Library Juice 2:30 Supplement - August 4, 1999

Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education

David F. Noble October, 1997

Recent events at two large North American universities signal
dramatically that we have entered a new era in higher education, one
which is rapidly drawing the halls of academe into the age of
automation. In mid-summer the UCLA administration launched its historic
"Instructional Enhancement Initiative" requiring computer web sites for
all of its arts and sciences courses by the start of the Fall term, the
first time that a major university has made mandatory the use of
computer telecommunications technology in the delivery of higher
education. In partnership with several private corporations (including
the Times Mirror Company, parent of the Los Angeles Times), moreover,
UCLA has spawned its own for-profit company, headed by a former UCLA
vice chancellor, to peddle online education (the Home Education Network).

This past spring in Toronto, meanwhile, the full-time faculty of York
University, Canada's third largest, ended an historic two-month strike
having secured for the first time anywhere formal contractual protection
against precisely the kind of administrative action being taken by UCLA.
The unprecedented faculty job action, the longest university strike in
English Canadian history, was taken partly in response to unilateral
administrative initiatives in the implementation of instructional
technology, the most egregious example of which was an official
solicitation to private corporations inviting them to permanently place
their logo on a university online course in return for a $10,000
contribution to courseware development. As at UCLA, the York University
administration has spawned its own subsidiary (Cultech), directed by the
vice president for research and several deans and dedicated, in
collaboration with a consortium of private sector firms, to the
commercial development and exploitation of online education.

Significantly, at both UCLA and York, the presumably cyber-happy
students have given clear indication that they are not exactly
enthusiastic about the prospect of a high-tech academic future,
recommending against the Initiative at UCLA and at York lending their
support to striking faculty and launching their own independent
investigation of the commercial, pedagogical, and ethical implications
of online educational technology. This Fall the student handbook
distributed annually to all students by the York Federation of Students
contained a warning about the dangers of online education.

Thus, at the very outset of this new age of higher education, the lines
have already been drawn in the struggle which will ultimately determine

its shape. On the one side university administrators and their myriad
commercial partners, on the other those who constitute the core relation
of education: students and teachers. (The chief slogan of the York
faculty during the strike was "the classroom vs the boardroom"). It is
no accident, then, that 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. At
UCLA the administration launched their Initiative during the summer when
many faculty are away and there was little possibility of faculty
oversight or governance; faculty were thus left out of the loop and kept
in the dark about the new web requirement until the last moment. And
UCLA administrators also went ahead with its Initiative, which is funded
by a new compulsory student fee, despite the formal student
recommendation against it. Similarly the initiatives of the York
administration in the deployment of computer technology in education
were taken without faculty oversight and deliberation much less student

What is driving this headlong rush to implement new technology with so
little regard for deliberation of the pedagogical and economic costs and
at the risk of student and faculty alienation and opposition? A short
answer might be the fear of getting left behind, the incessant pressures
of "progress". But there is more to it. For the universities are not
simply undergoing a technological transformation. Beneath that change,
and camouflaged by it, lies another: the commercialization of higher
education. For here as elsewhere technology is but a vehicle and a
disarming disguise.

The major change to befall the universities over the last two decades
has been the identification of the campus as a significant site of
capital accumulation, a change in social perception which has resulted
in the systematic conversion of intellectual activity into intellectual
capital and, hence, intellectual property. There have been two general
phases of this transformation. The first, which began twenty years ago
and is still underway, entailed the commoditization of the research
function of the university, transforming scientific and engineering
knowledge into commercially viable proprietary products that could be
owned and bought and sold in the market. The second, which we are now
witnessing, entails the commoditization of the educational function of
the university, transforming courses into courseware, the activity of
instruction itself into commercially viable proprietary products that
can be owned and bought and sold in the market. In the first phase the
universities became the site of production and sale of patents and
exclusive licenses. In the second, they are becoming the site of
production of - as well as the chief market for - copyrighted videos,
courseware, CD-ROMs, and Web sites.
The first phase began in the mid-1970's when, in the wake of the oil
crisis and intensifying international competition, corporate and
political leaders of the major industrialized countries of the world

