Tim Luke takes on the business of online learning.
The Digital Downside: Moving from Craft to Factory Production in Online Learning
The Digital Downside: Moving from Craft to Factory Production in Online Learning
As someone who has taught online for over five years, but who also has done this work on a fairly small-scale in custom-made sites crafted by my department for our students and discipline, I am concerned about many recent developments in online learning. Basically, what have been craft-oriented kinds of production built as special-purpose solutions for specific programs and faculties are being displaced and/or subsumed by more standardized packages for large-scale teaching, class administration, and content management. These standardized applications are, in turn, created for sale on the open market to any college or university intent upon taking their lessons online. Why this is happening, who is seeking gains and evading costs by doing it, and how it is affecting higher education are now critical questions that need to be addressed. Consequently, I will attempt to provide some answers to them as I discuss the implications of this broader shift in online learning. This shift is neither necessary nor natural, so the forces pushing higher education in this direction need to be reconsidered.
With the passage of time, most social institutions change, and universities are no exception. Some schools may escape the rising tides of neoliberal cost-cutting by finding friends and funds out in society to continue their time-tested forms of excellence. Many others, however, face the hard realities of less financial support, diminished public backing, and fewer special prerogatives. For some sense of how “the culture wars,” mask these political and economic shifts, see Lynne V. Cheney, Telling the Truth: Why Our Culture and Our Country Have Stopped Making Sense - And What We Can Do About It (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995); Todd Gitlin, The Twilight of Common Dreams: Why America is Wracked by Culture War (New York: Henry Holt, 1995); Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1987); Charles J. Sykes, Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education (New York: Kampmann and Co., 1988); Peter Shaw, The War Against the Intellect: Episodes in the Decline of Discourse (Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1989); Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education (New York: Harper and Row, 1990); Page Smith, Killing the Spirit: Higher Education in America (New York: Viking, 1990); Charles J. Sykes, The Hollow Men: Politics and Corruption in Higher Education (Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1990); Dinesh D’Souza, Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus (New York: Free Press, 1991); William J. Bennett, The De-Valuing of America: The Fight for Our Culture and Our Children (New York: Summit Books, 1992); Martin Anderson, Impostors in the Temple: American Intellectuals Are Destroying Our Universities and Cheating Our Students of Their Future (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1992); and, Robert H. Bork, Slouching Towards Gomorrah: Modern Liberalism and American Decline (New York: Harper Collins/Regan Books, 1996). In this fiscal environment, a new “technofix,” or the distance and distributed learning technologies of the virtual university, is now believed by many to provide the single best solution for the fiscal problems of many institutions, even after the dot com bust of 2000-2001. Universities must change, according to these advocates of the virtual university, by becoming more efficient. By emulating for-profit businesses with their thin managerial hierarchies, “hollowed out” service centers, and flexible work forces, these voices claim colleges and universities finally will leave the dark ages. See Stan Davis and Jim Botkin, The Monster Under the Bed: How Business is Mastering the Opportunity of Knowledge for Profit (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995). Computer-mediated communications coupled with new multimedia content, and probably many more flex-time employees working without benefits or tenure, in turn, will complete this neoliberal model of restructuring, and make the university finally “deliver the goods.”
Yet, these business-based solutions are certain to get almost everything wrong: both for today’s universities and for tomorrow’s virtual university. New digital technologies should not be used in Taylorized work restructuring programs to cheapen labor, cut costs, and dilute product quality. The real promise of computer-mediated communication lies instead in using new technologies very creatively by repersonalizing some human interactions rather than misusing them so efficiently that they deaden everyone’s personal involvement in higher learning. Online education is not worth doing unless and until its technologies are used to enhance everyone’s learning rather than reduce an institution’s costs of service.
