The 'Perfect Storm' Facing Higher Education, and how Open Source Initiatives Might Offer Some Solutions

I’d like to invite discussion of a novel and rather disturbing development in online education, one that may have implications for the work many of us do, and quite possibly for rhetoric and composition more generally. And I'd like to suggest that this development requires, among other things, thinking seriously about open source initiatives within the field of rhetoric and composition.

I’m talking about the launch of StraighterLine, an alliance between the largest online tutoring company (Smarthinking), one of the largest media/publishing companies (McGraw Hill), the largest learning management company (Blackboard), and a number of partner educational institutions. As the company’s CEO, Burck Smith states, their goal is nothing less than 'to transform higher education. They plan to take advantage of the current financial crisis to persuade academic institutions to outsource developmental and general education classes. For as CEO Smith suggests, 'Higher education is in the throes of a perfect storm––budget cuts, surging enrollments, lower endowments, increased competition and needier students.' (see the webinar, and the company site,

Their solution? Well, I imagine you won't be surprised to hear that the media-software--publishing-elearning-complex has just the ticket. StraighterLine promises to help universities cut costs, manage higher enrollments, expand revenue and course offerings, reach new markets (such as foreign students) and increase the quality of education. They offer 'turnkey' courses in developmental writing and composition (as well as business and mathematics) that cost $399 per class, with 24 hour, seven-days-a-week access to teachers, and up to 10 hours one-on-one instruction (with the option of more teacher contact if the student pays for it). Students will get 'instructional support that is more convenient, more immediate, and more consistent' than regular classes. The explicit model for such teaching is the call center, with its sophisticated tools for optimizing 'utilization capacity.'

The company’s business strategy is to target developmental and general education courses. From the CEO’s blog:

The StraighterLine model only provides general education courses. By working with partner colleges, StraighterLine can carve out these high enrollment courses. The courses that are the best candidates for standardization and commoditization at volume. In this way, students that successfully pass StraighterLine courses can receive real college credit at a fraction of the cost of traditional college courses… If all goes well, in 3 years or so, StraighterLine will be a primary provider of general education courses.

Central to the project, and consistent with the call center model, is locating and exploiting elements of college education that can be outsourced. Smith writes:

While there certainly are some teaching functions that are best not outsourced—particularly those that require a high degree of socialization, such as most teaching of elementary students—there are many functions that can be easily outsourced. For instance, math, science, and writing fundamentals are essentially the same across schools, states, and countries. Most schools are already comfortable with outsourcing at least some elements of education—many schools that offer distance-learning courses do so through third-party providers, and textbooks and courseware are the result of outsourcing content development and delivery.

For Smith, opportunities for outsourcing and unbundling higher education have scarcely been explored, and where better to begin than general education courses such as developmental writing and composition?

I first learned of StraighterLine when watching the company's webinar, titled 'Tight Budget? Think Disruptively. Turnkey Courses From StraighterLine.' The webinar was a team presentation with CEO Burck Smith, a provost from a state university, and the director of learning assessment at a community college (both partner institutions). The pitch was sophisticated and persuasive (I suspect all involved benefited from education in the persuasive arts that was not delivered online at bargain prices). While the primary audience appeared to be university administrators, the speakers were careful not to say anything that would unduly scare teachers who might have tuned into the show by chance.

However, if one reads the CEO’s blog, or the blogs and press releases written by StraighterLine employees, a rather different tone can be heard. Gone are the soothing reassurances that StraighterLine will merely save some money, reach under-served populations, and help with enrollment problems. Instead, one starts to hear some familiar stories about how arrogant, complacent, inefficient, pampered and monopolistic higher education has become, how unfairly insulated professors are from the technological and economic transformations that have swept other industries, and how ripe the sector is for radical change.

Smith frequently mentions how StraighterLine’s philosophy and business model is based in large part on the work of Clayton Christensen, the business management guru who developed the concept of “disruptive innovation” and who has authored books such as _The Innovator's Dilemma_ and _Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns_ (his work has inspired corporate dreams of restructuring education since the late 90s, and has been highly influential in discussions of online learning). Christensen himself has said how impressed he is with StraighterLine’s business plan, arguing that it 'could really change the labor model in education in a very disruptive fashion.'
There’s lots that could be said about this, but for now I’d like to focus on just one element of Christensen’s ideas, namely that novel, 'disruptive' innovations typically operate by starting at the 'low end' of a market sector, and then evolve to transform and displace large, high-end players and their traditional business models. This raises the rather interesting question of whether general education courses are merely one component of StraighterLine’s larger plan. For as CEO Smith notes,

Every year, the cost of education outpaces inflation with no increase in overall student performance…No matter how it’s defined, education, like other hidebound industries before it, is about to become part of a global market. In other industries, this has resulted in products and services that are cheaper and of higher quality. Viewed one way, this threatens the cost and service structure of American education. Viewed another, this is an opportunity to rethink the components and functions of a school and all of the political, economic, and accountability structures that surround it.

