Historian David F. Noble's brave, brilliant Digital Diploma Mills, which has been circulated for years on the Internet, is finally available in hardcover, and not everyone is going to be happy with what Noble has to say. His topic is "distance learning," university courses taught online over the Internet. His thesis is that these courses don't exist because they are pedagogically superior (there is no evidence that "distance learning" students learn or enjoy the experience more than those who attend a classroom) or because students or tuition-paying parents have demanded them.
Instead, Noble argues, it's all about money and the commercialization of higher education. Online programs, often funded by corporate and foundation grants, are a financial shot in the arm for universities. Furthermore, in direct violation of federal copyright law, some universities have required new faculty (powerless part-timers and lecturers, especially) to sign over ownership of their course plans and other materials to the university. Such packaging makes it possible to replace experienced teachers with cheaper clones of themselves.
Even more important, digitizing a university education makes it possible to control what is taught. In a chilling afterward to his book, After September 11, Noble describes how the very nature of Web-based courses allows third parties to "lurk" online and violate the privileged student-teacher relationship. Librarians and teachers have already been disciplined, or fired, for expressing opinions in private email messages that should have had ironclad First Amendment protection.
As Noble makes clear, the forces promoting digital education are powerful, mobile, and hungry. They include large corporations with interests in education and publishing, the central administrations of some of the nation's largest university systems, and the U.S. military.
This ongoing "transformation of higher education," Noble writes, "is not the work of teachers or students, the supposed beneficiaries of higher 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 entertainment 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 to be potentially worth several hundred billion dollars."
Making this argument, Noble discovered, is surprisingly risky. The Nation, a venerable progressive magazine, commissioned an initial article that eventually became Chapter Two of Digital Diploma Mills. When this article was delivered, however, the editor of The Nation reportedly refused to publish it, or even to consider any revisions. While employed at MIT, Noble (now a professor at York University in Toronto) was unanimously recommended for tenure by a faculty committee — but was rejected by the administration, an event unique in MIT history. Noble then taught at Harvey Mudd College in California, where the senior class voted for Noble as their commencement speaker. Again, this vote was rebuffed by the college president, who went with the students' second choice — TV's Bill Nye, the Science Guy — instead.
Although it was published at the end of last year, Noble's book has not been reviewed by major publications. No doubt it would be difficult for ABC (owned by Disney) or NBC (owned by General Electric) to offer in-depth analysis of online distance learning programs. The Times Mirror Company, one of UCLA's corporate partners in its venture to generate online products, is also the parent company to the Los Angeles Times — which also did not review Noble's book.
Nevertheless, starting in 1998, Noble began making chapters of his book available on the Internet. Over the next couple of years, these articles floated around in cyberspace, where they became known to thousands of techies. On the Internet, Noble writes, the article that The Nation rejected "was enthusiastically received as a 'manifesto' of resistance, distributed worldwide, and repeatedly republished, as were the subsequent articles in the series."
Noble's is no longer a lone voice. As he reports in his fourth chapter, "The Bloom Is Off the Rose," the hoped-for profits and increased enrollments in "distance learning" courses have not materialized — although the threat to faculty status and jobs has. Noble details how resistance to digital education has arisen in a number of universities: UCLA; the California State University system; the University of Washington at Seattle; and at Florida Gulf Coast University, a non-tenure university that was originally advertised as "a testing-ground for Internet-based instruction."
At FGCU, Noble reports, "faculty were hired on the understanding that the new campus would specialize in distance education." Nevertheless, the FGCU faculty and their union soon "began openly to question the value of online education, to protest against the increased workload entailed in distance learning, to resist the university's attempt to appropriate their intellectual property, and to lobby for a standard tenure system rather than have to reapply for their jobs every two years."
Noble acknowledges the existence of "techno-zealots" within the university, teachers who are infatuated with the new technology. But he challenges the familiar claim that distance learning is primarily aimed at the disabled and at adult students who already have jobs and families. As a teacher myself, I can say that in my experience, these legitimate functions of distance learning are exactly the ones most skimped by college administrations. I can also endorse the political moral of the story Noble tells: individual faculty members should keep a close eye on their intellectual property, including their work in teaching. Furthermore, their power to defend real, Socratic education will be much greater if they don't limit themselves to acting only as individuals.
Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education
By David F. Noble.
Monthly Review Press