recognized that they were losing their monopoly over the world's heavy
industries and that, in the future, their supremacy would depend upon
their monopoly over the knowledge which had become the lifeblood of the
new so-called "knowledge-based" industries (space, electronics,
computers, materials, telecommunications, and bioengineering). This
focus upon "intellectual capital" turned their attention to the
universities as its chief source, implicating the universities as never
before in the economic machinery. In the view of capital, the
universities had become too important to be left to the universities.
Within a decade there was a proliferation of industrial partnerships and
new proprietary arrangements, as industrialists and their campus
counterparts invented ways to socialize the risks and costs of creating
this knowledge while privatizing the benefits. This unprecedented
collaboration gave rise to an elaborate web of interlocking directorates
between corporate and academic boardrooms and the foundation of joint
lobbying efforts epitomized by the work of the Business-Higher Education
Forum. The chief accomplishment of the combined effort, in addition to a
relaxation of anti-trust regulations and greater tax incentives for
corporate funding of university research, was the 1980 reform of the
patent law which for the first time gave the universities automatic
ownership of patents resulting from federal government grants.
Laboratory knowledge now became patents, that is Intellectual capital
and intellectual property. As patent holding companies, the universities
set about at once to codify their intellectual property policies,
develop the infrastructure for the conduct of commercially-viable
research, cultivate their corporate ties, and create the mechanisms for
marketing their new commodity, exclusive licenses to their patents. The
result of this first phase of university commoditization was a wholesale
reallocation of university resources toward its research function at the
expense of its educational function.

Class sizes swelled, teaching staffs and instructional resources were
reduced, salaries were frozen, and curricular offerings were cut to the
bone. At the same time, tuition soared to subsidize the creation and
maintenance of the commercial infrastructure (and correspondingly
bloated administration) that has never really paid off. In the end
students were paying more for their education and getting less, and the
campuses were in crisis.*

The second phase of the commercialization of academia, the
commoditization of instruction, is touted as the solution to the crisis
engendered by the first. Ignoring the true sources of the financial
debacle - an expensive and low-yielding commercial infrastructure and
greatly expanded administrative costs - the champions of computer-based
instruction focus their attention rather upon increasing the
efficiencies of already overextended teachers. And they ignore as well
the fact that their high-tech remedies are bound only to compound the
problem, increasing further, rather then reducing, the costs of higher

education. (Experience to date demonstrates clearly that computer-based
teaching, with its limitless demands upon instructor time and vastly
expanded overhead requirements - equipment, upgrades, maintenance, and
technical and administrative support staff - costs more not less than
traditional education, whatever the reductions in direct labor, hence
the need for outside funding and student technology fees). Little
wonder, then, that teachers and students are reluctant to embrace this
new panacea. Their hesitation reflects not fear but wisdom.**

But this second transformation of higher education is not the work of
teachers or students, the presumed beneficiaries of improved education,
because it is not really about education at all. That's just the name of
the market. The foremost promoters of this transformation are rather the
vendors of the network hardware, software, and "content" - Apple, IBM,
Bell, the cable companies, Microsoft, and the edutainment and publishing
companies Disney, Simon and Schuster, Prentice-Hall, et al - who view
education as a market for their wares, a market estimated by the Lehman
Brothers investment firm potentially to be worth several hundred billion
dollars. "Investment opportunity in the education industry has never
been better," one of their reports proclaimed, indicating that this will
be "the focus industry" for lucrative investment in the future,
replacing the healthcare industry. (The report also forecasts that the
educational market will eventually become dominated by EMO's - education
maintenance organizations - just like HMO's in the healthcare market).
It is important to emphasize that, for all the democratic rhetoric about
extending educational access to those unable to get to the campus, the
campus remains the real market for these products, where students
outnumber their distance learning counterparts six-to-one.

