First Monday


Date: Tue, 6 Jan 1998 10:29:55 -0800
From: Brad De Long
Subject: Noble

Dear Mr. Valauskas:

I cannot be the only person who was distressed and alarmed at David Noble's article decrying information technologies - for it seemed to me that we could translate the article backward in time five centuries, and we would have a perfectly good denunciation of the printing press as an agent of the devil.

Look at Noble's peroration:

"[O]nce the faculty converts its courses to courseware... [t]hey become redundant.... [T]he new technology of education... robs faculty of their knowledge and skills, their control over their working lives, the product of their labor, and, ultimately, their means of livelihood. None of this is speculation.... At York University, untenured faculty have been required to put their courses on video, CD- ROM or the Internet or lose their job... [and] been hired to teach their own now automated course at a fraction of their former compensation. The New School in New York now routinely hires... unemployed PhDs... paid a modest flat fee and are required to surrender to the university all rights to their course. The New School then offers the course without having to employ anyone. And this is just the beginning."

Wouldn't it make just as much sense if you replaced every reference to "courseware" with a reference to "book"? Wouldn't it do just as well as a denunciation of the printing press? Like "courseware," books can make faculty redundant: why listen to lectures or attend meetings when you can read the book? Books are sold by multinational conglomerates for a fraction of the price that a student would have to pay for personal lessons from the author. Publishers routinely hire hacks for a modest flat fee to write books that disseminate knowledge that before the fifteenth century one would have had to pay an accomplished professor a fortune to have the chance to learn.

Yet we today view books as complements to - not substitutes for - the personal engagement, lecture-discussion-and-office-hours part of higher education. We do not speak of how assigned readings rob students of the "genuine face-to-face education they paid for" and replace it with a "biblo-counterfeit." We do not speak of how it is unfair that professors who assign readings are "compelling students... to become users and hence consumers of the hardware, software, and content products of the publishing industry as a condition of getting an education," or drop dire hints about how many students will be unable to afford the crushing book bills associated with a "book-capital-intensive education."

Few would think that the transformation of the university from a place of manuscripts and lectures to a place of printed books, photocopied reading assignments, and massive libraries has been a regression. Professors today live better, know more, and - I think - are vastly more effective teachers than their predecessors of six centuries ago.

I think that it is a safe bet that two centuries from now professors will be extremely happy that they have access to computer-and-telecommunication tools that will also be complements to - not substitutes for - personal engagement with their students.

I suspect that at the bottom of Noble's concerns is a very different set of issues. For the past generation in the humanities and in many of the social sciences the tenured professors of American higher education have been betraying their graduate students. They have expanded graduate Ph.D. programs well beyond the size for which there would be sufficient entry-level academic jobs available. They have played a shell game: making false implicit promises to their graduate students that they will have a good chance at getting an academic job and following an academic career. They have then used the social structure of higher education to insulate themselves and their favorites from the consequences of their shell game: dividing the community of Ph.D.s into the good sheep who have secure academic jobs and the bad goats who cannot gain entry into the tenure-track hierarchy, and justifying this division on the basis of "merit" (never mind that we all can think of ten thirty-five year old humanities Ph.D.s without tenure-track academic jobs who can outthink and outteach each of the sixty-year old tenured Ph.D.s.)

I believe that the deep worries underlying Noble's worries leak through the surface structure of his alarm at "technology" in sentences like: "The New School ... routinely hires outside contractors from around the country, mostly unemployed PhDs, to design online courses." How dare the New School offer to hire unemployed Ph.D.s! How dare they offer to pay them money to do what they want to do - teach. The implicit argument is that the unemployed Ph.D.s should shut up, drive taxicabs, and manage store inventories at shopping malls. They should not disturb the social structure and position of the professoriate. They should not try to wriggle through the chinks opened by new technologies in the walls separating them from the academic profession that they had thought their Ph.D. would allow them to join.

Thus the deep fear is not that information technologies are bad for professors-as-educators, but that they threaten to disrupt the social order of the universities that has made unemployed Ph.D.s into unpersons. But it was Noble's peers and Noble's mentors who created the large reserve army of unemployed Ph.D.s in the humanities and social sciences. And it seems selfish to demand that the rest of us sacrifice technologies that are genuinely useful to professors-as-educators just so that Noble's peers and mentors can keep from having to deal with the consequences of their own creation.

Brad DeLong
Professor of Economics
U.C. Berkeley

Date: Tue, 13 Jan 1998 12:32:13 -0500
From: Howard Rosenberg
Organization: NETSEARCHERS
Subject: Digital Diploma Mills

Dear Professor/Mr Valauskas,

It was with profound sadness that I read David F. Noble's article titled "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education." If the state of affairs between students faculty, administration and the corporate computing industry, is as he describes, then the situation is grave indeed. If I read him correctly, it would be wise for Internet users, to be wary of making any type of contribution to  any on-line forums - unless of course, one acknowledges, that one is taking part in an experiment (then again, is the Internet, not one huge experiment?).

Surely though, there must be something positive to be said for participating in on-line forums and distance education, in general; - perhaps it lies in the global nature of such experiences and the possibilities that that holds out.

If Professor Noble is correct in his belief that on-line/distance education is packaged/inferior education and that face-to-face education will become the domain of the wealthy, then perhaps it would be best to address these issues, long before they lead to further inequities. Interestingly, when one thinks about it, it is the "unwired" who may end up with a much richer educational experience, after all. As for me. I look forward to the possibilities that Internet2, might bring, but I'll keep my feet firmly planted in a world of face-to-face interactions.


Howard Rosenberg

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