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My For-Profit Biases
May 14, 2010 - 2:00am

I received a few e-mails this week from people who work in the online for-profit sector, following my offer to review and report on their online courses. The communications, I think, we're aimed at trying to suss out any “anti for-profit” biases that I may harbor, particularly if they were going to let me loose to evaluate their courses. Fair enough.

I thought it made sense to think about my own biases, and then state them for the record.

1. Favorable - Innovation: I think much of the innovation, experimentation, and student-centered teaching in higher education is probably coming out of the for-profit, online education world. These schools (businesses?) operate in a market for student enrollment and retention. Sure, marketing can get some percentage of students, but marketing cannot keep a student - and poor word of mouth spreads quickly. I imagine that it simply makes good business sense to design a high quality product, one that is built around the students learning style and learning needs as opposed to the instructor. The ability of for-profits to engage in systematic quality control, through the development of a strong course design methodology and instructor training program that can be scaled, will naturally lead to consistently high quality courses. The benefits of specialization (course design, technology expertise, subject matter expertise), can diffused to entire programs, as the marginal costs for building new courses drops once the methods and experts are in place.

2. Negative - Rigor: I'll own up to a bias that a for-profit online course will be less rigorous and demanding than a non-profit course. This bias stems from simple economics - students who flunk out don't pay tuition. It seems as if it is in the interest to of the for-profit to pass students. But I know that this is a bias, and has no connection to any actual data or findings. I'd like to see for myself and I'd be heartened if I were proven wrong.

3. Negative - Faculty: Perhaps this bias stems from the fact that U of P has declined, so far, to allow me to teach. But seriously, I'm still old school enough to believe that the best teaching is done by people who are creating in their fields. I believe in the pairing of researching and teaching. My most exciting and challenging educational experiences have always been in classes where I felt a part of the current conversation and debates, and where my professor was adding to the knowledge in that field. These classes often (not always) allow their students to also contribute to the debates, and take part the process of scholarship. I know that good research does not automatically equal good teaching, but I do believe that when good researchers are given high quality support, tools, methods and motivations that they have the potential to be the best educators. (I see it everyday!) Of course, I cannot evaluate the quality of teaching by evaluation the quality of an online course - so this bias should not enter into my reviews. Still, I wanted to get the bias out on the table in order to create an opportunity to debate its veracity.

4. Favorable - The People: I'm thinking that the people involved in the online for-profit industry are primarily educators who share a common set of values with their colleagues in the traditional non-profits. I'm thinking of the academic people who control the design and the teaching of the courses. Chief academic officers, deans and chairs (or their equivalent), faculty, and course designers - I'm betting that all these folks have strong education motives that supersede their profit motives. Further, I think the people involved in online for-profit higher education probably got into the business because they see that sector as the best place to contribute to fundamental change in how post-secondary education is designed and delivered. They are impatient with the rate of change at traditional institutions, and see the entrepreneurial spirit and the discipline of the marketplace as the best levers to participate and contribute to progressive work.

5. Negative - Sharing and Transparency: Here I want to acknowledge up-front that I see this both the traditional non-profit higher ed world (my world) and the for-profit world as equally guilty. From where I sit, it seems like there is a lack of communication, collaboration, and understanding between and across for-profits and non-profits. I don't see the big for-profit online education providers represented in the leadership advisory roles and committee assignments of our professional organizations. It seems rare for non-profit and for-profit learning technology professionals, faculty, or leadership to collaborate on articles, presentations or projects. I just don't see that many sessions at conferences where people from the for-profit world show to the community what they have been up to, what issues they are struggling with, what solutions they have found. I'm not sure if the for-profits have just not been invited to these tables, or if they are choosing not to make a place.

My hope is that the category of for-profit and non-profit recedes as a salient variable, and that in the future our discussions can be around learning and innovation. Is this a reasonable goal? And if so, what is the best route to reach it?


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