Wednesday, May 31, 2023

Robocolleges, Artificial Intelligence, and the Dehumanization of Higher Education

In 2019, the Higher Education Inquirer began writing about the ruthless automation of academic work. We were looking for information on how the ideas of Frederick Taylor and his intellectual progeny (e.g. Harvard Business School's Clayton Christensen) resulted in an academic assembly line for low-grade higher education.  A subprime education for the masses. 

It was obvious that large for-profit colleges had been divesting in academic labor for decades, replacing full-time instructors with adjunct faculty. And they eventually replaced thousands of physical learning sites with exclusively online learning. Over time, content creators and other ghost workers replaced adjuncts. And the remaining adjuncts worked as deskilled labor. Shareholder profits, and branding, advertising, and enrollment numbers were more important than student outcomes. 

Two years later we used the terms "robocollege" and "robostudent" to acknowledge the extent of dehumanization in higher education. We noted that this process was taking place not only at for-profit colleges, but shadow for-profits, mid-rung state-run schools--and even at more elite schools who were looking for increased profits. 

Community colleges continue to dehumanize significant portions of their adjunct workforces with low pay and precarity. Online education makes it more alienating but more convenient for working folks. 

Expensive public and private universities continue to use grad assistants, lecturers, and other adjunct instructors in high-tech lecture halls. Classes almost as alienating and unproductive as online instruction.     

Over the last four decades, thousands of satellite campuses have closed across the US, making local connections less possible. Night schools at the local high school are a thing of the past.

For-profit Online Program Managers (OPMs) like Academic Partnerships and 2U recruit students for regional and elite state universities and private schools--hoping to profit from the growth of online education. But learning outcomes, completion rates, and debt-to-earnings ratios may be riskier bets for consumers choosing to take the more convenient and seemingly cheaper online route.  

Studies indicate that medical school students in face-to-face programs fall short in empathy.  So what can we expect from online instruction in education, nursing, psychology, social work, and other professions where empathy is necessary?   

Where does the process of dehumanization stop in US higher education?  It's difficult to believe that an extension of all this automation, artificial intelligence, will make human existence more humane for the masses--not under our current political economy that values greed and excess.  

It doesn't appear that accreditors, government agencies, labor unions, the media, or higher ed institutions themselves are deeply interested in countering these technological trends--or even in understanding its consequences.  It could be argued that this new wave of education serves US elites well by delivering subprime outcomes: making the "educated underclass" easier to control and less able to compete. 

Academic labor has had a few recent wins at a few brand name public universities but this seems less likely to occur where the labor supply is less valued. 

The numbers of full-time faculty continue to drop at robocolleges.  And where there are already few full-time faculty, US workers at Southern New Hampshire University and Purdue Global are being replaced by cheap academic labor working remotely from India.  This itself may only be a stop gap as artificial intelligence replaces intellectual labor.  

How about other private and state run schools in decline?  Will they follow the same desperate path of dehumanization to stem the bleeding?

What lies ahead for online students?  If student-consumers are merely present to acquire or upgrade credentials, why won't they use AI and other methods to escalate levels of intellectual dishonesty?  For those who are unemployed or underemployed, is returning to online education worth the financial risk and the time away from work, friends, and family?  Will their educational work be obsolete before they can put it to good use?  

Related links: 

The Higher Education Assembly Line

The Growth of "RoboColleges" and "Robostudents"

College Meltdown 2.2: Who’s Minding the Store?

State Universities and the College Meltdown

Sharing a Dataset of Program-Level Debt and Earnings Outcomes (Robert Kelchen) 

OPM Market Landscape And Dynamics: Spring 2023 Updates (Phil Hill)

Cheating Giant Chegg, Shrinks (Derek Newton)


  1. "Academic labor has had a few recent wins at brand name public universities but this seems less likely to occur where the labor supply is less valued."

    Understanding this is essential. Nothing in education at any level can be understood without an understanding of the exploitation of labor.

    Once thought to occur only within industries, the cheapening and the elimination of the cost of labor by AI means a swelling surplus of educational workers in the labor market.

    Under capitalism this means less wages and/or no job at all.

    The AFT and NEA have said nothing about this issue.

    These corrupt labor union officers tied to the privatization agenda with huge six figure salaries paid by workers dues doe nothing to offer an agenda, a platform or vision of education for humanity.

    And as readers know, the race against the machine is now in all industries and insitutions.

    That is why the colleges and universities had to be corporatized.

    The educational hucksters and fascist entrepeneurs planned the privatization of education in smoke filled rooms knowing full well the consequences of their vision and actions.

    Tenure has been destroyed from within for it requires publications and now with the fascist ideology in full swing, approving material not keeping with the official narrative, i.e. official knowledge, will be punished drastically.

    Tenure will be acquired by and through self censorship or complete sell out.

    In this way, much like the Supreme Court, right wing professors will gain prestige and audience.

    The fascists mut control the campuses, be they screens or within four walls.

    The deprivation of childhood and the meaningless of zombie functional education is at the forefront of both the corporate democtatic agenda for education as well as the republicans.

    The unitary party in the US will ensure that nothing like what happend in the sixties happens again on college campuses.

    Privatization, fear and terrorism by 'capital' and its surrogates have brought us here.

    The issue, of course, is what is to be done.

  2. All good points. And yes this leads to the ultimate question, what do we do? What can we do?

  3. <3 #EduGrift hashtag. It deserves to trend. At some point in the distant past, I bookmarked an article specifically on the Taylorization of higher education labor. If I'll share it if I can find it.

    Another somewhat less vintage piece that comes to mind is Jonathon Rees' blog post, "Contingent or tenure-track, we are all on the same sinking ship" on More or Less Bunk,