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Blast from the past: Talking about Trump U — a decade ago

No Gravatareducationvirtual children by Scott Warnock

It’s summer, and I’m just back from vacation and scraping off some rust. In the spirit of summer reruns (who’s reading now anyway?), I wanted to re”publish” an old piece this week. Observing some activities of late on the political front, I remembered an article I wrote a decade ago that I think works well for my throwback purposes, or at least provides relevant context for my effort to get around writerly laziness. So, here, reprinted in full, is an August 2006 piece from Academic Exchange Extra about Trump University. (Note: This runs long and even comes with citations. Note: It’s not political.)

Could Trump U Help E-learning Advocates?

Scott Warnock, PhD
Assistant Professor of English
Drexel University

The latest e-learning development may have educators seething, trembling, or chuckling. Look out, world, here comes Trump University.

Of course, Trump U will be unlike those stuffy universities we have become accustomed to. It is slick, streamlined, and useful with a capital U. The home page of this brickless “university” does not showcase images of stately college buildings. Instead, we get an image of the man himself, appropriately so, given the focus here: promote Trump. In a Business Week online article analyzing its launch, Trump U’s president said “the mogul will hold periodic live online Q&A sessions with students and will also address questions through an ‘Ask Mr. Trump’ feature” (Hindo 2005). Before the school was running, its store already enabled students to sport their allegiance to the man, er, university with a hat or polo shirt. This is self-promoter extraordinaire Donald Trump, after all, so once people are asking, “What do I think of this?” he has succeeded.

Okay, I am falling into the trap. An educator can easily poke fun at Trump U. But I realize my barbs probably will not discourage potential enrollees and might even encourage a few. And truth be told, I am not that down on the whole idea. Why? Because Trump U, despite its glitz, is founded on some solid pedagogical ideas, ideas particularly well suited to e-learning. No textbooks? No grades? Students evaluating each other? Virtual teams? Teachers laying low? Do-it-yourself philosophy? Sound like a scam? Maybe. But it also sounds like student-centered teaching heaven. Trump U is intriguing because the ideas driving its classes may raise awareness—even within education—of a number of teaching strategies that do not get enough attention:

  • Peer review—Writing teachers have long known peer review is excellent for stimulating students’ writing. When done poorly, peer review may indeed become “the blind leading the blind,” a critique I have often heard. But when conducted well, it opens students up not only to the collaboration required to complete many of the toughest tasks they will face in life, but it allows them to see each other’s thinking process.
  • Team-based work—Speaking of collaboration, educators have long used team projects, although such projects are not as entrenched as they should be. C. Sidney Burrus, dean of engineering at Rice University, said: “One thing I find ironic is that from kindergarten up through a PhD program, students are basically encouraged not to collaborate.… And then you graduate, and we say, ‘Oh, by the way, we’d like you to collaborate’” (Budiansky 1999, 24). One of Trump U’s selling points is that, like The Apprentice, learning occurs through cohorts or teams. Point blank, this is a fantastic. Trump’s show is like a super-powered technical writing course. Drawing on the show’s cash resources, these “student” teams work in complex business models. At the end, theater aside, they communicate and defend their results. Teachers salivate at that kind of opportunity.
  • Voluntary participation—A good learning environment is key to a good course. When all students want to be there, teachers are more than halfway home. Trump U highlights an increasing phenomenon: students often choose e-learning modalities, whether as an option within their own schools or by pursuing strictly online degree/program offerings.
  • No grades—Some schools have a pass/fail system, but imagine having students who are there purely for knowledge. I teach writing, and I feel lucky to have worked with many smart, motivated students. But sometimes the grade obstructs. I urge students to pursue alternative voices or strategies. Sometimes they do. But sometimes the grade scares them back into the old five-paragraph essay. Many yawn their way through Bs their whole academic career.