These neoliberal agendas for online learning must not be turned into the only path for the salvation of higher education. In fact, much of the promise here for restructuring many universities is illusory. Digitalization by itself does not save money, reduce work force levels, accelerate progress toward degrees, or lower overhead costs. Every indication thus far suggests instead that if it is done right, or in ways that enhance learning, costs will increase with digitalization. Correspondingly, work forces will increase in size and responsibility. In the long term, degrees actually may not be taken at all. Likewise, digitalization can slow progress through academic programs, blur disciplinary divisions, and rapidly increase overhead expenditures for more bandwidth, server capacity, and software development. Nonetheless, the personal interactivity and general quality of higher education can be quite rewarding, so the nature of higher education could shift profoundly. For more discussion of these points, see papers from VPI&SU’s Cyberschool at http://www.cyber.vt.edu/docs/papers.html. Of course, digitalization can help schools save money, but only by eliminating buildings and/or faculty.
No technology works as a one-dimensional force within any society. Computer-mediated communication is no exception. Many different agents are working for and against changing a vast array of structures, which are struggling, in turn, to bend these technologies to suit their diverse interests and agendas. On one side, there are those who see online learning as a mass production tool to construct thin, for-profit, and skill competency based systems of training for life-long learners, beginning at age five and continuing on through life’s end. They are, in turn, pushing for the creation of large expensive systems on a mass media model, which essentially presumes production for global audiences. These groups are simply extending the long-run secular trends on campus toward de-emphasizing faculty control over the overall curriculum and instructional practices in general in the name of “assessment, “quality control,” or “standards of learning.” On the other side, there are those who believe digital technologies will make it possible to reorganize existing universities, colleges, and schools around qualitatively enriched forms of learned discourse and scholarly discipline without losing the thicker, not-for-profit, and degree-centered values of traditional academic life. These approaches typically are centered upon small-scale, craft-oriented, and student-centered systems built to serve smaller local ends. Both of these policy alliances are up and running on campus, and each of them currently is twisting and turning the tools and techniques of computer-mediated communication to advance their respective projects.
Post-Fordism Gets on Campus
The era of flexible specialization dawned off-campus in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the emergence of “a new social system beyond classic capitalism,” rising out of the digitalization of production, the globalization of exchange, and the deconcentration of organization by global business. Fredric Jameson, Postmodernism or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism (Durham: Duke University Press, 1991), p. 54. From the ruins of Fordist regimes of industrial production and state administration, loosely coupled transnational alliances of producers began to coordinate local markets, regional governments, global capital, and sophisticated technologies. Michael J. Piore and Charles F. Sabel, The Second Industrial Divide (New York: Basic Books, 1983); and, Peter Evans, Embedded Autonomy: States & Industrial Transformation (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995). And these new agencies of flexible accumulation, working below and above the traditional power centers of national states and big business, also started experimenting with the means for evading most existing spatial barriers, time zones, and work rules.
As David Harvey has observed, the accumulation/production/regulation regime of flexible specialization “typically exploits a wide range of seemingly contingent geographical circumstances and reconstitutes them as structured internal elements of its own encompassing logic…. [T]he result has been the production of fragmentation, insecurity and ephemeral uneven development within a highly unified global space economy of capital flows.” David Harvey, The Condition of Postmodernity (Oxford: Blackwell, 1989), pp. 294, 296. The teachings of the classic liberal arts traditions have little room to grow under the high-tech performativity norms embedded at the core of this flexible accumulation regime. When articulating the norms for this regulatory regimen, as Lyotard asserts, “the State and/or company must abandon the idealist and humanist narratives of legitimation in order to justify the new goals: in the discourse of today’s financial backers of research, the only credible goal is power. Scientists, technicians, and instruments are purchased not to find truth, but to augment power.” Jean-Francois Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), p. 46.
The creation, circulation, and consumption of knowledge, then, as it has evolved at modern research institutions during the Second Industrial Revolution, the rise of Fordist economies, or the growth of national welfare/warfare states from the 1880s through the 1980s, is now changing rapidly. Flexible specialization celebrates speed, variety, and diversity on a postnational scale. And, its informationalized productive forces require increasingly sophisticated inputs of data/information/knowledge from everywhere all of the time in order to function efficiently. Lyotard, Postmodern Condition, pp. 44-46. At this juncture, then, a new performativity ethic for post-Fordist schooling has started to displace the norms of bildungsphilosophie once enshrined in older, pre-informational modes of education.