In addition to the vendors, corporate training advocates view online
education as yet another way of bringing their problem-solving,
information- processing, "just-in-time" educated employees up to profit-
making speed. Beyond their ambitious in-house training programs, which
have incorporated computer-based instructional methods pioneered by the
military, they envision the transformation of the delivery of higher
education as a means of supplying their properly-prepared personnel at
public expense .

The third major promoters of this transformation are the university
administrators, who see it as a way of giving their institutions a
fashionably forward-looking image. More importantly, they view
computer-based instruction as a means of reducing their direct labor and
plant maintenance costs - fewer teachers and classrooms - while at the
same time undermining the autonomy and independence of faculty. At the
same time, they are hoping to get a piece of the commercial action for
their institutions or themselves, as vendors in their own right of
software and content. University administrators are supported in this
enterprise by a number of private foundations, trade associations, and
academic-corporate consortia which are promoting the use of the new

technologies with increasing intensity. Among these are the Sloan,
Mellon, Pew, and Culpeper Foundations, the American Council on
Education, and, above all, Educom, a consortium representing the
management of 600 colleges and universities and a hundred private

Last but not least, behind this effort are the ubiquitous technozealots
who simply view computers as the panacea for everything, because they
like to play with them. With the avid encouragement of their private
sector and university patrons, they forge ahead, without support for
their pedagogical claims about the alleged enhancement of education,
without any real evidence of productivity improvement, and without any
effective demand from either students or teachers.

In addition to York and UCLA, universities throughout North America are
rapidly being overtaken by this second phase of commercialization. There
are the stand-alone virtual institutions like University of Phoenix, the
wired private institutions like the New School for Social Research, the
campuses of state universities like the University of Maryland and the
new Gulf-Coast campus of the University of Florida (which boasts no
tenure). On the state level, the states of Arizona and California have
initiated their own state-wide virtual university projects, while a
consortia of western "Smart States" have launched their own ambitious
effort to wire all of their campuses into an online educational network.
In Canada, a national effort has been undertaken, spearheaded by the
Telelearning Research Network centered at Simon Fraser University in
Vancouver, to bring most of the nation's higher education institutions
into a "Virtual U" network.

The overriding commercial intent and market orientation behind these
initiatives is explicit, as is illustrated by the most ambitious U.S.
effort to date, the Western Governors' Virtual University Project, whose
stated goals are to "expand the marketplace for instructional materials,
courseware, and programs utilizing advanced technology," "expand the
marketplace for demonstrated competence," and "identify and remove
barriers to the free functioning of these markets, particularly barriers
posed by statutes, policies, and administrative rules and regulations."

"In the future," Utah governor Mike Leavitt proclaimed, "an institution
of higher education will become a little like a local television
station." Startup funds for the project come from the private sector,
specifically from Educational Management Group , the educational arm of
the world's largest educational publisher Simon and Schuster and the
proprietary impulse behind their largesse is made clear by Simon and
Schuster CEO Jonathan Newcomb: "The use of interactive technology is
causing a fundamental shift away from the physical classroom toward
anytime, anywhere learning - the model for post secondary education in
the twenty- first century." This transformation is being made possible
by "advances in digital technology, coupled with the protection of
copyright in cyberspace."

Similarly, the national effort to develop the "Virtual U" customized
educational software platform in Canada is directed by an industrial
consortium which includes Kodak, IBM, Microsoft, McGraw-Hill,
Prentice-Hall, Rogers Cablesystems, Unitel, Novasys, Nortel, Bell
Canada, and MPR Teltech, a research subsidiary of GTE. The commercial
thrust behind the project is explicit here too. Predicting a potential
fifty billion dollar Canadian market, the project proposal emphasizes
the adoption of "an intellectual property policy that will encourage
researchers and industry to commercialize their innovations" and
anticipates the development of "a number of commercially marketable
hardware and software products and services," including "courseware and
other learning products." The two directors of the project, Simon Fraser
University professors, have formed their own company to peddle these
products in collaboration with the university. At the same time, the
nearby University of British Columbia has recently spun off the private
WEB-CT company to peddle its own educational website software, WEB-CT,
the software designed by one of its computer science professors and now
being used by UCLA. In recent months, WEB-CT has entered into production
and distribution relationships with Silicon Graphics and Prentice-Hall
and is fast becoming a major player in the American as well as Canadian
higher education market. As of the beginning of the Fall term, WEB CT
licensees now include, in addition to UCLA and California State
University, the Universities of Georgia, Minnesota, Illinois, North
Carolina, and Indiana, as well as such private institutions as Syracuse,
Brandeis, and Duquesne.

