Analyzing the Trends: Distance Education–Resistance is Futile

by Chris Cumo

THE IDYLLIC UNIVERSITY has ivory-laced buildings, sprawling greens, and vast oaks through which light bathes the campus in a gentle sheen. Its nucleus is the classroom, where teacher and student trade ideas, the professor gesticulating to make a point, her hands and blouse smeared with chalk and the board covered with a string of provocative assertions. Such interaction between student and instructor faces competition from online courses.

Some three decades ago Open University began offering courses by modem, though all faculty were then full-time according to John Hirschbuhl, who has been writing about distance education for nearly 20 years as professor of education and director of instructional services at The University of Akron. At first, teams of five or six instructors designed and taught the online courses. Today, 7083 part-timers and only 832 full-time faculty teach
online at Open University according to James Farmer, a research analyst at instructional Media and Magic, a Washington, D.C. multimedia company.

The adjunct model of distance education has reached its pinnacle at the University of Phoenix Online, where adjuncts teach all courses. The University of Phoenix even recruits adjuncts through its website; anyone with a Master’s degree and five years of “real world experience” can apply online. The Phoenix model is not ubiquitous, at least not yet, though it is difficult to pinpoint how many adjuncts teach online. Hirschbuhl estimates that 15 to 20 percent of adjuncts have taught at least one online course, though he adds the caveat that “no one is really sure about the numbers. Adjuncts often operate below the radar of the researcher who compiles educational data, and this makes them tough to quantify.”

Even more arduous is the attempt to predict how much the use of adjunct faculty in distance education programs will increase. Bill Pannapacker, Harvard lecturer and MLA delegate, expects
their numbers to mushroom because distance education and part-timers are cheap alternatives to the traditional classroom. He may be right about the savings associated with the employment of
adjuncts, but Hirschbuhl thinks Pannapacker underestimates the cost of online education. “There’s nothing cheaper than the lecture hall,” asserts Hirschbuhl.

University of Nebraska president L. Dennis Smith estimates in The Lincoln Journal Star that a college must spend between $500,000 and $5 million dollars to create an online curriculum. Despite these costs, Hirschbuhl predicts that by 2010 every adjunct will do at least some teaching online, and if universities do not generate the necessary capital for the leap into cyber-school, corporations will. Corporate executives understand that higher education is a lucrative market.  Some 20 million Americans and 200 million people worldwide want to take college courses, estimates Smith. This demand translates into a $15 billion bonanza.

John and Mariah Bear write in College Degrees by Mail and Modem that 119 colleges offer courses online, and Gary Becker, the 1992 Nobel laureate in economics, estimates that 6,000 courses are available online; though these numbers may seem impressive, they fall far short of demand. American businesses may bridge the gap between the availability of online courses and the demand for them.

Harcourt General, the parent company of Harcourt Brace and Bergdorf Goodman, announced last June its intention to create a for-profit college staffed by adjuncts. Real Education in Denver has more than quadrupled its sales force since 1998 in an effort to woo students to its for-profit college. Convene in San Francisco has hired an administrator from the University of Phoenix Online to head its marketing division.

This corporate whirlwind has led Peter Drucker, Clarke Professor of Social Science and Management at Claremont Graduate School, to predict the demise of universities. “The future is outside the
traditional campus, outside the tradition classroom,” he told Forbes Magazine. Pannapacker fears the new academic sweatshop will be made of modems and microchips and will deepen the divide between haves and have nots. He foresees a two-tier system of superstars who will market their courses online to the highest bidder and everyone else, who will toil through stacks of dreary essays.

There will be plenty of essays to grade if William Draves, president of the Learning Resources Network, is right that each online course will bulge with as many as 1,000 students by 2020. A three-tier system is also possible. Open University has full-time instructors, part-time lecturers, and part-time tutors. Of its 7,083 part-timers, 7,000 are tutors; they don’t teach as do those in the other two tiers, they are the drones who endure the drudgery of grading essays and answering students’ questions by e-mail. But these scenarios do not dishearten Hirschbuhl. Although the
University of Phoenix Online pays adjuncts just $2,000 per courses, he expects wages to rise with the demand for online instruction, especially for those with technical skills.

The scientist who can teach people in China to grow a new soybean variety or to manufacture a semiconductor at low cost will be able to sell her services worldwide. Hirschbuhl even hopes
distance education will have room for the fine arts. Broadband access to the web will allow the transmission of images with unprecedented immediacy and clarity and will be an ideal medium, he believes, for drama, painting, dance and the like. But his optimism may be Pollyannaish. Richard Rodriguez, associate editor of the Pacific News Service and academic dissident who turned down a literature position at Yale in the 1970s, fears that the silicon tower has little room for the humanities. It is too solitary a medium, he believes, to sustain the human interaction that is their core.

Distance education cannot recreate the dynamism of an exchange between scholars and students, of the Socratic method at work. It cannot teach students to appreciate nuance or to value reflection
over spontaneous chatter. It cannot put before them the model of a scholar at her craft, and without this model the online university cannot hope to persuade anyone that the study of philosophy or
history or literature has a value that transcends the ability to pick the right mutual fund. Distance education will require us to become “intellectual entrepreneurs” to borrow Henry Louis
Gates’ phrase, but this task may be especially difficult for adjuncts.

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