Many colleges and universities nominally are state-funded operations, but the traditional commitment to higher education as a vital public good fully deserving of state monies has been lost amidst a new policy discourse that reimagines such cultural capital essentially as a private good. Rising tuition and fees, declining public funding, and increasing market awareness all are concrete proof, as James Appleberry, the president of the American Association of State Colleges and Universities says, “of a policy shift that reflects a sentiment that higher education is solely an individual benefit and need not be funded to further the country’s best interests.” The Washington Post (September 16, 1996), A3. The emergent regime of flexible specialization, as Reich observes, actually renders all of these national agendas quite problematic as fast capitalist operations hollow out national economies, pull individuals from one country to be trained in another to work in yet another, and reduce the rational timelines for any serious investment decision from decades to days. Robert Reich, The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism (New York: Knopf), pp. 110-118.
Success, then, for colleges and universities working under the norms of post-Fordist flexible specialization indicate that it will be necessary to do much less, not much more. Instead of expanding degree programs, hiring more faculty, enrolling additional students, buying more books, erecting new buildings, or elaborating disciplinary frameworks, the university of the 21st century might be effective only if it can discontinue degree programs, fire more faculty, enroll fewer students, buy fewer books, shutter existing facilities, and consolidate disciplines into more compact units. Knowledge is always shaped by power, and the productive power of transnational enterprise is pushing toward a world that configures knowledge in this fashion. Such moves, following those found in the “hollowed out” corporations of pre-informationalized manufacturing and services during the 1980s and 1990s, will succeed only if the university begins outsourcing its services, downsizing its offerings, flattening its hierarchies, and trimming its personnel. Michael Gibbons et al., The New Production of Knowledge: The Dynamics of Science and Research in Contemporary Societies (Sage: London, 1994), pp. 1-16.
The results of these “innovations” on campus, of course, range from the basically abortive to the completely disastrous, because universities still should be “schools,” or rich cultural sites for leisurely learning, rather than “laboratories,” or spartan settings of laborious travail. Trying to impose notions from the downsized, post-Fordist workplace only burdens already overtaxed faculty and administrators with even more requirements to turn out new data, plans or reports about the daily affairs of their institutions. Actually, it is an egregious category mistake to cast universities as factories. Unlike most manufacturing operations, higher education should deal with specific qualities of people - not general properties of materiale; discontinuous processes of intellectual growth - not continuous runs of uniform output; subjective communal decisions - not objective technical-choices; enriched free time avocations - not impoverished work time; vocations. Flexible specialization techniques on campus typically are a monstrous affair, culminating in assessments of students as if they were runs of widgets, absurd five-year cycles of post-tenure reviews in which one fifth of the faculty is surveyed every year by the other four-fifths to certify they are still “productive stock” like cotton fields or banana plantations, and curriculum reengineering schemes whose product is more paperwork to certify the processing of students in key “core education” classes, which now might constitute forty or fifty percent of all available classes.
From Craft to Factory Production
For academics, the key question being raised by online learning is “job control.” The allure of possible efficiencies mystifies many important job control issues by bundling them up with technological innovations. These innovations only underscore the extent to which job control by professors on campus has already been severely eroded by previous efforts to emulate factory models of teaching. By choosing to take university instruction into online applications, one can decide tout court against many prerogatives now exercised by professors in face-to-face classroom teaching. The key rhetorical conceit of many multimedia-rich online learning alternatives is that professors simply are transmitting information in their traditional lectures and seminars. Therefore, their information-dispensing efforts, could, or even should, be enhanced, extended, or even extinguished by technological surrogates.
