Online Education and the Attack on the Middle Class Teaching Profession

Is more online education going to be beneficial to education? The MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) that had been launched by several top universities, is now expanding dramatically with ever more courses being offered, ever more students signing up and more video lectures recorded (Pappano 2012; for a positive view on MOOC read Friedman 2013). Currently, these online courses like Coursera or Udacity do not receive any accreditation and are for free, which is the reason why so many people do not complete the course they have once started. I attended a conference at Princeton University1 where the presenters argued that online courses in higher education are an increasingly important trend, as states are consistently reducing state funding, and forcing college administrators to find lower cost alternatives. At the same time, education was held up as being more important than ever. Lisa Barrow (published Barrow and Rouse 2005), a senior economist from the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago, was hammering the mainstream economic wisdom that more educated people tend to have more life-time earnings and a lower unemployment rate. On the contrary, other scholars like Randall Collins (2002) argue that education credentialing temporarily reduces unemployment, while doing nothing to fundamentally improve the labor market. I personally think that Barrow is only partially right. While it is statistically true that labor market results are better for college-educated people it should not obscure the fact that the labor market overall is bad for workers, increasingly even for college graduates. For example, 280,000 Americans with a bachelors degree were working a minimum wage job, and 37,000 people with an advanced degree were also working at minimum wage jobs (RT 2013).

When the presenters were displaying their hopefulness with regard to online courses, one person in the audience remarked the higher unemployment rate among educators that the online courses will occasion. The speaker on the podium (Michael McPherson from the Spencer Foundation) replied that educator jobs will be endangered, but that was not the main focus of the conference, and that was it on this topic for the rest of the seven hour long conference except one more remark by a professor in the audience, indicating a similar concern, which this time was addressed by Doug Lederman, editor of Inside Higher Ed, as a concerning trend. Most of the rest of the conference was very descriptive about what the online courses entailed. Chris Brinton, PhD student at Princeton, explained the potential and the practical challenges with online courses, such as how to distribute grades or how to hold students accountable etc. (While Brinton sounded very hopeful about the online courses in the presentation, when I pulled him over at the end of the presentation, he does admit that a physical college environment does create certain relationships and ideas, which can never come about in a purely virtual environment. My argument would similarly be that online learning should be complemented by physical attendance to create a sufficient level of commitment and social communication between students and faculty.) Claire Gmachl, professor of electrical engineering, talked about a “flipped” course, which she had taught to one of her classes. In a flipped course, there would be one lecture class in the physical classroom and several short lectures recorded as videos for students to view in their leisure time. While the in-depth concepts of the course are presented in the video, where the professor can use different formats (power point, drawing on board, speaking to camera), the physical lecture offers opportunities for students to ask questions to clarify what they did not understand in the video lecture. The physical lecture class would also be used for students to have discussions, since most of the knowledge had been acquired while watching the video. More opportunities for interaction are offered, and I think this to be a very promising form of teaching delivery. (For more information on flipped courses consider Strayer 2007; Pink 2010; Toppo 2011; Alvarez 2011; Economist 2011; Berliner 2012)

