“Another one bites the dust” makes me think I should revise an old presentation

I came across this last week but didn’t have time to post a link or anything: “Another One Bites the Dust” is an Inside Higher Ed story about an international effort at online education closing up its “doors,” so to speak:

Of all the projects to build international online universities, U21 Global might have been the most ambitious. Universitas 21, the international consortium of highly reputed research universities that opened U21 Global in 2001, predicted the program would enroll 500,000 students and be netting $325 million annually by 2011.

But the program has been fraught with financial losses over its eight-year run, and currently enrolls only 5,000 students. A number of affiliated universities have walked away, including four in the last two years.

Basically, the article explains how this is another example of these online programs, which frankly seem primarily designed to make universities and investors a lot of money as opposed to provide quality education, failing. There are a bunch of others that have either failed entirely or which have not done well. In fact, with the exception of the University of Phoenix and Kaplan and a couple of other programs like it, I think it’s fair to say that online programs are successful– both in terms of extending opportunity to students and making money– when they are tied to “real” and previously existing colleges and universities. I’d wager that places like Phoenix and Kaplan make most of its money from people who need “just in time” education for their current job or to move into a slightly better one– an accounting course, something on how to make a web site, etc. I would bet that the number of students they have that look like EMU students, both traditional and non-traditional, are minimal.

This all reminds me of a presentation I gave almost 10 years ago now at an Midwest MLA called “Haven’t we said this before? What the History of Correspondence Courses Teach Us About the Promises and Problems of Online Distance Education Courses.” Basically, I sum up some of what David Noble wrote about in his article “Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education” and in his book called Digital Diploma Mills and his comparison online teaching to correspondence school programs of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.  I managed in that process to actually get a hold of a thesis a guy did at U of M in 1938 about correspondence schools and some other research on distance education of the time.  True, the comparisons that Noble makes between now and then are relevant in that the hype was similar:  back then, the postal service was going to make the brick and mortar universities irrelevant.  Much in the same way that failed to happen, the idea that online universities are going to replace places like EMU is pretty far-fetched.

But the comparison that Noble doesn’t follow through on that my (admittedly limited) research did suggest was that correspondence courses and “hybrid” courses (ones that were taught primarily by mail but that also did meet face to face a few times a term) did play a role in the educational experience for lots of people back then, in Michigan in particular.  In other words, correspondence courses really were a bit like online courses now:  they aren’t a replacement to the university experience, but they can certainly be a part of the mix.

It’d be interesting to revisit that presentation at this stage.  For one thing, the research process took me into a lot of cool places at U of M– a special collection of institutional documents, the book storage facilities, etc.  For another, now that I’ve been teaching online a lot for the last couple of years, I think I have a little more to stay on the practice.

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