Tuesday, 8 June 2010

H800: Week 17 - A1b: Digital diploma mills

Article by Noble (1998) 'Digital diploma mills: the automation of higher education'.

General thoughts

My comments are from the perspective of an academic in a vocational subject area in a 'new' (i.e. post 1992) University in the UK.

I can relate to some of Noble's concerns, and I have reservations about the growing culture of 'managerialism' in HE and the increasing influence of administrators who dictate just about everything to do with the delivery of courses without any apparent appreciation of what is actually involved in teaching and learning.

However, I don't think Noble's concerns have really been borne out in the years since he published his paper. Certainly I haven't experienced any direct pressure from the management of my university to transfer my courses online for commercial or cost-saving purposes. Staff are encouraged (and to some extent even required) to provide online material on the VLE to support their courses, but so far at least I have never felt that there was a hidden agenda to convert to online delivery and sack all the staff.

Noble talks about the transformation being "implemented from the top down" but in my experience most of the initiatives I have seen which exploit the online environment have actually arisen out of the enthusiasm of academic staff themselves and have been motivated by a desire to improve the experience of the students.

With regard to the increasing involvement of industry in education, I think one's views on this will inevitably be influenced by how one sees the role of education in society. Those who adopt a pure 'liberal' view of education in which the cultivation of the intellect is the primary objective, would undoubtedly be uncomfortable with any influence from industry. On the other hand, those who take a more 'instrumentalist' view of education would see its primary purpose as producing skilled graduates for the workplace, and therefore might accept industrial influence as inevitable. Personally, I feel that there is a balance between these two extremes. Since I work in a vocational area I have to recognise the role of industry, but do not want to feel constrained by undue influence from industry. I can see Noble's point about research, and the way in which University resources are allocated to research at the expense of the educational function. However, I do think that in recent years (in the UK at least) there has been some re-balancing and that the importance of teaching has been recognised and valued more so than previously.

Noble was writing at a time when Web 2.0 technologies were not really available, and he could not therefore appreciate many of the potential benefits. Things have moved on since Noble wrote this paper. He claims that there was no demand amongst students for online content, but nowadays I think students would be very disappointed if they didn't have online facilities. Noble also claims that students want the "genuine face-to-face education they paid for" but in many cases this desire does not manifest itself in students actually turning up! As we saw in Wesch's video, face-to-face lectures are not necessarily the best way to promote learning.

Noble does make some rather sweeping claims that transferring material online will result in the "knowledge and course design skill" being taken out of the possession of faculty and "placed in the hands of the administration". Perhaps I'm being naive, but I don't see this as necessarily being the case. Why can't faculty retain control of it even when it is placed online? Furthermore, there must still be a role for well-designed assessment and, apart from multiple choice tests, I am not aware of any software which can make judgements on the standard of assessed work.

Finally, I feel I have to make a slightly contentious comment. A good deal of Noble's polemic appears to defend the role of faculty against any intrusion from the outside world. I'm sorry – but get real. Many of the criticisms levelled at academic staff are actually quite justified, and I say that as an academic myself. Academics do have a tendency to use the cloak of free-thinking, intellectual idealism to hide their basic recalcitrance.

Sorry – that last comment is borne out of the frustration of trying to organise an assessment board and prepare for a visit from our external examiners (tomorrow) when some colleagues are just so uncooperative.

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