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The Growth of Robocolleges

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Message Dahn Shaulis

In a previous Higher Education Inquirer article, I presented some frightening full-time faculty numbers at some large online universities. Full-time faculty at these schools, in fact, are nearly nonexistent. Bear in mind that all of these schools are regionally accredited, the highest level of institutional accreditation, and the list includes well-known public university systems as well as for-profit ones.

Robot colleges have de-skilled instruction by paying teams of workers, some qualified and some not, to write content, while computer programs perform instructional and management tasks. Learning management systems with automated instruction programs are known by different names and their mechanisms are proprietary. As professor jobs are deskilled, tasks can be farmed out at reduced costs.

Besides the human content creators who may be given instructional titles, other staff members are paid to communicate with students regarding their progress. The assumption is that managing work this way significantly reduces costs, and it does, at least in the short and medium terms. However, instructional costs are frequently replaced by marketing and advertising expenses to pitch the schools to prospective students and their families. Companies like EducationDynamics and Guild Education have filled the niche of promoting robot schools to workers at a reduced cost but their overall impact is minimal.

Meanwhile, companies like Chegg profit from this form of learning, helping students game the system in greater numbers, in essence creating robostudents.

The business model in higher education for reducing labor power and faculty costs is not reserved to for-profit colleges. Community colleges also rely on a small number of full-time faculty and armies of low-wage contingent labor.

In some cases, colleges and universities, including many brand name schools, utilize outside companies, online program managers (OPMs), to run their online programs, with OPMs like 2U taking up as much as 60 percent of the revenues. OPMs can perform a variety of jobs, but are best known for their work in enrollment and retention. Prospective students may believe they are talking to representatives of a particular university when in fact they are talking to someone from an outside source. Noodle has disrupted the OPM model by selling their services ala carte, but only time will tell whether it has an impact, or whether schools will merely find less costly outsourced servicers.

Outsourcing higher education has been a reality in US higher education for decades. And automation is also part of education, as it should, when it performs menial tasks, such as taking roll and doing preliminary work to determine student cheating. It's likely that more schools will become more robotic in nature to reduce organizational expenses. But what are the long-term consequences with long-term student outcomes, when automation is used to perform higher level tasks, and when outsourced individuals act in the name of brand name colleges?

To get a small glimpse of this phenomenon, these schools cumulatively have about 3000 full-time instructors for a half-million students.

American Intercontinental University: 51 full-time instructors for about 8,700 students.

Capella University: 216 F/T for about 38,000 students.

Colorado State University Global: 34 F/T instructors for 12,000 students.

Colorado Technical University: 59 F/T instructors for 26,000 students.

Devry University online: 53 F/T instructors for about 17,000 students.

Liberty University: 1072 F/T for more than 85,000 students.

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