The Bloom Is Off the Rose

© by David F. Noble, November, 1998
Abe and Moe run into each other on Flatbush Avenue.
"Boy, have I got a deal for you" Moe," says Abe. "I've got these fancy new university courses, computers and everything, you can take it right from your own living room. What do you think?"
"Sounds nice," says Moe, "How much?"
"For you, my friend, a bargain," says Abe, "Only three hundred dollars."
"I'll take it" says Moe.
Four months later they run into each other again.
"Hey Abe, you crook," says Moe, "Remember that course you sold me?"
"Sure," says Abe, "what about it?"
"It was lousy," says Moe, "I didn't learn a thing."
"Moe, you dummy, of course you didn't," says Abe. "That was a buying and selling course, not a learning course!"

Far sooner than most observers might have imagined, the juggernaut of online education appears to have stalled. Only a year ago, it seemed there was no stopping it. Promoters of instructional technology and "distance learning" advanced with ideological bravado as well as institutional power, the momentum of human progress allegedly behind them. They had merely to proclaim "it's the future" to throw skeptics on the defensive and convince seasoned educators that they belonged in the dustbin of history. The monotonal mantras about our inevitable wired destiny, the prepackaged palaver of silicon snake-oil salesmen, echoed through the halls of academe, replete with sophomoric allusions to historical precedent (the invention of writing and the printing press) and sound-bites about the imminent demise of the "sage on the stage" and "bricks and mortar" institutions. But today, alas, the wind is out of their sails, their momentum broken, their confidence shaken.

At countless campus forums on the subject throughout North America, the burden of proof has squarely shifted from the critics to the promoters. Though still amply funded and politically supported, it is they who are now on the defensive, compelled, in the wake of repeated failures and in the face of mounting skepticism, to try to buttress their still lame arguments with half-baked data about pedagogical usefulness, economic return, or market demand. Attendance at campus events has multiplied an order of magnitude as faculty and students have finally become alert to the administrative agendas and commercial con-games behind this seeming technological revolution.

Off campus, the scene is much the same. Study after study seems to confirm that computer-based instruction reduces performance levels and that habitual Internet use induces depression. Advertisers peddle platinum Mastercards and even Apple laptop computers by subtly acknowledging that "seven days without e-mail" is "priceless" and that being in touch with your office from anywhere anytime is a "bummer." Meanwhile, all the busy people supposedly clamoring for distance learning - who allegedly constitute the multi-billion dollar market for cyberinstruction - are curling up at night with the New York Times top bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie, a sentimental evocation of the intimate, enduring, and life-enriching relationship between a former student and his dying professor. "Have you ever really had a teacher? One who saw you as a raw but precious thing, a jewel that, with wisdom, could be polished to a proud shine? If you are lucky enough to find such teachers, you will always find your way back." So much for distance learning.

Above all, a spectre is haunting the high-tech hijackers of higher education, the spectre of faculty (and student) resistance. Last Fall this Digital Diploma Mills series began with the juxtaposition of two events. The first, UCLA's Instructional Enhancement Initiative (and partnership with The Home Education Network), signalled the commoditization of instruction and commercialization of higher education by means of digital technology. The second, the unprecedented two-month strike by faculty at York University, represented the first significant sign of opposition to this new regime and the unholy alliance among academic administrators and their myriad corporate and political partners. In this new age of higher education, I wrote then,"the lines have already been drawn in the struggle which will ultimately determine its shape." Over the last year, this struggle has intensified.

At UCLA, the widely-touted Instructional Enhancement Initiative, which mandated web sites for all 3800 arts and sciences courses, has floundered in the face of faculty recalcitrance and resistance. By the end of the academic year, only thirty percent of the faculty had put any of their course material online and several dozen had actively resisted the Initiative and the way it had been unilaterally inspired and implemented. UCLA Extension's partnership with The Home Education Network (which changed its name in the Spring to ran aground on similar shoals when instructors made it clear that they would refuse to assign any of their rights in their course materials to either UCLA (the Regents) or the company. In already up to their necks, the partners decided simply to claim the rights anyway and proceed apace, flying without wings on borrowed time. While the strike at York awakened the faculty there to a new vigilance and militancy with regard to the computer-based commercialization of the university, it also emboldened others elsewhere to do likewise. At Acadia University, for example, which had linked up with IBM in hopes of becoming the foremost wired institution in Canada, the threat of a faculty strike forced the administration to back off from some of their unilateral demands for online instruction, and faculties at other Canadian institutions have been moving in the same direction. And even within Simon Fraser University's Department of Communications, home of the recently refunded Canadian flagship Telelearning Research Center, serious faculty challenges to the virtual university enterprise have emerged and gone public.