Substantively, I think that more education is offered to an incredible amount of students, and it was only a matter of time that knowledge can be made available on a larger scale, largely because the technology makes it feasible. The internet does not only have to be used for personal entertainment, but also for educative purposes. The free cost model also speaks in favor of it, even if with later accreditation (which will surely come) costs will come into the game. The question would also be how much it costs, because the University of Phoenix model- in which comparable tuition to physical colleges is charged, that is built on huge profit margins because it is a for-profit school while providing low-quality instruction (Dillon 2007)- is not a desirable model. Besides there are administrative issues that had been raised. The major problem is that one teacher can not supervise all students simultaneously and grade their work, especially not in popular courses that have thousands of students signed up. One way to overcome it is by having the students do peer-grading (which is what Coursera is doing), which throws up the issue of credibility. Another problem is how to verify the identity of the students. This is not a real problem for me, because education should be considered for pleasure, and not just for a job. Why should anybody cheat on what should otherwise be pleasurable? (This means in no case that we don’t live in a capitalist economy, where people have to be accountable with their resumes, job experiences and job skills to gain employment.) Another problem is how students should have a stimulating, interactive experience. One way to go about it is by having more forums, and more Skype conversations. But practically very few students will seek this venue. It is already very difficult to get the students to talk to you in a physical classroom setting, how likely is that going to occur in an online setting, where names appear on the screen with which we can form no association? One problem is that while the courses have been very successful in math and natural science courses, they prove more difficult to be implemented in humanities and social science courses, where active discussion and contemplation are more important than “just the facts”. Another trouble with online courses is that the Ivy League and other elite institutions will have most of the global customers/students, while the rest of the colleges will be left out. It is already clearly obvious that the universities that have insisted on online course the most are the elite schools. Probably it is so because they have sufficient resources to launch these projects (though, this might be a weak reason, because all you need to start a Coursera course is a functioning computer with recording device and camera, and faculty willing to do the job). More likely it is because they have the brand name, and can further it across the world, snapping away students from other colleges. This problem of education inequality will likely increase if these online courses will become accredited. My sociology and business professor had celebrated the use of online courses (when I spoke to him, he was about to record a Coursera class), and was silent about the fact that he was an Ivy League professor, who never had to bother about the reputation of his college. The only way to limit the elite-concentration is if these elite schools charge tuition for the online courses that are so high that most people will flock to lower cost alternatives. But that would violate the original attractiveness of these online schools, namely that they are free.

But apart from the technical challenges of online education, I want to return to the major contention against online learning, namely the thinning out of the teaching profession. Research on online courses already show that online courses have the potential to reduce teacher compensation over the long run (Bowen et al. 2012). While some claim that educators will remain as important as ever (certainly those in the conference I attended would say so), because a vast number of educators will still be needed to teach the course, I would contend that fewer teachers will be required. My last point about educational inequality between elite institutions and all other institutions simply proves the point that if winner-takes-all counts, many professors in these peripheral schools will simply be made redundant. Theoretically, it is important that more instructors are required to maintain the faculty-to-student ratio to ensure the quality of instruction. But my argument would be that the quality of the instruction is not what the capitalists are really worried about. We can already see that some courses are so popular that tens of thousands of students will sign up even if there is only one teacher for that course. The capitalists are calculating that this will be a boon for them, because they can get educated workers without large costs. (A similar argument was advanced by Richard Wolff (2013), who said that online courses provide the cheap training for the non-Western workforce that are hired by Western corporations. ) So the thinning out, the downsizing of the teaching profession is a real threat, and will be a further blow to the middle class. This is not to say that this has not already been taking place. 70% of all college professors have been outside the tenure-track system, working as part-time, full-time or adjunct faculty (Schackner 2013). Now, the online courses pose the next blow, because the best professors will continue to command their high salaries, while most other professors will likely lose out. For example, the best professors, who have 60,000 students signed up, and who perhaps pay $100 in tuition would generate $6 million in revenues, of which the college will likely pocket $5.8 million while granting a $200,000 salary to the teacher. (I pulled these numbers out of the blue.) The labor market tilts in favor of the college administrators, who will do all they can to cut corners and costs.

The push to online education reflects a larger push by employers to reduce their labor costs by the implementation of labor-saving devices and machinery. Marx (1867, Chapter 25) had handled this question, and considered this development to be an important driver of change in a capitalist economy. Labor is the variable capital, which shrinks in proportion to the machinery, which is the constant capital, leading to a rising organic composition of capital. Marx himself took his idea, in part, from Ricardo (1821, Chapter 31), who had argued that a successful application of technology will mean an increase in unemployment, unless spending in job-creating outlets, like servants or soldiers in war (using Ricardo’s own examples), are created. Keynes (1930), being more of an optimist, argued that technological innovation means that in the not so distant future lives will be improved and work hours will be reduced. Of course, this great economist was silent on the political challenge to the capitalist and the capitalist system that would be necessary in order to achieve this goal.

