Thursday, March 09, 2006

The Most Important Story You Know Nothing About

About a month ago, somewhere between the Olympics and the Superbowl, squashed under wall-to-wall kvetching about Muhammad cartoons, the most important academic story since possibly the GI Bill flew right under the radar. I missed it, and from my search through the archives of both Old Media and New Media stories from that time, nearly everyone else missed it too. Those who noticed it didn't understand what they were seeing.

Tucked away deep in Deficit Reduction Act of 2005 (S 1932) was a provision ending the 50/50 rule for online education. The 50/50 rule was a rule that was designed to discourage online diploma mills by insisting that schools could have no more than 50% of their students learning through distance-learning or online courses. This put some limits on the general headlong rush toward online education among legitimate schools.

That provision is now dead and gone. By my (inexpert) reading of the law, as long as the school can keep their accreditation they have have as many of their students online as they wish. Online education is very alluring to administrators, since it is dirt cheap to provide (almost no overhead relative to traditional classrooms), and can be provided by cheap labor (adjuncts who can be located anywhere there is internet access, often paid by the head).

Naturally, quality control is a serious issue. In my own experience, I find the students who have taken the prerequisites online are even less prepared than those who transferred the credits from community colleges. It is tempting for cyber-adjuncts to load up on classes, signing up for impossible loads at multiple schools, then doing the bare minimum possible to avoid being fired. I've heard rumors of cyber-adjuncts pulling down six figures through playing the system at multiple schools, but I cannot confirm these stories. Of course, adjuncts could always abuse the system, but given the limitations of time and geography, they have traditionally been the recipients of abuse.

Why haven't we heard more about this? One reason is that there were a lot of sexier stories at the time -- I suspect any headline containing the words "Budget Reconciliation Bill" isn't going to sell a lot of papers. I think the Chronicle of Higher Education deserves some criticism, though, since the serve a community deeply affected by all this. I read the Chronicle pretty regularly, and didn't notice it. I did a search, and couldn't find the story, but a friend of mine was finally able to find a single story on February 3rd in the Chronicle (subscriber only, sorry) entitled "Rule Change May Spark Online Boom for Colleges." That headline is akin to covering Hurricane Katrina with a single story headlined "New Ocean-front Property in New Orleans May Spark Construction Boom for Louisiana."

What are the implications? Here are some semi-prognostications, meaning that I think the following are realistic effects, not that they will necessarily happen in this way. The truth is, no one really knows:
  • Community colleges could die out. Can't afford to move to go to school? Why get a diploma from Local-Yokol Community College when you could get one from Big-Name-Far-Away University? Given the fact that the cyber-adjuncts don't have to live there, you are probably just as likely to get the same quality instruction regardless.
  • Instructor and traditional adjunct jobs could die out, further tightening the entry-level opportunities for the professorate. If I'm an administrator, why hire an instructor at $25k per year to teach eight courses when I can hire eight adjuncts at $1500 per course? In the past this abuse of adjuncts was bad enough, but it was limited by the size of the adjunct pool. Now, the adjunct pool is the same nationwide.
  • Since we don't really know the size of the workforce, it is also possible that if classroom adjuncts are eliminated, cyber-adjunct pay will rise. Without geographic limitations, adjuncts will be able to work for the highest bidder, not just the highest bidder within driving distance. If, however, the number of potential cyber-adjuncts is greater than the market for them, pay might stay the same.
  • Recruitment of grad students might change. Grad students TAs might cost slightly more than adjuncts at the moment, but that extra cost is justified by recruiting. If the need for TAs to teach classes is essentiall eliminated, grad students might be recruited with other jobs -- for example, working on the staff of the department, working as true research assistants to professors, or working on the editorial staff of the local academic journal.
  • Campuses might become showcases. Why hire three new assistant professors at $40k each when you can pay one big-name professor $100k and get cyber-adjuncts to fill in the gaps? Sports and other public events may become more emphasized, campuses may become more beautiful, with the architecture of buildings focused more on aesthetics than utility (what will look good on the website?), and statues of famous thinkers everywhere.
  • Alumni giving may drop. Ah, yes, I remember all the fine times I had at the alma mater -- I guess I'll pledge $100. Is anyone really going to think that for a school they attended entirely online?
  • Teaching schools may emphasize research more on campus. Courseloads for traditional professors may drop just as numbers of jobs rise. Pay may also rise for the traditional professors as money from online courses pours in. Schools beyond the Ivies may get into bidding wars for the Big Names. By the same token, online courses might be "taught" by Big Names but graded by an army of adjuncts (i.e. the lecture series is podcast, but the professor in the podcast never sees the assignments).
...etc, etc. Obviously, the above is not exhaustive, and some of the potential outcomes are mutually exclusive with other outcomes. Nevertheless, unless someone intervenes (like the accrediting agencies take a much harder line with online courses), this signals serious dangers and potential opportunities for traditional universities.


