Flexible Delivery: Racing to the Bottom?

My students just wrote their final exam in a marathon of a compressed 4th year university course for aspiring beginning teachers. The last one out the door, a thoughtful and pleasant student I’ll call Gord, asked me this: “How come they didn’t warn us about this class?”

By “they” he meant the powers-that-be who determined that a fairly difficult 13 week course could be digested in just under 3 weeks. And the thing Gord wished they had been warned about (he’d been informally polling the other students on the topic) was that the course would consume their lives for the time it was running.

Now it seemed to me that the students ought to have expected this to be the case. So I got a little cranky as I gradually became aware that many of my students were taking care of kids, working, and/or taking (oh no!) an additional six-week course at the same time I was teaching mine. And frankly, it’s easy to go down this road: bitching about students “not being committed to their studies.” It can be frustrating, at times, to try to teach students who are tired, often stressed out, and juggling multiple jobs and roles.

But it’s reality. Much as the entertainment industry continues to portray college life as a cocoon adultolescence, many real students – at least the ones I have worked with – have no such luxury. Luxury is when your folks are paying your way, and you’ve nothing to focus on but learning and finding out who you are as a human being. This is the ideal of a liberal education, and it’s great in theory.

However, reality is often more along the lines of working while studying to pay your own way, sweating the increasing cost of tuition, and worrying about getting a job after graduating so you can pay off your student loans. For older students with family responsibilities, there’s even more incentive to juggle compressed courses, alternative offerings, and online learning trying to “squeeze in” a diploma or degree after the kids go to bed [1].

At first glance, better access and flexibility thus seem like a great idea. I get this as well as anyone could: I was a rural student and a single parent when I completed my Bachelor of Education, and success hung on whether I could schedule around my kids, and find class times for which I could commute. And there are many others like me. So “innovations” like condensed classes are meeting real needs.

What’s the downside? In an increasingly fragmented and competitive system of post-secondary education, speed and convenience start to overshadow quality. Enter a race to the bottom. It is driven by inter-institutional competition, easier access to credit, government policies that encourage expanding post-secondary education (PSE) access, and innovations in communications technologies that stretch the reach of colleges and universities beyond their geographical areas.

So at my own institution, for example, Masters of Education degree programs have some competition from American and out-of-province institutions that promise degrees “delivered” quickly and conveniently for busy, working adult professionals. This creates increasing pressure to offer students opportunities to power through their degrees as quickly as possible. If an institution isn’t seen to be catering to students’ demands for flexibility and broad access, they’ll lose out to other institutions that will. Quality hasn’t gone right out the window (yet), but my own research and experiences suggests it is under threat [2].

Many students are quite happy to go the expedient route. But for students like Gord, who are pretty keen to learn, compressed delivey and alternative formats, taken “on the run,” are like eating a Big Mac in your car when you’d much prefer a good, long, four-course meal. I do think Gord left that final exam day relieved to have the course done, but also with the sense that he’d missed out.

The prospect of more and more McEducation  makes your hair curl if you cling to this ideal (as I do) that learning has value for its own sake [3]. This said, I’ve little patience for reactionary arguments that universities and colleges need to return to some mythical past exemplified in Ivy League clichés. On balance, universities are entirely too sold on their own importance and relevance, and thus often blind to their faults: varying degrees of elitism, irrelevance, hubris, and a sense of entitlement.

So when critics charge that post-secondary institutions need to make better use of technology, work toward greater relevance, and meet the needs of an increasingly diverse student population – well that makes perfect sense. It’s got lots of democratic and progressive appeal, too: It “levels the playing field” for non-traditional students, and challenges the more dysfunctional elements of elitism that have characterized post-secondary education – especially universities.

However, we do need to be wary of the effects of expansion and competition on quality. As the Frontline’s recent special on for-profit education in the US illustrated, expanding access to post-secondary education isn’t (just) founded on some sense of noblesse oblige: there are pots of money to be made. And in mass education, like any other mass production, costs are driven down by standardizing production and lowering costs of production – hardly conditions that might encourage Gord, his classmates, and me to find the time to chew on important questions like what public education ought to be accomplishing, and how and under what conditions it succeeds or fails.

I guess one has to buy into the idea that these sorts of “big questions” are worth exploring. There are those who believe that any learning that isn’t directly related to employability or innovation is a waste of time and money. They won’t be sold on a defense of the humanities. And the link between education and productivity is real and important. Yet if this becomes the only ends of higher education, Gord, me, and all of us really are at risk of becoming “specialist without spirit, sensualists without heart” [4]. We can ram more people through the system, more effectively, but what are we really learning?


[1] Basically the older you get and the more complicated your life gets, the greater the “opportunity cost” of your education becomes. That is: what do you have to give up or put off in order to get your diploma or degree? There are good reasons why you get a degree out of the way while you’re young…

[2] A few bits on quality: Davies, S. and F. Hammack. 2005. The channeling of student competition in higher education: comparing Canada and the U.S. Journal of Higher Education 76(1), 89-97. Newman, F., Couturier, L., and Scurry, J. (2004). The future of higher education: Rhetoric, reality, and the risks of the market. San Francisco: Jossey Bass. Oldford, S. (2006). Exploring options for institutional accreditation in Canadian post-secondary education. Victoria, BC: School of Public Administration, University of Victoria. Retrieved March 27, 2009 from http://www.bccat.bc.ca/pubs/oldford.pdf

[3] You can extend the McDonald’s metaphor yourself, no doubt. It was put forward a few years ago by sociologist George Ritzer. His popular text The McDonaldization of Society http://books.google.com/books?id=v86NK7SGoPkC&dq=McDonaldization&source=bl&ots=MqGNiJzTmM&sig=xj-y8AiaapltL8zAZWcq7yq62IQ&hl=en&ei=bm4fTJ3vB5Shnwe7y7DnAw&sa=X&oi=book_result&ct=result&resnum=9&ved=0CEUQ6AEwCA is now in its 5th edition. A (2004) volume, The McDonaldization of Higher Education, is a collection of essays expanding on the concept and its effects on post-secondary learning. The gist is this: Ritzer expands on an idea put forward a whole 100 years ago by one of my favouritest sociologists, Max Weber. In his best known work The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Weber likens the growth of bureaucracy to an “iron cage.” http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iron_cage Bureacracy is inevitable, rational, and efficient, but also locks us into ways of thinking and being that erode important aspects of our social selves. Weber called this “disenchantment.”

Ritzer’s “McDonaldization” is his take on our contemporary “iron cage” of rationality. McDonald’s is a prototypical of this rationality: emphasizing, and successfully advancing efficiency, predictability, accountability, and technology to ultimately dehumanizing ends.

[4] More Max Weber from The Protestant Ethic.


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