Skilled Educational Labor

In the article “More than MOOCs” (Academe, May-June 2014), author Jonathan Rees makes a good case that academic freedom must include not only what professors teach, but how they teach. The combination of knowledge of the content and pedagogy appropriate to the content represents skilled educational labor, which risks being displaced by MOOcs and the like.

Rees goes on to say (in the print version of the article):

“Administrations that push one-size-fits-all solutions in the name of efficiency or cutting labor costs do their universities a disservice. In their rush to bring their universities into the future [via MOOCs, etc.], they risk destroying the quality of the education their universities have successfully provided in the past.”

Here’s the problem that Rees does not recognize. When skilled labor makes too many mistakes, managers automate as soon as that option becomes available. That’s just what they do.

For years, higher education administrators were forced to accept teaching mistakes because there was no technological alternative to faculty. Now there are many, and they will become increasingly common in higher education – particularly as the older generation retires and is replaced by more technologically capable faculty. Technology permits the separation of skills related to content and delivery. If content is roughly the same anywhere (accurate, fact-based, and therefore high quality) , and delivery is where most errors occur (e.g. the 45 teaching errors, low quality), then technology will surely take over the job of delivery.

Unfortunately, university faculty and administrators do not comprehend academic work as processes that can be quickly analyzed using simple methods and greatly improved by eliminating errors. If they did, teaching mistakes would have been corrected, labor seen as “highly skilled,” rather than merely “skilled,” and the need for technology to replace labor would be much less attractive to administrators.

I often tell people that higher education is one of the last places where quality control does not exist. To be sure, that is a bit of an exaggeration. There are peer evaluations, student course evaluations, P&T processes, etc., which go some measure to assure quality. Despite this, we continue to see the following:

I am not defending administrators as they shift towards technological solutions for teaching problems, cost problems, and so on. I think they do not truly understand the problems, which, in turn, leads to faulty decision-making. And, administrators, like any other manager, are narrow-minded in the view that technology is the only way to improve quality and cut costs. Most will fail to recognize alternate means of improvement as they blindly follow the herd.

Instead, I want faculty and administrators to recognize the elegant, low-tech solution called “Lean Teaching,” and the opportunity that is well within reach to improve course content, teaching (delivery), and student learning outcomes. If that is not done, then the bulk of higher education will evolve into a business like many others, characterized by outsourced services managed by large numbers of overhead administrators and a small number of full-time value-adding faculty.

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