The element that caught my eye from the outset in the uproar over the University of Virginia Board of Trustees forcing out the university president is the attention given in the trustees’ email exchanges to online education. Specifically, my attention was held one line quoted from a New York Times column by David Brooks, “The Campus Tsunami”:
“What happened to the newspaper and magazine business is about to happen to higher education: a rescrambling around the Web.”
The rest of Brooks’ column is not nearly so hyperbolic – yes, hyperbolic. Most of what happened to the newspaper and magazine business could not possibly happen to higher education. The root of the disruption in print media is the exodus of advertising, which traditionally accounted for something around 80 percent of the industry’s revenue. Education has no remotely similar parallel, so instantly you eliminate 80 percent of the chance that the devastation that happened to newspapers and magazines will happen to higher education.
The remaining 20 percent, however, is what Brooks spends the bulk of his column on, and as far as that goes, he makes a good case, and here I would say the trustees simply jumped too far.
When industries are disrupted by technological innovation, as the trustees seem to fear is about to happen to higher education, it’s usually because the business’s leaders didn’t understand what their business really was. Railroads didn’t diversify into trucking because they thought their business was railroads, not moving freight; IBM passed over the chance to make personal computers because they thought their business was making and maintaining mainframes, not helping businesses increase productivity through technology.
Disruption (the oversimplified explanation) happens when someone comes up with something that meets a need that the existing business does not, and it provides it at a low enough cost that any flaws in the product don’t matter to the customer.
In the newspaper and magazine business, disruption hit on two sides: the advertiser side, and the reader side. A number of advertisers (especially those who placed classified ads in newspapers) have found that the free ad sites online, or the kind of targeted online promotions that are much less expensive than print ad campaigns, either meet their needs as well as or better than print ads, or else they are good enough and cost a lot less, freeing up money for other kinds of promotions. At the same time, a number of readers have found that the proliferation of free information online – of all kinds, not just news – fills their need for information or entertainment better than does paying for a limited bundle of information on paper.
As I said, colleges don’t have advertisers, so the reader end of the print media’s disruption is the only part that seems to have any parallel to what may be coming to higher education. The situation print media face is that what they provide may not be perceived as holding enough value for the reader that those people are willing to pay for it. A growing number of news sites are testing that, sometimes gingerly, setting up paywalls, usually offering full access for those buying a subscription and allowing everyone else a small number of free views a month before a payment is required. The essential choice for the reader is whether to pay for the site’s staff-produced content or just get by with all the free content available everywhere else. The value of that staff-produced content depends entirely on the perception of the reader. I like to quote one of my early editors on the value issue: She said she decided at the end of the day whether she had done good work by asking whether she would pay 50 cents for what’s in the next day’s paper. That can be a tough argument to make some days, which is why the Readership Institute in 2005 or so was making presentations about the importance of creating an “Experience” newspaper, the idea being that if you focused more attention on section fronts, specifically centerpieces, and creating buzz-worthy presentations, it could elevate the value of the overall newspaper beyond the sum of its parts, and if you did it consistently you created a role for yourself in a person’s daily routine that went beyond the simple gathering of information.
The value of a college degree, however, is a bit similar. To some extent, a person goes to college for the experience, and it’s not hard to get people to recall fondly the experience elements of college that made it rewarding. But people don’t go into hock for $50,000 for the experience of college, they do it because they perceive there is a long-term payoff, which supposedly is backed up by the market – in other words, someone will hire a graduate of the University of Virginia (just to stick to the subject at hand) because a degree from there is perceived by that employer as being worth more than a degree from other schools. Or, especially, from online schools.
Unless employers suddenly decide that online degrees are as valuable as any other degree, there is a market-driven value behind getting a degree from bricks-and-mortar colleges.
So what exactly where the UVa trustees getting at? They’re not talking so far, so it’s hard to say. On May 31, Rector Helen Dragas sent the vice rector, Mark Kington, the URL for a Wall Street Journal column about the “massively online open course” movement. According to Inside Higher Ed’s summary:
“The column argues that the MOOCs have the potential to change the cost structure in higher education, as long as institutions are willing to replace some in-person education with online education. ‘[I]n this way, college X might have its students take calculus, computer science and many other lecture courses online from MIT-Harvard (or other suppliers), and have them take other classes with their own local professors for subjects that are better taught in small seminars. College X can thus offer stellar lectures from the best professors in the world — and do locally what it does best, person to person.’”
What that describes is outsourcing basic-level lecture classes – those where 200 students pile into a massive hall to hear a professor essentially talk at them, not with them, for an hour. Or, as the subhead on the Wall Street Journal column put it: “The substitution of technology (which is cheap) for labor (which is expensive) can vastly increase access to an elite-caliber education.”
That would lower some labor costs for a college that didn’t need to hold its own lecture classes. It would be a revenue source for a college that offered online lectures by “star professors,” as Brooks called them.
There’s a certain revolutionary air in the idea that a course of study at one college could involve numerous lectures from places all over the world, and it probably would wind up meaning smaller faculties – though not, I suspect, an end to the rapid growth in administrative staff, which is the biggest upward pressure on college costs. Funny how that works.
Related reading: A post Wednesday on the Remaking the University blog has a good roundup of items related to what’s happening at the UVa.
(The Richmond Times-Dispatch as a PDF of the trustees’ emails.)