TITLE: Better Than Everyone, University Edition AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: April 20, 2012 3:14 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Seth Godin recently mentioned 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 single moment". 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 Boundless 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 prongs. 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. -----