Friday, October 11, 2013

The Milk for Free?

Extra! Extra! Read all About It (online)!  Lloyd’s List, widely thought to be the world’s oldest daily newspaper, is going out of print in December.  Granted, this may not seem as significant as the folding of Newsweek last year, or the many other metropolitan dailies that are dropping like the flies they once swatted, but Lloyd’s has been spilling ink since 1734, and whenever a ducentenarian dies, we should take notice.  The reasons behind the fall of newspapers are multiple and varied, but certainly the most efficient executioner has been the internet.  After all, why should I buy the cow when I can get the milk for free?  A quick internet search will literally put thousands of news stories at my fingertips without once having to venture onto the driveway in my bathrobe or send Junior to the corner market.  And best of all, they come in at the low low price of:
Or course, it wasn’t always this way.  If you can imagine it, once upon a time you may have had to pay for the privilege of reading my words right now.  However, today there are something like one billion blogs to choose from and instead of you chasing material, I’m chasing readers.  And just in case you think this discussion is merely academic, let’s ride that word to my next point.  This is now happening in higher education.
Looking at the two models, one can see that they are actually quite similar.  A fee is paid (via subscription or tuition) and in return access is granted to expertise and information.  Having completed the process, one then walks away an informed individual prepared to engage fruitfully in the important discussions of the day.  Yes, you in the back, the liberal arts instructor; I see your desperate look.  This is a reductionist comparison that denies recognition to the richer and deeper aspects of a broad education, but I will dismiss this quibble with a dollar.  From a business standpoint the two are close enough, and the market bears this out.  The interwebs are full of canned classes, online “degrees,” massively open online courses, and free information.  Ask yourself, what can you tell your students that they can’t find in a Google search?

Sadly, we are already seeing the negative consequences of this.  Academic decisions are made based on market forces.  We offer dual enrollment free to high school students inside local high schools, not because it is the most rigorous education, best practice, good for the student, or the ideal environment for college learning, but  because if we don’t, some other institution will come along and steal that FTSE.  Moreover, students are no longer limited by geography.  Here in Yavapai county, they can attend the local community college, but Grand Canyon University, Rio Salado, and the University of Phoenix are also available and will gleefully accept as much federal aid money as they can get.  Like my blog analogy above, students now have a multitude of choices, and, as the law of supply and demand dictates, institutions must now begin to cater to students to survive.

Education meet free market.

To capture those students we’d best pour money into advertising and make sure that our medicine doesn’t taste too bad.  In other words, add sugar and remove rigor.
And that’s assuming that individuals even want to formally attend college.  MOOCs, Google, the Khan Academy and other enterprising groups can provide education and knowledge without any monetary transactions whatsoever, and if we truly believe in the long term social and individual benefits of learning how can we begrudge a movement working toward a free and readily available education for all?

Is our profession doomed then?  Are our already tiny budgets and puny paychecks in danger of disappearing completely?  For an answer we must return to the newspaper industry.  Some venerable and worthy papers have been forced to fold or downsize into insignificance.  Attempting to compete with free online sources, they made maladaptive moves to shorten story length (you know, because of attention spans), cover more fluff (the Roman bread and circuses stuff), and cater to entrenched political audiences.  While this Faustian bargain worked for a select few, it murdered the majority.  In watering down their product they turned away from their strengths (embedded reporters, in-depth investigative journalism) and ensured a slow (or not so slow) extinction.  Visit any tourist spot and you will see a similar phenomenon.  Shop after shop hocking the exact same cheap baubles and tee-shirts.  None of the owners runs a successful business (most cycle out after 1-2 years), but each ensures a grudging, temporary survival by selling the same safe (albeit crappy) product as his neighbor.

I argue that if higher education wants to survive and thrive in the next hundred years it must do more than offer the interchangeable kitsch of the tourist shop or the diluted product of the failed newspaper.  We must narrow our scope and turn to what we do best.  Steve Student can find out anything he wants about Beowulf on the internet, but I am going to sit down beside him and make it come alive.  I’m going to recite parts of it in Old English.  I’m going to get excited when Wiglaf brings forth the treasure, and, using my own idiosyncratic education and experience, share more relevant historical and literary explanations and real-world hyperlinks than even the most dedicated programmer could provide.  And what’s more, I'll do it real-time and adapt to that student as I go.  When I see the face brighten, I’ll dive in.  When I notice the eyelids droop, I’ll pull back.  Google can’t do this.  The University of Phoenix doesn’t want to.  However, I can, and if we want community colleges to continue to perform their unique and important social role one hundred years, even twenty years, from now, then we need to invest in what is unique and rewarding -what cannot be replaced.  We need to invest in ourselves.



  1. Excellently said. WE (teachers) ARE OUR BEST PRODUCT! :)

  2. Thanks, Mark. There is so much pessimism about the future of education, but if it's in our hands, we can make it whatever we want!

  3. Totally bomb! All the MOOCers the world over should read this before they shovel their imperiousness onto the Internet! Just because they can record themselves, put it on youtube and call it a class, it doesn't mean they should! -- I enjoy your blog every time, even if I don't always comment. Curtis Kleinman

  4. Thanks, Jason. I think you say what most of us think all the time. If WE don't help ourselves and support others to be the best they want to be, it will be the end of us. Yep, we're gonna have some bad days - a student lies - a student sleeps - no one got it - but remember those good days. The day you walk out of class (or log out) and say, "Yes"! Let me know when you are reciting Beowulf in Olde English - that would be a must hear!