TITLE: Revolution Out There -- and Maybe In Here
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: June 11, 2009 8:24 PM
(Warning: This is longer than my usual entry.)
In recent weeks I have found myself reading with a perverse
fascination some of the abundant articles about the
future of newspapers and journalism. Clay Shirky's
Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable
has received a deserving number of mentions in most. His
essay reminds us, among other things, that revolutions
change the rules that define our world. This means that
living through a revolution is uncomfortable for most
people -- and dangerous to the people most invested in the
old order. The ultimate source of the peril is lack of
imagination; we are so defined by the rules that we forget
they are not universal laws but human constructs.
I'm not usually the sort of person attracted to train
wrecks, but that's how I feel about the quandary facing
the newspaper industry. Many people in and out of the
industry like to blame the internet and web for the
problem, but it is more complicated than that. Yes, the
explosion of information technology has played a role
in creating difficulties for traditional media, but as
much as it causes the problems, I think it exposes
problems that were already there. Newspapers battle forces
from all sides, not the least of which is the decline -- or
death? -- of advertising, which may soon be known as a
phenomenon most peculiar to the 20th century. The web has
helped expose this problem, with metrics that show just how
little web ads affect reader behavior. It has also simply
given people alternatives to media that were already fading.
Newspapers aren't alone.
This afternoon, I read Xark's
The Newspaper Suicide Pact
and was finally struck by another perverse thought, a fear
because it hits closer to my home. What if universities
are next? Are we already in a decline that will become
apparent only later to those of us who are on the inside?
Indications of the danger are all around. As in the
newspaper industry, money is at the root of many problems.
The cost of tuition has been rising much faster than
inflation for a quarter of a century. At my university,
it has more than doubled in the 2000s. Our costs, many
self-imposed, rise at the same time that state funding
for its universities falls. For many years, students
offset the gap by borrowing the difference. This solution
is bumping into a new reality now, with the pool of money
available for student loans shrinking and the precipitous
decline in housing equity for many eroding borrowing ability.
Some may see this as a good thing, as our students have seen
a rapid growth in indebtedness at graduation, outpacing
salaries in even the best-paying fields. Last week, many
people around here were agog at a report that my state's
university grads incur more student loan debt than any other
state's. (We're #1!)
Like newspapers, universities now operate in a world where
plentiful information is available on-line. Sometimes it
is free, and other times its is much less expensive than
the cost of taking a course on the subject. Literate,
disciplined people can create a decent education for
themselves on-line. Perhaps universities serve primarily
the middle and lower tier of students, who haven't the
initiative or discipline to do it on their own?
I have no numbers to support these rash thoughts, though
journalists and others in the newspaper industry do have
ample evidence for fear. University enrollments depend
mostly on the demographics of their main audience:
population growth, economics, and culture. Students also
come for a social purpose. But I think the main driver
for many students to matriculate is industry's de facto
use of the college degree as the entry credential to
the workplace. In times of alternatives and tight money,
universities benefit from industry's having outsourced
the credentialing function to them.
The university's situation resembles the newspaper's in
other ways, too. We offer a similar defense of why the
world needs us: in addition to creating knowledge, we
sort it, we package it for presentation, and we validate
its authenticity and authority. If students start
educating themselves using resources freely or cheaply
available outside the university, how will we know that
they are learning the right stuff? Don't get most
academics started on the topic of for-profits like
Kaplan University and the University of Phoenix; they
are the university's whipping boy. The news industry
has one, too: bloggers.
Newspaper publishers talk a lot these days about requiring
readers to pay for content. In a certain sense, that is
what students do:
pay universities for content.
Now, though, the web gives everyone access to on-line
lectures, open-source lecture notes, the full text of
books, technical articles, and ... the list goes on.
Why should they pay?
