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CAUT Bulletin Archives

February 2003

Exposing What Lies Behind the Push for Distance Education

Elisabeth Abergel

Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education

David F. Noble. Toronto: Between the Lines, 2002; 116 pp; paper $19.95 CA.
David Noble’s book describes the commodification and commercialization of higher education through online instruction. More precisely, it denounces the underhanded and negligent methods university administrators used to secure supposedly huge profits in partnership with private corporations, at the expense of their employees and the public education system. This book tells of efforts to privatize and control knowledge, restrict access to education (under the guise of expanding it) and redefine the public role of the university.

Digital Diploma Mills consists of a series of articles published on the Internet between 1997 and 1998. Starting with a historical perspective on distance education, then called correspondence instruction, Noble aptly shows that the current push for technological learning has more to do with political economy than technology itself.

The first transformation of higher learning a century ago, giving rise to the diploma mills, emerged from the lucrative vocational training market developed through correspondence courses. Universities, eager to cash in, produced and distributed materials through the mail. The economic success of this venture depended on large dropout rates.

This first wave of profit-based distance education inspired by Taylorization attempted to reduce course production and delivery to mechanical processes, resulting in poor quality education and the “de-skilling” of the teaching profession.

Noble’s critique draws a parallel between correspondence courses and the hype surrounding online education today. He argues that similar processes are at work that could potentially alter the future of university education.

The consequences of public/private partnerships and their intricacies are described in detail, particularly the UCLA Extension (UNEX) agreement reached with THEN (The Home Education Network, later renamed — OLN) in 1997.

Not only did university administrators strike bargains with media corporations by circumventing normal decision-making processes, they traded the intellectual and physical labour of their employees without their consent or knowledge. Technology corporations obtained exclusive rights in return for the distribution of university course materials and for the institution’s name as a product brand. In theory, universities would generate profits on sales of materials.

In this scenario, universities become the site of production and the market for online education. Students became the primary targets of these profit centers.

The single most important factor in the UCLA and other such deals hinged upon securing copyright agreements from course instructors. Without this crucial component, Noble suggests, the contracts these institutions entered into were essentially illegal.

As a result of the ambiguous status of university ownership of course materials, instructors were pressured to produce Web-based course content as a condition of their employment, the most vulnerable instructors being singled out. Reduced to mere content providers, instructors involved in online learning and teaching unsuspectingly became subcontractors for media-based corporations.

Noble’s work brings a much-needed perspective on the impacts of these digital diploma mills. He shows how public education is being subverted by private interests, how information is substituted for knowledge and how exclusive higher learning will be if profit motives rule the day. This spells the end of academic freedom and the deprofessionalization of university teaching.

The push for virtual universities and Web-based courses is more than a story about technological transformation. The machinations of university-corporate partners to gain control over the production and delivery of computer-based courses and over user information marks a new development in the university/industrial complex. Universities involved in these deals are active participants in the demise of higher education.

Concerns are being raised by students and faculty across North America about the future of public university education. Instructors are refusing to provide online courses. The debate over online education is polarized within academic circles. However, Noble suggests that some of the promoters of virtual classrooms have modified their message in light of opposition and, more important, false promises.

Web-based learning not only creates worse working conditions for instructors — essentially rendering them useless in the long-run — but also doesn’t seem to be effective. As well, the quality of education suffers and students pay more for less.

Technology costs make online education a very expensive proposition and only privileged students will benefit from these developments. Student and faculty don’t want it, and it’s not clear how profitable it actually is. Some of the deals struck in the late 90s were terminated due to financial problems.

However, online education is not going away. I was a doctoral student during the York University strike of 1997, the starting point for Noble’s book. The battle against online education was as important then as it is today.

Elisabeth Abergel teaches multidisciplinary studies at Glendon College of York University in Toronto.