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From: Sid Shniad <[log in to unmask]>
Subject:      Digital Diploma Mills
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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
       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 involvement.
     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
    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 corporations.
     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." Start
up 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 labor.
      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
      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."