Too many publishers argue that their content is better,
more professional, and so stand behind "the reasonable
idea that people should have to pay for the professionally
produced content they consume". Shirky calls this a
"post-rational demand", one that asks readers to behave
in a way "intended to restore media companies to the
profitability ordained to them by God Almighty" --
despite living in a world where such behaviors are
as foreign as living in log cabins and riding horses
for transportation. Is the university's self-justification
as irrational? Is it becoming more irrational every
Some newspapers decide to charge for content as a way
to prop up their traditional revenue stream, print
subscriptions. Evidence suggest that this not only
doesn't work (people inclined to drop their print
subscriptions won't be deterred by pay walls) but that
it is counter-productive: the loss of on-line visitors
causes a decline in web advertising revenue that is
much greater than the on-line reader revenue earned.
Again, this is pure speculation, but I suspect that if
universities try to charge for their on-line content
they will see similar results.
The right reason to charge for on-line content is to
create a new revenue stream, one that couldn't exist
in the realm of print. This is where creative thinking
will help to build an economically viable "new media".
This is likely the right path for universities, too.
My oldest but often most creative-thinking colleague has
been suggesting this as a path for my school to consider
for a few years. My department is working on one niche
offering now: on-line courses aimed at a specific audience
that might well take them elsewhere if we don't offer
them, and who then have a smoother transition into full
university admission later. We have other possibilities
in mind, in particular as part of a graduate program that
already attracts a large number of people who work full
time in other cities.
But then again, there are schools like Harvard, MIT, and
Stanford with open course initiatives, placing material
on-line for free. How can a mid-sized, non-research
public university compete with that content, in that
market? How will such schools even maintain their
traditional revenue streams if costs continue to rise
and high quality on-line material is readily available?
In a middle of a revolution, no one knows the right
answers, and there is great value in trying different
ideas. Most any school can start with the obvious:
lectures on-line, increased use of collaboration tools
such as wikis and chats and blogs -- and Twitter and
Facebook, and whatever comes next. These tools help us
to connect with students, to make knowledge real, to
participate in the learning. Some of the obvious paths
may be part of the solution. Perhaps all of them are
wrong. But as Shirky and others tell us, we need to
try all sorts of experiments until we find the right
solution. We are not likely to find it by looking at
what we have always done. The rules are changing.
The reactions of many in the academy tell a sad story.
They are dismissive, or simply disinterested. That
sounds a lot like the newspapers, too. Maybe people
are simply scared and so hole up in the bunker constructed
out of comfortable experience.
Like newspapers, some institutions of higher education
are positioned to survive a revolution. Small, focused
liberal arts colleges and technical universities cater
to specific audiences with specific curricula. Of course,
the "unique nationals" (schools such as Harvard, MIT, and
Stanford) and public research universities with national
brands (schools such as Cal-Berkeley and Michigan) sit
well. Other research schools do, too, because their
mission goes beyond the teaching of undergraduates.
Then again, many of those schools are built on an
economic model that some academics think is
untenable in the long run.
wrote about that article
last month, in another context.)
The schools most in danger are the middle tier of
so-called teaching universities and low-grade research
schools. How will they compete with the surviving
traditional powers or the wealth of information and
knowledge available on-line? This is one reason I
goal of going from
good to great
-- focusing our major efforts on a few things that we
do really well, perhaps better than anyone, nurturing
those areas with resources and attention, and then
building our institution's mission and strategy around
this powerful core. There is no guarantee that this
approach will succeed, but it is perhaps the only path
that offers a reasonable chance to schools like ours.
We do have one competitive advantage over many of our
competitors: enough research and size to offer students
a rich learning environment and a wide range of courses
of study, but small enough to offer a personal touch
otherwise available only at much smaller schools.
This is the same major asset that schools like us have
always had. When we find ourselves competing in a new
arena and under different conditions, this asset must
manifest itself in new forms -- but it must remain the
core around which we build..
One of the collateral industries built around universities,
textbook publishing, has been facing this problem in much
the same way as newspapers for a while now. The web
created a marketplace with less friction, which has made
it harder for them to make the return on investment to
which they had grown accustomed. As textbook prices rise,
students look for alternatives. Of course, students always
have: using old editions, using library copies, sharing.
Those are the old strategies -- I used them in school.
