A Dangerous Demographic

I have a bit of a thing for adverts on the internet, because I love looking at how an algorithm decides what I like. (See the book, chapter 11).

But there’s an advert I’m getting a lot lately, and I can’t get it out of my head. The advert is about three minutes long, and thankfully skippable, and it plays in front of every YouTube video I watch. Doing my daily yoga? Advert. Watching a group of gamers murder and mutilate one another (virtually)? Advert.

Towards the end of the ad, the presenter says “Imagine . . . never having to worry about that time consuming process of creating courses and coaching programmes.”

Hold up. Wait. Insert record-scratch noise.

Never having to create a course again?


This advert is for a service which will provide you ‘content’ for a price. They seem to be mostly selling blog posts and ‘top 10 tips’ lists. They seem to be talking mainly about ‘coaching’ services, but I can’t get that phrase out my head. “Never have to create a course again”.

Off the top of my head, I’ve been involved in the creation of about 25 courses in higher education. Four of them have been courses which were owned by me, and that I would have to do the bulk of the delivery for. I think that gives me an unusual perspective on course design.

There’s a part of me that very much wants to write a dystopian future novel about a higher education environment where the educators purchase the materials of the course from the same place that sells the answers to the assignments to the students. Yes – I think the next logical step for essay mills is for course creation.

I am being a little flippant here, as I actually think essay mills are one of the greatest failures of higher education. It horrifies me that we have a whole cohort of students, a marketable population who value product over process. I don’t think this company is interested particularly in writing university courses, but I am certain they wouldn’t object to me using the content I might purchase for them in such a way. In fact, I think they would even start working to develop content in that area, if they thought people would pay for it.

It’s interesting that this ad comes up on YouTube because some people on the platform have been paid to promote essay mills in their own content. It’s also interesting that no matter how many times I tell YouTube I don’t like the advert, it continues to show it to me. Something in that algorithm is overriding the information I myself give to Google. I can’t help but wonder if there’s something about me specifically that the company wants to reach. Since GDPR, I’ve had some truly weird and wonderful adverts, including a company who thinks I’m in the market to buy a bulk order of silicone processors (Google Ads thinks I like Business and Productivity Software, Business News and Business Services as well as Computer Components which . . . is kind of disappointing, Google). And I have seen an unfortunate resurgence in the amount of adverts to the all important 30+ woman demographic which means that pregnancy testing companies think I spend all day urinating. (Asides from all the research implications, this has been the biggest issue I have with GDPR. I had JUST trained Google out of this).

What really, really worries me – if that I fit into a demographic here. I know that Google Ads aren’t that clever. And I know how essay mills sell. They say that essay assignments are unfair, are impossible to be marked unless you know the system, and they say they have PhD students waiting to write for you. They talk about unemployed professors wanting to get one over a system that wronged them.

I look at staff who are fighting for pensions, and yet will be punished for this year’s poor NSS scores. I remember the incredulous face of a colleague when I described how that overall satisfaction is actually calculated. I think of the papers which demonstrate that department, not university, not subject, but that little culture of people in a building – is the greatest contributor to variation in the NSS scores.

I wonder how many of those departments, those unhappy and stressed people, who are told that leaving academia is weak and shameful, and I wonder . . .

When they click a YouTube link, do they hear Imagine . . . never having to worry about that time consuming process of creating courses.