In the United States as well, resistance is on the rise. Last year faculty and students in the California State University system, the largest public higher educational institution in the country, fought vigorously and effectively against the California Educational Technology Inititiative (CETI), an unprecedented deal between CSU and a consortium of firms (Microsoft, GTE, Hughes, and Fujitsu), which would have given them a monopoly over the development of the system's telecommunications infrastructure and the marketing and delivery of CSU online courses. Students resisted being made a captive market for company products while faculty responded to the lack of faculty consultation and threats to academic freedom and their intellectual property rights. In particular, they feared that CETI might try to dictate online course content for commercial advantage and that CSU would appropriate and commercially exploit their course materials.

Throughout the CSU system, faculty senates passed resolutions against CETI, tried to obtain an injunction to stop the deal, and used the media and public forums to campaign against it. Together with students, faculty participated in widely publicized demonstrations; at Humboldt State University in northern California, students demonstrating against the deal altered the sign at the campus entrance to read "Microsoft University", a creative act of defiance which caught the attention of media around the country. Through the efforts of the Internet activist group NetAction, the controversy over the CETI deal became a cause celebre, galvanizing opposition and leading to high-profile government hearings and legislative scrutiny and skepticism. Opposition to the deal from California-based business competitors such as Apple, Netscape, and Sun (none of the CETI partners were California-based) also contributed to the erosion of legislative support for the half-baked deal (which was seen as probably unconstitutional under state law). Before long, Microsoft and Hughes dropped out, then GTE, and the deal was dead. A new deal is in the works but is sure to encounter determined and well-organized opposition.

Further north at the University of Washington in Seattle, a campus with little recent history of faculty activism, four hundred faculty members attended a February forum on "digital diploma mills" sponsored by the local chapter of the AAUP. Later that Spring, Washington governor Gary Locke and Wallace Loh,his chief advisor on higher education, gave speeches extolling the virtues of the "brave new world of digital education" and outlined plans for statewide initiatives in that direction. The AAUP immediately drafted an open letter to the governor vigorously opposing this vapid vision and circulated it among the faculty. Within two days, seven hundred faculty from across the campus, from slavic studies to computer science, had signed the letter - surely a record for concerted faculty action of any kind. Another two hundred signatures were later added and the letter was made public, in early June. Within a week, this bold and eloquent faculty protest had made headlines around the country.

"We feel called upon to respond before quixotic ideas harden into disastrous policies," the faculty wrote the governor. "While costly fantasies of this kind present a mouth-watering bonanza to software manufacturers and other corporate sponsors, what they bode for education is nothing short of disastrous. . . . Education is not reducible to the downloading of information, much less to the passive and solitary activity of staring at a screen. Education is an intersubjective and social process, involving hands- on activity, spontaneity, and the communal experience of sharing in the learning enterprise.... We urge you to support learning as a human and social practice, an enrichment of soul and mind, the entitlement of all citizens in a democracy, and not a profit-making commodity to be offered on the cheapest terms to the highest bidder. The University of Washington is a vital resource to our community, not a factory, not a corporation, not a software package. Its excellence and integrity are not only assets that we as a community can afford to maintain, but also assets that we cannot afford to squander."

The widespread academic and media support engendered by this letter compelled the governor to meet with a faculty delegation and ultimately to retreat somewhat from fully embracing the virtual education agenda, at least for now. "We're not unique," history professor Jim Gregory, one of the organizers of the letter campaign, told the press. "We just may be a little more mobilized at this particular moment." He was right. All the way at the other end of the continent, near Ft. Myers, Florida, similar sentiments were emerging. The Florida Gulf Coast University (FGCU) , the new tenth campus of the state higher education system, was advertised as the "university of the future," "built as a testing-ground for Internet-based instruction," where faculty are hired on short-term contracts without a tenure system. In recent months the FGCU faculty and their union the United Faculty of Florida have begun openly to question the pedagogical value of online education, protest against the increased workload entailed in distance learning - a major complaint everywhere, resist the university's attempt to appropriate their intellectual property, and lobby for a standard tenure system rather than have to reapply for their jobs every two years.

