First Monday

Letters to the


From: Clint Brooks
Subject: Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education
Date: Wed, 17 Mar 1999 11:24:44 -0600

Dear Editor,

As a practicing Educational Technologist I was quite troubled by the article by David F. Noble, "Digital Diploma Mills: The Automation of Higher Education". Not because I felt that his concerns about automation in higher education were necessarily unfounded, but because he is unable to present any kind of practical solution to the situation, resorting instead to the predictable notion of open warfare on the administration, the favorite target of all disgruntled academics.

Too often, the type of situation that occurred at York as described by Dr. Noble occurs. Not the challenge that was lifted up to the administration, but the stiff necked refusal to see potential merit in the application of new technology in education. Noble does not describe any recommendations made by the faculty at York regarding a more equitable and practical application of technology, nor does he ever even dare address the many reasons why institutions consider technology in the first place (learners in the work place, elderly learners, rural learners (certainly a concern in Canada), limited faculty in a particular field, limited resources - contrary to Noble's assertions many schools can save money by pooling together small classes in different areas under one teacher using, say, videoconferencing or internet). Rather he focuses upon the concept of automated classes (which I think most good educational technologists would describe as limited by design and the practical difficulties in addressing student learning development without a real person or persons as part of the process at the teaching end), setting up an extreme situation, admittedly a concept in vogue in some quarters, and using it to essentially demonize any new use of technology in higher ed.

Consistency is also not a hallmark of such thinking. While berating the concept of automated learning, Noble refers to the difficulties in keeping up with classes online using chat rooms and e-mail. Are these the automated classrooms he is referring to? I think it is important to note that one of the applications referred to, Web CT (and one I confess, that the institution I am employed at is using) is designed to provide a variety of ways in which the instructor can communicate with the students in some of the "automated" ways described above. As for time spent, every instructor I know keeps office hours. In an online course, it's up to that individual to decide whether it should be by e-mail, bulletin board, chat room, or if the instructor is like myself, a slow typist, phone.

What troubles me the most is the attitude found here that faculty are the only true defenders of education and that any commercial expedition into the area is clearly tainted by greed and ambition. For example, no one complains that most faculty at higher education institutions have little to no training in the actual field of education (apart from of course those in education colleges and some in psychology) and that colleges do not require say, classes for certification in education as many K-12 schools in the U. S. do.

Certainly the paradigms are changing, and there is a decided risk to faculty both here in the States and Canada in regards to the security of tenure (which itself is alien to the commercial world), intellectual property and academic freedom. However, unless faculty seeks the right to have a say in the process rather that engage in reactionary denial, the process will likely run roughshod over them, regardless of the few institutions who are able to stave off the ever-present march of the future. If the challenge does not come from administrations, it will come from private businesses who will focus on competencies rather than degrees (and who are even now making large strides in this direction). Distance learning students may be outnumbered six to one but it's early in the game and those numbers will climb.

Why instead don't the faculty at York produce their own proposal for technology-mediated learning (and perhaps they have)? If automation is a concern, if class size and work time are concerns, if interactivity is a concern, why not address those concerns by moving forward and finding ways to apply the technologies practically and effectively, without succumbing to the pressures of the market ethic. Use the technology to meet the ever changing needs and lifestyles of the students and you have a "product" that will last as quality should. Certainly, the need for compromise may arise, but being part of the solution means having a fair say in how the compromise is built. Standing firm in the face of inevitable change is like the fellow who was asked to move along on a safari, but refused, comfortable where he stood ... until he realized he was in quicksand.

and thus the rant concludes.


Clint Brooks

From: Ferris
Subject: Your publication
Date: Mon, 29 Mar 1999 10:50:27 -0800

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About Internet Valley, Inc.
Internet Valley, Inc. is a Burlingame, California based Internet consulting and publishing company founded in Sacramento in 1995. In addition to researching and developing hyperlink mechanics and technology for the past four years, we have conducted numerous surveys and published reports on the IT sector. For more information about Internet Valley, please visit our Web site at

Ferris Shahrestani
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(650) 373 2511
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