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American Universities Turning Into Boiler Rooms


By Professor Doom


A few times I’ve ranted that the Poo Bahs of higher education, despite their huge salaries, have never done anything for education. I must concede that I’m wrong: the Poo Bahs have done much to make higher education worse, to turn our institutions of learning and research into, in many cases, pits for the exploitation of children, young adults, and the workers.

A recent article points out the achievements of the Poo Bah at Arizona State University. I’ve mentioned this guy before, for his recent 20% pay raise to $900,000 a year (plus benefits enough to support an Afghan village in relative luxury forever). The Poo Bah has a new book coming out detailing his successes at ASU (gee, his job gives him time to write books? Why is he paid so much, again?).

The book is already getting praise from the mainstream:

The book has glowing blurbs from both Bill Clinton and Jeb Bush.”

--and Carnegie too. Having these guys praise a book gives me a cold feeling inside, comparable to hearing Jeffrey Dahmer praise a particular brand of barbecue sauce.

The book is “interesting” stuff, so let’s look at the vision for the new American University as practiced by the Poo Bah at ASU:

First, college math is turned into a “guaranteed to pass” course, via computer software.

Arizona State's decision to move to computerized learning was born, at least in part, of necessity. With more than 70,000 students, Arizona State is the largest public university in the U.S.

--note the implied praise for growth, the key to the Poo Bah’s “success”.

I totally grant that, in theory, a computer course could quite possibly allow for learning, although realistically it’s better for certification of basic skills than education. I have more than a little experience with computer courses (having created an internet/computer course for a state university in 1998), so let me talk about the reality here.

Now, for online courses, computer work is meaningless. Cheating is over the top extreme, and employers already know that online degrees are worthless, for good reason. I’ve shown before that college administrators rather encourage cheating, or anything else that will help with growth of the institution.

But how about if real measures are taken to avoid cheating? Even in this case, it’s a simple matter to manipulate the course. First, you cut out the material that students have trouble with—this is particularly easy in computer courses, which naturally record all data. Semester after semester, take out “the hardest material”—as you remove the hardest material, then something else becomes the most difficult. It doesn’t take long to get a “course” that anyone can do well in.

Failing that, of course, you can use the “retest” method: the student is allowed to simply take, and retake, and retake, the test until he passes. A typical test is multiple choice, has 10 questions…even a toaster will pass eventually, and by “eventually” I mean with a few hours of effort.

Failing that, you can use “the curve” method. Just say the top 85% of students automatically pass. Again, this is easy to do with computerized tests. This is not rocket science here, it’s trivial to set things up so that anyone or anything can pass, and there aren’t any actual experts around that can say otherwise. What little, if any, faculty that are running (not “teaching”) these courses are in no position to criticize what’s going on. Again, I’ve been at state institutions where similar things go on with no chance of faculty doing anything about it.

Key in all of this is administrative control—you don’t need to be an expert in a subject to “remove questions too many students miss”, to let students just retake the test repeatedly, or to define passing to whatever you want it to be. Which order from above is more likely to have been given: “Set up these computer courses so that 85% of students pass” or “Set up these computer courses so that 50% of students pass?” I said “50%” in that last option because that is a more realistic estimate of how well students do in traditional courses…it’s way too low a percentage in administrative eyes. It’s not a bad thing that only 50% of students can achieve college education in an introductory course—that means the material is more than just the stuff any child can learn.

Now, I’m not trying to be a jerk by saying 50% of students should pass, but I do want to point out: there’s supposed to be prestige in having a college education. There’s no prestige to tying your shoelaces, because everyone can do it. College education isn’t supposed to be an “everyone can do it” thing, and if I am wrong about that, why should it cost $20,000 a year to learn things that everyone can learn anyway? Administrators want it both ways: common skills for a very rare price.

Seriously, how can you call this education or justify the price? This might be certification, and I’m ok with that, but these are actually considered college courses—students are paying THOUSANDS of dollars to run a mostly text computer program that probably cost $50,000 or less to develop (and reused by thousands of students—talk about a nice rate of return!). Gee whiz, I can buy computer games with millions of dollars of development costs, with high quality artwork and animation, and voice acting by major movie stars…for $50 or less, and I can play such games for hundreds of hours, for the rest of my life, if I want. But it costs thousands of bucks to “play” this ASU software for a few months?

Again, I point out that when computer courses are tried at the high school level, it’s a complete disaster, everywhere in the nation it has been tried…I’d look real, real, close at the “success” at ASU, as I very much suspect independent analysis would show these computer courses to be highly questionable.

Arizona State is one of the earliest, most aggressive adopters of data-driven, personalized learning…”

I don’t see this is as much of a future for education, not with administrators in control of the entire process. Don’t get me wrong, for a tiny sum of money (eg, the $50 one might pay for a computer game), I suppose it’d be harmless enough, but not for the prices clueless kids are paying. To be in debt for the rest of your life, in exchange for the right to play with some computer software for a few months? Seriously, this is the glorious future of higher education?

ASU is pretty clearly set up as a factory of credentialing, and any lip-service to educational excellence, particularly in the undergraduate sphere, is exactly that. I’m certain there are legions of non-tenurable faculty laboring heroically to do the best they can, but it is impossible to look at the available evidence and see quality undergraduate instruction as any kind of institutional priority.

They are increasing enrollment and cutting deals with Starbucks in an effort to hoover up “market share,” which to my knowledge is not a recognized trait of quality education.

They are a corporation where non-tenurable labor functions as engines of surplus in order to support a corporate hierarchy.

Arizona State is indistinguishable from Amazon.

So, converting education of math into a simple (and ridiculously profitable) computer course is the first big achievement of the Poo Bah at ASU, to justify his $900,000 salary. As hinted at above, there are quite a few other amazing achievements here, showing how wrong I was to say that the overpriced Poo Bahs are doing nothing for education.

I’m obviously quite wrong, Pooh Bahs are working very, very, hard to debase education as much as possible. Turning much of the coursework into a boiler room operation, with classrooms packed with computers instead of telephones, is but the start of it.

More next time.


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