In an administration survey, more than half of the faculty - who were hired on the understanding that the new campus would specialize in distance education - opposed increasing the proportion of distance-learning classes from 16 to 25 percent of classes. "Some professors say they remain unconvinced of the method's effectiveness," the Wall Street Journal reported in July. The questionable economic viability of existing distance education classes has also been an issue.

"Some observers say significant savings can be achieved only if the size of distance-learning classes increases," the newspaper reported, but enlarging the classes only undermines the pedagogical promise even more. Intellectual property issues are at the center of faculty concerns. Faculty became especially alarmed when the Dean of Instructional Technology Kathleen Davie was quoted in a Chronicle of Higher Education article saying that, with regard to faculty course materials "the first rights belong to the university." A new draft policy on intellectual property, formulated without faculty involvement by Davie and her associates, is explicit on this point: "IP developed by FGCU employees (faculty, staff, and students) under university sponsorship or with university support shall belong to the university. University sponsorship or support means the work is conceived or reduced to practice: as a result of the employee's duties; through the use of University resources, such as facilities or equipment; or with university funds, or funds under the control of or administered by the university." In a response to a faculty member's query about this, Dean Davie summed up the university position: "For the most part, the university holds the copyrights for instructional materials created as part of one's compensated workload."

The creator of one course has already complained about the university's efforts to seek outside sponsorship without his permission. Chuck Lindsay, the president of the FGCU Faculty Senate, noted in a letter to the Chronicle of Higher Education that the faculty had not been involved in the formulation of the policy and emphasized that "we do not subscribe to the notion that online course materials are, as such, a product of work for hire. . . .We hold that any policy that attempts to lay down across-the- board levels of ownership and revenue sharing for new online course materials reflects a perspective that ascribes an inferior status to original instructional creations and a work for hire mentality;both are contrary to the mission and guiding principles of FGCU.

FGCU is not alone in moving in this direction, of course; draft policies of the University of California, the University of Victoria, the University of Kansas, and Penn State, to name a few, reflect similar intent. But here the unionized faculty have kept themselves abreast of the situation, have gone public with their concerns, and have begun to mobilize their resources for the struggle. The administration is on the defensive. In an interview this summer, Dean Davie acknowledged that she had personally declined a faculty request that I be invited to the campus to hold a forum on these issues, out of fear of jeopardizing her position.

The faculty actions at CSU, the University of Washington, and FGCU are not isolated events. There is similar ferment throught academia. This became apparent at the international Digital Diploma Mills conference held at Harvey Mudd College in Claremont, California in April. The conference attracted well-informed faculty and student participants and an audience of campus activists and rank and file union members from throughout the United States and Canada, as well as Mexico. (The keynote speaker was Mary Burgan, general secretary of the AAUP, who suggested that "distance makes the heart grow colder.") The two days of sessions critically examined the political economy, pedagogical value, and economic viability of online education and explored the implications for faculty and students, while those in attendance used their free time to compare notes, make contacts and extend their networks. The Chronicle of Higher Education ran a two-page story on the conference, which ended on an revealing note, pointing out that "officials at Harvey Mudd took pains to distance themselves from the event."

At the same time, faculty and student activists have been holding similar forums on their own campuses. I myself have participated in many such events at campuses such as the University of Pittsburgh, Alma College, James Madison University, Embry-Riddle University, George Mason University,the University of Western Ontario, the University of Wisconsin, the University of Washington, the California State University campuses in Sacramento and San Bernadino, California Polytechnic University in Pomona, and the University of California campuses at Irvine and Los Angeles. Increasingly, and everywhere, faculty and students alike are waking up to the realization that it is High Noon for Higher Education. They are overcoming their traditional timidity and parochialism to make common cause with like-minded people across the continent, to fight for their own and the larger public interest against the plans and pronouncements of peddlers and politicians who in general know little about education. Having learned that they are not alone, faculty are displaying a new-found confidence in their own experience and expertise, and thus in their rightful capacity to decide what is a good education. Socrates, they have reminded themselves, was not a content provider.

