Online Education: Walled Garden vs Dating Service

I’m thinking about how for-profit universities conceive of their mission.

Right now, many have a walled-garden service model. They are in the business of selling education. They have ops meetings, call centers, customer service focus. This might be very good for the students, but I think it could lead to an atmosphere where the faculty are, in terms of the larger picture, very similar to the teen-age burger flippers at McDonald’s – more or less interchangable. Lose some? Hire more, retrain ‘em. Not a major concern. Not good in the long run, for either the university or academe more generally I should think.

Strictly speaking, I do not have a problem with for-profit higher education. I do however think that there are problems in how it is organized, and these problems emerge from the metaphors used to describe what for-profit education does (and any public university that starts talking about students as customers might be in the same boat). What if the metaphor used was more in line with a dating service? (don’t laugh, serious thought here 🙂

In online dating (eBay or Amazon marketplace work as metaphors too), the site brings together two kinds of people, both looking for the same thing. Typically, the men pay a fee to be on the site; women are wooed to the site by all sorts of free promos etc.  No point having a dating site that does not have any available ‘others’ on it.  If you made both sides pay to be on the site, your site wouldn’t work. One side has to either be paid, or otherwise receive some kind of reward for being on the site.

In which case, an online university could be in the business of bringing together students (‘men’ in the above analogy) with faculty (‘women’). If a university had that metaphor in its mind, it would be thinking, ‘what can we do to make our site – the university – an attractive place for faculty to be at?’. This would lead to better learning outcomes, in the long run…

It could also affect how students get put into classes. Typically on something like eBay or a dating site, there are reputation systems embedded in the site. You do not buy from the person with the bad rep in eBay; you do not contact the person whose profile has gotten many negative reviews. Since the university knows the grades of the students and has that evaluations and other metrics for rating faculty, it has the ability to put together faculty and students in a dynamic way. I originally thought, wouldn’t it be something to allow students to select their classes knowing the ranking of the profs; and for profs to select their classes based on the ranking of the students… but maybe not…?

But I think with those two bits of information, you could meet student (and faculty) needs much better. Especially in private for-profit schools – maybe a class with low rankings is offered with higher $ to attract faculty to teach it; knowing that the class is going to be more work, the faculty is better prepared when they ‘walk in through the door’. A dynamic pay scale. You let faculty know that there are x number of students who want to take HIS101 next term; it becomes a kind of auction. Let faculty have ‘tokens’ – this is my first choice, this is my second choice, this is my third choice course for the session. Then match up accordingly….

I appreciate that this is all a bit nebulous. I do think that there’s something to learn from online market places & auctions for making better matches of faculty to students, which presumably would lead to better retention (‘hey presto!’ he said, waving his magic wand in the air).

(it turns out what I’m talking about is known in the literature as a ‘two sided market’. Here’s a link to how to get the most value out of such things – http://hbswk.hbs.edu/item/5595.html

…and then I find that Wharton college has an application for sale that does all of these things:

http://technology.wharton.upenn.edu/auction/

“Using market principles, Wharton’s web-based Course Auction application enables students to bid on, and even resell, places in elective courses through a 10-round sealed-bid auction. In elective courses where the demand exceeds the supply, the auction is designed allocate the seats efficiently and equitably. The auction gives students control over what would otherwise be a random process by giving them the ability to determine the distribution of resources based on their allocation of auction points.”)

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