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California Association of Private Postsecondary Schools

Profit or Progress?

10/15/2013

Inside Higher Ed.  October 10, 2013.  A national group of faculty leaders on Wednesday launched the first of three reports that will shine a critical spotlight at the influence of private funds on higher education. The effort is not intended to stifle the rate of change of technology in higher education, members say, but rather to broaden the conversation about the companies fueling it.

In its first report, titled “The ‘Promises’ of Online Higher Education: Profits,” the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education tracks federal policy changes through the 1990s and 2000s -- in particular the allocation of financial aid for for-profit institutions -- that have enabled online education providers and their private-sector backers to flourish. The remaining two releases, planned for the next two weeks, will look at affordability and access, respectively, before the month culminates with Campus Equity Week, which focuses on issues related to contingent faculty, student loan debt and wages.

“What is notably absent in industry discussion of online higher education are details about what most  people care about -- the quality of the student’s educational experience that results from these innovations or the larger social impact of these new methods of teaching and learning,” the report reads. “Instead, the burning questions focus squarely and exclusively on what will make money for particular companies.”

The report is largely general, but the authors said they will delve deeper into the issues in the next two reports. "This is an opening salvo," said Lillian Taiz, president of the California Faculty Association.

The monthlong program is an effort to inspire more faculty members to participate in the conversation about the role of technology in higher education, said Taiz, professor of history at California State University at Los Angeles. “We felt there are voices coming from every direction, but not enough is being heard from the folks who are in the trenches doing the work,” she said.

The report urges readers to question the influx of private funds into the ed-tech industry -- investments that topped $1 billion in 2012, according to one consultant group’s estimate. In order to evaluate how technology is helping improve student outcomes, the public needs to “follow the money,” a phrase the report frequently invokes.

“Increasingly, online higher education is big business with huge profits being made by many private companies,” the report reads. “We are told repeatedly that students will benefit from the rush toward more online learning, but we must ask who‘s benefiting more: students? or investors and corporations?”

The report ties the current state of higher education to industries that have recently experienced economic downturns. The unregulated growth of ed-tech companies is described as a boom-and-bust cycle similar to the dot-com bubble that burst in the early 2000s, while rising student loan debt burdens and default rates are compared to the factors that led to the 2008 subprime mortgage crisis.

“I think all of us felt like it was a perfect time to really connect the dots between another sort of campaign that ran before the economy crashed,” Taiz said. “The parallels here are kind of chilling to say the least.”

Susan Meisenhelder, a member of the Campaign for the Future of Higher Education, said the comparison to the subprime mortgage crisis was intended to avoid a situation where the higher education industry endorses a particular teaching method or technology without assessing it. “It’s analogy we didn’t create, but we think it’s pretty evocative,” she said.

Meisenhelder's group has previously questioned the buzz surrounding massive open online courses, and expressed relief this summer when several prominent MOOC proponents began to voice early signs of skepticism about the technology’s ability to deliver affordable high-quality education. MOOCs also take a beating in this report, with companies such as Coursera, edX and Udacity described as “having no significant profits at this point and a product that is being given away for the most part” while their leaders offer “glittery sales pitch[es]” as “a diversion shifting attention away from the logic of profit-making.”

Meisenhelder said that despite the group’s MOOC-skeptic stance, faculty members should not be generalized as being anti-technology. “It’s not true, but faculty know that some things work with some students and some things don’t,” she said.

That faculty members in California would call for increased scrutiny of the booming ed-tech industry is not surprising, given its prominence in the state. For example, San Jose State University’s pilot project with Udacity has been a recurring story in the media coverage of MOOCs. Both Udacity and fellow MOOC provider Coursera were founded by researchers at Stanford University.

Coursera did not respond to a request for comment. Udacity declined to respond.