An open letter to Senator Tom Harkin

Senator Harkin:

I am a three classes away from finishing my Master of Information Systems degree at University of Phoenix. I understand that you have serious doubts about the value of an online education provided by for-profit institutions like the Apollo Group’s University of Phoenix. Please accept this as my personal testimony in regard to the quality of what University of Phoenix provides. First, I want to address the reasons that I am writing this. Then I want to tell the story of many other students, my colleagues, some of whom have become lifelong friends.

I am a sixteen year veteran of the IT analysis profession. When I came to Phoenix, I already had a Bachelor’s in Psychology and Sociology from Rutgers University in Newark. Rutgers is one of the top research universities in the nation. I was made a member of Psi Chi, the National Honors Society for Psychology. I was also in the R.O.T.C program at Seton Hall University. Like Rutgers, Seton Hall is known by many to be a school of excellence. I received a diploma in Military Science from Seton Hall. My education there lead to my first career as an officer in the United States Army. While in the Army, I attended several schools including the Armor Officer Basic Course at Fort Knox, KY, the Chaplain Officer Basic course at Fort Monmouth, NJ, and Nuclear , Chemical, and Biological Warfare training at Ft. Bliss TX. I logged over 1,000 hours on the instructor’s platform and I wrote the training evaluation program that was used to assess the combat readiness of Cavalry scouts. Several years after leaving the Army, I made a career change to being a full-time minister in a very large denomination. During that time, I earned a Master of Arts in Biblical Studies. I finished my studies in 1994 via distance learning that used video tape and textbooks. At the age of 32, I was accepted into the Doctor of Sacred Ministries program at what is now known as Northland International College. I was the youngest member of my class. Although I enjoyed my time in ministry, I realized that I did not have the temperament to be as effective a minister as I needed to be. Because I was a computer help desk lead for the three years I was getting my first Master’s, I was able to go into the technology field. My first job after being in the ministry was as a software instructor for a nationwide chain of computer stores owned by a stalwart of American business, The Tandy Corporation. Within two months of taking that job, I doubled my classroom capacity, added two part-time instructors, and had the second most successful training operation in the entire company. Tandy, the parent of Radio Shack, decided to close down the chain eight months after I was hired. In 1996, I became an applications analyst. The word “analyst” has been in my job title for most of the last 16 years.

If you examine the previous paragraph, you will not see any technology education. Until recently, that was not much of an issue. I have a Master’s, lots of experience, I have trained myself to program in several languages, and I am a Microsoft Certified Professional. I was able to get jobs that required someone with an IT Master’s degree because a line in the qualifications section of job postings used to say, “Has a Master’s degree in a technology field or commensurate experience.” Today, jobs such as the one I currently hold have dropped the “commensurate experience” from the qualifications. I found that out the hard way in 2010. I was a contractor on assignment to the Bureau of the Census. I wrote the requirements for the single largest operation in the 2010 Census. The application that was developed from those requirements impacted 49 million American homes. Once the Census was over, like most contractors, so was my job. It was then that I faced something I had only faced once in my life, unemployment. Apart from two weeks of unemployment while I was still in college, I have always been employed. I wasn’t concerned about finding a new position. After all, I thought that I was bringing so much to the table, that it would be only a matter of days until I found another job. That’s when I noticed the “commensurate experience” phrase dropped out of job descriptions. It took me seven weeks to find a new job. I was out of money and totally frustrated because all I had worked for counted for nothing to most employers because I didn’t have an IT degree. Within days of getting my new job, I enrolled in the Master of Information Systems program at Phoenix.

You might wonder why I have gone through this litany of education and experience. There is a simple reason. I am about to give you my testimony of what the University of Phoenix means to me. I am sure that you receive many letters from people that give you their opinions, qualified or not.  I think it is important to know when I speak of the quality of education, I speak from significant experience. When I speak of the modern technology workplace, I know first-hand what it is like. When I speak about the value of education, remember that I trained our soldiers in skills that meant something far more important than how to be profitable. I taught them how to avoid being killed and how to defeat the enemies of our great nation. My former unit, the 3d Armored Cavalry Regiment, was the first over the line during Operation Desert Storm in 1990. I did not worry for them because I was only one of an untold number of men and women who, regardless of formal education, made teaching them to succeed in the most hazardous work environment on Earth, the modern battlefield, their purpose in life. I have degrees from ground-based institutions and I had my first distance learning experience in 1994.

