Gig University

There’s no point in continuing college and university structures as they have existed for over a century. They’re too expensive, inefficient and poorly focused. An entire culture has built up around them, including assumptions about the experience, the faculty and the outcome. These can all be swept away without materially affecting the quality of instruction or the value of the degree.

The goals of college can be maintained, today, through use of the ‘gig economy’ and of ‘app’ technology. The research aspect of universities can be spun off into ‘think tanks’ and grant driven institutes. Substantial savings can be had by converting faculty employment into an ‘on time’ course-contract driven format. The only permanent faculty would be administrators, primarily department chairs, who would be responsible for scheduling and contractor oversight.

Already, administrative structures are in place that could easily facilitate the move to a ‘gig’ model for undergraduate education. Course syllabi have been standardized in form following new course-design prescriptions centered on Student Learning Outcomes and as much quantifiable assessment as possible. It is a small step to standardizing syllabi in content, as well. Standardization of courses will make it possible for instructors certified to teach particular courses to bid on sections knowing full well exactly what will be expected from them in the classroom while ensuring that students will receive exactly the sort of instruction they expect.

In systems like the City University of New York (CUNY), new initiatives such as CUNY Pathways are creating menus of general education that already are allowing new-student advisors to place students into classes without even determining student interest—merely by checking their performances on entrance exams and in high school. After that, students can choose for themselves from the menus, becoming able to complete their first two years of college without any further advisement—certainly not from faculty. The role of faculty beyond the classroom can continue to be diminished through similar initiatives. This will also allow for conformity in education of a sort that has never before been possible.

From a student perspective, registration for classes will become simple and convenient. Start dates for classes can vary, courses running when full. With options of in-person, hybrid and on-line instruction, students can tailor their schedules to personal needs and desires. In addition, new types of certification are being established that can allow students to tailor their programs to specific employment requirements.

Faculty will bid on particular sections, crafting their bids to desired courses, times and frameworks. Less popular sections will return higher pay, balancing scheduling through an effective system of supply and demand. At the same time, high-profile professors could establish sections they guarantee to teach, allowing students to bid for entry, the professor taking a percentage of the total take for the class. The downside for the professor would be having to teach even if only a set minimum number of students enrolled, and for low tuition. This would encourage teachers to develop high profiles and followings among students, assuring themselves of higher income from their ‘name’ classes. This would also attract people who have developed particular fame to academic endeavors—retired politicians, for example, or others who have been in the public eye but who also carry certain minimum academic credentials.

Faculty office space would become shared space, allotted in ratio to the number of students needing direct assistance. As there would no longer be expectations of service or scholarship for faculty employment, resources available to the teaching staff could be kept to a minimum, freeing up additional space, among other things, for classroom use. As faculty would be individually responsible for their own careers, there would be no process of promotion or tenure and no faculty responsibilities to the institution—outside of the actual teaching—at all. Course development and other activities that once fell upon the faculty would be turned to the chairs and outsourced to commercial entities such as Blackboard and Pearson that already have strong interest in developing course process and material.

The savings to the institutions would be substantial. Faculty, whose roles have been diminished each passing year for more than a generation, could be placed completely outside the permanent staffing model of each college. After verification of minimum credentials, it would be up to each potential instructor to either bid lowest for teaching a desired section or attract sufficient students to a course in their specialty. The development of one’s career would now be completely in the hands of the individual.

A decade ago, the then-vigorous for-profit sector of higher education felt it had developed a model for the future. The problem was they wrote out the faculty almost completely, seeing the faculty as facilitators only. The education that resulted was weak, eventually leading to the collapse of major components of the sector. This new model would not require revitalization of the for-profits but simply a continuation of the pattern of the past half-century, one centered upon growing reliance on adjunct faculty but with a couple of new and brilliant alterations. Now, using advances in technology, everyone would be independent contractors, each potential instructor competing to teach desired sections through app-based gig technology and each student jockeying for a place in courses in an app system designed for their convenience and quick-as-possible graduation.

What could go wrong?

6 thoughts on “Gig University

  1. Ah, yes, April 1st. But while Aaron’s piece might be in this spirit, in reality the March 28th issue of e-Campus News posted an article describing 3 disruptions of the traditional model with Competency-Based education, Badging, and specific “Skilling” now rising. As Aaron also notes, there are several successful “profit-based models which do not differ very far from the description here. What is also interesting is the rise of major universities to accept the increasing number of “certificates” towards credits for a traditional degree. In the United States, the tell-tale sign is the willingness of the government to approve financing for many of these alternative pathways (follow the money). Also, corporations, many of whom, now, look beyond the 4 year degree are building relationships with those enterprises offering programs such as edX and Coursera. Perhaps another sign is the increasing focus by unions to provide reasonable wages and benefits to non-tenure track faculty entering the increasing adjunct pool or variances thereof, or the number of Ph.D. “barristas” or the equivalent now in the world outside of the Ivory Tower, none of whom can even see a path towards a tenure track position.

    Another point to consider is the rise of AI which, as most foresight practitioners note, are challenging not the production line workforce but the knowledge worker of which academics are in that class. Eliza, Seri, and one of Watson’s children (Scholar?) may unmask this supposedly April 1 op-ed? As Wordsworth penned, “We will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind”.

  2. I love this thought piece. Very stimulating. I think what can go wrong from the university perspective is clear: gigs favour small-scale learning; universities may well end up extinct like the lumbering dinosaurs they are. There is a lot of money wrapped up in that system and people are going to fight tooth and nail to keep things as close to the way they are as they possibly can.

  3. Pingback: GIGO University |

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