Online Teaching Blog

Best practices, tips & tricks, and career advice—served up fresh

Piercing the Academic Veil: Sharing What Prospective Students and Faculty Need to Know About the Inner Workings of Academia

Piercing the Academic Veil: Sharing What Prospective Students and Faculty Need to Know About the Inner Workings of Academia

by Dr. Grey
February 28, 2018

Many of you will remember the series on the Fox network entitled, "Breaking the Magician's Code: Magic's Biggest Secrets Finally Revealed." If you don't, it basically featured a masked professional magician who revealed how some of the most common magic acts (e.g., sawing a lady in two) were actually done. Although it was interesting for me to learn this, it also removed some of the luster from the world of magic. In fact, I almost wished that I hadn't watch it because, now, whenever I see a magic trick, I am much less impressed. So, let this serve as a warning for you - in this series of articles, I will be piercing the academic veil: sharing what prospective students and faculty need to know about the inner workings of academia.

If you don't want to know what online education's biggest secrets are (i.e. you'd rather bury your head in the ground and keep pretending that most of these schools have students' best interests in mind), then I suggest you don't read my blog series. For the rest of you, however, be prepared to learn how higher education has been sawed in two; one half made up of reputable institutions with the sole mission of delivering quality education, and another half made up of money-hungry corporate types who care only about the product in terms of how it can line their already-bulging pockets with money, much of it public money.

I am a Doctor, but my name is not Grey

First of all, Dr. Grey is not my real name. I wish I could tell you who I am, but for the sake of maintaining my livelihood as a professor, I cannot. The schools that do not have the students' best interest in mind would prefer that students remain in the dark, continuing to believe that the school is preparing them for career success. Faculty do often get a sense of what's happening, but follow protocol to avoid personal bankruptcy. It isn't that schools don't also want to prepare students, but many prospective students are not at a point in their lives where success is the reality. Properly preparing themselves for advancement in their careers would prove to be a costly ordeal. I'll go into more detail on that in a future blog.

OK, now a bit more about me. My family moved here from another country when I was young. We all worked hard to become educated, send children in the family off to college and succeed in our own ways. I started my professional career as a project manager and eventually worked my way up to Director of Project Management Office in a Fortune 500 corporation. Along the way, I earned my master's degree. Having always had an affinity for pedagogy, I then decided to pursue my doctorate with the initial intention of using it to help me secure part-time teaching work. In actuality, it took me much further. I ended up making a complete career switch to academia, first working in IT for a public university and then assuming academic administration roles where I served as a Program Director at a local college close to my home. During this entire time, I was continually teaching part-time for various online schools, at levels ranging from undergraduate to doctoral. In short, I have seen it all and practically done it all when it comes to online education. Perhaps the following metric speaks louder than any other: I have taught over 50,000 students in my career. I doubt that even the most weathered professors who are fighting retirement at traditional schools can make a similar claim.

The evolution of online education

During the last several years, I have seen a dramatic evolution in online education. This is not only my own perception, but also that of nearly everyone I speak to who has industry knowledge. There have actually been many shifts, but I believe they all fall under the category of "academic viability vs. business reality;" namely, the push and pull between the two. One would like to believe that the former always wins out. I used to believe that as well. Unfortunately, from everything I and many others in my position have seen as an administrator and now professor, the tenets of profit maximization, which should not have a considerable role when it comes to delivering an education to those who seek it, are a driving force.

In the early days of distance-based education, online schools were not widely respected in academia. This is no secret. In fact, degrees earned from online schools were broadly regarded as inferior to those earned at traditional schools. As time progressed, however, traditional schools found that if they are to compete and remain viable, they must have online offerings as this mode of education delivery simply offered too many advantages. While this was a victory for distance-based education, it actually made it more difficult for online schools because it meant that the differentiator they had been touting for so long was now run-of-the-mill.

As this competitive advantage starts to fade, the reality of needing to offer an education that is of comparable quality to traditional institutions began to be a thorn in the side of the entrepreneurs who had started these online schools. In most cases, these were not individuals who came from academia or, in many cases, even held impressive academic credentials; they were businessmen and businesswomen who saw an opportunity to disrupt a centuries-old industry - and they did just that.

The accreditor problem: piercing the academic veil and sharing what prospective students and faculty need to know about the inner workings of academia

In the world of post-secondary education, the viability of a school is based in large part on the accreditation it holds. For most online schools, a national or other inferior accreditation had been sufficient. When traditional colleges started competing with purely online schools, it was no longer sufficient. A gold-standard regional accreditation, that which is offered by one of seven U.S. regional accrediting bodies, was needed. The challenge in that was these accreditors had actual academic requirements that would reach right into the pockets of online school owners and, if they weren't careful, would pick them clean. However, these owners, possessing creativity and wile, would not fold so easily. They knew they had to come up with ways to appease the accreditors, yet ensure that their ventures remained lavishly lucrative. Some of these ways have included the overuse of adjunct faculty by paying very small sums of money in exchange for hard work and a lot of micromanagement, the repurposing of academic advisors (from "advising" to sales) the relaxing of time-tested policies and practices for measuring student achievement, the admission of underqualified students who likely would not succeed (and some argue should not without remedial help), and the use of student visas as a primary attraction of foreign nationals.

At the end of the day, we are left with two primary victims: taxpayers (because of federal student loans that cannot be paid back) and the students themselves. In the meantime, online schools are still passing themselves off as champions of those who were supposedly marginalized by the educational system.

In conclusion…

This is a candid blog series. I merely want to enlighten prospective students, empower teachers, and effect a change in the system. There are processes and methods and intentions that are broken at some colleges. These things must be fixed. I will say what is likely on the mind of other academics. There is a good chance students don't know how their faculty are treated, what their advisor is really there for, or how some students get through doctoral programs very quickly while others take a decade. I will do my best to demystify this through my series of articles.

That's a lot to achieve, I suppose, but I'll give it my best shot. My overarching goal is to point out the curtain that has been installed by the wizards that run online schools. This curtain has obscured a clear view into what should be a transparent process. As it stands, there is a tremendous asymmetry of information that exists between the administrators of online schools, on one side, and the adjunct faculty and students on the other side. If you're a student, keep following my blog series so you know what to do in order to maximize your educational investment and avoid schools that, through practices and processes to maximize their profit, do not have your best interest in mind. If you're adjunct faculty, even though I'm probably preaching to the choir, let's band together to make tangible change. Finally, if you're an online school administrator, please don't be dismayed; I love online education and I'm thankful on both personal and societal levels that it exists. However, we need to ensure that every stakeholder has a strong voice so that the industry will have a better chance of thriving in the long term.

More to come…

Dr. Grey