I have a very serious question to ask.  Did you or any member of the committee that produced the disparaging report on for-profit online learning institutions even audit an online class?  I know that with the massive amount of work involved in running our country’s business, such things are not always possible.  I would like to make you an offer with the hope that it might help you to reconsider your position.  I know the value of an online education. I am staking my career on it. I carry a 4.0 GPA average at Phoenix that I have worked extremely hard for. Please let me present you with one of the papers I’ve written while at Phoenix.  I live in Baltimore, MD, just an hour north of The Capitol. If you like, I’ll hand-deliver the paper to you.  While I’m there, feel free to invite me to stand on the floor of the Senate so that you and your colleagues can ask me about my education.  If you like, find a GS-15 Functional Analyst (that is the equivalent to the job I hold) and have him or her quiz me on business and systems analysis.  I’m willing to put a lot on the line.  I make my living as a government contractor.  If I come across as anything less than competent, I will be jeopardizing my own career.  I stand nothing to gain by this.  I’ll be done with Phoenix in six months.  I want to make sure that Phoenix and schools like it are available after you and I are not around to discuss this.  I want my kids and grandkids to have the same options I have now.

Allow me to share a University of Phoenix story that took place quite recently. I was fortunate to have an unusual amount of experience in the class that I just completed. That comes through in the answers to the discussion questions that each student is required to submit at least twice a day, four days per week. (As an aside, I’ve not experienced a ground-based program that has such a requirement. My first class at Rutgers University had over 400 students. Nobody was required to raise their hands, let alone make what Phoenix calls “a substantive contribution.”) One of my classmates asked why I didn’t just test out of the class. Apart from the fact that such a thing isn’t done in my program, I had the following answer for him:

I have been in this business for a lot of years and I know a lot of things but I am self-taught. The inherent danger of being self-taught is that you teach yourself what you need to know, so by default you don’t know what you don’t know. That results in knowledge with holes in it. I have never had a class here where I didn’t discover at least one hole in my knowledge. When I start my teaching career, I owe it to my students to be as free as possible from holes in my knowledge because I can’t teach them about things I know nothing of.

You see, I have one more career change ahead. For most of my adult life, I have wanted to teach professionally. It was shortly after I started at Phoenix that I finally decided I would leave my career in IT and teach IT to distance learners full time. I have already been accepted into the post-graduate program of Liberty University in Virginia. Liberty has a fully-accredited online education program as well as a fully-accredited ground-based program. In case you are wondering why I am not getting my Doctorate at Phoenix, it is because the Liberty is faith-based and I want to have the Christian worldview of Liberty impact me in a way that a secular university cannot.

If you think that a quality education can only come through a ground-based education, please consider the following. By the time I complete my Doctor of Education degree at Liberty, I will have attended the school both online and on the ground. I do not anticipate learning less while at home than I will on the ground. Bricks and mortar are not key ingredients in getting a world-class education. If they were, then I guess Sal Khan didn’t get the message because he educates almost as many people as Phoenix.  If you aren’t familiar with Sal, I’d highly recommend that you read up on him.  Sal has the benefit of being underwritten by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  I want to do what Sal is doing.  To do that, I need companies like the Apollo Group to “underwrite” my efforts.  I need a virtual platform to stand on.  The Apollo Group, by providing the service of the University of Phoenix, gives me that platform.

If bricks and mortar are your thing, then before you discount Phoenix because its students can get degrees online, please remember that the University has over 200 ground-based schools, including three within driving distance of my home, that I may attend any time I want to. I have physical limitations that make such a thing extremely difficult. Fortunately, the only wall between me and the University of Phoenix is a firewall. There is something else you should be aware of. American institutions like Harvard and American University in D.C. have online programs now. So does my Alma Mater, Rutgers University. Those three schools have been teaching people for a combined total of 740 years. I think it is safe to say that they know a lot about education. Have they made mistakes in offering online learning?

That’s my story. Allow me to share the story of another group of University of Phoenix students, those who are depending on their degree to help them make a change in their lives. As much as I struggled to find a job during my seven weeks of unemployment, I could have easily had a job in the high five-figures instead of the six-figures I was accustomed to. The folks I’m talking about have no hope of a future without an advanced degree. As part of giving back to the school, I volunteer my time to mentor my classmates that are struggling with the material. These folks fall into roughly three categories. The first are students with a native tongue other than English. They have come here from all over the world. I remember of couple of Serbian students who lived in danger every day. During DBM/502 (a database management course), I worked with a man who came here from Serbia. The gentleman was very intelligent but was struggling with grasping some concepts because English doesn’t always translate well, especially technical terms. My facilitator let me take time with him so I could explain some of the principles he wasn’t catching by presenting him with several analogies. He got it and finished the class. Without Phoenix and other high-quality online institutions, this man’s American dream would be limited to jobs that paid far less than those he had the ability to hold. He has a wife and three children along with a full-time job. No ground-based program in this country would have worked for him.

