Rise of the fast food learning model

September 3, 1999

Barely 20 years old, the University of Phoenix is just a collection of suburban office buildings scattered over 13 US states, yet it has become one of the most influential distance- learning forces. Jon Marcus reports

The University of Phoenix is now the largest private university in the United States, enrolling more than 60,000 students, most of them mid-career adults who seek out its practical curriculum; there is little in the way of such things as history, literature or philosophy.

In an industry that is otherwise almost entirely not-for-profit, it makes millions of dollars for its shareholders, hiring low-cost, part-time, untenured faculty with practical experience in the fields they teach, but little experience in teaching.

It is not surprising, then, that the single greatest impact of the university has been on rival traditional schools, which vilify it as the unwelcome future face of higher education. They call it "McEducation", and deride it as a vulgar, get-rich-quick approach to teaching.

The American Association of University Professors was instrumental in preventing Phoenix from opening a campus in New Jersey, persuading government regulators that it was not a legitimate school. A group of conventional universities also tried to block it from moving into Maryland and Pennsylvania.

"There are tremendous concerns about the quality of education that's being offered to the students," says Iris Molotsky, spokeswoman for the AAUP. Among those, she lists "the lack of full-time faculty, lack of faculty participation in governance of the institution, inadequacy of library facilities, and the impact on established colleges and universities".

Students, however, are voting with their feet. So are such major corporations as AT&T and Motorola, which pay for their employees to attend the school. And shareholders have responded by bidding up the price of parent company Apollo Group 15-fold since its initial public offering of stock in 1994. Revenues have more than doubled during that time.

"If we weren't shaking things up, we wouldn't be as successful as we are," University of Phoenix president Jorge Klor de Alva has said.

Now the university, which so far operates only in the US and Canada, is flirting with a presence in Europe. It is about to open a campus in Rotterdam. Its new online education division already serves students in 24 countries. Its sister school, Western International University, operates conventional courses on a similar model in London.

Opened in 1976 with eight students, the University of Phoenix was founded by John G Sperling, a former tenured professor of economics and humanities at San Jose State University. By 1978, it had been accredited in its home state of Arizona. The school found a willing audience in working adult students, to whom it offered convenient locations, practical courses, and classes after hours and at weekends, filling a gap left by conventional universities and colleges.

"The university understands its mission and who its target audience is," says Laura Palmer Noone, vice-president of academic affairs and provost. "One of the things adults want is the ability to get financial aid, but they also want a place to park, and they want practical application of class material. They're going to apply it the very next morning when they go to their job."

Students take one course at a time for about four hours each week over five to eight weeks, and spend an equal amount of time in study groups with fellow students. Tuition typically comes to around $7,000 a year, and their employers subsidise about 75 percent of the students.

Instructional materials are standardised - "scripted" critics gripe. Most of the classroom education is conventional, with one pivotal exception: the university's library is entirely online. Critics attack this as the main reason Phoenix should not be regarded as a university at all, but school officials call it a convenience for their students.

And the students, apparently, agree. Not only do they log in to the online library by the tens of thousands at all times of the day and night, but increasing numbers are going one step further and enrolling in the university's 10-year-old distance education programme. A growing number of University of Phoenix students, about 10,000 of the 65,000 enrolled, now learn online.

Almost an exact replica of the university's classroom model, the online campus uses identical textbooks and other materials, but otherwise teaches exclusively online. Students are placed in "classes" of eight to 11 people that "meet" online with their instructor and classmates, and form study groups to prepare collaborative projects.

They are required to log in at least five out of every seven days, and their asynchronous online conversations are evaluated for their quality and quantity.

"Students actually have more contact with their instructors and their classmates than they do in the traditional classes," says Brian Mueller, vice president for distance education. "Most people are surprised to find how difficult it is, but it's all written communication and you have to be fairly proficient as a writer."

About 90 per cent of faculty members are "working practitioners" in university lingo, meaning they have full-time jobs in the fields they teach. They are paid by the course, and given one-year contracts, a key point of contention for the national faculty union, which has concerns about "the lack of full time faculty and lack of faculty involvement in the areas traditionally delegated to faculty", Ms Molotsky says.

"The purpose of tenure is to ensure that there is really no external or internal interference into what course content should be, and how faculty teach their subjects, and that is absent with a one-year contract," she says.

But learning from faculty with practical experience "is exactly what the students want," says Dr Noone. "In surveys, the vast majority are happier with faculty in this type of model."

She says: "It's disingenuous for people to say, 'Your people don't have a background in educational theory or instructional design' Neither do university faculty. They might have a PhD in economics, but that doesn't mean they know how to teach."

The company serves a different audience, Dr Noone says, so the vitriol with which traditional universities and colleges have attacked the company is odd. "People that are not familiar with the university might see us as a threat," she says.

"Those that are more well-versed realise we're not taking students away from those traditional institutions. There is an underserved population out there of adults who need education."

A growing number of conventional schools now are duplicating, rather than denouncing, the University of Phoenix's approach. New York University, for example, plans a for-profit division to teach working adults. Other private companies also are emulating Phoenix.

The DeVry Institute has 38,000 students in the United States and Canada and ITT Educational Services serves 25,000 students. Caliber Learning Network, an affiliate of Sylvan Learning Systems, offers courses in 40 US cities.

Meanwhile, rearguard challenges against the University of Phoenix are slowing. Despite local opposition, the school has now been licensed in both Maryland and Pennsylvania, and plans to re-apply for a licence in New Jersey. Applications also are pending in New York, Massachusetts and Ohio.

Officials say the rest of the world may have to wait a while.

"We're focusing mostly on North America at this point," Dr Noone says. "Expansion in Europe is something we're looking at, but very cautiously, because we want to stay with what we know well."

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