Now, perhaps you are inclined to wonder if this is all just hype, braggadocio and wishful thinking on the part of an upstart new company. Furthermore, haven’t we heard this story before? After all, in the late 1990s, far more dramatic claims were made about changes the Internet would inevitably bring to higher education. Back then, junk bond king Michael Milken was threatening to 'eat our lunch'; Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen promised to turn the higher education sector into 'the next health care,' restructured around digitized 'EMO's,' or Educational Maintenance Organizations. The CEO of Cisco Systems was saying that 'the next big killer application for the Internet is going to be education. Education over the Internet is going to be so big it is going to make e-mail usage look like a rounding error.' David Noble warned of the urgent danger of “digital diploma mills,” and scholars such as Cary Nelson and Tim Luke connected online education with key professional and political concerns such as the corporatization and commercialization of higher education; outsourcing, deprofessionalization and the casualization of working conditions, and loss of control over the products of academic labor.

Yet the tech sector's implosion dashed most of the more radical hopes for restructuring and digitizing higher education. A string of high profile elearning ventures collapsed, and by 2001 Noble observed that arguments for the inevitability of digital transformation seemed far less plausible. Furthermore, the rhetorical construction of faculty resistance as either technophobia or narrow professional self-interest became harder to sustain, particularly as faculty become more knowledgeable about online education, as organizations representing teachers crafted policies outlining how members would work with systems of online education, and as emerging research on the pedagogic value of online instruction was scrutinized. Most importantly, online learning companies largely failed to penetrate the key credentialing barriers that excluded them from the most lucrative parts of the higher education market.

Despite this, I'd like to suggest that StraighterLine may in fact represent a set of challenges and problems that while not entirely new (adjuncts and part-time teachers facing scandalous work conditions may justifiably wonder whether working for such a company would be so different from their current employment) they are nonetheless significant, with particularly troubling implications for fields such as rhetoric and composition. To state one of the more obvious aspects of this challenge, general education classes are the 'base' on which much of the RhetComp edifice rests. These courses are central to the development of disciplinary minors and majors, to the professional development of our TAs, and to hard-won professional positions such as that of WPA. Furthermore, what most impresses some of the company's boosters is precisely the novel and creative end-run it makes around traditional accreditation barriers. For example, the company's web site touts the endorsement of 'elearning expert Tony Seuss.' But if one reads professor Suess's endorsement, what one finds is that he is particularly excited about StraighterLine's “solution” to the traditional accreditation issue:

When an individual completes a course from Straighterline, they have the opportunity to select one of the partner colleges who will award credit. The student can either continue their studies and pursue their degree at a partner college, or transfer their credits to the college of their choice. This in itself is smart, very smart! I’ll explain.

Imagine if you will, you are considering pursuing your education at a local college that does not recognize Straighterline’s programs as worthy of transfer credit. All one need do is select one of their Partner Colleges as the credit-issuing institution, then later have the transcripts from the Partner College forwarded to the college of your choice. The accrediting bodies of the Partner College include, the New England Association of Schools and Colleges, the Distance Education and Training Council, the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, and the Middle States Commission on Higher education (recognized by the the U. S. Secretary of Education and the Council for Higher Education Accreditation). So, if the college you wish to attend will not accept credit for Straighterline’s offerings itself, they will accept them from the accredited Partner Colleges.

Similarly, the combination of “content provider” (textbook company), learning platform (Blackboard), online teaching service (Smarthinking) and partner colleges appears to be a genuine innovation in commercial online education.

Now, it's entirely possible that despite StraighterLine's grand plans to take over general education and transform higher education, it will in fact settle on something far more humble – perhaps supplementing some of the courses currently offered by a relatively modest number of community colleges and universities, helping educational institutions expand their audience and reach under-served populations, etc.

