Howard Rheingold recently tweeted something that plugged into a question I have been mulling over for a while:
If I taught a truncated online version of Social Media CoLab for 6 weeks, no accreditation, what would students pay?
In particular, I tried (somewhat unsuccessfully) to relocate a small grad seminar to the local Panera Bread. I was struck by the fact that by doing so, I improved a lot on the “classroom” experience (as it has in the past when I taught a senior seminar at a local brewpub–though this introduces some other issues). We had more comfortable seating, better and more convenient food and snacks, a better net connection, and parking steps from our classroom. There was a Barnes & Noble next door, as well as some of the other big box shops within easy reach. No, we didn’t have a white board or data projector, but that was survivable–we could use paper or shared documents on our computers. What did we need the university for?
When it comes to online teaching, the question is even more pointed. I am a thorn in the side of my online division because I don’t like to use Blackboard. I’ve yet to find a faculty member who likes Blackboard, but I get a lot of “it’s better than nothing.” I’m actually not sure that’s true. But in any case, there are better tools available (many for freee!) out on the wild, woolly web.
There is the issue of the library, and our expensive subscriptions. Hard to get around this one, except to note that there are an increasing move toward open scholarship that provides good text-like material and opens up research. And, frankly, students rarely use the library anyway, unfortunately. And at least in NYC, our public libraries are pretty decent for academic research.
University administrators will add that they provide all sorts of other things beyond classrooms and libraries: dorms, a registrar, health and counseling, faculty support, specialized labs, administration of grants, and the like. What they won’t tell you is that university administrators are paid far better than faculty are for what they do. I won’t dismiss the amount of work that administrators do, from faculty administrators like department chairs all the way up. But I am pretty sure that we could do without that work.
The key issue, then, is accreditation. If accreditation could be based entirely on what students know when they get out, we would have no problem. Unfortunately, accrediting bodies are interested in process as much as outcome. And the question on many students’ minds is “can I get credit for this?” I can picture a peer-review system that would “certify” particular teachers, courses, and even programs, entirely outside of the orbit of the university, though the question of “what peers?” is always at the forefront. I have a feeling that in a decade or so, this idea will seem commonplace. Another alternative model is the creation of an institute (in some form) that can borrow credibility, and even faculty and for-credit course offerings, from a friendly university. This is pretty common for summer institutes offered at the graduate level. Finally, although there are issues with certification from corporate universities, I can see a Panera U (or, more likely, a Google U) building their brand through an educational arm.
I am not about to complain about what I get paid. I choose to do this job, and the perks outweigh the minor inconveniences. My paycheck is better than that of the average worker in the US, but far worse than the pay for many (doctors, lawyers) with less specialized training than I have. So, I don’t want this to sound like whining about my salary–it’s not. If that were the primary issue, I would muster out, amakudari style, into industry, or supplement more heavily with consulting.
Yet, the question remains: when I am creating much of the content for students and engaging in teaching, what part of their tuition dollar do I deserve? As a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation, my salary and benefits make up about 45% of what the students are paying for a course. (Some quick Googling backs this up as a reasonable approximation of the percentage of the operating budget coming our way as faculty.) At that rate, I am probably way, way ahead of the average prof, though that’s always hard to gauge. I mean, when I was teaching an undergraduate course of 350 students, even at a public school that percentage was a much lower proportion of the tuition dollar.
So, what if we were to pay the professor directly. I can offer you the class I teach at Quinnipiac at half-price. Heck, you bring cash in an envelope to each class, and if you decide to drop out, you just stop coming/paying. Maybe I give you a discount for paying all up front. This sounds terrible to many. Professors touching money?! But it is all too easy to forget that education is big business, and that business is built on the work of the profs.
But then what of open education
Of course, you don’t have to pay for my online course, anyone can take it. Really, if you pay Quinnipiac, you are mainly paying for official credit from the university, indicating that you have taken the course. Unaccredited universities lack the kind of reputational boost that most people want out of a degree. It is easy to argue that I can only do this because I am employed by a university.
It’s true. I have a family to feed. I can’t just give courses for fun. I would, of course. Even if I were driving a truck, or whatever, I would still probably want an opportunity to teach. But since there are not a lot of openings for “public non-school teachers,” I would have to have a day job, or win the lottery.
I suppose I could use free courses to flog my book. Buy the book for $16, and you can be a part of my course. Unlock the director’s cut of the book, or something. But the truth is I would like to make the book as free as the course. In fact, if anything, I would rather it went the other way: publish the book for free, and collect some income for teaching. But somewhere in this equation, there needs to be a little money coming in.
Begging and Advertising
As much as I hate to admit it, I think the most likely model is not student-pays, but advertiser-pays. Textbook Media is one company providing ad-supported textbooks. Why not sponsored courses. Big banners on the blackboard. A short commercial at the outset. There are some obvious niche advertising opportunities here.
Does that make you a little queasy? Me too. But I suspect that this is because universities still manage to hold a sheen that textbook publishers may have once had, but have lost. Given the kind of market pressures that universities now face, the intrusion of ads may become more tolerable.
Those ads could take several forms. Maybe Panera does pay teachers to lecture and hold discussions. Or do teachers put AdSense on their online materials. Or movie theaters handle the tickets and give profs 75% of the take, making the rest on popcorn. At least for the equivalent of large lecture classes, advertising support makes sense. For seminars in which there is give and take, it makes more sense for people to pay directly for a coordinator. The specialized skills of making discussion work, along with expert-level subject knowledge, remain important marketable skills.