But today's students have more options. They can buy from
overseas dealers. They can make low-cost copies much more
readily. Many of my students have begun to bypass the
the assigned texts altogether and rely on free sources
available on-line. Compassionate faculty look for ways to
help students, too. They support old editions. They post
lecture notes and course materials on-line. They even
write their own textbooks and post them on-line. Here the
textbook publishers cross paths with the newspapers. The
web reduces entry costs to the point that almost anyone can
enter and compete. And publishers shouldn't kid themselves;
some of these on-line texts are
really good books.
When I think about the case of computer science in
particular, I really wonder. I see the wealth of wonderful
information available on line. Free textbooks. Whole
courses taught or recorded. Yes, blogs. Open-source
software communities. User communities built around specific
technologies. Academics and practitioners writing marvelous
material and giving it away. I wonder, as many do about
journalists, whether academics will be able to continue in
this way if the university structure on which they build
their careers changes or disappears? What experiments
will find the successful models of tomorrow's schools?
Were I graduating from high school today, would I need a
university education to prepare for a career in the software
industry? Sure, most self-educated students would have gaps
in their learning, but don't today's university graduates?
And are the gaps in the self-educated's preparation as
costly as 4+ years paying tuition and taking out loans?
What if I worked the same 12, 14, or 16 hours a day (or
reading, studying, writing, contributing to an open-source
project, interacting on-line? Would I be able to marshall
the initiative or discipline necessary to do this?
In my time teaching, I have encountered a few students
capable of doing this, if they had wanted or needed to.
A couple have gone to school and mostly gotten by that way
anyway, working on the side, developing careers or their
Their real focus was on their own education, not on the
details of any course we set before them.
Don't get me wrong. I believe in the mission of my school
and of universities more generally. I believe that there
is value in an on-campus experience, an immersion in a
community constructed for the primary purpose of exploring
ideas, learning and doing together. When else will
students have an opportunity to focus full-time on learning
across the spectrum of human knowledge, growing as a
person and as a future professional? This is probably
the best of what we offer: a learning community,
focused on ideas broad and deep. We have research
labs, teams competing in a cyberdefense and programming
contests. The whole is greater than the sum of parts,
both in the major and in liberal education.
But for how many students is this the college experience
now, even when they live on campus? For many the focus
is not on learning but on drinking, social life, video
games... That's long been the case to some extent, but
the economic model is changing. Is it cost-effective
for today's students, who sometimes find themselves
working 30 or more hours a week to pay for tuition and
lifestyle, trying to take a full load of classes at the
same time? How do we make the great value of a university
education attractive in a new world? How do we make it
And how long will universities be uniquely positioned
to offer this value? Newspapers used to be uniquely
positioned to offer a value no one else could. That
has changed, and most in the industry didn't see it
coming (or did, and averted their eyes rather than face
the brutal facts).
I'd like also to say that expertise distinguishes the
university from its on-line competition. That has been
true in the past and remains true today, for the most
part. But in a discipline like computer science, with
a large professional component attracts most of its
students, where grads will enter software development
or networking... there is an awesome amount of
expertise out in the world. More and more of those
talented people are now sharing what they know on-line.
There is good news. Some people still believe in the
value of a university education. Many students, and
especially their parents, still believe. During the
summer we do freshman orientation twice a week, with
an occasional transfer student orientation thrown into
the mix. People come to us eagerly, willing to spend
out of their want or to take on massive debts to buy
what we sell. Some come for jobs, but most still have
at least a little of the idealism of education. When
I think about their act in light of all that is going
on in the world, I am humbled. We owe them something
as valuable as what they surrender. We owe them an
experience befitting the ideal. This humbles me, but
it also Invigorates and scares me, too.
This article is probably more dark fantasy than reality.
Still, I wonder how much of what I believe I really
should believe, because it's right, and how much is
merely a product of my lack of imagination. I am
certain that I'm living in the middle of a revolution.
I don't know how well I see or understand it. I am
also certain of this: I don't want someone to be
about universities in a few years with me in its
clueless intended audience.