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The professor-less university

Two radically contrasting emerging models of higher education in the US offer academics a very different deal, says Steven Ward

Paul Bateman illustration (28 August 2014)

Source: Paul Bateman

“O wonder! How many goodly creatures are there here! How beauteous mankind is!
O brave new world, That has such people in’t.”

(Shakespeare, The Tempest)

Students progress by showing mastery of a set of competencies, such as ‘can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem’

Now that massive open online courses appear to have reached the downward slope of the ever-shifting global higher education reform “hype cycle”, other models have emerged on the fringes of tertiary education that promise even more “disruptive innovation” – or at least a great deal of build-up and hand-wringing – in years to come.

These models may fundamentally change the professoriate and the university as they have come to be known over the past almost 1,000 years. Or they may be relegated to the start-up dustbin and soon forgotten.

Academics will hope, no doubt, that the first model falls into the latter category, for it envisions a (more or less) professor-less future for higher education. This university is a place, or cyberplace, that takes its inspiration from the “competency-based” education being offered by the likes of Western Governors University in Utah, the online Capella University’s “FlexPath” and Southern New Hampshire University’s “College for America”. The last of these, for example, a not-for-profit college, promises “to help working adults achieve a radically more affordable, more accessible college degree”. Students progress through low-cost courses by showing mastery of a set of “competencies”, such as “can use logic, reasoning, and analysis to address a business problem”. Teams of administrative educrats oversee groups of low-paid “course mentors” (Western Governors’ term for teachers) who define course and programme competencies, map these competencies and guide “education pioneers” (students, in Capella newspeak) towards achievement. Testing specialists or edumetricians then step in to oversee the students’ fulfilment of these competencies on their way to a final credentialisation (aka graduation).

In the US this model has the backing of powerful political and financial allies, including the Gates Foundation and the Lumina Foundation, which believe that the model will help to move more students through higher education cheaply and quickly. It seems, at least for the moment, destined to become a standard feature of the low-end, bargain basement regional universities or community colleges of the future.

At the other end of the higher education reform spectrum resides a newer and much less known model represented by a Burlington, Vermont online start-up called Oplerno. This venture describes itself as “a global institution that empowers real-world practitioners, adjunct lecturers, professors, and aspiring instructors to offer affordable, accessible, high-quality education to students from all corners of the globe”, one that aims “to maximize control, value, and efficiency in higher education for students and faculty”.

Oplerno seeks to bring the Privatdozent into the electronic age by allowing professors to keep about 80 per cent of the tuition fees from their online courses and to retain complete control over the intellectual property found in their course design and presentation. Student fees will be somewhere between $500 and $1,500 (£300-£900) per student per course. Academics will develop their own courses and teach their own online classes of about 25 students. Rather than the severely underpaid roaming part-time adjunct or lecturer teaching courses at a reduced rate prescribed by the university, academics will be able to determine their own courses and set their own rate per student per course.

In contrast to the competency model that does away with the faculty, this approach preserves the professoriate but dispenses with the university and a large portion of the buildings and administrators attached to it.

Earlier this year, Oplerno was approved to offer university credit by the Vermont State Board of Education, and this autumn it will seek to become a free-standing degree-granting institution in the state. Robert Skiff, its founder, has said that more than 80 academics have signed up to develop classes in the sciences, humanities and social sciences.

Such radically different models mark the extreme boundaries of the coming brave new world of tertiary education in the US and, perhaps, elsewhere – higher education with no professors, only competencies, and higher education with no universities, only professors. Perhaps they will be replaced with something even more radical – a type of Pearson U, Blackboard U or Walmart U – where there are no longer either professors or universities, only pure, for-profit corporate information delivery systems and credentialising platforms. For this bit of free-market utopianism, we may not have to wait too long.

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