Yet, these technological interventions also mean to rob professors of their authority. In most large-scale instructional solutions, course syllabi are designed and constructed by technical designers, panels of experts, or outside consultants, and then sold as mass media products online or in boxes by publishers. Lectures, in turn, are automated with streaming video or graphics. Testing can be contracted out to assessment businesses, student advising, tutorial discussions, and independent studies, can be conducted by paraprofessional workers without Ph.D.s. At the end of the day, job control is lost. And, as the educational product is increasingly commodified, the current salary structures and status systems of academic labor will be replaced by a more stratified regime of a few professorial superstars whose “big names” will be sold in multimedia blockbusters that many lesser paraprofessionals help deliver to students in integrated markets of mass produced instruction, advising, discussion, and assessment. Neither education nor entertainment, these capital-intensive products could be only a dismal new sort of infotainment.
This image of the future rarely is painted by academics. Instead, it is the fancy of large corporations like Microsoft or Intel, lobbying groups like Educause, and the digerati like Nicholas Negroponte or Bill Gates. Repeating the same old silly anti-scholastic stories about professors making the transition from “the-sage-on-the-stage” to “the guide-on-the-side,” these simplistic narratives name technological imperatives, economic necessity, or unserved markets as the reason to recast the role of professors as researchers, teachers, and service-providers. See Educauseís claims at http://www.educause.edu. These allegedly inexorable forces of change are, in fact, lobbying campaigns by hardware manufacturers, software publishers, telecommunications vendors, and educational consultants playing off of familiar profscam mythologies of burnt-out profs rehashing canned lectures in front of bored students, this anti-craft-oriented wave of curricular reform is rethinking the role of the professor in order to sell their high-tech tools to support “wide distribution of lectures by a few famous scholars” in “customized multimedia tools” wielded by nonacademic technicians that “have a command of the technology” so “creating a course might be more like producing a Hollywood film or a video game.” Jeffrey R. Young, “Rethinking the Role of the Professor in an Age of High-Tech Tools,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, XLIV, no. 6 (October 3, 1997), A27. At that juncture, however, job control truly is gone, just as few novelists in Hollywood control what makes it on to the final movie print and even fewer computer artists ever dictate what gets set into code on the computer game cartridge. Film and video games are collective arts paid for with serious money, so it is unlikely that the individual performance art of university teaching would cash out any differently than the crafts behind major movies or giant games.
Up to this point, many online teaching projects work in the opposite register: small-scale, handicraft production for local use, not global exchange. Often one instructor maps his or her existing courses over to a website, generates computer-animated overheads, or organizes multimedia demonstrations to enliven traditional contact-style teaching and/or to experiment with asynchronous learning interactions. The material still mostly is a “home-made” production for “on-campus” circulation through “in-house” means of student consumption or “on-site” centers of knowledge accumulation. These applications are pitched to serve particular groups by professionals who know their needs and expectations in much more detail.
None of these expectations, however, are insurmountable obstacles in changing the nature of online learning. Working in new registers of medium-scale, team production or large-scale, corporate production undoubtedly can transform the current understandings of job control, working conditions, and career development shared by many academics toiling away in contemporary research universities. The development of disciplinary-software systems, such as Mathematica, Web CT, and Blackboard Course Info are leading to a curricular economy that is no longer one tied to handicraft work. Instead, these corporate innovations suggest that distance and distributed learning will become embedded in more factory-like, industrial organizations, involving integrated teams of labor, outside financial investors, and high-tech multi-media design in its creation and marketing.
Like radio in the 1920s or television in the 1950s, computer-mediated communications in the 1990s have been touted, first, as empowering, enlightening, and energizing technologies that will remake humanity and society anew, while, second, they have also become enmeshed in the existing circuits of corporate commodification. As Schiller notes, “radio, for example, as did television, initially offered enormous potential for the public’s health and social benefit. This has been squandered by the commercialism that has engulfed both media. This is the pattern now being extended to the electronic age.” Herbert I. Schiller, Information Inequality: The Deepening Social Crisis in America (New York: Routledge, 1996). In keeping with the patterns Schiller documents, an Educom report on the growing prospects for a National Learning Infrastructure Initiative (NLII) argues the benefits of large-scale, industrial outputs of distance learning products will be many. Most significantly, however, is their potential “to be cost effective, dramatically reducing the two biggest costs of the current system: faculty and physical plant.” Robert C. Heterick, Jr., James R. Mingle, and Carol A. Twigg, The Public Policy Implications of a Global Learning Infrastructure (Washington, DC: Educom, 1997), 6. These layered efforts to blend different approaches toward teaching simultaneously on campus simply extend the tendencies in late capitalism to preserve multiple modes of production. for more discussion see Paolo Virilio and Michael Hardt, Radical Thought in Italy: A Potential Politics (Theory Out of Bounds, Vol. 7) (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996).
