Superstars Online

Last fall Harvard Law School professor Arthur Miller taped a series of 11 lectures and sold them to the Concord University School of Law, a virtual university founded by Kaplan Inc., the test-preparation company. Miller was stunned when Harvard administrators told him he had violated university policy by providing course material to another school without permission. He argued that he had done nothing wrong since he hadn't technically "taught" Concord students. Furthermore, he claimed, videotaping lectures was no different than publishing a textbook. As a Harvard professor, Miller had without conflict been the legal editor of Good Morning America, hosted his own public television show, sold taped lectures, and written textbooks, all for profit. But Harvard drew the line at Internet teaching. The university has since rewritten its guidelines to prevent others from following Miller online. Many professors, including Miller, were outraged over their sudden limitation. "This is a radical change in policy that restricts our academic freedom," Miller told The Harvard Crimson.

Miller's case is the most visible example of how the issue of online learning is pitting professors against universities. Schools like Harvard fear that their faculty will design Internet courseware or provide content that might compete with the institution's own online interests. But online learning raises concerns beyond those of academic freedom: Will Web courses count as teaching credits? How will they affect tenure? As universities move toward profit-driven Web enterprises, who will own the intellectual property rights to online courses? And finally, is the trend toward online education really in professors' best interests?

While professors are generally understood to own the copyrights to their lectures and textbooks, many universities hesitate to extend that right to online work. In some cases, they are simply claiming it as their own. The National Education Association (NEA) has posted new guidelines for contract negotiations that address professors' Internet copyright ownership. Christine Maitland, the NEA's higher-education coordinator, says, "We're advising professors not to sign away intellectual property as a condition of employment." But many--especially part-timers and those without union backing--will have difficulty bargaining for their online rights.

For every Arthur Miller jousting with Harvard over outside income, there are hundreds of lowly adjuncts worrying more about their very survival, and state universities worrying about deep budget cuts. Many administrators view online education as a cost-effective way to justify cuts in public educational funding. In 1998 Washington Governor Gary Locke suggested that through online education universities might wean themselves off public funding entirely and replace many professors with Internet classes or CD-ROMs. Nine hundred faculty members at the University of Washington responded with a letter of protest.

"There is some concern that administrations are capitulating to this business interest in online education and making up for budget shortfalls by tapping into the lifelong learning market, essentially turning themselves into commercial institutions instead of educational institutions," says Gary Chapman, who directs a research project on computers and education at the University of Texas. At the University of California, he adds, the faculty association threatened to sue when it discovered that the school might have sold access to the faculty's work to a for-profit company outside the institution to develop online courses.

Governor Locke's suggestion that computers replace professors may seem outlandish, but online education is already making multiple professors redundant. Most virtual universities hire part-time adjuncts or "teaching associates" rather than full-time professors. The University of Maryland University College (UMUC), the state school's online branch, offers a sobering glimpse of the online future. Although UMUC is the largest online school in the country, only about 20 percent of its faculty are full time. Even full-timers produce--but do not own--the school's hundreds of online courses. No single faculty member designs a course, nor do those who design courses necessarily teach them. Instead, that duty generally falls to adjuncts, who are largely interchangeable. This system gives UMUC maximum power and copyright control over intellectual property. "We wouldn't do it any other way," says UMUC's President Gerald Heeger. "We don't want to lose the course if a professor isn't available to teach it or moves on to another university."

This idea of wresting academic control from the faculty is at the heart of many business models. "The senior decision makers at universities realize they have to have a structure that is managed rather than governed," explains Bob Tucker, president of the online education consultant firm InterEd. "The question that schools will need to answer to compete online is, Can we make decisions in business time rather than university time?" Tucker convinced Arizona State University to build its online program outside the reach of the faculty so it can be run like a business and avoid "the enormous bureaucratic red tape" that faculty participation necessarily entails.

The tech-driven business culture clashes with the traditional liberal arts ideal in other ways. The consulting firm Coopers & Lybrand, for instance, created a stir when it issued a report claiming "instructional software could easily substitute for campus-based instruction." Furthermore, technology companies have the reputation of being anti-union and anti-tenure. "Tech companies feel that there is an economic rationale for transforming these institutions," says Chapman. "They believe that the university system is antiquated, that it's a bottleneck for the high-tech work force. They would like it to be remodeled in the form of a private high-tech company. In a lot of ways, it is a culture war."

These conflicts could pull universities apart, intensifying the trend toward a two-class professoriate and making the full on-campus experience a remnant for a small student elite. The very function of education is also in play. Many technology companies see an economic rationale for transforming institutions into job-training programs that favor skills over degrees. While a few academic superstars may ride this wave, the traditional model of a university community is at risk.