It’s the Curriculum, Stupid

Sweatshop labor-B.Russellby Audra Spicer

The current Administration is attacking online for-profit universities on the grounds of “gainful employment.” The reason underpinning the attack is predatory lending. While politicians focus on predatory lending, they are missing the real threat to the academy: Universities’ predatory hiring cripples the curriculum.

I have taught online exclusively for the past decade, in both the profit and non-profit sides of the higher education industry. From my vantage point, predatory hiring debilitates the curriculum development process. Neither is any respecter of non-profit or for-profit status.

A core problem with the gainful employment rule is a failure to understand the curriculum development process, which creates the material that students are learning, across all sectors. The classes that make up every major are written by contingent faculty who have no support beyond an 8-week contract. If politicians discover that students are failing to gain employment in their fields, perhaps the fault lies with universities’ disregard for the contingent faculty who teach and the curriculum that students learn.

Anonymous Knowledge

Subject Matter Experts, only; no “professors” need apply

The Subject Matter Experts (in higher education’s neo-Orwellian lexicon) among adjuncts design the classes for online universities, both non-profit and for-profit. They should not be confused with professors. Professors have academic freedom, plus time. They can use both to take a developed, informed perspective on their disciplines, stay up-to-date with current thought, and provide students with an evolving, state-of-the-art learning experience through current research and publication.

Neither the curriculum nor the majority of students comes into contact with professors at an online university. Contingent faculty develop a curriculum, in isolation, class by class. Course development contracts are hard to farm out because the work is intense and on short deadlines. Contingent faculty, on the other hand, have little time to do anything but grade for the several universities where we must teach in order to survive.

Course developments should have a basis in the latest research in the field. When contingent faculty are busy stitching together paychecks from multiple universities to make a living—raising the question of whether perpetual contingent work for someone with a terminal degree equals “gainful employment”—we are mere graders.

Turnkey Courses

The “turnkey courses” that result from sporadic course development become the one and only version of an online class. Every contingent faculty member must teach every section of the class through that shell until it comes up for redevelopment. In many disciplines, updates to the material that students learn aren’t scheduled for years.

Contingent online faculty are forbidden to alter the university-owned shell, no matter how antiquated. We can only supplement the shell with our own material, but we have to be careful. Doing so can cause more problems than it solves for students if our materials don’t jibe with the shell.

Finally, because contingent faculty have no standing within the university—beyond creating and teaching the very curriculum that generates millions of dollars—when we work as Subject Matter Experts, we cannot examine departmental or cross-curricular offerings to ensure that learning objectives are sequenced and instructional efforts lead to solid, assessable outcomes.

The university operates on an outdated, piecemeal curriculum. The result for students is an unsatisfactory, misaligned learning experience.

Failure to Thrive

How is it possible for contingent faculty working for several universities to create material to supplement creaky course shells that were put together by anonymous contract workers over the course of 8 weeks several years ago?

Does a systemic failure on the part of universities to care about the curriculum at all have anything to do with graduates’ difficulty in finding gainful employment?

Do Not Use What You Know

Contingent faculty are some of the most highly educated people in this country, yet online, we are told to not use any of our knowledge or training to choose a textbook or create a reading list, never mind write a syllabus or design learning activities.

To effect a positive change in the higher education industry, someone who sits in a position of power should examine the reasons for poor student outcomes. It’s past time that a realization about the problems with the academy dawn with our politicians in Washington, D.C.

Gainful employment is only part of the problem.

“It’s the curriculum, stupid.”


Audra Spicer has a PhD in British literature and—let’s get practical—graduate certification in educational technology and professional communications, to keep up with higher education’s morph into vocational education. Living the peripatetic life, she has been an adjunct in three countries and over a dozen universities. She is a proud member of The National Honor Society of Phi Kappa Phi and lives near Pittsburgh with her family.

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