The second group of people are single moms with children at home. Some of them had not worked outside of the home for years while others worked in technical jobs but had hit the limit of what jobs they could get. These women are like lionesses watching over their cubs. They sacrifice to provide for them as well as they can. I remember spending hours tutoring and counseling with a single mom from California. Her husband left her with no support and three kids. She was a nurse but like a lot of tech-savvy non-IT people, she was the one that people went to for solutions to their computer problems because the help desk was backed up or because it was three AM and while the help desk is sleeping, the nurses are working. She tried getting tech jobs but she found out very quickly that being tech-savvy didn’t qualify her for jobs, even if she knew how to do them. Where and when is that woman going to get the degree she needs?

I remember working with another single mom that had great grades but she was struggling with an important concept in the class we took together. She wasn’t available to work with me until later in the evening because she worked all day and had to put her kids to bed after spending some time with them. I set up a Web conference with her and we worked through that tough spot for almost six hours. After that, she was rock-solid for the rest of the class. I guess I am particularly sympathetic to their plight because I was raised in the 1960’s by a single mom. In those days, being a single mom was not commonplace like it is today. She worked very hard and eventually became the vice-president of a company.

Being a distinguished veteran yourself, I think you’ll share my feelings about the group that is closest of all to me.  These are the veterans that never quite made the transition from the military to the civilian world. I was fortunate to make the transition. When I was in the Army, I had an additional duty that required me to learn office automation. Even with that skill, it was hard for me to find a job. I was a Cavalryman in one of three Armored Cavalry Regiments in the Army. My Regiment’s mission was to conduct reconnaissance, find the enemy, engage with them, start killing them, and then draw them toward the heavy armored units to finish the job. There is not a lot of a call for those skills in the civilian world. I was two days away from running out of money when I finally got a job offer for a position that paid $20,000 less than I made as an Army officer.

At Phoenix, I’ve worked with many vets but let me tell you the story about one of our patriots that I worked with recently. In the University of Phoenix, unlike ground-based schools, we are required to share a biography with the class before getting started. Let’s call the vet I’m about to talk about Bill. Bill’s biography showed a man full of frustration and anger because after eight years in the military, he was never able to get the sort of job he needed to take care of his family, a wife and eight children. The class facilitator treats Bill with exceptional grace but there is only so much he can do because he is, as are most of the facilitators, a full-time IT professional (something you do not find in traditional universities). Bill has made it clear to the class that he knows technology but without this degree, he’s just not going to make it in the world. Bill, like so many others, has had low-end tech jobs, but because he does not have the appropriate degree, he has stagnated. As a former Army chaplain with some amount of pastoral counseling experience, I feel confident in saying that he is depressed and possibly bordering on despondency. For a vet, despondency can be fatal. In the 90 or so minutes that it took to write this, one of our veterans has taken his or her own life. 18 veterans per day die this way. More veterans have died this way in the last 12 months than during the entire conflict in Iraq. I asked the facilitator if it was acceptable for me to work with Bill on the side. He most gladly gave me permission. Bill was a hard case. After two days of working with him, I was telling my wife about him and I broke down crying because I wasn’t sure if I could get through. She encouraged me to stay with him. After all, I hope to be a full-time educator in a few years and there are a lot of hard cases out there. The next few days weren’t very different but after another attempt at getting him to understand a concept that he wasn’t getting, he made a post to our team’s discussion forum. There were three words in that post that should be carved in stone as a testimony of what the University of Phoenix and other quality online institutions can do in the lives of their students. The words were “I got it.”

You made a very successful transition from the military to the civilian world.  From what I read, I understand that you are a gifted photo-journalist.  However, distinguished military service and a gift for art do not necessarily a senator make.  I can only assume that you pursued your J.D. to prepare you for your current career.  Vets need a variety of educational options.  Schools like University of Phoenix provide a vital avenue to getting the education many need to make the sort of transition you and I did.