The implications of the commoditization of university instruction are
two-fold in nature, those relating to the university as a site of the
production of the commodities and those relating to the university as a
market for them. The first raises for the faculty traditional labor
issues about the introduction of new technologies of production. The
second raises for students major questions about costs, coercion,
privacy, equity, and the quality of education.

With the commoditization of instruction, teachers as labor are drawn
into a production process designed for the efficient creation of
instructional commodities, and hence become subject to all the pressures
that have befallen production workers in other industries undergoing
rapid technological transformation from above. In this context faculty
have much more in common with the historic plight of other skilled
workers than they care to acknowledge. Like these others, their activity
is being restructured, via the technology, in order to reduce their
autonomy, independence, and control over their work and to place
workplace knowledge and control as much as possible into the hands of
the administration. As in other industries, the technology is being
deployed by management primarily to discipline, deskill, and displace
Once faculty and courses go online, administrators gain much greater
direct control over faculty performance and course content than ever

before and the potential for administrative scrutiny, supervision,
regimentation, discipline and even censorship increase dramatically. At
the same time, the use of the technology entails an inevitable extension
of working time and an intensification of work as faculty struggle at
all hours of the day and night to stay on top of the technology and
respond, via chat rooms, virtual office hours, and e-mail, to both
students and administrators to whom they have now become instantly and
continuously accessible. The technology also allows for much more
careful administrative monitoring of faculty availability, activities,
and responsiveness.

Once faculty put their course material online, moreover, the knowledge
and course design skill embodied in that material is taken out of their
possession, transferred to the machinery and placed in the hands of the
administration. The administration is now in a position to hire less
skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically
prepackaged course. It also allows the administration, which claims
ownership of this commodity, to peddle the course elsewhere without the
original designer's involvement or even knowledge, much less financial
interest. The buyers of this packaged commodity, meanwhile, other
academic institutions, are able thereby to contract out, and hence
outsource, the work of their own employees and thus reduce their
reliance upon their in-house teaching staff.

Most important, once the faculty converts its courses to courseware,
their services are in the long run no longer required. They become
redundant, and when they leave, their work remains behind. In Kurt
Vonnegut's classic novel Player Piano the ace machinist Rudy Hertz is
flattered by the automation engineers who tell him his genius will be
immortalized. They buy him a beer. They capture his skills on tape. Then
they fire him. Today faculty are falling for the same tired line, that
their brilliance will be broadcast online to millions. Perhaps, but
without their further participation. Some skeptical faculty insist that
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's 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 over their working lives, the product of their
labor, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood.

None of this is speculation. This Fall the UCLA faculty, at
administration request, have dutifully or grudgingly (it doesn't really
matter which) placed their course work - ranging from just syllabi and
assignments to the entire body of course lectures and notes - at the
disposal of their administration, to be used online, without asking who
will own it much less how it will eventually be used and with what
consequences. At York university, untenured faculty have been required
to put their courses on video, CD- ROM or the Internet or lose their
job. They have then been hired to teach their own now automated course

at a fraction of their former compensation. The New School in New York
now routinely hires outside contractors from around the country, mostly
unemployed PhDs, to design online courses. The designers are not hired
as employees but are simply paid a modest flat fee and are required to
surrender to the university all rights to their course. The New School
then offers the course without having to employ anyone. And this is just
the beginning.

