In 1998, David Noble published an article entitled “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education.” This morning I discovered Noble and some of his ideas thanks to a link to “Let There Be Markets: The Evangelical Roots of Economics” by David Noble provided by Aaron Swartz on his wry if theologically questionable post “Understanding Economic Jargon.” I got somewhat off-track from my primary academic purpose in this season of my life listening to this entire lecture, and shared some reflections about what Noble had to say in my post ” Technology and Religion.” This post is focused on the academic-related points made by Noble in the “Digital Diploma Mills” article, which has the following abstract:

In recent years changes in universities, especially in North America, show that we have entered a new era in higher education, one which is rapidly drawing the halls of academe into the age of automation. Automation – the distribution of digitized course material online, without the participation of professors who develop such material – is often justified as an inevitable part of the new “knowledge-based” society. It is assumed to improve learning and increase wider access. In practice, however, such automation is often coercive in nature – being forced upon professors as well as students – with commercial interests in mind. This paper argues that the trend towards automation of higher education as implemented in North American universities today is a battle between students and professors on one side, and university administrations and companies with “educational products” to sell on the other. It is not a progressive trend towards a new era at all, but a regressive trend, towards the rather old era of mass-production, standardization and purely commercial interests.

The root of Noble’s observations and thoughtful contentions here relate to the COMMERCIALIZATION of higher education as it relates to educational technology. In his own words:

…there is more to it. For the universities are not simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change, and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a disarming disguise.

Let me state at the outset I am philosophically and passionately opposed a paradigm of education based on “coercive automation,” and more broadly opposed to a perception of education which is EXCLUSIVELY based on a content transmission model of teaching and learning: What Paulo Freire described as a “banking model” of education in “Pedagogy of the Oppressed” and elsewhere.

This article represents the majority view of students in 1998 as being mostly anti-technology. According to the October 2005 eCarr report, however, the majority of university students now favor moderate levels of instructional technology use in their courses, including face to face ones. The commercialization of education is not the only trend here, the generational differences and technological expectations of students are also playing a big role.

I take issue with Noble’s contention that universities “are becoming the site of production of – as well as the chief market for – copyrighted videos, courseware, CD-ROMs, and Web sites.” Certainly we see the huge role of economics in universities– in sports, in capital improvement campaigns, etc. I guess my own involvement with web 2.0 publishing and interaction is highly coloring my perceptions here. I idealistically (and perhaps naively) think universities in the future will continue to be nodes of free and dynamic idea exchange. I don’t perceive a process of commercialization of higher education to be the enormous, impending specter that Noble did in 1998. But this perception might be due more to my own limited perspective and ignorance, rather than the historical and contemporary facts relating to intellectual property issues and the economics of 21st century higher education.

I did not know before reading this article about major changes relating to university ownership of IP creations:

The chief accomplishment of the combined effort, in addition to a relaxation of anti-trust regulations and greater tax incentives for corporate funding of university research, was the 1980 reform of the patent law which for the first time gave the universities automatic ownership of patents resulting from federal government grants.

I know that at the university with which I am currently related professionally, the issue of IP ownership for faculty online courses is STILL not resolved. The university wants ownership, the faculty are opposed to this. So the issue remains “unresolved.”

This comment by Noble, following his indictment of technology companies for the role they are playing in promoting unproven educational technologies in higher education to bolster their own corporate bottom lines, may be thought provoking for many of the edtech evangelists who I guess are reading this blog post:

Last but not least, behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education, without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any effective demand from either students or teachers

The vision Noble is criticizing here is summarized in this quotation from Simon and Schuster CEO Jonathan Newcomb:

“The use of interactive technology is causing a fundamental shift away from the physical classroom toward anytime, anywhere learning – the model for post secondary education in the twenty- first century.” This transformation is being made possible by “advances in digital technology, coupled with the protection of copyright in cyberspace.”

Clearly Noble’s writing here does not take into account anything that has and is being done in the open source community, which I have written about pretty frequently along with others like Miguel Guhlin. I would think many of these developments (like the runaway success of projects like Moodle) would give him heart.