On the other hand, I'd like to share the following paranoid thought that woke me up in the middle of the night shortly after watching StraighterLine's webinar. Countless numbers of writing teachers currently use composition textbooks offered by a dwindling number of publishing companies. And these textbooks are typically integrated with Blackboard (or an equivalent platform), or taught separately on Blackboard directly.

What if we have been unwittingly participating in an enormous time and motion study? Has anyone carefully studied the legal complexities of the terms of service agreements that accompany such publishing sites and learning platforms? What if companies like StraighterLine have access, through partner companies, to the online resources and teaching practices that vast numbers of writing teachers have generated? This thought was prompted by a point Smith repeats often – that one of the things that makes his company's teaching superior to traditional face to face teaching is its quality control and accountability – everything teachers do is recorded and archived for surveillance ('your teaching will be recorded to insure quality of service').

What if the economic tailspin the country is currently enduring does not pass quickly, and university administrators are increasingly amenable to the cost-cutting solutions proposed by companies like StraighterLine?

What does it say about higher education that most courses are taught in closed, proprietary, web 1.0 content management systems that students encounter only in their university courses, and will never again use in any other aspect of their workplace or personal lives? What does it say about our field that so much of the teaching done in rhet-comp is similarly positioned, and that so much of our professional lives, from the writing tools to department web sites to textbooks to the spaces we teach in, are not open and often not much under our control?

I realize such concerns may be old news at Kairos, and that a lot of serious thought has already been given to the role of open source in the discipline. I'm coming back to such issues after many years, and hope to learn from the Kairos community's work. So forgive me if I go down well worn paths. In the posts that follow, I'd like to address the following question: 'What Role Might A Set of Open Source Strategies Play in Addressing the Challenges Posed by Companies Like StraighterLine?' And I'd like to use this as a
springboard to address larger, related questions, such as, 'How Can Rhetoric and Composition Be Open Source,' and 'What are Some of the Best Ways to Do This?'



Fascinating post. Digging around for Blackboard's TOU, I came across their white paper, "Unlocking the Global Education Imperative: Core Challenges and Critical Imperatives," by Gordon Freedman, VP for Education Strategy at Bb. Freedman "interviewed educational, governmental, and organizational leaders around the world, surveyed germane papers and reports, and consulted our own client base, which is spread across 70 countries." He looks at the "massification" of higher education, and effectively seems to conclude that there needs to be a shift to a corporate model for higher education, with an emphasis on technology as a means for accountability.

Freedman never quite comes out and says it, but the subtext seems to be that Blackboard is ideally positioned as a tool to ensure consistency and a lever for major change in higher education. On page 23, for example, he writes: "If assessment or accountability at an institutional level is ambiguous, it can disrupt the building of necessary cycles of engagement for the future. Where accreditation is a factor, clear systems of evidence-gathering and the reporting of progress and improvement are necessary. Relying on single snapshots of teaching and learning at a single point in time are no longer sufficient. Using technology to create a transparent forum for accountability and progress is also becoming the norm." Several following paragraphs seem to hint that constant monitoring via technology (CMS's?) can (and must?) play a vital role in a radical redesign of higher education.

On page 29, in a section following the body of the paper, under the heading "Blackboard Research," there is this peculiar statement: "Blackboard solutions are utilized by more than 3500 HEIs, schools, government and corporate settings in more than 70 nations. Blackboard has not, to date, conducted a comprehensive analysis of what this substantial base of educational technology use represents in terms of worldwide education change, policy or academic planning. Now, as the global education imperative is requiring re-examination and change, Blackboard is studying the changing global landscape in order to better serve higher education." If one were inclined to be paranoid, these couple sentences would certainly trigger some doubts, suggesting, as they do, that while Bb hasn't "to date" used all that data from those 3500 clients, the "imperative" of studying that changing change would certainly justify their doing so.

Here's a URL for the Freedman report:

When I read your piece, my initial response was, "Yeah, and in their ideal Utopian education world, the only course management system would be Blackboard, Smarthinking would provide all the online courses, McGraw Hill would be the only textbook publisher, and Elsevier would own all the academic journals (and will have run the academic presses out of business). Oh, and of course all the students would be using Windows-based PC's."

More to come later . . .

Charlie | cyberdash

Thanks for the info on this Gina. What an interesting document - and what fascinating language it uses. It provides much to consider and analyze. Interesting also that Blackboard sees itself as in a position to offer advice on the future of global education. (I notice I can't copy and paste from the report - is there a way around this?)