Education is the key to breaking down so many barriers in our country. Even today, we discriminate against people because of their color, their gender, their sexuality, and particularly their levels of education. Online learning is a battering-ram that breaks down those barriers. I am so committed to it that when I walk the platform as Dr. Knaster instead of Mr. Knaster, I’m quitting my job and teaching Bill, the single moms, the former refugees, and anyone else that wants to live out the American dream by working hard and earning a degree. Please do not mitigate against my dream or the dreams of the hundreds of thousands of American distance learners in this country and around the world. Some people’s lives depend on it.

Thank you for your time.

Andrew G. Knaster, BA, MA, MCP
Baltimore, MD


Grad School Can Be Fun

I’m working on my second Master’s degree.  I’m an academic at heart so I enjoy the disciplines of study and writing papers.  I’m also a storyteller.  Instead of taking school so seriously, I’ve chosen to have fun.  University of Phoenix is where I study so our classroom is an online threaded discussion.  Each week, the class is given two to four discussion questions.  Some of these are based on scholarly articles and others on research.  Combining answers to the discussion questions with short story writing is my way of having fun.  I guess it works for the professors because I’m carrying a 4.0 GPA.

My current class is in IT infrastructure.  One of this week’s questions was as follows:

As a manager, you are responsible for making sure the technology you use meets standards for communication and connectivity. What are some of the standards that you should be using for purchase decisions, and why are they important?

I started out answering like any other student:

These are some of the communication and connectivity-related standards I’ve been involved with:

  • IEEE 802.11b/g/n – Wireless routers in the 2.4, 3.6, and 5 GHz range must be
    certified to comply with the appropriate sections of the Institute of Electrical
    and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) 802.11 standard.
  • TIA/EIA-568-C – This standard written by Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) and Electronics Industry Alliance (EIA) establishes the standards for Ethernet
    cable, most significantly Category 5e (10BASE-T and 100BASE-TX) and Category 6
    (10BASE-T, 100BASE-TX, 1000BASE-T/1000BASE-TX, and 10GBASE-T).
  • NFPA 90A – Network cable that runs through plenums (ventilation spaces) must comply with this code published by the National Fire Protection Association. The code
    identifies the standard for how cable in plenums must react to fire.

When it came having to explain why standards conformance was important is when I got into storytelling mode.

Let me start out with a ficticious startup company, Kentucky Fried Tofu. KFT, headquartered in Sausalito, California sells cryo-packed, wing-shaped, beer-batter breaded tofu with free electric mini-fryers. They market the product to people that hate the idea of killing animals and eating them but really crave the experience of good-old fried food. The owners, Geno and Herb, rented some first floor office space on 2nd St. They were cheap, so when they bought the computers for KFT, they didn’t hire a consultant. They went to Best-Buy in Marin City.

When they got there, they split up. Geno went to get laptops and Herb got the printer and three routers. Geno was really excited because Best-Buy was selling Acer Aspire TimelineX laptops for $729 a piece and they had built-in 802.11b/g/n Wi-Fi. He didn’t really know what that meant, but he heard that it was really fast. Herb’s shopping cart had three Netgear Factory Refurbished 802.11g routers and an HP 8000 OfficeJet Wireless printer. Geno was not super techie, but he figured if the laptops were 802.11n and the routers were 802.11g, that the routers wouldn’t keep up with the laptops because “n” is higher in the alphabet than “g.” Herb thought that was stupid so he grabbed some kid in a Best-Buy blue shirt named Chuck. Chuck confirmed that the laptops and routers could talk to each other but only at 802.11g speed, about 54 Mbps. Chuck recommended the Cisco Linksys E2000. It was $35 more than the Netgear router but because it was 802.11n compliant, it was able to transfer up to 300 Mbps. Chuck also told them it could handle Gigabit Ethernet. Geno and Herb didn’t really know what that was but it sounded cool.

They got things with KFT running pretty quickly. It turned out there were lots of people who cared more about not lopping off chickens’ heads than they did about cholesterol. To bolster business even further, Herb started a blog called Chix Dig Kentucky Fried Tofu at (go ahead, try it, I know you want to) that had business up to almost $18,000 per week. The boys needed to add five more employees which meant getting five more networked computers.

They were learning a little bit more about computers. One of the things they discovered was the Gigabit Ethernet that Chuck from Best-Buy told them about was network cabling, and it made accessing the Internet faster than that 802.11 Wi-Fi stuff. Geno went to to “get me some of that Ethernet.” He loved to say Ethernet. For some odd reason, it reminded him of his favorite group, Blue Öyster Cult.

