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Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Dismal Picture of Online Education for Profit

The integrity of institutions of higher education has long been under assault by the growing collaboration between corporations and academia, particularly in the areas of scientific and technological research.

More than two decades ago, David F. Noble, a historian who now teaches at York University in Toronto,warned in an article in the Nation that corporations, in their search for legitimization, were buying into basic laboratory science, toxicology, epidemiology and other areas of public health, policy-oriented disciplines such as economics, political and management science. “The upshot has been the industrial connection with academia groomed for the role of legitimator for industry,” he wrote.
Noble has proven to be prescient as more of what he dubs as “leased scholars” provide reams of data, scientific publications, the cost-benefit analyses and the policy recommendations that legitimize corporate policies.

Now, Noble has turned a piercing spotlight on another issue that threatens the integrity of academia–the automation of higher education-or as he calls it in the title of his new book “Digital Diploma Mills.”

The title refers to the practice of developing and distributing digitized course material online without the participation of professors who draft the material-a technological version of the old correspondence school approach. Noble terms this “distance” learning or “commodification” of education which he defines as the “deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity form for the purpose of commercial transaction.”

Debunking the claims of the online supporters about greater access and improved educational approaches, Noble says the digitized course material is not about education, but about profits of the vendors of the network hardware, software and “content.” Corporations like Apple, IBM, Bell, the cable companies, Microsoft and publishing companies Disney, Simon and Schuster and Prentice-Hall and others who Noble argues view education as a market for their wares. He notes that the investment firm, Lehman Brothers, estimates that the market for the educational commodities to be potentially worth several hundred billion dollars.

In Canada, the effort to develop the “Virtual U” customized educational software platform has been pushed by an industrial consortium that includes Kodak, IBM, Microsoft, McGraw-Hill, Prentice-Hall, Rogers Cablesystems, Unitel, Novasys, Nortel, Bell Canada and MPR Teltech, a subsidiary of GTE.

The Canadian promoters predict a $50 billion market for their products, and Noble says the proposal emphasizes the adoption of “an intellectual property policy that will encourage researchers and industry to commercialize their innovations and anticipates the development of commercially marketable hardware and software products and services including courseware and other learning products.”

Noble says that major promoters of the online education schemes are university administrators who see it as a means of giving their institutions a “fashionably forward-looking image” and a way to reduce labor and plant maintenance costs-fewer teachers and classrooms-while undermining the autonomy and independence of faculty.

Once faculty and courses go on line, Noble contends that administrators will gain much greater direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision, regimentation, discipline and evencensorship will increase dramatically. In addition, the university administrators will be in a position to hire less skilled and hence cheaper workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged material.

Noble predicts that in the new regime of education as a commodity educators will face harsh realities: speedups, routinization of work, greater work discipline and managerial supervision, reduced autonomy, job insecurity, employer appropriation of fruits of their labor and above all insistent managerial pressures to reduce labor costs in order to turn a profit.”

But, it is students who will be shortchanged the most if education becomes simply an online product. As Noble points out, “education is a process that requires interpersonal (not merely interactive) relationship between people-student and teacher(and student and student) that aims at individual and collective self-knowledge.”

Noble notes that students’ course work can be monitored and archived by company officials. This raises questions about what rights students have to privacy and the proprietary control of their work in this cyber world of education. Noble asks: What third parties (besides students and faculty) will have access to the student’s communications?

While he paints a dismal picture of on-line education for profit, Noble does see growing and successful resistance to the trend by students and faculty at places like UCLA, the California State University system and his own institution, York University in Toronto. But with hundreds of billions of dollars on the line, don’t expect the corporations to give up on the idea of turning education into a profit-center. If you want to learn more about the corporate campaign to grab control of our colleges and universities read David Noble’s book-Digital Diploma Mills, the Automation of Higher Education (Monthly Review Press, New York, NY).