This shift toward more capital-intensive, large-scale, and mass-produced forms of online learning is an expression of other equally distressing tendencies in higher education. Once the more labor-intensive, small-scale, and craft-produced model of online teaching is superceded, there are openings for more globalizing private providers of higher education to build new markets. The University of Phoenix is an excellent case in point to examine these developments.
Launched in 1976 by John Sperling, a one-time professor of humanities at San Diego State University, the University of Phoenix and its for-profit operations evolved out of a series of adult education courses for police and teachers that the federal government funded to launch an anti-juvenile delinquency campaign. See http://www.phoenix.edu. Now it has 42,500 students at 116 sites in 22 states including PuertoRico and Canada as well as on-line course sites accessible anywhere in the world that enroll over 1,500 students. Responding to the life-long learning market of nontraditional students, University of Phoenix is the epitome of cost control: it has a narrow practical curriculum, a nondisciplinary structure, little library resources, no research commitments, a flat, small central administration, and only part-time semi-professional faculty. Moreover, it runs on a for-profit basis; market performance, not peer review, valorizes its products. Guy Webster, “Market Makes Role Mode of Renegade: Other Schools Copy Some of Sperling’s Methods,” The Arizona Republic (August 18, 1996), B1, B5; and, see Guy Webster, “Building an Education Empire: Adult School Made Modern by Phoenix U.,” The Arizona Republic (August 18, 1996), B1, B4.
The reserve armies of the downsized, underemployed, and the nondegreed out in the post-Fordist white-collar proletariat are the University of Phoenix’s student body, while the overworked ranks of the still employed, but underpaid or unchallenged, salatariat provide the institution’s faculty. With graduate degrees in their areas of teaching, and with real-world jobs tied to these areas of academic expertise, the faculty are trained to teach from a standardized set of lesson plans out of a proprietary software package owned by the university. Some have derided this “McEducation,” but many others believe that this is what education should be, including the AT&T School of Business, which has used Phoenix accredited degree programs to let any AT&T employee earn bachelor’s and master’s degrees in-house. In fact, June Maul, the AT&T School of Business’s development director, sums it up quite succinctly: “our students don’t want to hear about hypothetical stuff out of a book. They want what’s relevant to their real-world jobs.” Webster, “Building an Education Empire,” B4. Consequently, it is no surprise that 80 percent of students enrolled with the University of Phoenix study business or management, and most of the remaining fifth are in nursing, education or counseling degree programs. See http://www.phoenix.edu. The enduring truth that “hypothetical stuff out of a book” distinguishes institutions like the University of Chicago or New York University from the University of Phoenix is lost upon audiences like these.
Such mass production schemes for higher education reduce its “service delivery” to “content provision” and require its learners and teachers to turn their domestic spaces or workplaces into their campus. The University of Phoenix, for example, expects that its online instructors and enrollees “be computer literate and have access to their own computer and modem equipment.” Ibid. Thus, many instructional spaces that usually host teaching and learning activities inside of material buildings can be dispensed with almost entirely as both students and teachers acquire, maintain and upgrade their own ports to the virtualized university’s points of presence on the Internet. The university provides an administrative shell for accessing students, training teachers, credentialling learners, and sharing knowledge through loosely coupled transitory networks on-line. After going online in the late 1990s, the University of Phoenix’s Online Campus primarily uses the Net to “service” students, but also makes use of itto find “professionals who are interested in applying to teach for the University of Phoenix OnLine Program,” especially from “business, legal, and computer professionals with graduate degrees.” Ibid. For the University of Phoenix, this cybernetic mediation is a virtue, not a vice. It “offers working adults the unparalleled convenience and flexibility of attending classes from your computer keyboard,” because with the University of Phoenix’s “easy to use software, you’ll be able to join your classmates and faculty member 24 hours a day, seven days a week, from virtually anywhere you happen to be -hotel room, airport, office, or the comfort of your own home.” Ibid. With performative promises like these, the University of Phoenix has grown into a fully accredited university with the largest student body of all private universities in the United States.