Geno called a company in Corte Madera by the name of The Cable Guyz. Charlotte, one of the techs answered and asked Geno what he wanted. Geno said, “dude, I want Ethernet. Do you have any?” Charlotte said, “sure. Want me to come by and figure out how much you need?” Geno, who hadn’t quite figured out how a Cable Guy wasn’t a guy, made an appointment with Charlotte. The next morning, she rolled up in the Cable Guyz Land Rover. It was converted so the back was open to expose four huge rolls of cable in cyan, magenta, yellow, and black. Charlotte came in and introduced herself to Herb and Geno. Herb showed her around while she measured the amount of linear feet of coverage KFT could need.

She went out on the front porch of KFT with Geno and Herb and sat on the Adirondack chairs painted with pictures of bright yellow banana slugs. Charlotte had to ask, “what’s the deal with the yellow thingies on your chairs?” Herb told her that he and Geno met at UC Santa Cruz and the banana slug was the school mascot. Charlotte, originally from Poughkeepsie, NY, chuckled in her head, “only in Cali!” She took out her laptop and fired up her job estimator. Her first question was “how fast do you want your network to be?” Geno and Herb looked at each other and said “gigabit, dude!” Charlotte said, “OK, so that’s gonna be CAT 6.” The boys clearly had no idea of what she meant. Charlotte explained that there was this group of people in Piscataway, New Jersey called the Aye Triple-E (IEEE) that came up with standards for all sorts of things including network cables. “Gigabit Ethernet cable is called CAT 6.” The boys thought that was the coolest name for cable. Geno got CAT-6 as his vanity plate the following year.

“Floor or ceiling?” Geno looked at Herb and then Charlotte with that kind of head-cocked-to-the side-look that Welsh Corgis are known for. “Do you want your cables in the floor or ceiling?” clarified Charlotte. Herb explained that the office was on a concrete slab so the cables would have to be in the ceiling with the HVAC ductwork. Charlotte said, “OK, then you’ll need plenum grade cable. It’s twice as expensive as standard CAT 6.” Still corgi-like, Geno asked “what’s ‘plenum grade?’” Charlotte pointed to the yellow spool of cable. Herb said, “why does yellow cable cost more than magenta?” Charlotte went to her truck and brought back this thin book marked NFPA 90A: Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilating Systems. “Fire Code” she said. “The space in your ceiling where the air flows is called a plenum. Cable that goes up there can’t catch fire until it gets to be about 700 degrees and when it does burn, it can’t give off toxic fumes.” “Dude,” said Geno. “but if it gets that hot in here we’re all gonna leave before it gets stinky.” Herb, who got it, took the $1,315 estimate from Charlotte and set up an installation appointment.

Charlotte drove the Land Rover north on the 101. There was a rib-joint/Internet café called “Meat, No Potatoes” with a sub-floor that needed 96 meters of magenta.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. (2009). 802.11n, IEEE Standard for Information technology—Telecommunications and information exchange between systems—Local and metropolitan area networks—Specific requirements: Part 11: Wireless LAN Medium Access Control (MAC) and Physical Layer (PHY) Specifications. New York, NY.

National Fire Protection Association. (2011). NFPA 90A: Standard for the Installation of Air-Conditioning and Ventilation Systems, 2012 Edition. Quincy, MA

Telecommunications Industry Association. (2009). Commercial Building Telecommunications Cabling Standard Set (Contains: Tia-568-C.0, Tia-568-C.1, Tia-568-C.2, Tia-568-C.3 And Tia-568-C.4 – With Addendums And Erratas). Arlington, VA.

You see, I look at it this way: My pedagogical model contains the idea that if you can present a concept in a story, you truly understand the concept. I hold storytelling in high esteem. It’s part of my heritage. I have actually refused to hire Java programmers because they could not pass the first test in my interview; storytelling. The test is based on Bruce Eckel’s seminal Java programming book, Thinking in Java. The test is simple: explain object oriented programming to a five-year-old. Some passed, others failed. True story.

Khan Academy

If you have ever wondered about the value of the Internet you need to check out the Khan Academy.  Salman Khan presents, free of charge, lessons in mathematics, economics, history, and other topics.  His lessons are used in schoolrooms around the world.  My goal in life is to be a professor.  Not only is Khan a professor, he has built an entire learning institution.  If there was such a thing as a Nobel Prize in education, Khan would be my nominee.