Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education

David F. Noble
New York: Monthly Review Press, 2001
(New York University Press, 2002)
128 pp., $21.95 hc

Steve Lockwood

Over a 30-year academic career, David Noble has studied the automation of industries "and its consequences for the workers of those industries" (ix). In America by Design: Science, Technology, and the Rise of Corporate Capitalism (1979), Forces of Production (1986), and The Religion of Technology (1997), he has shown via a Marxist-Materialist analysis how economic forces have been used by those in power to shape the immediate environment to their advantage, often with unintended consequences.

In his earlier books Noble showed that by the time people realized that technological change had reduced their autonomy and also their livelihoods, the time for effective action in their own interest had passed. In Digital Diploma Mills, Noble's goal is to again "sound an early alarm," this time for educators, warning them early enough "to provide some opportunity for defensive preparation and the envisioning of alternatives" (ix). Probably a central question to be answered is, How is the professoriate responding? Learning some of his evidence--much of it primary research--may help us understand Noble's answer.

First, Noble says that the current push for distance education "is not really about technology" and isn't even new; it's "about the commodification of higher education" (1). He uses "commodification" in its "classical, restricted sense, to mean something expressly created for market exchange" (3). This, he says, is a "deliberate transformation of the educational process into commodity form, for the purpose of commercial transaction" (3). The process has three main steps.

First, attention is shifted from the experience of people involved in the educational process to separating that process into parts, often called "course materials" or "content," such as syllabi, lectures, notes, exams. Second, these materials are removed ("alienated") from their original context (the educational process) and from the professors ("producers"), and are packaged as "courses." Last, these "courses" are exchanged for profit on the market, which determines their value. The courses are sold by their owners, "who may or may not have any relationship to the original creators and participants in the educational process" (3). At this point instruction has become "a set of deliverable commodities" with the end not of knowledge but of profit.

Quality education is labor intensive; it has always depended on a low teacher-student ratio with significant interaction between the two. But commodity production requires lowering labor costs. So, a fundamental and, for Noble, irresolvable tension exists between "pedagogical promise and economic efficiency" (4). What Noble shows in his historical review of correspondence education is that economic efficiency always has prevailed over the former, diminishing both labor force and product. "Thus, what is at stake in the struggle over the commodification of education is not only the professional autonomy and working conditions of educators but our understanding of education itself" (4).

As Noble points out, the claims of distance education proponents today echo those of their forebears in the correspondence-course era (c.1895-1930). But this time the commercial element is even stronger. Now, universities seek to "partner" with businesses rather than compete against them. The University of Wisconsin has a deal with Lotus/IBM; the University of California has contracts with America Online and; the University of Chicago and Columbia have signed a deal with UNEXT, a startup headed by a Chicago trustee and partially funded by junk-bond felon Michael Milken (21). Columbia University's Dean of Business displayed the eagerness and naïveté regarding distance learning partnerships typical of administrators at the time when he told the Wall Street Journal, "I was less interested in the income stream than in the capitalization. The huge upside essentially is the value of the equity in the IPO" [Initial Public Offering of stock--S.L.] (22). Recapturing hyperbole from the correspondence era, Columbia vice president Michael Crow said, "After a thousand years, university-based education is undergoing a fundamental transformation" by using "multi-media learning initiatives" to move beyond classrooms and textbooks (22).

The implications of commodifying instruction are twofold: those relating to the university as a site of production, and those relating to the university as a market for them. As with other industries that have undergone technological transformation from above, teachers are seeing control of their work and autonomy shifting into the hands of administrators. The experiences of the correspondence schools are being repeated as teachers are being de-skilled and displaced. Once faculty go online, administrators gain much greater control over faculty performance and course content than ever before. Similarly, once faculty place course materials online, administration is "in a position to hire less skilled, and hence cheaper, workers to deliver the technologically prepackaged course" (32).

For the second implication, universities routinely tout "student demand" for the new instructional products. But "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)" (35).