The Digital Downside
Seeing the application of digital technics in university teaching as a replay of industrial rationalization in factories, David Noble baldly asserts that the conflict between craft-oriented and factory-style production here is consistent and clear: “the high-tech transformation of higher education is being initiated and implemented from the top down, either without any student and faculty involvement in the decision-making or despite it.” David F. Noble, Digital Diploma Mills, http://www.communication.ucsd.edu/dl/ddm1.html, pts. 1-4. Yet this position is too simplistic. Not every web site is an automated experience, not all courseware presumes the end of human interaction in face-to-face terms, and not all administrators really know what they want when they push for these innovations. In fact, managerial authority on most campuses is highly diffuse, and it has been for decades. Some administrators see digitalization as a strategy for recentralizing authority and resources, but few of them yet have had the vision or knowledge to be successful in this regard, especially if they think they will save money by doing it. Therefore, Noble mostly decries the game of greed being played out today on university campuses:
Some skeptical faculty insist 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 is about making money. In short, the new technology of education, like the automation of other industries, robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control of their working life, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood. Ibid., pt. 1.
These trends might broaden, but they are not necessarily what seems to be unfolding with all online education. What is being automated often becomes so rapidly outdated, substantively and operationally, that it does not sell as well or as long as most critics believe. One class, one web page is not necessarily automation. It also can lead to a face-to-face form of “business as usual” plus a cobweb site.
The bigger issue is whether or not digitalization leads to a large-scale, automated product. Web sites can be alienating automated systems. They also might simply time shift the learning experience, create a telepresence for students and faculty to interact asynchronously, openly, and rapidly, and expand the range of documents used to support instruction with hypertext, multimedia or web content in addition to the print book or professorial lecture. Professors might design these learning relationships in ways that give them continued control over their livelihood, time, labor, and knowledge, but they are increasingly integrated as content-providers into larger production units with higher costs.
Nothing happens automatically in online education, and many more people are needed daily to keep the technologies working, the content accessible, and the instruction effective. It takes many more people time and resources to teach the same number of students online, if they do it right. If they only replay prerecorded content, then the Internet is simply reduced to webcasting technics, which may or may not automate instruction. This new technology of education can rob professors of their knowledge, skills, livelihoods, while lessening their job control and cheapening their work product. Yet, this will happen only if online education is produced in certain ways by particular producers using peculiar rhetorics of performance. Noble is wrong: not all online education necessarily will always have these, and only these, attributes, particularly if careful craft-labor practices are followed by the faculty to keep it more quality-oriented and student-focused. Jeffrey Young, “David Noble’s Battle to Defend the ‘Sacred Space’ of the Classroom,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, XLVI, no. 30 (March 31, 2000), A47-49.
Most of the courses now available on the Internet are not commodities. They are educational experiences that are purchased and used, like Polanyi’s vision of “fictitious commodities.” Karl Polanyi, The Great Transformation. (Boston: Beacon Press, 1967). As places in time and space, work to be covered in study, or credit acquired through effort, these distance learning classes are divided into units of credit and provided in exchange for tuition payments. At this time, not many of them are resold by the universities, faculty or students, who produce and consume them, as fungible commodities. Some are now designed, disintegrated or distilled down into “discrete, reified, and ultimately saleable things or packages of things,” Noble, Digital Diploma Mills, pt. 3. allowing many firms and some universities are developing such courses as “factual commodities.” Even these products, however, often are quite different from most credit-bearing courses already being taught at various times and another location than campus - or asynchronously on the Net - inside the traditional fictitious economy of the academy. Those new courses, like Michael Milken’s UNext.com experiments or University of Phoenix courses, are designed to be sold as commodities, but often they are sold only to particular corporate or institutional buyers with their own internal agendas for developing human capital in-house.
