TITLE: Better Than Everyone, University Edition
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: April 20, 2012 3:14 PM
something that Clay Shirky has said about the television
industry: Forty years ago, you only had to be better than
two other shows. Now you have to better than everybody.
At the same time technology makes it easier for people to
put their creations in front of potential viewers, it makes
it harder for established players to retain control over
market share. As Godin summarized, ".. with a million
choices, each show earns the attention it gets in every
I've mused here periodically about how these same technological
changes will ultimately affect universities. It seems that
many people agree that education, even higher ed, is "ripe
for disruption". Startups such as
are beginning to take their shot at what seems an obvious
market, the intersection of education and the beleaguered
publishing industry: textbooks.
Though on-line education has been growing now for years, I
haven't written anything about it. For one thing, I don't
know what I really think of it yet. As much as I think out
loud when I blog, I usually at least have a well-formed
thought or two. When it comes to on-line education, my
brain is still mostly full of mush.
Not long ago, the threat of on-line education to the way
traditional universities operate did not seem imminent.
That is, I think, starting to change. When the primary
on-line players were non-traditional alternatives such as
the University of Phoenix, it seemed easy enough to sell the
benefits of the brick-and-ivy campus-based education to
people. But as these schools slowly build a track record --
and an alumni base -- they will become a common enough part
of the popular landscape that they become an acceptable
alternative to many people. And as the cost of brick-and-ivy
education rises, it becomes harder and harder to sell people
on its value.
Of course, we now see a burgeoning in the number of on-line
offerings from established universities. Big-name schools
like MIT and Harvard have made full courses, and even suites
of courses, available on-line. One of my more experienced
colleagues began to get antsy when this process picked up
speed a few years ago. Who wouldn't prefer MIT's artificial
intelligence course over ours? These courses weren't yet
available for credit, which left us with hope. We offer our
course as part of a coherent program of study that leads to
a credential that students and employers value. But in time...
... that would change. And it has. Udacity has spun itself
off from Stanford and is setting its sights on a full on-line
curriculum. A recent
Computer World article
talks about MITx, a similar program growing out of MIT. These
programs are still being created and will likely offer a
different sort of credential than the universities that gave
birth to them, at least at the start. Is there still hope?
Less and less. As the article reports, other established
universities are now offering full CS programs on-line. The
University of Illinois at Springfield started in 2006 and now
has more computer science students enrolled in its on-line
undergrad and M.S. programs (171 and 146, respectively) than
their on-campus counterparts (121 and 129). In June, Oregon
State will begin offering a CS degree program on-line.
The natural reaction of many schools is to join in the rush.
Schools like many are putting more financial and faculty
resources into the creation of on-line courses and programs,
because "that's where the future lies".
I think, though, that Shirky's anecdote about the TV industry
serves as an important cautionary tale. The caution has two
First, you have to adapt. When a disruptive technology comes
along, you have to respond. You may think that you are good
enough or dominant enough to survive the wave, but you probably
aren't. Giants that retain their position atop a local maximum
when a new technology redefines an industry quickly change from
giants to dinosaurs.
Adapting isn't easy. Clayton Christensen and his colleagues
have documented how difficult it is for a company that is very
good at something and delivering value in its market to change
course. Even with foresight and a vision, it is difficult to
overcome inertia and external forces that push a company to
stay on the same track.
Second, technology lowers barriers for producers and consumers
alike. It's no longer enough to be the best teaching university
in your state or neighborhood. Now you have to better than
everybody. If you are a computer science department, that
seems an insurmountable task. Maybe you can be better than
Illinois-Springfield (and maybe not!), but how can you be better
than Stanford, MIT, and Harvard?
Before joining the rush to offer programs on-line, you might want
to have an idea of what it is that you will be the best at, and
for whom. With degrees from Illinois-Springfield, Oregon State,
Udacity, Stanford, MIT, and Harvard only a few clicks away, you
will have to earn the attention -- and tuition -- you receive
from every single student.
But don't dally. It's lonely as the dominant player in a market
that no longer exists.