Does Noble's case convince readers that distance learning will cause the unraveling of the professoriate and subversion of traditional education? Well, yes and no. Clearly, many administrators across America favor abolishing tenure, ostensibly to streamline the process of eliminating non-productive faculty--but really to clear the way for keeping labor costs low by disallowing anyone to build seniority, and to stifle dissent by removing the main protection to speak truth freely. And if professors willingly or deceitfully lose copyright to their creations (47, 55), many will become low-level readers or graders for distance learning courses, as Noble has shown happening at several schools across America (33, 47, 84). And it's undeniable that administrators in the last decade have hopped wholeheartedly on the "wired campus" bandwagon, mindlessly repeating phrases about the revolutionary changes in education wrought by Internet course delivery .

But two facts may prevent the realization of Noble's prognostications of disaster. First, Noble makes no distinction between courses offered via interactive television (as when people off site can see and carry on conversations with the reporters in the studio), and purely Internet-based courses that use web pages, e-mail, and chat rooms. While it's true that both types of delivery have technical pitfalls, the personal experience of many professors indicates that the dropout rate for students in classes with the interactive TV is much lower than that for electronic correspondence courses.

This is perhaps not surprising, since the video and audio recreate to a degree the traditional classroom setting. But the method has potential to be relatively successful as a means of instruction. The problem here, which again Noble doesn't differentiate, is cost: the interactive TV setup is much more expensive to install and administer than web-based courses. And even on national news programs, the two-way TV frequently fails to work. Solely from a market perspective, this is not an attractive replacement for the traditional classroom or lecture hall because of high equipment and labor costs. Web-based courses are much less expensive to package and administer, particularly if a professor or other "expert" is needed only once--to create course "content."

This reality leads to the second fact that may forestall the dire scenario that Noble paints. This one he mentions, and it's implicit in the study of UCLA's debacle (chapters 3 & 5): despite fulsome rhetoric from distance-learning boosters, no lucrative demand has developed for it yet. At UCLA, for example, the school's corporate partner in the Internet scheme forecast revenues of $100 million in the first seven years and at least $50 million in the first five years. Within a year this estimate shrank to $3 million, and within the next two years diminished to $400,000--all these as projections, before a penny of actual revenue materialized (65).

Examples on Montana campuses are similar. Some years back when MSU-Northern kicked off its NorthNet interactive TV and Internet course program, the guest speaker for the gala intro was the fellow who was directing all distance learning for the university system in the eastern half of Texas. When, during the Q & A, I asked him what evidence he had for his claim that "millions of Americans" were eager to be served by this new method of instruction, he ignored the question. When students who simultaneously take campus courses report their experiences with distance learning, they are not happy with it--and most "customers" so far are students in campus dorms (49). Since relatively few students possess a temperament suitable for independent study, Internet correspondence courses may very well go the way of their postal mail ancestors. After all, when the Western Governors' Virtual University opened, it expected about 5,000 students; it enrolled ten (57).

In Noble's defense it must be said that his announced purpose (ix) is to sound a warning so the professoriate can respond to a devaluing of education in a timely manner. Perhaps his greatest concern--the loss of academic freedom, the stifling of debate--should be ours as well. Whenever the leaders of an organization decide to take it in a "new" direction, they expect everyone to hop aboard and happily row to the new beat. People who disagree are accused of dangerously rocking the boat, and are often thrown overboard. Most readers will know untenured colleagues who have been pressured to teach distance learning courses. But even established scholars are not immune to pressure from administrators who can't tolerate criticism. Noble details reprisals against him by several universities (including his own), which unfairly branded him as "anti-technology"; even Lingua Franca flatly refused to publish what became chapter two of this book. An instructive example occurred on the prairies of Nebraska, where administrators threatened the job of a tenured professor who, in the course of delivering a conference paper about his experiences with distance learning (mostly positive, to the point of cheerleading), mentioned technical problems that had complicated the courses./1/ More and more, administrators seem prone to trust unproved technology over proven professors.

Noble's main fear is that distance learning may be a means to separate by class the delivery of higher education: the wealthy go to campus, everyone else goes online, alone. The struggle ahead, he says, is to "forestall that dismal future." While the struggle is undeniably about job security and academic freedom, "it is, above all, about the preservation and extension of affordable, accessible, quality education for everyone who wants it" (xii) via our public institutions of higher learning. Looked at as a timely prodromus, Noble's book proves the possibility of an alternative higher-ed universe that we would do best to avoid.


  1. See <> for the paper (as of 6 Feb. 2003).[Back]

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