On a somewhat related topic to the use of customized writing services. I keep getting emails from a Canadian company that is basically trying to sell themselves as short-term research assistants for hire. I’m not terribly impressed with the company’s web page, and I at least worry that one of the uses to which their services could be put would be by students or researchers trying to fake having done work that was done by someone else. On the other hand, I can see a lot of legitimate uses that people in some fields might have for a service of this kind: a non-fiction writer needing a solid briefing document on some specialized subject, a novelist looking for background, a researcher who needs a quick run-down of canonical research in an unfamiliar field.
For some reason, this company’s services did make me think about another possible business model that I think really could gain traction in higher education, partly in response to a meeting I had here at the college this week. One of the questions at this meeting was, “Is there some way to use information technology to leverage access to specializations or expertise which we can’t afford to support directly through a tenure-track faculty member?”
That’s a familiar question in higher education these days. The answer at many large universities is depressingly not “Sure, let’s use technology”, but instead, “Let’s just hire some more very poorly paid adjuncts!” In one sense, though, I think that answer has it right. The technology in and of itself can’t really solve that problem at all: it’s only a means for facilitating a solution. The solution involves reorganizing academic labor in some fashion.
Let’s suppose that a smaller or more focused college or university has a student who is hitting the limits of what their institution can provide them in one specialized subject area, or there is a student who is carrying out a culminating research project which extends beyond the competency of the tenure-track faculty which the faculty nevertheless agree is an exciting and legitimate project.
You can’t ever hire enough faculty to solve that problem, even if you use low-paid adjuncts, which you shouldn’t. So what I was thinking about was some kind of retainer model for a guided but also auto-didactical experience. Say, where the institution contacts a specialist that matches the student’s needs, offers a fee if the specialist designs a directed reading, “meets” with the student using Skype four times or so in a semester, and then is flown out to have a face-to-face meeting with the student at the end of the semester.
The problem with that model is that if I were asked for the names of colleagues who could do that work for a student I was advising, my first inclination would be to name the people I know best, who are mostly senior enough that I think they’d have no interest in doing that work even if the fee was generous. The people I’d love to name would be ABDs or just-completed Ph.Ds whom I haven’t met yet who might still be on the job market, or under-employed as adjuncts. The problem is finding them.
So here’s a rough business model for doing something like this: a student with the need for an extension tutorial of this kind is identified by faculty. Faculty advisors have a conversation with the student and come up with a specific description of the field or area of interest. Perhaps two months before the next semester, the institution posts a CFP with this description on the relevant area of their institutional website and distributes it to relevant professional associations. In most cases, you’d limit replies to ABDs or Ph.Ds, but there might be fields or interests where you’d have other qualifications. The institution would list the compensation (say, $3,000 per tutorial, something like that?). Make the tutorial count for general education credit but don’t have it assessed for a grade (just credit/no credit) since the whole point is that this is for highly motivated students who develop strong specific subject interests later in their study which aren’t served by the institution: it’s about developing expertise for the sake of the expertise. The business opportunity would come in finding and vetting a qualified pool of institutions capable of answering to these CFPs and matching candidates to queries, in setting up the network that connected students to the people offering the tutorials, though I can see ways to do this that cut the middleman out completely.