Educom, the academic-corporate consortium, has recently established
their Learning Infrastructure Initiative which includes the detailed
study of what professors do, breaking the faculty job down in classic
Tayloristic fashion into discrete tasks, and determining what parts can
be automated or outsourced. Educom believes that course design,
lectures, and even evaluation can all be standardized, mechanized, and
consigned to outside commercial vendors. "Today you're looking at a
highly personal human- mediated environment," Educom president Robert
Heterich observed. "The potential to remove the human mediation in some
areas and replace it with automation - smart, computer-based,
network-based systems - is tremendous. It's gotta happen."

Toward this end, university administrators are coercing or enticing
faculty into compliance, placing the greatest pressures on the most
vulnerable - untenured and part-time faculty, and entry-level and
prospective employees. They are using the academic incentive and
promotion structure to reward cooperation and discourage dissent. At the
same time they are mounting an intensifying propaganda campaign to
portray faculty as incompetent, hide-bound, recalcitrant, inefficient,
ineffective, and expensive - in short, in need of improvement or
replacement through instructional technologies. Faculty are portrayed
above all as obstructionist, as standing in the way of progress and
forestalling the panacea of virtual education allegedly demanded by
students, their parents, and the public.

The York University faculty had heard it all. Yet still they fought
vigorously and ultimately successfully to preserve quality education and
protect themselves from administrative assault. During their long strike
they countered such administration propaganda with the truth about what
was happening to higher education and eventually won the support of
students, the media, and the public. Most important, they secured a new
contract containing unique and unprecedented provisions which, if
effectively enforced, give faculty members direct and unambiguous
control over all decisions relating to the automation of instruction,
including veto power. According to the contract, all decisions regarding
the use of technology as a supplement to classroom instruction or as a
means of alternative delivery (including the use of video, CD-ROM's,
Internet websites, computer-mediated conferencing, etc.) "shall be
consistent with the pedagogic and academic judgements and principles of
the faculty member employee as to the appropriateness of the use of
technology in the circumstances." The contract also guarantees that "a

faculty member will not be required to convert a course without his or
her agreement." Thus, the York faculty will be able to ensure that the
new technology, if and when used, will contribute to a genuine
enhancement rather than a degradation of the quality of education, while
at the same time preserving their positions, their autonomy, and their
academic freedom. The battle is far from won, but it is a start.

The second set of implications stemming from the commoditization of
instruction involve the transformation of the university into a market
for the commodities being produced. Administrative propaganda routinely
alludes to an alleged student demand for the new instructional products.
At UCLA officials are betting that their high-tech agenda will be
"student driven", as students insist that faculty make fuller use of the
web site technology in their courses. To date, however, there has been
no such demand on the part of students, no serious study of it, and no
evidence for it. Indeed, the few times students have been given a voice,
they have rejected the initiatives hands down, especially when they were
required to pay for it (the definition of effective demand, i.e. a
market). At UCLA, students recommended against the Instructional
Enhancement Initiative. At the University of British Columbia, home of
the WEB-CT software being used at UCLA, students voted in a referendum
four-to-one against a similar initiative, despite a lengthy
administration campaign promising them a more secure place in the high
tech future. Administrators at both institutions have tended to dismiss,
ignore, or explain away these negative student decisions, but there is a
message here: students want the genuine face-to- face education they
paid for not a cybercounterfeit. Nevertheless, administrators at both
UCLA and UBC decided to proceed with the their agenda anyway, desperate
to create a market and secure some return on their investment in the
information technology infrastructure. Thus, they are creating a market
by fiat, compelling students (and faculty) to become users and hence
consumers of the hardware, software, and content products as a condition
of getting an education, whatever their interest or ability to pay. Can
all students equally afford this capital-intensive education?

