our accreditation/QA model obviously fails the most -- when instruction and the awarding of credit are spread-out this much. How can Oberlin's regional accreditor verify the quality of processes when Oberlin is no longer solely accountable?

     Verify the quality of processes? HAhahahahaha. It’s amazing how few people in higher education know that accreditation is bogus and has long since abandoned any attempt at verifying quality. Anyone who wishes, however, can go over accreditation policies line by line and see with his own eyes that this commenter’s concerns are way off the mark.

     Let’s look at the end game here. An accredited school need no longer actually have faculty. If the program above becomes widespread, an accredited school can completely sub-contract out the entirety of their coursework, leaving the entire campus to become one large administrative hive. Granted, this will take years, and presumably higher education will collapse long before then. The fact that the system now allows for such smoke-and-mirrors degrees indicates why the system must collapse soon enough.

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