In the wake of this resistance, the media has caught the scent, publicly validating and magnifying its message. After several years of puff pieces and press releases about the wonders of wired learning, the media is finally beginning to give the matter more scrutiny and critics their due. "Virtual Classes Trend Alarms Professors," the New York Times reported in June; a front page article in the Wall Street Journal in August carried the headline "Scholarly Dismay: College Professors Balk at Internet Teaching Plans;" describing what it called the "backlash against virtual education," the Christian Science Monitor carried another summer story entitled "Professors Peer Doubtfully into a Digital Future;" the Industry Standard, "The Newsmagazine of the Internet Economy," began its feature article "Academics Rebel Against an Online Future" with the words: "Hell no - we won't go - online. . . .The backlash has begun."

The San Francisco Chronicle, the Seattle Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Boston Globe - all have run critical articles examining the commoditization and commercialization of university instruction. In June the Industry Standard's cover story was "Ideas for Sale: Business is racing to bring education online. Now academics fear they're becoming just another class of content provider." The headline for the article read "Higher Earning: the Fight to Control the Academy's Intellectual Capital." In response to the open letter to the governor from University of Washington faculty that same month, The Seattle Times ran an editorial entitled "Potential Pitfalls," noting that "Signs of high tech corporate corruption are already sneaking into higher education classrooms." Indeed.

If the media-annointed "backlash" against virtual education has prompted a bit more skepticism on the part of reporters and editorial writers, so too has the pitiful performance of the virtuosi themselves, whose market appears to have been a mirage. After several years of high- profile hype and millions of dollars, the flagship Western Governors' Virtual University opened for business this Fall, offering hundreds of online courses. Expecting an initial enrollment of 5000, the WGU enrolled only 10 people, and received just 75 inquiries. Intended to put a positive spin on this disaster, WGU marketing director Jeff Edward's doubletalk unwittingly hit the nail on the head: "it points out that students are pretty serious about this." Serious enough, that is, to know crap when they see it.

It's pretty much the same story at, the UCLA partner that describes itself as "one of the leading global supplers of online continuing education." The company lost two million dollars in its first year of business and was unable to pay UCLA the anticipated royalties. According to insiders, it is currently losing about $60,000 a month. John Kobara, the president of the company and former UCLA vice chancellor for marketing acknowledged at a company event this month that it is indeed a very risky business. Kobara noted that most apparent successes are misleading: at the Universities of Colorado, Washington, and Arizona, the great majority of allegedly "distance learning" customers "are in the dorms" while most online programs, such as those at Berkeley and Vanderbilt, have retention rates of well less than 50%. "Retention is the challenge," Kobara explained. Getting people enrolled is one thing, and difficult enough. Getting them to remain enrolled and complete their courses is another thing entirely. A November 2nd article in the New York Times entitled "More Colleges Plunging Into Uncharted Waters of On-Line Courses," confirmed that these were not isolated experiences.

Distance learning administrators are keeping their chins up and issuing upbeat press releases which are increasingly hard to believe. Officials at WGU, which recently joined forces with Britain's Open University in an attempt to improve its prospects , the Southern Regional Electronic Campus (SREC) which coordinates distance learning courses in sixteen southern states, and the California Virtual University, which coordinates the online offerings of one hundred California campuses, have all expressed optimism about the future of distance learning. "We feel confident that there is tremendous interest, especially in the non-traditional student environment," said WGU's Jeffrey Xouris. "Figures indicate significant interest in distance education," said CVU's Rich Halberg. "The dirty little secret," Gerald Heeger, dean of Continuing and Professional Studies at NYU, told the New York Times, "is that nobody's making any money."

Great expectations have yielded great expenditures, that is the story so far. The high-tech hallucinations of new revenue streams that so enchanted administrators everywhere were conjured up by voo-doo demographics, which mistook distance for demand. What was left out of the equation was whether or not people, on the basis of convenience and computer gimmickry, would be willing to pay more for less education. Apparently not.

In time-honored fashion, the purveyers of this dismal product have turned to the taxpayer to bail them out. They are placing their bets on the Distance Education Demonstration Program contained in the education bill recently approved by Congress and signed by Bill Clinton, which waives classroom requirements for federal student aid eligibility for distance learning customers, thereby priming the distance education market and providing an indirect subsidy to vendors. According to existing law, students must spend a specified number of hours in a classroom to be eligible for student aid. Vendors have been lobbying for some time, against strenuous opposition from traditional academic institutions and unions, for a waiver of such requirements, which would render their customers eligible for student aid and them eligible for a handsome handout.

