Revenge of the Underpaid Professors

Timothy Cook for The Chronicle

May 20, 2012

The second floor of 425 2nd Street, in the hip SoMa district of San Francisco, does not appear, at first glance, to be the birthplace of a faculty insurrection.

If you walk through the lobby, past the Xbox and the fixed-gear bicycles stored on the wall, and say, "The president of the company is expecting me," they'll ask, "Which company?," because there are actually a bunch of them there, each composed of a small group of youngish men and women (mostly men) sitting on ergonomically designed black chairs, staring intently at identical silver 13-inch MacBook Air computers, isolated from the world by giant headphones that look like the gear that airport tarmac workers use to avoid permanent hearing loss.

One of those companies is called Udemy. It runs a Web site for buying and selling online college courses. Udemy, or something like it, may be on the verge of upsetting a balance of power in higher education that for decades has been steadily tilted against those who do the hard work of helping college students learn.

The struggles of those workers are well known but worth repeating: Great college teachers work in a system of professional values and institutional incentives that systematically rewards research over teaching. The best scholars get tenure and appointments at prestigious universities, where they are generously paid to pursue their intellectual passions. The best teachers are thanked for their service (or not) and asked if they wouldn't mind taking on a fifth course next semester.

For the past three decades, colleges and universities have increasingly treated teaching labor like a cheap commodity, to the point where three-fourths of all faculty appointments are now non-tenure track. I don't believe that adjuncts are necessarily worse teachers—many are remarkably good at their jobs. But that excellence often comes in exchange for paltry compensation.

Fifteen years ago, the dot-com revolution promised to transform higher education and existing economic arrangements along with it. The best teachers, we were told, would be able to reach thousands or even millions of students online. Power would be wrested away from tradition-bound incumbents. Then the bubble burst, and in its aftermath, not much seemed to change. Teaching was still subordinate, and adjunctification marched on.

Now a new generation of entrepreneurs is trying again, and not because they have failed to learn the lessons of history. Instead, they recognize how much the world has changed.

In the 1990s, online-course design was still in its infancy. Many people thought it involved nothing more than filming lectures. That cost money: for film, production, expert videographers, and all the rest. Then someone had to buy equipment to store and transmit all that information, to: whom? Most people had dial-up Internet connections, which couldn't handle video in the first place. It was, in other words, a capital-intensive business with a limited base of potential customers. A college teacher who wanted to reach students online still had to work for a large organization of some kind.

Today the cost of storing, processing, and moving digital information is indistinguishable from zero. People walk around with networked supercomputers in their pockets. Broadband is everywhere, or getting there soon. Meanwhile, a lot of smart people have spent the past decade and a half experimenting with and improving upon the principles of online-course design.

This means that, today, a supremely talented and criminally underpaid college teacher doesn't need to rely on a large, exploitative organization in order to reach students. All she needs is a company like Udemy, which provides course-building tools, free, along with an online marketplace where courses can be sold (or given away) to students. The teachers can charge whatever they like, and they keep 70 percent of revenues along with 100 percent of intellectual-property rights to the course.

Udemy was co-founded by Eren Bali, who grew up in eastern Turkey, near the Iraqi border. No one there could help him pursue his passion for mathematics. So he went online, scouring the Web for bits and pieces of knowledge. Now he wants Udemy to make this task far easier for people like him. The site is continually adding new tools for teachers, including live chat with students, moderated discussion groups, and sophisticated presentation software, all free. Bali believes that there are millions of experts around the world who can reach students this way. In just the past few months, faculty from colleges including Dartmouth, Vassar, Colgate, and Duke have signed on.

Will Udemy eventually be the place where tens of millions of college students and teachers come together? I have no idea. The company is not the only one with these ambitions. Everyone in Silicon Valley is consumed with the idea of building platforms. Facebook is a platform for social interaction. eBay is a platform for auctions. Craigslist is a platform for localized financial transactions. iTunes is a platform for buying and selling music. Amazon is a platform for buying and selling all kinds of things. The platform builders rule the online world.

Udemy wants to be the platform for buying and selling college courses. So does Course Hero, another small start-up, and OpenClass, which is owned by Pearson, the textbook company. There's also Coursera, created this year by a couple of Stanford professors, and edX, announced just this month as a joint venture of Harvard and MIT.

It's hard to predict who will win the platform wars, but it's easy to predict that someone will. The costs of building an online platform are negligible—Instagram, the mobile photo-sharing platform, had nine employees at the beginning of this year. They were just another group of young people gathered around a table staring at MacBook Airs. The rewards of building the winning platform are vast, as Instagram found when it was bought by Facebook for $1-billion.

When the winner becomes clear, the balance of power in higher education will start to shift back to people who actually conduct higher education. After all, traditional colleges and universities are just the original platforms. Most of them (there are exceptions) aren't really in the business of offering a coherent institutional approach to education, particularly at the undergraduate level. They're not opening new physical campuses these days, which gives the people who run the existing ones a lot of leverage over academic labor. Platforms like Udemy provide college professors with the opportunity to seize the means of production. I'm told there are people in academe who are familiar with such ideas.

One can imagine many scenarios unfolding. Professional and scholarly organizations might come together to create coherent curricula and endorse certain professors and courses. Old-fashioned guilds might become modern again. People without traditional scholarly credentials will have more access to the college teaching market. The effect on the existing professoriate will be asymmetrical, with the most-skilled teachers doing much better and the least effective losing their jobs. Those who seize the opportunity won't have to donate years of semi-unpaid labor in order to secure tenuous employment positions with organizations that don't value what they do in the first place.

Tricky issues of quality assurance and credentialing will need to be confronted. But those are essentially logistical problems, not conceptual ones. And other groups of people are hunched over computers in Silicon Valley trying to solve the credentialing problem. The open-badges movement is one promising new avenue for allowing people to document and communicate what they know and can do, and there will be many more. Like platforms, credentialing is potentially a mammoth business.

Online disruption of higher education had to wait a few years for the technical infrastructure to get good enough. Now it's looking like great college teachers will finally have the platform they deserve.

Kevin Carey is policy director at Education Sector, an independent think tank in Washington.