Monoculture, Blackboard, the President’s Commission, and Accreditation

By Terry Calhoun

I’m not a big fan of monoculture. It is the concept of everything being too much alike. I keep hearing that some people are beginning to feel like learning management systems (LMS) are creating a vast monocultural crop of online course information, much in the way that agribusiness has with wheat, corn, and soybeans.

A couple of months ago, during a great discussion on UWEBD, Skip Knox of Boise State University made a passionate post. In reply to a side query from me, he was even more passionate. He said of learning management systems, “We find our choices have become traps, that we've adorned ourselves with an albatross.”

Those are strong words, but as I thought on those and other words Skip wrote, I also noted some news items that relate to “monoculture” and that also constitute a possible threat to higher education’s system of accreditation.

Skip, who teaches history, continued:

We find our choices have become traps, that we've adorned ourselves with an albatross. It's not just that Blackboard (to give name to the devil) is a corporate vendor; it's that any LMS represents a particular pedagogical approach. No one seems to have questioned the wisdom of imposing one pedagogy across the entire curriculum. Well, that's not true; the faculty questioned it, loudly and persistently, and were basically told to sit down and be quiet and get on board. Grants were got that perpetuated the mentality. Deans were hired who fostered that mentality. It's so embedded now that the only way to break free is to found a new school.

With respect to IT’s “blame,” Skip said:

IT can't be blamed exclusively, as purchasing decisions get made in partnership with other key players on campus. I'm thinking more of decisions that get made by default, such as the decision to buy software at all. There was a massive move in the direction of ERPs that seemed like it was a good idea at the time. In the wake of corporate mergers, however, we find ourselves restricted to less than a handful of vendors who can never be fully responsive to our needs.

“[S]uch as the decision to buy software at all…” Hmm. Sometimes decisions are made and we don’t even realize that there was a decision.

On the other hand, I’m not such a big fan of “Balkanization,” either. But some people feel it is more of a natural human social state. I was recently struck by one writer’s turn of phrase in Monoculture: An Artifact of the 20th Century?:

Every day we're asked to pay a price to continue the existing centralized system of flowing information and creativity. What if we don't want to pay? Further, what if this system is now obsolete? Information and creativity used to be decentralized. Before the 20th century, every town had a newspaper. If you wanted to enjoy music, you either made it yourself or had a friend whose talent could entertain you.

Perhaps the centralized system that led to such a suffocating monoculture was a historic anomaly, an artifact? The technology of the phonograph, radio, and television demanded centralization. Distribution was expensive. To pay for distribution we needed financial entities who would be rewarded for risks.

In fact, it’s the big agricultural farms with their monocultural products that have brought about such bad things as Asian Ladybugs and Emerald Ash Borers – each a scourge in Michigan (just ask my wife about the “scourge” part) brought about by someone who wanted to protect vast, monocultural agricultural spreads, and who will never be held responsible. Sigh.

Two items I read in the last week bring together learning management systems and the system of accreditation that currently d'es a good job of underlying the credibility of modern higher education. They do so in a way that raises the alarm for me regarding more monoculture in higher education.

First I read a news item on InsideHigherEd, titled Digital Assessments: “Blackboard already offers the capability to do course evaluations, and for over a year-and-a-half the company has been researching more comprehensive assessment practices.”

Methinks Blackboard smells some federal money coming down the pipeline, because then I read Connecting the Dots, which is an excellent essay that brings together a lot of information about what various branches of the federal government and a wide variety of federal appointees have been doing around the area of assessment, quality, and accreditation. The author, Alan Jones, clearly fears a monoculture of assessment and accreditation potentially being imposed by the federal government.

The author of the latter, Alan Jones, writes:

The current system of institutional review through independent accreditation boards is one of the hallmarks of American higher education and is one of the most important structural safeguards of the academy’s ability to ensure academic quality and intellectual excellence. The introduction of oversight by an inherently partisan political body in lieu of the currently independent accreditation process is a peculiar remedy if the perceived ailment in the academy is political bias. Carol Geary Schneider, president of the American Association of Colleges and Universities, has said that “the commission is sending out firebolts, one after another.” To chair this extraordinary committee, Secretary Spellings chose Charles Miller, a former chairman of the University of Texas Board of Regents and, historically, a large contributor to the President’s election campaigns.

My concern is different from Jones’ in that I am not concerned primarily about oversight by an inherently political body (although I am worried), but more concerned that the current system of oversight by nonprofit organizations of experts will be cannibalized so that someone in private enterprise can make another buck. (And make things streamlined, efficient, cheaper, and more monocultured in the process.)

Whether it’s Blackboard or one of the various private education-related enterprises favored by friends of folks such as Michigan’s gubernatorial candidate, Dick DeVos, there is an entire cadre of entrepreneurs out there who have noticed that when the Republicans strip the expertise and value from a government function, that leaves an opportunity for someone in the private world (usually someone connected to the ones who are stripping those things away) to make more money.

Many thanks to Alan Jones for connecting those dots. I recommend the essay.

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