Distance educators and their corporate partners in online instruction are following the path taken by the promoters of the first correspondence course, who were offering the public empty promises 100 years ago, says Canadian activist and history professor David Noble.
In the most recent instalment of a series of internet papers called Digital Diploma Mills (www.communication.ucsd.edu/dl/), Professor Noble continues to argue against partnerships that commodify universities and fail to deliver the promised results.
"Distance education, then as now, is not so much technology-driven as profit-driven, whatever the vehicle," the York University professor writes. His two-year-old series is read avidly by opponents of high-tech courseware deals.
In Rehearsal for the Revolution, Professor Noble surveys the correspondence courses that 100 years ago offered a way to "avoid the crowded classroom and boring lecture hall". Begun by commercial enterprises wanting to cash in on a growing demand for vocational instruction, universities later got involved to "protect traditional academic turf," says Professor Noble.
He found most instruction in early correspondence courses performed by a casualised, low-status workforce. "Overworked and undervalued, they were not quite able or inclined to provide the 'personal contact' that was promised."
Professor Noble quotes Abraham Flexner, an influential observer of higher education, who in 1928 chastised universities for their new high-profit instruction, saying they were "abandon(ing) their unique and essential social function of disinterested critical and creative inquiry".
Professor Noble is in demand at universities struggling with the issues of the "wired" campus. He was involved in fighting California State University's California Educational Technology Initiative, a $3 billion-a-year project that collapsed last spring.
Despite a recent report that online courses will jump from 5 per cent of all courses run in the US last year to 15 per cent in 2002, Professor Noble sees the tide turning against more distance learning and partnerships to sell courseware. He cites Western Governors' Virtual University, which offered hundreds of online courses when it opened last year, but has enrolled far fewer than its expected uptake of 5,000.
Professor Noble says little research has been done into online learning despite the risk universities are taking. But a study run by his own university recently found that students on internet courses had marks that were as good or better than those who took the same course in class.
He does concede that online learning offers some benefits to those whose needs for education are superseded by their geography, their country's social development or their family priorities.