‘Snake Oil’ and the Rest of the Story

This past week I had the opportunity to chat with Inside Higher Ed reporter Steve Kolovich on the post-MOOC emergence of free courses, programs, and even degrees. In particular, Steve was interested in knowing what I thought about World Education University, a new institution that intends to give away free courses leading to free degrees.

Steve asked me if I thought these kinds of programs were snake oil. I responded that I wouldn’t call it snake oil, exactly, observing that schools built on breakthrough business models tended to beg that question.

The story that resulted from the interview came out today in Inside Higher Ed.   You can read what I said. It’s right there. It doesn’t sound too complimentary.

Photo of a multi-colored tatoo that reads "snake oil."
Snake Oil photo by Opacity
Under Creative Commons License: CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Now, I stand by what I said to Steve. But there is a bit more to what I actually did say. And the missing context changes the meaning of what I am being attributed with saying in fairly dramatic fashion. So I want to share the whole quote, just to make sure there is no misunderstanding of where I stand on this subject. In the spirit of the old Paul Harvey radio program: “You know what the news is; in a minute, you’re going to hear … the rest of the story.”

When Steve asked me if he could quote me (this was all taking place in email, BTW), I wrote back:

“Yes you can quote me… but I want to be clear, I don’t have a problem with the fact that there are ”breakthrough business model” schools in the mix. I like the fact that people are pushing hard on bringing new ideas to the post-secondary education table. I like the idea of progressive institutions. I like that breakthrough business model schools are starting to get the traditional academy worked up because that’s what it takes to get the conversation going in serious ways.  I like quality and am grateful that there are mechanisms in place to keep everyone honest.  I like that new options are emerging that give new student populations access to certifications and degrees delivered in high quality scalable ways.

“I also believe that there is naïveté about the academy actually works, which makes it exceedingly hard for schools run as businesses to fit in with school that are mission driven. Just like the first round of elearning, I expect we will continue to see a lot of, shall we say, creativity, in how programs are conceptualized, and we will see the traditional institutions go wild every time their sensibilities are assaulted by all the crazy newcomers that are popping up.  Some of it will be quite good. Some of it is snake oil. Some of it may be excellent but people will treat it as snake oil until the proof comes rolling in. One person’s snake oil is another person’s ticket to achieving the dream of a college education, so I don’t want to throw the whole idea out, nor do I want to point fingers.

“So with those caveats…sure. And thanks for the quote.”Photo of Ellen Wagner

I appreciate having the opportunity to share the *whole* quote. To be clear: I like breakthrough models. I like high quality innovative learning solutions that scale. I don’t care much for snake oil. Let’s take a look at the evidence of quality before we go too far down this road. Let’s also not be afraid to call the question.

Ellen Wagner
Executive Director, WCET

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Executive Director WCET (WICHE Cooperative for Educational Technologies)

2 thoughts on “‘Snake Oil’ and the Rest of the Story

  1. “I also believe that there is naïveté about the academy actually works, which makes it exceedingly hard for schools run as businesses to fit in with school that are mission driven.”

    I wish there was a robust conversation to found on this wonderful observation. It’s at the heart of it all for me. Thanks for putting language to it.

  2. I like what you said but you have to be so careful..
    Things get twisted so easily…Ellen, you are doing a great job.

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