“It is now too much to expect academics to be subject experts and experts in education technology. It is too sophisticated. It is unfair, if your field is mathematics then there is another specialist who can take your stuff and put it on the online environment.”

Wikipedia tells me that ‘the word university is derived from the Latin universitas magistrorum et scholarium, roughly meaning “community of teachers and scholars’.’ How misguided I have been to believe this is the case. The above quote comes from a Campus Review article (full text here if you don’t subscribe) on the mass outsourcing of online course delivery to a private provider. It neatly sums up for me how little teaching and learning is valued in higher education.

In what other industry can one claim it is ‘unfair’ to expect staff to perform their core duties? That the technology involved in the industry is ‘too sophisticated’ for staff to understand? If you intend to be a ‘subject expert’ and nothing more, then I would argue that a university – a place designed to deliver education – is not the place for you. There are plenty of careers in industry for experts who do not wish to be unfairly expected to learn sophisticated things. The irony here, of course, is that learning management systems (which is clearly what is meant by ‘educational technology’ in this instance) are among the least sophisticated technologies in any industry.

Further, to reduce the idea of online education (any education) to ‘stuff in an online environment’ is is ignorant, and dangerous. Words moving from one head to another is not education, online or not. It follows the mass-market line of thinking that describes education as a ‘product’ and quantifies it in terms of ROI. The idea of the ‘scholar’ is being lost and the ‘teacher’ even more so – if it can be assumed that an academic is simply there to generate content, it follows that that role could easily then be replaced by, say, a textbook. Are we facing a future where the only role of the academic is to produce papers and attract research grants? Where the scholarship of teaching and learning is a quaint early 21st century ideal that is prefaced in discussion by ‘Remember when…?’ and a sardonic laugh?

Perhaps the most frustrating thing is that we as an institution had an opportunity to do something really innovative in the online teaching space. In terms of on-campus delivery we are a very small fish in a big pond, but we have a big DE presence. A small institution with a focused and solid audience could have made some big decisions and really become a leader in a new genre of online education. Instead, we are becoming leaders, according to the social media press we are attracting, in cookie-cutter education (one sees the term ‘McDonalds’ used not infrequently) and devaluing the scholarship of teaching and learning. Money might buy you an education, and it certainly buys you a third-party provider to do all the ‘unfair’ work for you, but the one thing it will not buy you is a good name.

Fries with that?



M-H · June 21, 2011 at 1:59 am

This is such a shame; such a waste of money, and strategically so short-sighted. If I’ve learned anything about using technology in academic settings, it is that it must be done as part of a curriculum planned and applied by the discipline specialists, supported by specialised educational designers who know how to get answers to questions like “How will this change how you teach this subject?” and “How will this help students learn what you expect them to better?” ‘Putting stuff online’ without this kind of framework isn’t teaching, and it won’t help with learning.

Skepticlawyer » What does ‘online learning’ really mean? · June 22, 2011 at 6:19 am

[…] to pay a commercial company to ‘put content online’ – discussed by Sarah Thorneycroft here. There’s no discussion in the press release linked from her post about how staff will be […]

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