Perhaps most intriguingly, Trump U tries to latch onto the potential of e-learning. Maybe Trump U is greed motivated (I cannot shake those polo shirts), but let us call it like it is: Voluntary teams of motivated people paying for knowledge—not grades—can have a worthwhile learning experience in a Web-based environment. As Shimabukuro (2005) says, educational technologies tap into our “natural tendency toward freedom and empowerment,” providing an opportunity for a vast re-thinking of what education is. Indeed, the opportunity is out there. I find it significant that Trump, at the height of his pop culture fame, is trying to snatch a piece of this. While Trump has not called everything right in his career (he admits as much on his Trump U blog), what does it mean that an accomplished risk taker has decided to invest (his own money, supposedly) in e-learning? Why shouldn’t we capture some of the attention generated by Trump U’s marketing machine?

Why, indeed. Because many of us working in e-learning continuously cycle (sometimes in the same day) through a range of feelings from nagging doubt to heady enthusiasm. At Drexel this year, I coordinated an initiative to offer online versions of Drexel’s first-year writing sequence. I approached the initiative cautiously, and, not surprisingly, the initiative faced obstacles and challenges. Our team stumbled through an impractical, meeting-heavy training; I coordinated that training, and I will not make the same mistakes again (instead following Hewett and Ehmann’s [2004, 11] advice: “teaching online necessitates training online”). We missed opportunities to “advertise” the courses (could we have learned something from Trump U?), so they were underenrolled initially. These first-year, on-campus students were not always given the full range of technological support that such courses demanded. But after a year, while not ready to walk away from “normal” teaching, I feel comfortable saying e-writing courses offer powerful learning and instructional opportunities for some students and some teachers.

E-learning worries people because pedagogically, administratively, business model-wise, it seems a new educational world. Trump U highlights some of these worries, showing how almost anyone can jump in. But e-learning does not have to be so alien. In Drexel’s initiative, we used technology to replicate, or migrate, online successful face-to-face teaching strategies: discussions about readings, peer reviews, reading quizzes, workshops about writing techniques. We learned a lot about how and when to run online courses. Next year, we are doubling our online course offerings in the winter and spring (Drexel is on a quarter system). However, first term we are only offering hybrid courses, with half of the course work migrated online. Students will meet an instructor weekly and thus, we feel, better orient themselves to the university.

We also learned a great deal not just about e-teaching but about teaching in general. One advantage to the e-writing class experience is students see much of each other’s writing. Writing and reading are treated almost like dirty secrets in higher education. Seldom are students encouraged to share their writing. Few would ever admit their reading skills need work. Students rarely discuss research strategies or difficulties. This is all shocking, considering that reading and writing are fundamental skills that will make or break Trump wannabes more than perhaps their knowledge of marketing, sales, or entrepreneurship will. Online, students write a lot, which is what a composition course is all about. They write nearly every course transaction, and through this process, they see their writing in new ways. In addition, they constantly write for an audience beyond the professor. They collaborate on message boards and have substantive, written arguments about topics they might normally discuss in the classroom. In my classes, for instance, students submit in 10 weeks 30 semi-formal mini-essays on the class boards. Since these essays must be about 125 words (many far exceed that), they write nearly 4,000 words in the course beyond papers and other assignments. I am sure my online courses are as rigorous and challenging as the face-to-face versions of those classes, and I have been floored by the high-level conversations on these boards. From debates about intelligent design to analysis of poems, students have shown how in this environment they use writing to crank up their thinking to impressive levels, building ideas and community—while I often join the discussions instead of leading them. By and large, students who succeed online are highly motivated. We are just now assessing year one, but they, anecdotally, tend to turn in work early, post beyond the minimum requirements, and hound instructors about assignment parameters. And course evaluations show that students are satisfied with the challenges and convenience of these classes.

