TITLE: Revolution Out There -- and Maybe In Here AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: June 11, 2009 8:24 PM DESC: ----- BODY: (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 year? 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. (I 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 embrace our president's 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 more) 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 own start-up companies. 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 a value? 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 writing this speech about universities in a few years with me in its clueless intended audience. -----