What is Innovation in For-Profit Education

In the discussion of for-profit education (FPE), one of the reoccurring themes is that the introduction of a profit motive will bring some sort of vigour to education. Comparisons with traditional schools imply that the addition of a profit motive will assume that schools will be able to compete on a wide range of dimensions including prestige and innovation.

In this post, I discussed the way in which some for-profit universities have handled the issue of quality by firing full-time professors and replacing them with lesser qualified part-time instructors. This current post will address the issue of what for-profit universities mean when they talk about ‘innovation’.

I have never worked at a for-profit university. I have taught at many private universities for whom making money was important. But their opeation paralleled that found in public schools. I have also taught at commercial cram schools. But they did not offer degrees. In this post, I rely on the testimony of those who advocate for-profit universities, and ironically, it is here that we see clearly that the definition of innovation used in this discussion has little to do with the professional definition of the term shared by educators.

What is Innovation in an Educational Workplace?

Teaching innovation in the professional sense refers to the expansion of concepts and methods to develop classroom activities. The Center for Teaching Innovation at the University of Idaho focuses on the use of technology in the classroom. Teaching Innovation at the University of Newcastle in Australia uses the term to imply the goal of instruction,

Up until now, the very words “university graduate” have been enough to imply that a student had acquired such skills and values. We believe, however, that the time has come to ensure that such skills and values are more than simply implied.

Teaching Innovation Projects at the University of Kent refers to projects that range from how students provide feedback to their instructors to, once again, the use of technology in the classroom.

At the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, awards in teaching innovation are evaluated based on how well they develop

  • A new framework or paradigm on which the organization of a course is based
  • An innovative use of a learning technique or methodology
  • The use of original cases or other course materials designed by the instructor
  • Use of the Action Research paradigm to systematically enhance the quality of student learning
  • Innovative uses of technology in teaching

The American Taxation Association offers the ATA / Deloitte Teaching Innovation Award whose,

…primary objective…is to encourage creativity and experimentation with new and unusual ideas. Submissions could include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • A new framework or paradigm on which the organization of a course is based.
  • The novel use of a learning technique or methodology.
  • The use of original cases or other course materials designed by the instructor.
  • An experiment in group learning or problem-solving.
  • Integration of non-technical issues (ethics, communication skills, etc.) into the tax curriculum.

This point is endless. The main concept is that teaching innovation refers to the practice of allowing classroom instructors the freedom to explore their students needs and create teaching concepts that better address these.

Innovation at the For-Profit University

So what is innovation at the for-profit university? As I have said, I have never taught at a for-profit university, so I have to rely on the testimony of others. This blog whose function is the celebration of for-profit education provides extensive detail of the authour’s own experience teaching at such schools. Speaking on “How to Keep Salaries Down in a Forpro”, the authour states,

Faculty at fopros do not design courses; they teach a curriculum that is provided. In fact, at the one online school where I teach, we are not called faculty or professors, though the students call me that some times, we are call facilitators.

The curriculum is laid out completely…it is my job to tell the students what to do next. In truth, I don’t even need to do that. I usually tell them, to read their syllabus. When their work comes in, I mark it using a rubric that has already been prepared. I also send out reminders to students who are late….additionally I send out weekly grade reports.

What’s the advantage of such a system? As the same authour points out in another posting, it frees the for-profit school from careful hiring.

I was hired over the phone based solely on a message that I left on the answering machine of the Dean. I had met a faculty member on a sail boat who told me in passing that they sometimes need faculty at their school. I called and left a message. A couple of days I was called and asked to teach a class as an adjunct. I agreed. A couple of more days later, I was asked to change from adjunct to a one year full-time contract position. I readily greed…but because of other commitments showed up a week late to my classes (they were informed.) The first time I met anybody was when I showed up to teach my first class. I think I dropped in after the class so they Dean could know who WAS teaching the class. Was my experience unique? From conversations with others, I think not.

A Redefinition of Innovation

The concept of professionalism among teachers has been evolving for perhaps thousands of years. While it is true that most of this evolution has occurred during the last century, teaching is a very old occupation. One of the most radical aspects of for-profit education at the tertiary level is its break with this historical continuity. The for-profit university has altered completely what a university professor must do.

Since its development in 18th Century Germany, the research university has transformed the way citizens prepare for the workplace. In its traditional form, professors are deeply involved in the creation of new knowledge instruct students in the critical skills necessary to do this work. Some professors are more involved in this kind of work and view it as part of their identity to instruct in creative and interesting ways. This is what innovation has come to mean for the university researcher/educator.

The for-profit university has redefined the role of the professor. In fact, it has replaced it. The new job abolishes the idea that a professor needs special knowledge of their field or how the knowledge of that field was created. It transforms the professor into something even less glorified than a high school teacher. In the new profession of a for-profit university worker, the professor needs a graduate-level education only for the purposes of accreditation and credibility with students.

Innovation in the for-profit university has nothing to do with traditional concepts of quality, excellence, or prestige. It has everything to do with business efficiency and the creation of a profit.

But is this all a bad thing? Government is increasingly unwilling to finance the education of low quality students and as such, this market sector can receive schooling only if for-profits are willing to step in. Why should this be problematic? This does not make it ‘better’ education in any sense. It does, however, provide education for people who would not otherwise have access to it.

I have no problem with this. This is an argument frequently used by for-profit enterprises that hope to sell food and services to the poor or remote. And it is a good argument. Why is it any less acceptable to those hoping to sell education? It is the failure of for-profits and their ideological advocates to come clean on this that is more bothersome. Why should a for-profit school necessarily be better than not for-profit school? Why should for-profit quality even need to be competitive with not for-profit? If it’s not better, what implications should this have for the school? Would this be justification for interferring with the operation of a for-profit? If the strongest justification for for-profit remains that it makes money for its operators, would this have implications for policy control?

And in Conclusion…

Yes, it is true that “good, clean competition is healthy” as our advocate of for-profit education put it. But healthy for what? Is there no trade off and profit good for absolutely everything? Not at all. The introduction of the profit motive into education has damaged some of the basic traditions of the teaching profession. Some of these are the very traditions the public uses to measure the quality and prestige of a school. It is this damage to such traditions that has lead to the poor academic reputation of for-profit universities. But what else should you expect, and why should it matter if it generates a return on investment?

Is for-profit education innovative? For-profit education at the university-level has created many innovative ways to make money. For-profit education at the university-level has created many innovative ways to do business. For-profit education at the university-level has created many innovative ways to run an educational institution. Other than that, there is no evidence for the innovation of better teaching techniques or anything else associated with classroom activity. But then why would expect this? And why would it matter? In the traditional university, professors are by definition experts and they are given free reign and strong support to teach using the best methods they can devise. Why would the profit motive improve teaching? I certainly can not imagine how the hiring of lesser qualified, part-time staff to stand in the classroom and read a prepared syllabus could make a positive difference.

And that being all said and done, the for-profit university is here, and it is here to stay. Let’s just be honest about what it is.

July 03, 2006 in For-Profit Education | Permalink


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