Another key ethical issue relates to the use of student online
activities. Few students realize that their computer-based courses are
often thinly- veiled field trials for product and market development,
that while they are studying their courses, their courses are studying
them. In Canada, for example, universities have been given royalty-free
licenses to Virtual U software in return for providing data on its use
to the vendors. Thus, all online activity including communications
between students and professors and among students are monitored,
automatically logged and archived by the system for use by the vendor.
Students enrolled in courses using Virtual U software are in fact
formally designated "experimental subjects." Because federal monies were
used to develop the software and underwrite the field trials, vendors

were compelled to comply with ethical guidelines on the experimental use
of human subjects. Thus, all students once enrolled are required to sign
forms releasing ownership and control of their online activities to the
vendors. The form states "as a student using Virtual U in a course, I
give my permission to have the computer-generated usage data, conference
transcript data, and virtual artifacts data collected by the Virtual U
software. . . used for research, development, and demonstration
purposes. "

According to UCLA's Home Education Network president John Korbara, all
of their distance learning courses are likewise monitored and archived
for use by company officials. On the UCLA campus, according to Harlan
Lebo of the Provost's office, student use of the course websites will be
routinely audited and evaluated by the administration. Marvin Goldberg,
designer of the UCLA WEB-CT software acknowledges that the system allows
for "lurking" and automatic storage and retrieval of all online
activities. How this capability will be used and by whom is not
altogether clear, especially since websites are typically being
constructed by people other than the instructors. What third parties
(besides students and faculty in the course) will have access to the
student's communications? Who will own student online contributions?
What rights, if any, do students have to privacy and proprietary control
of their work? Are they given prior notification as to the ultimate
status of their online activities, so that they might be in a position
to give, or withhold, their informed consent? If students are taking
courses which are just experiments, and hence of unproven pedagogical
value, should students be paying full tuition for them? And if students
are being used as guinea pigs in product trials masquerading as courses,
should they be paying for these courses or be paid to take them? More to
the point, should students be content with a degraded, shadow
cybereducation? In Canada student organizations have begun to confront
these issues head on, and there are some signs of similar student
concern emerging also in the U.S.

In his classic 1959 study of diploma mills for the American Council on
Education, Robert Reid described the typical diploma mill as having the
following characteristics: "no classrooms," "faculties are often
untrained or nonexistent," and "the officers are unethical self-seekers
whose qualifications are no better than their offerings." It is an apt
description of the digital diploma mills now in the making. Quality
higher education will not disappear entirely, but it will soon become
the exclusive preserve of the privileged, available only to children of
the rich and the powerful. For the rest of us a dismal new era of higher
education has dawned. In ten years, we will look upon the wired remains
of our once great democratic higher education system and wonder how we
let it happen. That is, unless we decide now not to let it happen.
(Historian David Noble , co-founder of the National Coalition for
Universities in the Public Interest, teaches at York University. His

latest book is The Religion of Technology . He is currently writing a
book on this subject entitled Digital Diploma Mills).


* Tuition began to outpace inflation in the early 1980's, at precisely
the moment when changes in the patent system enabled the universities to
become major vendors of patent licenses. According to data compiled by
the National Center for Educational Statistics, between 1976 and 1994
expenditures on research increased 21.7% at public research universities
while expenditure on instruction decreased 9.5%. Faculty salaries, which
had peaked in 1972, fell precipitously during the next decade and have
since recovered only half the loss.

** Recent surveys of the instructional use of information technology in
higher education clearly indicate that there have been no significant
gains in either productivity improvement or pedagogical enhancement.
Kenneth C. Green , Director of the Campus Computing Project, which
conducts annual surveys of information technology use in higher
education, noted that "the campus experience over the past decade
reveals that the dollars can be daunting, the return on investment
highly uncertain." "We have yet to hear of an instance where the total
costs (including all realistically amortized capital investments and
development expenses, plus reasonable estimates for faculty and support
staff time) associated with teaching some unit to some group of students
actually decline while maintaining the quality of learning," Green
wrote. On the matter of pedagogical effectiveness, Green noted that "the
research literature offers, at best, a mixed review of often
inconclusive results, at least when searching for traditional measures
of statistical significance in learning outcomes."

Jon Flanders

--- from list marxism-international[at] ---


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