With the severe recession of 2008 and a global economic crisis, the discussion on an intensification of automation at the expense of middle class jobs have literally sky-rocketed (Kuttner 1983; Ide and Cordell 1994; Aronowitz and DiFazio 1996; Murphy 1997; Handel 2003; Lind 2004; Ford 2009; Michaels, Natraj and Van Reenen 2010; Collins 2010; Goudreau 2011; Van Reenen 2011; Brynjolfsson and McAfee 2012; Freeland 2012; AIER 2012; Condon and Wiseman 2013; Hepler 2013; Smith 2013; Kaufman 2013). The economist Jeremy Rifkin (1995) pointed to the “end of work”, in which world-wide unemployment will increase as a result of technological innovation. Jaron Lanier (2013) argued that work still continues to take place, but on an informal level without any exchange of payment. For example, most of our work dedicated to blogging and the social networking sites involve real labor, but no income is derived from it, while the Facebook, Google and Apple executives reap billions in bonuses after extracting the value out of the millions of unpaid employees/users. I certainly do not get paid for putting this article up on my blog. George Ritzer (1998, 65) made a similar argument, in which McDonalds customers have to depose their own trash rather than have the employee do it. This involves unpaid labor, which is even more exploitative than just being paid less the value one has produced, i.e. exploitation in the Marxian sense. In the mean time, going back to the argument on the shrinking middle class resulting from technological innovation, half of 7.5 million jobs lost in the recession were middle-income jobs ($38,000 to $68,000), but only 2% of the 3.5 million jobs that were created were in the middle-income sector compared to 70% in low-pay jobs and 28% in high-pay jobs (Condon and Wiseman 2013). The middle is hollowing out, the top sees some increases, but the vast bulk of the workforce will be tied to low-income jobs. The argument with regard to the expansion of the online schools similarly is that rather than merely opening up opportunities for more people to receive education credentials, these online universities will further increase automation, reduce the teaching workforce, and make education a casual product to be consumed in the market.

Let me stress again that I am no opponent of online learning per se, because it can provide low-cost alternatives to those otherwise unable to afford an education. If the political-economic environment would be suitable for education being provided without requiring payment and income to teachers, then it would be foolish for me to deny the benefits of expanded online education as a complement to physical education (though, I tend to believe that education will be felt more intensely if it remains face-to-face, because more interactions are possible that would not exist in an online setting, where I stare at a computer screen). This view is in disagreement with Lanier, who argues that information creators should get paid for their activities, because they produce value. He neglects the fact that if most of the essential commodities can technically be provided for free that the economic necessity for wages should subsequently diminish.This political-economic framework will probably no longer be capitalist, but socialist. The point is that technological advances should raise the social wage, and get rid of the commodity status of human beings. Education can then be approached with the natural curiosity that we encounter with all toddlers in pre-school (until the regular education system beats it out of them), rather than with the short-term, vocational focus, which undermines any creativity and curiosity in the learning material. The most startling anecdote I can tell is from an encounter with a finance student, who was insisting upon the importance of a high GPA, and his hatred for a teacher, who prevented him from attaining a high GPA. I then remarked that a GPA will not impinge on him in later life, so why should he continue to worry about it? His reply was that the GPA in itself was irrelevant for him, but it was relevant to his employer, who would otherwise not give him a job. In contrast, the most interesting formulation for what education should be comes from Wilhelm von Humboldt, who argued that people should receive ‘Bildung’, i.e. a well-rounded education that enables them to create their own views of the world and realize their human potential (Bildung literally means ‘to create a picture’) (Wertz 1993). Individuals develop the best if they can attain their knowledge freely without strict pedagogical principles (also consider Chomsky’s upbringing in Barsky 1998, Chapter 1). No commodification and no job anxieties on either the teachers or the students are involved. So, the good and bad of online learning will depend not on the nature of the technology itself, nor even on the pedagogy (though both are certainly important), but on the nature of our political economy.


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