The new legislation grants such a waiver for fifteen organizations engaged exclusively in distance learning, including the Western Governor's University. But, even fattened with such pork, it is unlikely that the distance-learning market will materialize on anything like the scale dreamed up by the wishful thinkers of Wall Street. An inflated assessment of the market for online distance education has been matched by an abandonment of financial common sense, as officials recklessly allocated millions of (typically taxpayer) dollars toward untested virtual ventures. Suckered by the siren-songs and scare-tactics of the silicon snake-oil salesmen, university and college officials have thrown caution to the wind and failed to full cost their pet projects. As former chief university financial officer Christopher Oberg warned at the Harvey Mudd conference, administrators have suspended normal accounting practices at their peril, and the returns are in. (Little wonder, perhaps, that the presumably more sober Certified Public Accounts Review program at Northern Illinois University has broken off its partnership with online vendor Real Education, citing questionable business practices.)

In the face of faculty and student resistance, increasing media skepticism, and notably lackluster performance, some university administrators are beginning to break ranks. It is perhaps no surprise to hear a note of caution emanating from an elite private institution, which must retain some semblance of genuine education for its privileged clientele even while competing for their favors with high-wired acts. Yet it is nevertheless remarkable to find it coming from one of the nation's premier technical institutions, which famously foisted all of this technology upon us in the first place. Last year Michael Dertouzos, director of M.I.T.'s Laboratory for Computer Science - home of the World Wide Web - waxed eloquently about the virtues of non-virtual education. "Education is much more than the transfer of knowledge from teachers to learners. As an educator myself, I can say firsthand that lighting the fire of learning in the hearts of students, providing role models, and building student-teacher bonds are the most critical factors for successful learning. These cardinal necessities will not be imparted by information technology. . . . teachers' dedication and ability will still be the most important educational tool." And now, Dertouzos' boss, M.I.T. president Charles Vest, has added his voice to the chorus. "Even though I'm from M.I.T., I'm not convinced technology is the answer to everything," Vest conceded. In particular, the relationship between teacher and student "is an experience you can never replace electronically." Echoes of Tuesdays with Morrie.

More striking still is the recent inaugural address of J. Bernard Machen, the new president of the University of Utah. The University of Utah is located in Salt Lake City, the headquarters of the WGU, and among the distinguished guests at the inauguration was Utah governor and WGU co-chairman Michael Leavitt, who once proclaimed that "in the future an institution of higher education will become a little like a local television station." Formerly the provost at the University of Michigan, Machen forcefully decried the vocational emphasis of online learning and the shifting allocation of public higher education resources toward virtual instruction at the expense of traditional campus-based education. "Let us not succumb to the temptation to force a college education to its lowest common denominator," Machen insisted. "It inherently limits the broader, more interactive aspects of a university education. Spontaneous debate, discussion, and exchange of ideas in the classroom are essential in developing the mind. Poetry must be heard, interpreted and discussed, with professors and classmates. Learning about the different professions and academic disciplines available at the University of Utah requires personal involvement, and that is only available on our campus, and it can only be experienced by being here. . . . The kind of education I am describing is not the cheapest, but it is the best."

Predictably, Machen's remarks were derisively dismissed by governor Leavitt's office. "It is not the first time that we have heard a kind of fearful, skeptical reaction of the higher education community," one aide to the governor remarked, in a condescending manner all too familiar to faculty critics. But they are not listening carefully, for this is not what they have heard before. The tune may be the same, but the tone has changed, dramatically. No longer are students and faculty (and the rare administrator) speaking up for quality education out of fear and defensiveness in the face of a preordained and prematurely foreclosed virtual future. Emboldened by recent experience (and forewarned by the diastrous demise of public health care), their voices now resonate with new-found conviction and resolve, with the confident and joyful determination to forge a different future. No time for complacency, to be certain, to abandon vigilance or vital preparation for critical battles to come (especially the battle over intellectual property), but the tide appears to have turned. Indeed, it is now the tired response of the governor's office that appears time-worn and out of touch, the damning words strangely hollow without the weight of history behind them.

The bloom is off the rose.

Historian David Noble teaches at York University in Toronto. He can be reached at (416) 778-6927.