A straightforward case against the privatization or outsourcing of the curriculum

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Simply publishing material in a certain topic area does not confer on oneself or on one’s employees the expertise or the credentials of professionals in that field.

So a publisher of books on government and politics would not necessarily have any special expertise in governing or in running a political campaign. Likewise, a publisher of books on space exploration would not necessarily be qualified to oversee NASA or even to work for NASA. And a publisher of medical textbooks would not necessarily be qualified to diagnose a patient’s complaint, never mind to perform surgery or any other medical procedures.

So why do we think that publishers of college textbooks are automatically qualified to make curricular decisions as if they were university administrators or pedagogical decisions as if they were university faculty? How have the materials for a course suddenly become the essence of the course? Where is all of the insistence on accreditation, assessment, and accountability that has become a mantra in education at all levels?

What we may be acknowledging implicitly is that we believe that online education is inferior to on-site education. For what would be the reaction if it were announced that a textbook publisher will now be staffing on-site courses at a major public university?

One might suggest that if the conglomerates that control much of the current textbook market are concerned about their future profitability, they should simply start their own universities–perhaps on the for-profit model of Phoenix, Kaplan, or Corinthian.

But, among other things, the bursting of the for-profit bubble has demonstrated that the value of academic credentials is something that accrues historically and cumulatively. It is not something that can be acquired simply by a large, targeted investment.

In fact, the broader lesson to be taken from the bursting of the for-profit bubble may be simply that higher education is not an enterprise designed to generate substantial, short-term profits, and that is why the search for corporate models for higher education has been and continues to be so consistently wrong-headed.

Yet, higher education does reflect the business truism that you get what you pay for. So if institutions want credentials earned online to be worth what credentials earned on site are worth—or if they simply don’t want the value of all of the degrees that they award to be eroded—they need to invest smartly and conscientiously in online education and not treat it as a way to provide degrees on the cheap. For their students—or their “customers,” as the corporatizers keep insisting they be called—are eventually going to recognize that a degree with significantly less value is not worth some marginally lower tuition.

Indeed, the value of a degree is calculated in a manner almost exactly opposite of the way in which the value of most new technological innovations is calculated. A new gadget or a new software has a peak market life of several months to, at most, several years. Most technology that is even a decade old is obsolete. In contrast, it takes many decades for a university to achieve any standing—regionally, never mind nationally or internationally.

For these reasons, everyone should be protesting more loudly about the reduction of higher education to an ever cheapened, though not especially cheaper, commodity.

Everyone should be demanding that courses be taught by faculty fully invested in their institutions.

Everyone should recognize that the equivalent of cardboard cut-outs of faculty being offered by for-profit “educational providers” may be two-dimensional facsimiles of faculty, but they are not actually faculty.

Everyone needs to acknowledge the simple truth that American universities have become the model for institutions worldwide because they have valued the central and essential role of faculty—and not in spite the fact that they have somehow overvalued faculty.

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