The systemic changes they want to see happen globally are to be effected, in large part, via technological solutions that their company will provide. Much of the paper appears to involve a) invoking a crisis, b) describing new needs and solutions, and c) identifying those aspects of higher education that must be restructured, politically and technologically.

One quick observation about just one point in the report that I found interesting - the report sees globalization and technology shifts as giving rise to a new kind of worker who is flexible, networked, collaborative, working across boundaries and borders, etc. And of course the great impediment to the brave new world of global education (offered via Blackboard) is the institutional structure of the university, which is rigid, or disorganized, and most importantly, unaccountable, lacking in transparency, and not subject to proper surveillance and assessment.

Then it lists impediments, and the primary on is the disinclination of universities to change (moving institutions toward "Practicing a Willingness to Change Fundamentally" is a key goal, perhaps the key goal.)

Academic institutions are divided into 3 categories.

1. "Static and Traditional" - hierarchical, limited flexibility, commitment to the system not students.

2. Trying to change, but in an ad hoc, disorganized fashion.

3. Institutions moving toward "a networked sense of continuous improvement and transformation," one that is flexible, accountable, dynamic and transparent.

Yet in a sense, category 1) describes the Blackboard works as a technology - it is static, hierarchical, opaque, and antithetical to networking, flexibility, collaboration, etc.
It is about as web 1.0 as one can imagine.

It cuts teachers off from each other (who the hell knows what other teachers are doing on Blackboard? We can't see, since it is all behind a firewall. We can't easily share resources, since unless we share an office with somebody, and they tell us what they are doing on Blackboard, there's no way we can search, or look, or be easily directed to what they are doing.

I think this is a great discussion.

It would be easy enough, even with Blackboard, to have a shared site for instructors. I believe we'd be much better with peer observation, sharing of resources, etc., but it is difficult to develop such collegial systems in some spaces.

We tried to create a shared Wiki for our department, but the truth is that we're undergoing so many changes that anything new is simply too much to bear for some people. We lost two departments, created a new Dept. of Writing Studies, and some faculty chose to either leave the department or the university.

Open source or not, I want to share ideas. I want to read what other instructors are doing so I can mix and match some of the great things being done. Instead, we're just trying to survive the institutional earthquakes.

Sadly, Blackboard will pitch their idea as a way to cut costs, move courses online (without planning or thought), and centralize control. Our governor wants 25% of courses online not for any pedagogical reason, but because it will save money. I teach online, and love it, but it takes time and planning.

Blackboard will next sell so much pre-packaged that universities will be convinced part-time instructors are enough for programs such as composition or technical writing.

Right. "Open source or not," we do need to share more resources. The technological costs of doing so are not prohibitive. Look at the arxiv archives, begun in 1991 for sharing pre-print editions of physics papers. It has since expanded it's scope to include other scientific disciplines and now contains over 530,000 articles. This is of course an open access example, but we have a similar effort in the work that Glenn and Rich have been doing with the CompPile and the CompFAQs wiki. So I don't believe that the online space or technology is the problem. It's the willingness to take the time to contribute that is. That requires creating a culture of sharing that we currently don't have.

Charlie | Writing Spaces & cyberdash

Indeed, that document is full of very strangely suggestive language. I am not paranoid by nature (hypomanic, perhaps, but not paranoid), but reading it left me with a frisson of, er, frisson. And, yes, I couldn't copy and paste from it, either. Which means that you and I both thought its weirditude was of sufficient concern that we typed out long quotes from it.

OK, I am serious, even though it is April 1: After my post to Kairosnews comes an email announcing that Ryan Busch, CEO of StraighterLine, is now following me on Twitter. Since I am all about transparency, I didn't block @RyanBusch, but neither did I follow him. What seekbot does he use, I'd like to know? Tell me it's just google alerts.

Vis-a-vis "community" on Blackboard: It is possible to include other instructors. I routinely add guests, and, as a program, Composition at University of Miami has Blackboard Organizations that all faculty and graduate TAs are added to.

But, at the end of the day, Blackboard imposes way too many strictures, and, if our institutions give us the choice, we're far better off opting for Moodle or other open source CMS's, having our students establish blogs on Blogger or WordPress, and/or using PbWiki or other online wikis than sticking with the sticky wicket of a corporation with designs on global educational hegemony.