Product or Public Good?

I was delighted to be invited to speak about our Study of Online Learning our group authored for the HEFCE Task Force at this years ALT-C conference. I  focused on the issues that I felt arose from the long awaited report which is due to be published shortly.

Or view the talk in the ALT-C youTube channel

The vast majority of online distance offerings are postgraduate ‘professional’ courses. eg. Masters in Law, Medicine, Business, Engineering etc.

I made it clear in my presentation at ALT-C that I don’t see this as a problem in of itself. The institutions providing these courses have found that the online distance format works well for those in full-time employment and that these types of courses have a ready market. Setting up successful online distance programmes is challenging enough so it make sense to pick the low hanging fruit in terms of potential customers when developing new products.

Did that last sentence grate a bit? It does for me and not just because of the dubious grammar. As soon as we talk in terms of ‘customers’ and ‘product’ I get nervous. There seems to be something inherently at odds with the philosophy of higher education as I understand it when it is couched in economic terminology. This is then compounded by the apparent keenness of the government to involve private partners in the delivery of higher education programmes online with the possibility of giving some companies the right to award degrees directly.

ALT Proceedings

A fortifying cup of tea with some mini-chedders

I was at an amusing talk recently given by an American company who claimed that their “for-profit university was not preoccupied with money”. It’s very easy to sit in a university and poke fun at commercial educational providers, too easy in fact, especially as I’m quite happy to take my salary home each month. I haven’t done an MBA so I’m not an expert but I find it difficult to distinguish the financial approaches of public and private sector bodies sometimes. Universities are diverse businesses and have many money-making activities some of which are funded by the government and some which are straight commercial ventures. I believe that a simplistic argument around ‘for-profit’ and ‘not for-profit’ masks the real issue which in the case of online distance learning is to do with diversity.

Almost every institution in this field whether a university or a big corporate is providing an extremely narrow curriculum because certain courses have a better Return on Investment than others. The problem is not what we are providing online but what we are neglecting to provide. Where are the humanities and liberal arts? Where are the foundation and undergraduate degrees? There are a few examples of these (I cited The Sheffield College) but certainly not enough to reflect the character of our face-to-face universities.

The reason for this lack of diversity in both curriculum and academic levels is because non-STEM, non-Business, non-Postgrad courses have a less reliable income stream. It’s expensive to kick start an online programme. It’s a lot less expensive than building a lecture theatre or a library but because it’s a ‘new’ mode of delivery it’s assessed outside the economic machinery embedded in our institutions and has to be seen to pay-for-itself. Here is where the financial challenges bite. At ALT-C I made the statement that “Universities should enrich society not make society rich”. I admit that this becomes increasingly difficult when money is scarce but I feel that it’s important that we retain those aspects of our activity which work towards the public good. A public good which is not predicated on wealth and material growth but on wellbeing, one which equips individuals to be more than economic units.

Dave Walks

I got quite animated (Image: Creative Commons "Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 UK: England & Wales" : Mark Gregory of

This challenge is distinct from abstract notions of ‘quality’. I can’t honestly say what the standard of teaching and learning is like on the offerings our study discovered but I see no evidence that a lucrative course is destined to be a less ‘educational’ experience than one that loses money. In many cases I suspect that the quality of online learning is higher than equivalent face-to-face courses because students expect significant amounts of contact when at a distance. In face-to-face teaching scenarios the lecture (a controversial subject this year) provides a very efficient sense of contact and notional cohort cohesion. For online this cohesion has to be built by regular feedback, tutor-student contact and peer-to-peer learning. The risk of a lack of social presence in a predominantly text based medium coupled with the influence of the micro-contact culture of the web means that only the online courses with excellent learning design will survive. The mode of delivery inherently demands good pedagogy and active engagement or students simply drop out.

I think it’s helpful to consider this area in terms of identity because this forces a consideration of values beyond the economic. As it stands the ‘digital identity’ of online higher education provided by the UK largely looks like a highly academic professional development programme. I must reiterate that I’m not criticising this activity in of itself rather I am holding out hope that future funding models will allow programmes outside this area to move online and better represent the varied and excellent teaching and learning this country is rightly known for.

If you are keen to discuss the role of technology within/around higher education in a political context then you might want to consider registering your interest for the proposed ‘Tech, Power, Education’ seminar series.

Slides from the talk:

4 Responses to “Product or Public Good?”

  1. Michael Feldstein Says:

    If you change the word “profitability” to “sustainability,” you solve the moral quandry without having the effect of sticking your head in the sand. Educational programs need to be sustainable, which means we need to take funding sources seriously. In a not-for-profit world, you can look at how to use programs that are profitable to subsidize ones that uphold the higher mission but don’t break even.

    But we can’t be squeamish about it.

  2. @daveowhite Says:

    Totally agree but wonder if the profit sharing idea needs to be overseen to ensure funds move towards the public good.

  3. @sverjans (Steven Verjans) Says:

    Thanks for the post. I watched the Alt-C video yesterday (was in a different session in Nottingham), and I share many of your thoughts. When looking through the new NL government’s plans for (higher) education, I get very worried about the future of education. The stress on competences and their future value for the economy is far away from the idea of learning as a cultural and ‘humanistic’ activity.

    By the way, any idea when the report will actually be available at HEFCE? Currently, the OU (Netherlands) is drawing up plans for future strategy, and the results of your study may well be extremely relevant for us.

  4. @daveowhite Says:

    I think this is a widely held concern within higher education institutions. eg

    HEFCE inform me that the report will be out very soon (Before the end of October I hope)