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How COVID-19 Is Normalizing an eLearning-Industrial-Complex in US Higher Education

We should think critically about whether the emergency response at a moment of crisis is being used to justify the questionable collaboration of neoliberal universities with a billion-dollar eLearning industry that prioritizes profit over learning.

"One of the increasingly popular survival mechanisms for struggling universities is to succumb to the eLearning market," write Tanjeem and Illuzzi. (Photo: iStock/Getty Images)

"One of the increasingly popular survival mechanisms for struggling universities is to succumb to the eLearning market," write Tanjeem and Illuzzi. (Photo: iStock/Getty Images)

In an Intercept piece earlier this year, Naomi Klein uses the term “coronavirus capitalism” to describe how the cataclysmic global Covid-19 pandemic is normalizing oppressive, capitalist practices that were previously unthinkable. She explains the way predatory ideas and practices of the government and powerful corporations continue to accumulate resources for the privileged, leaving the vulnerable exposed during the pandemic. At a time when U.S. universities operate more like big corporations, treat students as customers, and prioritize profit-making ventures, it is important to ask how the coronavirus capitalism is normalizing neoliberal ventures that many universities have been trying to implement for a long time. 

In response to the rapid spread of Covid-19, U.S. universities swiftly moved classes online earlier this year. Most of the universities will offer some forms of online and hybrid classes in Fall 2020. The transition to online learning was a much-needed response to ensure the safety and security of students, faculty, staff, and other university workers during a global pandemic. Nevertheless, we should think critically about whether the emergency response at a moment of crisis is being used to justify the questionable collaboration of neoliberal universities with a billion-dollar eLearning industry that prioritizes profit over learning. 

"There are growing incentives for neoliberal universities to normalize the emergency response to online transition and continue profit-making ventures with the eLearning industry."

Let us first acknowledge that eLearning has made higher education accessible to a student population who need flexible and self-paced learning opportunities. More than 6.3 million U.S. students are enrolled in at least one online course. With the advent of virtual collaboration and work-from-home culture, eLearning is becoming more and more relevant to our personal and professional needs. And precisely for this reason, the global eLearning market, which was worth $107 billion in 2015, has been forecasted to reach $325 billion by 2025. 

In a New York Times piece, Christina Paxson, the President of Brown University, has argued that the tuition-dependent “business model” of most colleges and universities will be severely disrupted if they remain closed in Fall. Dr. Paxson states, “It’s not a question of whether institutions will be forced to permanently close, it’s how many.” In a country where the idea of “tuition-free college” often faces severe backlashes, where the $1.6 trillion student-loan industry has clear incentives to keep colleges unaffordable, and where universities tend to make up for the lost federal and state funding through tuition hikes, it is not surprising that colleges—especially the ones with lesser resources—will face an unprecedented financial crisis during a global pandemic. 

One of the increasingly popular survival mechanisms for struggling universities is to succumb to the eLearning market. The Harvard Business Review (HBR) has framed this strategy as “risk mitigation” that—according to HBR—will be helpful not just during the COVID-19 pandemic but also during a future calamity. This risk mitigation strategy offers a lucrative easy fix for universities undergoing a financial crisis that will only worsen after the pandemic. There are growing incentives for neoliberal universities to normalize the emergency response to online transition and continue profit-making ventures with the eLearning industry, sidestepping the need for transformative learning for students and ensuring sustainable working conditions for faculty and staff. 

Why should we worry about the thriving “university–eLearning industrial complex”? Think about the example of Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), which Professor Gabriel Kahn has aptly called “The Amazon.com of Higher Education.” SNHU reverted from its near demise by rapidly expanding its online division, which now offers 200+ career-focused online degree programs. It unapologetically refers to its students as “customers” and claims to provide high quality “customer service.” SNHU became the epitome of McDonaldization of higher education as a single click on the ad for an MBA program can get you a phone call from an admission counselor in less than nine minutes. SNHU’s aggressive recruitment techniques are borrowed from for-profit schools, such as the University of Phoenix, which were widely criticized for offering an inferior quality of education, reliance on highly standardized courses, adjunct professors serving more like coaches and evaluators, low completion rates, and gouging students.  

"If we really want to make higher education accessible and affordable, we need to challenge the coronavirus capitalism that has severely infected the U.S. higher education."

In the face of the Covid-19 recession, many struggling U.S. universities are now looking at the SNHU model as a survival technique. In the coming days, we can expect to see the continuation of a heavy focus on virtual learning and virtual student engagement, recruitment of highly paid administrators with the experience of transiting to online learning, and outsourcing of higher education to low-cost third-party online course providers such as StraighterLine and Study.com. SNHU pays as little as $2200 per 8-week undergraduate course to adjuncts who mostly deliver the content and have very little control over designing the materials and learning experience. The growing popularity of the SNHU model in the post-COVID world will offer strong incentives for abolishing full time and tenure-track lines, which will worsen the existing situation where 73% of all instructional positions are already held by low-paid contingent faculty with little to no job security and benefits. Neoliberal universities are likely to justify these corporate turns by exploiting the social justice language of making higher education “accessible” and “affordable” for all students. 

Why is this framing of providing “accessible” and “affordable” higher education to all problematic? Students can take online courses at StraighterLine for as low as $59/course and an unlimited number of courses for $99/month. More than 130 partner schools now accept credits from StraighterLine. We reviewed the CPOLS101: American Government syllabus from StraighterLine and found that the syllabus basically recycles course contents from McGraw-Hill and is a summary of the textbook “We the People: An Introduction to American Politics.” The course assessment methods are heavily reliant on the huge bank of multiple-choice and other test questions that come with the textbook. They offer no chance to engage in direct intellectual exchanges with instructors. There are little scopes for students to reflect critically on the digested information and participate in dialogues and debates with their peers.  

Providing questionable quality of online education to students in need in the name of ensuring “accessibility” while students with privileged backgrounds continue to pay exorbitant tuition fees and attend top-notch higher education will create a tiered higher education system and exacerbate the growing inequities in our society. If we really want to make higher education accessible and affordable, we need to challenge the coronavirus capitalism that has severely infected the U.S. higher education. Band-aid solutions coming from the university-eLearning industrial complex will only aggravate the current crisis. We need major structural reforms like introducing a wealth tax that can pay for tuition-free public college education, abolish student debts, and work towards achieving an egalitarian society. 

 

Nafisa Tanjeem

Nafisa Tanjeem

Nafisa Tanjeem is an Assistant Professor of Global Studies and Gender, Race, and Sexuality Studies at Lesley University.

Michael J. Illuzzi

Michael J. Illuzzi is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Lesley University. 

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