Friday, September 5, 2014

Prof. Pearson Goes To College

On Thursday, Gabriel Kahn at Slate reported news that is not actually news to anybody who pays attention to education these days, but it's still worth noting.

Pearson has made it possible for colleges and universities to do away with those pesky professors entirely by providing a Course in a Box. Students who sign up for an Intro to Psychology course at Any University, USA, may very well find themselves taking exactly the same online course from Pearson PLC.

The online courses (the article also profiles one in math) provide an online textbook, and whenever you get stuck on a math problem, just click a link and up pops a video of somebody showing you how to do it.

The advantage to the university is obvious-- they don't have to fork over even the pennies involved in hiring a part-time adjunct.

The threats are also obvious. First, how do students decide between University A and University B if the course offerings are in so many cases absolutely identical? Anxious publishers are saying that the university has many ways to customize the experience so that it has something to offer beyond the identical course content.

Second, just how much longer will Pearson and the other whales in this business need the university at all. Right now, the university is needed for its accreditation-- attaching their name to the the product turns it into a legitimate certified college course. It seems like a strong line to hold now.

But a quick look at the world of pre-college ed shows that wall falling. We are now in a world where five weeks of summer TFA training is enough to make any college grad a "certified" teacher. For over a decade the Broad Academy has been turning out "Fellows" who are qualified to be superintendents because the uncertified, unaccountable Broad program says they are. Depending on where you are and who you know, you too can open a charter school and offer legitimate high school diplomas, no matter what educational qualifications you may or may not have. And that includes chains of charters that are built around the model of plunking a student in front of a computer screen all day for "instruction."

In such a world, it doesn't seem like such a stretch to imagine Pearson Online University existing separate from any ivy-covered bricks and mortar.

The publishers have an edge right now because they got there first. The Slate article quotes a couple of profs who have the same observation: "I was trying to put an online component together and realized that Pearson had already done it better than I could with my limited time and resources." Jefferson Flanders, head honcho at MindEdge Inc, another course producer, says “Ironically, I would fear less the course-in-a-box future than I do the cooking-it-at-home."

“I don’t think there are any heroes or villains here,” says Flanders. “There is just an extremely muddled understanding of what the boundaries are, and real questions for faculty about what their role might be.”

That really is one of the questions in front of most of us these days-- what is the future role of faculty in education, if any? Is an inexpensive uniformly okay-enough product worth making actual human instructors essentially obsolete (or existing only in captivity at companies like Pearson)? The only good news I have for college faculty is that they are not alone in facing this issue.


  1. I left K-12 after 27 years to teach at a university just because of what was happening, only to find it happening at this level, too. Sigh

  2. I taught with MyMathLab for about 6 years as an adjunct at 3 different schools. For what it is, it's great--all those pesky algebra homework problems with no help? Now they've got help. Typically they roll it out as remedial coursework to students that didn't pass the ACT COMPASS exam math section. So, your most vulnerable students are getting the most impersonal education. The stats for a community college freshman passing their first math class are dismal--less than 20%, last time I checked. I had about an 80% completion rate, and about a 65% pass rate. My difference? I bent over backward to offer the human element, which is even more important in an online course. You need to put forth a lot of effort to be warm, and personable, and approachable online. While I did coach them through certain tricky portions, mostly I held their hand while they worried about financial aid, or their mother's diabetes, or finding childcare--or even finding a place to sleep at night. College admission and financial aid does not guarantee housing for students.