Online Classes Should be About Enriching, Not Privatizing, Education

As online courses continue to grow rapidly in number and size, and as some colleges begin to experiment with the use of “academic coaches” or even robots to lead those courses, some educators are wondering whether it’s all a scheme to privatize teaching and rid campuses of tenured faculty.

In 2009, enrollment in online courses rose by almost 1 million students in one year, according to the 2010 Sloan Survey of Online Learning, which also found that nearly 5.6 million students were enrolled in an online course that fall. “Nearly 30 percent of university students now take at least one course online,” said the study’s co-author, Babson University professor Elaine Allen.

On some of those campuses, thanks to contracts collectively bargained by faculty unions, those classes are taught by well-qualified faculty members, and those faculty members rightfully retain control over online course curriculum. Contract language also can limit class sizes, or faculty workload, ensuring that every student gets needed academic support.

For example, at Shawnee State University in Ohio, an affiliate of NEA, the faculty contract ensures that enrollment in online courses will not exceed 26 students. And, at Cleveland State University, the contract mandates distance-education courses will meet with all the criteria of traditional courses, including the involvement of faculty in the course development.

Some contracts also make it quite clear: Online education should not become an avenue to privatize education. “It is not the intent of the University to use distance education technology to permanently reduce, eliminate, or consolidate full-time bargaining unit positions at the University,” according to the University of Akron contract.

Similarly, at Brookdale Community College in New Jersey, “This technology is to enrich the learning experience…not to displace, replace, reduce, or otherwise limit [union-represented] faculty members,” the contract provides. (For more information about preferred contract language, check out the 2011 NEA Almanac article, “Negotiating Virtual Space,” co-written by NEA senior policy analyst Mark Smith.)

And yet, at some other campuses, online courses have provided a growing foothold for private businesses and their temporary, low-paid workers. And, as online offerings also grow at the K-12 level, especially among secondary students, the implications are clear. “There is a legitimate fear that work could be parceled out of the bargaining unit, and jobs lost and quality eroded, which is why it’s so critical for faculty to get organized and protect the professionalism of their work,” said Smith.

In a recent Inside HigherEd article, Maria Maisto, an adjunct faculty member at Ohio’s Cuyahoga Community College and board president of the New Faculty Majority, an organization of adjunct faculty members, points to Instructional Connections, a relatively new business that provides “academic coaches” to support a college’s online courses. So far, according to the article, the company has provided these “coaches” to nine universities, including Ohio University and Florida International University, where they replace already low-paid adjunct faculty members. (The company claims that classes run by it’s low-wage workers cost up to 40 percent less per student than classes taught by adjunct faculty members.)

“This new initiative seems to be symptomatic of the current tendency in higher ed, whether it calls itself nonprofit or for-profit, to underestimate and devalue and disinvest in the actual work of educators,” Maisto said in an email to Inside HigherEd.

Even worse, some institutions and businesses continue to show interest in “machine-guided learning,” which relies on automated software to teach and guide students. In a recent study at six unnamed public universities, students in large statistics classes were randomly assigned to “machine-guided” courses, which offered less face-to-face time with human instructors. Those students did just as well on tests as students in traditional classes, wrote the study’s authors, but students did complain that the machine-guided classes were boring and that they didn’t feel like they learned as much as they normally do from teachers.

The authors also estimated that the machine-led courses could cost as much as 57 percent less than faculty-led courses, which may tempt administrators who have suffered significant cuts in public funding for higher education. If the goal is savings, and not necessarily quality, then it’s an option likely to be considered.