TITLE: The Death of Bundling in University Education? AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: July 15, 2011 4:25 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Clay Shirky's latest piece talks a bit about the death of bundling in journalism, in particular in newspapers. Bundling is the phenomenon of putting different kinds of content into a single product and selling consumers the whole. Local newspapers contain several kinds of content: local news coverage, national news, sports, entertainment, classified ads, obituaries, help columns, comics, .... Most subscribers don't consume all this content and won't pay for it all. In the twentieth century, it worked to bundle it all together, get advertisers to buy space in the package, and get consumers to buy the whole package. The internet and web have changed the game. As usual, Shirky talking about the state and future of newspapers sets me to thinking about the state and future of universities [ 1, 2, 3, 4 ]. Let me say upfront that I do not subscribe to the anti-university education meme traversing the internet these days, which seems especially popular among software people. Many of its proponents speak too glibly about a world without the academy and traditional university education. Journalism is changing, not disappearing, and I think the same will be true of universities. The questions are, How will universities change? How should they change? Will universities be pulled downstream against there will, or will they actively redefine their mission and methods? I wonder about the potential death of bundling in university. Making an analogy to Shirky's argument helps us to see some of the dissatisfaction with universities these days. About newspapers, he says:
Writing about the Dallas Cowboys in order to take money from Ford and give it to the guy on the City Desk never made much sense.
It's not hard to construct a parallel assertion about universities:
Teaching accounting courses in order to take money from state legislatures and businesses and give it to the humanities department never made much sense.
Majors that prepare students for specific jobs and careers are like the sports section. They put students in the seats. States and businesses want strong economies, so they are willing to subsidize students' educations, in a variety of ways. Universities use part of the money to support higher-minded educational goals, such as the liberal arts. Everyone is happy. Well, they were in the 20th century. The internet and web have drastically cut the cost of sharing information and knowledge. As a result, they have cut the cost of "acquiring" information and knowledge. When the world views the value of the bundle as largely about the acquisition of particular ingredients (sports scores or obituaries; knowledge and job skills), the business model of bundling is undercut, and the people footing most of the bill (advertisers; states and businesses) lose interest. In both cases, the public good being offered by the bundle is the one most in jeopardy by unbundling. Cheap and easy access to targeted news content means that there is no one on the production side of the equation to subsidize "hard" news coverage for the general public. Cheap and easy access to educational material on-line erodes the university's leverage for subsidizing its public good, the broad education of a well-informed citizenry. Universities are different from newspapers in one respect that matters to this analogies. Newspapers are largely paid for by advertisers, who have only one motivation for buying ads. Over the past century, public universities have largely been paid for by state governments and thus the general public itself. This funder of first resort has an interest in both the practical goods of the university -- graduates prepared to contribute to the economic well-being of the state -- and the public goods of the university -- graduates prepared to participate effectively in a democracy. Even still, over the last 10-20 years we have seen a steep decline in the amount of support provided by state governments to so-called "state universities", and elected representatives seem to lack the interest or political will to reverse the trend. Shirky goes on to explain why "[n]ews has to be subsidized, and it has to be cheap, and it has to be free". Public universities have historically had these attributes. Well, few states offer free university education to their citizens, but historically the cost has been low enough that cost was not an impediment to most citizens. As we enter a world in which information and even instruction are relatively easy to come by on-line, universities must confront the same issues faced by the media: the difference between what people want and what people are willing to pay for; the difference between what the state wants and what the state is willing to pay for. Many still believe in the overarching value of a liberal arts component to university education (I do), but who will pay for it, require it, or even encourage it? Students at my university have questioned the need to take general education courses since before I arrived here. I've always viewed helping them to understand why as part of the education I help to deliver. The state was paying for most of their education because it had an interest in both their economic development and their civic development. As the adage floating around the Twitter world this week says, "If you aren't paying for the product, you are the product." Students weren't our customers; they are our product. I still mostly believe that. But now that students and parents are paying the majority of the cost of the education, a percentage that rises every year, it's harder for me to convince them of that. Heck, it's harder for me to convince myself of that. Shirky says other things about newspapers that are plausible when uttered about our universities as well, such as:
News has to be subsidized because society's truth-tellers can't be supported by what their work would fetch on the open market.
News has to be cheap because cheap is where the opportunity is right now.
And news has to be free, because it has to spread.
Perhaps my favorite analog is this sentence, which harkens back to the idea of sports sections attracting automobile dealers to advertise and thus subsidize the local government beat (emphasis added:
Online, though, the economic and technological rationale for bundling weakens -- no monopoly over local advertising, no daily allotment of space to fill, no one-size-fits-all delivery system. Newspapers, as a sheaf of unrelated content glued together with ads, aren't just being threatened with unprofitability, but incoherence.
It is so very easy to convert that statement into one about our public universities. We are certainly being threatened with unprofitability. Are we also being threatened with incoherence? Like newspapers, the university is rapidly finding itself in need of a new model. Most places are experimenting, but universities are remarkably conservative institutions when it comes to changing themselves. I look at my own institution, whose budget situation calls for major changes. Yet it has been slow, at times unwilling, to change, for a variety of reasons. Universities that depend more heavily on state funding, such as mine, need to adapt even more quickly to the change in funding model. It is perhaps ironic that, unlike our research-focused sister schools, we take the vast majority of our students from in-state, and our graduates are even more likely to remain in the state, to be its citizens and the engines of its economic progress. Shirky says that we need the new news environment to be chaotic. Is that true of our universities as well? -----