  1. Anonymous10:43 AM

    sometimes -- hell, most of the time -- I just have no idea what our public servants are thinking.

    yes, our world is becoming more digital, and you could argue that this bill is reflective of that... I just have a bad feeling about it, however.

  2. Anonymous11:37 AM

    Here's my question: it seems that this change will result in mostly negative consequences. Most of what you propose lies on the assumption (an assumption I would agree with, by the way) that universities will make decisions based mostly on the bottom line. What happens, however, when the quality of education drops to such a point that employers no longer considered a B.A. from State School X to have any value (or at least not the same value that a B.A. from State School X would receive today)? In other words, if the education schools provide is no longer valuable to employers, will people continue to pay money to attend these schools/webcasts? It seems to me that if this is so, people are naturally going to seek out institutions where a B.A. will still mean something, which may mean more traditional school systems.

    Of course, this is operating under the assumption that "digital learning" is inferior, which it doesn't have to be. And for some people, it's clearly going to be better than what they already have. But for many, who have other (presumably better) options now, they scenario may look like this:
    digital learning which leads to -->lower quality of education which
    leads to -->decreased value of said education to employers which
    leads to --->an environment where digital education is considered a waste of time, which
    leads to ---> students looking for schools that DO provide a useful education which
    leads to ---> schools with a traditional teaching system (either older schools who haven't changed or new schools hoping to meet the demand for this type of system) reaching out to said students which
    leads ---> a country with several different kinds of higher education, where a B.A. may no longer means what it means now but where something equivalent is still being offered somewhere.

    I don't know. This is all conjecture. Like I said, for many digital learning may be the best thing to ever happen to them. But I'm not always so sure.

  3. I abhor distance education. It is a last resort. Further evidence of decay in a utilitarian society.

  4. Thomas,

    If I take your question right, you are asking if I think we will end up with multiple tiers of education, and an even greater gap between the educational haves and have-nots. I think that is likely. Individual schools, for example, may charge a different tuition for the privilege of attending the traditional classroom, or such differences might be noted on transcripts. For example, in Korea diplomas from cyber-universities, even the counter-parts of the best institutions in the country, are considered inferior to the traditional diploma. If you go to Seoul National University, your diploma will open most doors for you. If you go to the online site of Seoul National University, your degree is valued less than the least of traditional schools.

    I don't want to forcast all doom-and-gloom, however. Accrediting groups could do a lot to ensure that the gap between online education and traditional education is not so great. Also, it isn't like Congress couldn't reinstate the 50/50 rule if things appear to be going bad quickly. This might also be a boon to the dying liberal arts colleges, if people see them as superior education.

    The Law of Unintended Consequences will certainly be in play, so no one can predict with certainty. Without strong intervention by a major player (accrediting agencies, AASCU, the Federal government), I predict that this will be the most important change, for good and for ill, since the GI Bill.

  5. Anonymous7:26 AM

    Yeah, I certainly agree with you. One question, however, and it's a little off-topic. How are liberal arts colleges "dying?" I ask because I go to one (Dickinson College in Carlisle, PA). I don't know anything about their fiscal health in general, but feel that they are pretty important little institutions. Dickinson's financial situation is pretty good, but until about six years ago (before our current president came in) it wasn't, so it wouldn't surprise me if other liberal arts colleges were having problems. My perception about liberal arts colleges is probably flawed based on what I know about Dickinson. I'm just wondering: are liberal arts colleges really in that much danger?

  6. Thomas,

    As far as I know, liberal arts colleges aren't in financial trouble ... the problem is declining enrollments. Someone pointed out recently (in the Chronicle, I think) that every liberal arts student in the country could fit into one Big Ten stadium.

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