On the one hand, this industrial reorganization of higher education as “the knowledge business” could simply become one more sphere of conquest for corporate market-building. There are 3,600 colleges and universities, for example, in the United States alone. Over 12 million FTE students are enrolled in their courses of instruction, nearly 80 percent of them claim to be doing distance education, and about 40 percent claim to be teaching fully online classes. If every department, all libraries, each dormitory, every student center, all classrooms, each faculty office, not to mention administrative and support personnel, had personal computers installed at concentrations approaching one per student or one per faculty member, then millions of new product units will be sold, installed, and serviced. Being rational entrepreneurs, all of the world’s computer builders, software packagers, and network installers are pursuing this goal by exerting tremendous pressure on colleges and universities to crack open their campuses to more high-technology instruction so that these new markets can be made, serviced, or conquered.
On the other hand, however, online learning is meeting fierce opposition on many campuses. Few faculty see much merit in computerized teaching, not all students are computer literate, and many administrators are unable to find funds to pay for all of the computers and network connectivity that the private sector wants to sell them. The sale of computer-mediated learning to teachers, however, is not really where the virtual university starts and stops. Increasingly, these technologies are being introduced by university administrations to force open very closed, hierarchical, and bureaucratic faculty guilds to become allegedly more open, egalitarian, and consensual venues for collective decision-making. Online information sources, self-paced on-line application forms, and user-oriented online records management can take access to information out of the hands of faculty and their departments and hand it over to managers who actually are using it to sell educational services. Universities could retain their older, more closed faculty-centered structures, but it is their executive leadership that often is choosing to restructure them as looser, flatter and more responsive entities against faculty wishes by deploying more computer-mediated communication technology. For more discussion of such power blocs, see Hazard Adams, The Academic Tribes. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1998.)
None of these changes are foreordained, and the ultimate outcome for higher education will not match the most optimistic projections of their backers off-campus nor attain the most pessimistic fears of their opponents on-campus. As Gilbert claims, “existing universities must assimilate the new communications technologies, and with the utmost effectiveness seek to use the enormous benefits that ‘the digital revolution’ promises for the advancement of teaching, learning, research and communications generally.” Alan Gilbert, “The Virtual University,” at http://www.edfac.unimelb.edu.au. Gilbert is right, but it is how they assimilate them, when they do it, and who will be served when it is done that actually is what matters most.
Nonetheless, the new division of labor in large-scale online course design completely expresses Educause’s essentially revolutionary disregard for faculty members relying upon their small-scale, craft-centered local styles of professing, in which they have been authoritative “content experts” able to provide a more flexible and productive “combination of content expert, learning-process design expert, and process-implementation manager.” Cited in Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, “Digital Diplomas,” Mother Jones, 26, no. 1 (January/February 2001), 39. Something will be lost in this flexibilized quest for performance: namely, quality, continuity, and autonomy for academic pursuits. Universities should not forsake their historic functions, namely, the cultivation of “a learning community in which students, teachers, researchers and scholars share a common commitment to rational inquiry, and through it to the creation, advancement, preservation and application of knowledge”.” Gilbert, The Virtual University. because no one familiar with the corporate culture of Disney, Sony, or AT&T really can believe that they would promote free rational inquiry in the same ways that most universities still do. The virtual universities of this type can only produce a seemingly real education without much enduring value.
Colleges and universities must remain more than shell buildings for the knowledge business where outsourced academic workers reskill and refresh global corporations’ downsized/outsourced/overworked white-collar proletarians. If the traditional efforts of the university as a knowledge collector and preserver, interpreter of data, and protector of social values are to be preserved, one of the best ways to insure the continuation of those functions is to sustain the locally diverse, small-scale, craft-oriented context of labor that has served universities so well throughout their history. Digital technology can enhance these traditions of education if the right choices for quality are made and maintained, but those who choose this path must always guard against profit-motivated interests asserting that digital technologies can only work well on much larger scales of operation.