One of Trump U’s selling points is the reduced role of teachers. The classes will involve “not even teachers, most of the time,” according to the BusinessWeek article (Hindo 2005). Of course, this angers teachers. But it is not true. I was most curious about Trump U’s Communication course, but when I visited the site, that module still had a “coming soon” icon. So I clicked on Marketing Essentials, which is described with edgy, down-with-the-ivory-tower language: “Learning by Doing is the best way to learn because it prepares you to apply your knowledge in the real world,” and “See and hear true-life case studies from professionals who have been there and done it.” But when I tried to preview the course (before I would “buy” it), I discovered that “Course faculty provides expert written commentary on your work—a unique, top-level assessment that’s unavailable anywhere else.” People should scratch their heads at this: “Unavailable anywhere else”?—sure, except at every university in the country. That is what teachers do.

To me, Trump U’s subtle teacher model is so obviously problematic that I am not bothered by it at all. It draws on a rogue anti-teacher mentality that makes good TV but does not work well for education. While some want to ignore the university and embrace the Bill Gates model of fleeing school to do real work, behind college’s tuition hikes, credit complexities, and red tape is a solid, simple model: Someone who has thought hard about a subject helps teach others that subject. E-learning can complicate that model, but someone still sets up the Trump U cases and structures. Let us go a step beyond that. I argue that people, in general, do not want to learn without teachers. Trump U might downplay the teacher, but the whole model deconstructs itself, starting with the sagely scowling Trump on the homepage. The endeavor is being sold on the premise that master teacher Donald Trump might one day appear on your computer screen and answer your question. In this setting of wealth building and personality hawking, what more is Trump than a Distinguished Professor, regardless of how he frames this endeavor?

Finally, Trump U interests me because it is the latest breach in the barrier between the worlds of education and industry. From for-profit companies running school districts to Gates’ chastisement of American high schools, I see increasing crossover. I am willing to see where that leads, and I am enthusiastic. Schools now struggle not just with old-fashioned money issues but with challenges of adjusting teaching models in the 21st century’s competitive world, As Shimabukuro (2005) says of the educational system, “While we have been preoccupied with our own doings, the world around us has moved on.” I want to remain open to different opportunities, and some of those opportunities may take the form of industry partnerships previously seen as anathema to educators. Interestingly, federal grantors seem savvy to this, offering incentives for combined private-public sector educational ventures.

When I see Trump glaring at me from Trump U’s homepage (where are the flashing $s in his eyes?), all the images of money, the word “wealth” littering the site, and a shop hawking hats before a curriculum is fully running, I know this is (yet another) fledgling branch of a widespread cult of personality. The classes seem a deal at $300, but realize that they only run for a week or so. That seems too short to establish meaningful community among the students. The Trump U administration said it will tailor the curriculum as it goes, and I predict it does lots of tweaking in the coming months. But underlying Trump U are good ideas about Web-based learning. Teachers, do not be scared. They are going to need us, maybe more than ever—especially those of us who teach writing. Trump’s latest wild ride might bring some attention to pedagogies involving collaboration and peer review. We also might get a further glimpse into how student motivation affects success. Most importantly, as the view of e-learning broadens, it gives those of us exploring this teaching method opportunities to receive wider support for developing and assessing these methods. We are already thinking about these ideas, so maybe we can take advantage of some of Trump’s marketing power and see what develops as the conversation about online learning spreads outward.


Budiansky, S. 1999. A Web of connections: Engineering firms are using the Net to bring projects
together when people work apart. ASEE Prism 8(7): 20-24.

Hewett, B.L. and C. Ehmann. 2004. Preparing educators for online writing instruction: Principles and processes. Urbana, IL: National Council of Teachers of English.

Hindo, B. 2005. Trump University: You’re hired! BusinessWeek Online May 23, 2005. (accessed May 26, 2005).

Shimabukuro, J. 2005. Freedom and empowerment: An essay on the next step for education and technology. Innovate.1 (5). (accessed June 16, 2005).

This post first appeared on When Falls The Coliseum, please read the originial post: here

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Blast from the past: Talking about Trump U — a decade ago


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