I share Noble’s concerns about the “commoditization of education” and the dangers of technology being used more as an enhanced administrative stick of coercive monitoring and management rather than academic and intellectual empowerment:

Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities, and responsiveness

But I disagree with Noble’s conclusion, which he shares in the next paragraph:

Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the knowledge and course design skill embodied in that material is taken out of their possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of the administration.

It is true that professors authoring within closed content management systems like WebCT or Blackboard may be turning over their intellectual products to the control of the university. But those who instead opt to publish with blogs and other read/write technologies seem to be releasing their ideas into the interactive, dialogical ether which is web 2.0. Granted, I don’t think many higher education faculty are doing this– yet. But I think this is the future. And it is much less grim than the picture Noble painted in this article in 1998.

Noble cites Kurt Vonnegut’s novel “Player Piano” as a metaphor for the pickle in which faculty now find themselves. I disagree. I don’t have an alternative novel to suggest as a competing model, probably because the rise of the web 2.0 environment has been so recent, but I am sure if it is not out there yet it is coming. It may even be being written on a wiki now as I blog. David Warlick’s book “Redefining Literacy for the 21st Century” has a fictional introductory chapter that probably comes closest to what I am wanting to offer here as a competing vision to Vonnegut’s and Noble’s visions of technology’s future role in our lives, specifically in education.

Noble conveys a centrally Marxist view of reality, with economics being the basis of everything, when he writes:

Some skeptical faculty insist that what they do cannot possibly be automated, and they are right. But it will be automated anyway, whatever the loss in educational quality. Because education, again, is not what all this is about; it’s about making money.

Education may be all about making money for some and even many people today, but it is not for me. And I know it is not for many others. Just listen to teacher impact stories. Take heart, my friends and readers. The future will be dynamic and different, but it will not be a black dawn.

Noble concludes his 1998 article with the following paragraph:

In his classic 1959 study of diploma mills for the American Council on Education, Robert Reid described the typical diploma mill as having the following characteristics: “no classrooms,” “faculties are often untrained or nonexistent,” and “the officers are unethical self-seekers whose qualifications are no better than their offerings.” It is an apt description of the digital diploma mills now in the making. Quality higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher education has dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.

Noble is thankfully correct on his last point: Amidst this environment of technological change and pressure we do still possess the thing which fundamentally defines us as humans: the ability to exercise transcendent choice. That means we can choose to do things irrespective of environmental and cultural influences. I take heart in the proliferation of web 2.0 dialog, the advancement of the MIT 1:1 laptop initiative, the prodigious growth of the open source community, as well as read/write web tools which are empowering new generations of content publishers to blog, podcast, and otherwise engage with each other in dialogs which matter and are unprecedented in their accessibility as well as viral growth.

We do need to reject those who would pawn upon us an educational model of digital diploma mills. Thankfully, we do live in a marketplace, and we can vote with our choices and actions.


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  • http://mysite.verizon.net/resqxf3p/ Gary Jacobsen

    Many Online Diplomas are Trash

    Although members of the media and some academicians have been saying that online instruction is the wave of the future, one simple fact remains: More than a few online schools provide a second-rate education and diplomas from online institutions are essentially trash.

    Until the summer of 2006, I was associated with a university that maintained a large online division in northern Virginia plus 43 satellite campuses in 10 southeastern states and the District of Columbia. For approximately five years I taught online business courses in both synchronous and asynchronous modes. To my chagrin, I discovered the following:

    • The school has no library to speak of. It maintains various “Learning Resource Centers” that collectively have 32,000 volumes or about one book for each of the estimated 27,000 students who study online or at satellite campuses. Indiana University’s library system, in contrast, has 8.2 million volumes.
    • Quizzes and exams are online, open-book and unproctored. Students routinely enlist others to help them at exam time.
    • There is pressure on instructors to give high grades and thereby maintain full-time equivalent (FTE) enrollment numbers. Instructors who have the temerity to give grades of C or D are called in for counseling.
    • Students never meet or have direct contact with instructors.
    • The school has an open-enrollment policy which encourages unqualified or marginally qualified applicants. Nevertheless, approximately one-third of all students graduate with “honors.”

    Incredibly, this institution is accredited by the Middle States Commission on Higher Education.

    Gary Jacobsen, B.S., M.B.A
    Member, American Association of University Professors

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