The Plot Thickens

Burial PlotBeing married to someone who teaches literature and writing for a living, it’s difficult not to notice the importance of narrative. People gravitate to whoever or whatever has the most compelling story — the candidate for statewide political office who turned around a city wracked by unemployment and crime, the neglected homeless puppy shown on the local TV news, and the potato chips that are so good that Jennifer Lawrence, Justin Bieber, and Rihanna eat them.

Recently I ordered a few cast iron cooking pans — big, heavy, millenia-old technology — from Amazon. Total time from click to rip (as in the packaging): three days. Amazon began as an online retailer of books. Now its product is logistics. It can get pretty much any consumer good to a lot of customers faster than anyone else can. That good can be something that has existed for a few thousand years or a few weeks. You want it? You got it. Amazon’s narrative is click and rip.

Compare that to the hardware store in the small town where I spent my childhood. The narrative of this business was familiarity — a locally-owned business close to home. But the selection of pipe, tools, and fasteners was limited. Often what you needed wasn’t on the shelf. It might arrive in the next weekly shipment, but probably not — individually-customized orders didn’t exist. The alternative was to drive an hour to the nearest urban area where the store shelves had a wider variety of products.

Ultimately, the narrative of familiarity was crushed by the narrative of convenience.

What is the narrative that colleges and universities tell? In the USA since World War II, the story has been “we provide research expertise for government and industry, train the labor force in the job skills sought by employers, and generate the cultural capital necessary for a functional citizenry.”

Of course only the most prestigious and expensive schools were ever able to simultaneously supply new knowledge, job training, and cultural capital in large amounts. Most schools faced the project manager’s dilemma: everyone wants good quality, immediate availability, and low price, but reality dictates that usually only two of the three are possible at any given moment. People can get good and cheap, but it’s not going to be fast. Or they can go for fast and cheap, but it’s not going to be good. Since research was too expensive for the non-elite schools, they adopted a narrative about the benefits of combining workforce preparation with liberal education. To try to distinguish themselves from each other, they incorporated nostalgia into their narratives to create branded identities — stories about historical missions, athletic contests, and the halcyon days of yore.

How do we know that this kind of narrative is mostly fictional? The USA doesn’t have a national curriculum like France, especially at the post-secondary level. A college or university in the USA is to a certain extent free to offer whatever courses it wants in any subject it wants. But every week thousands of university instructors stand in remarkably-similar classrooms delivering the same information in the same ways. What happens in classroom A is what happens in classroom B, whether classroom B is down the hall, across campus, or in another state. Accepting this narrative means a four to six year commitment of time and money.

Contrast the above with the story that Udacity, Saylor, Udemy, Khan Academy, and edX are telling:

We don’t care where you are. We don’t care if you’re poor. We don’t care if you’re from a minority group whose members attend flagship public universities at only half the rate that they attend any college or university. We don’t care if you already graduated from college. We don’t care if you don’t have the time or energy to commit to a degree program because you work a full-time job. All that we care about is that you want to learn something, and we’ll let you choose what, when, and how you learn.

Obviously this narrative is fundamentally different from that of the vast majority of post-secondary educational institutions in the USA. Yet we now see people evaluating MOOCs and other new avenues for learning in terms of the how they stack up against the narrative of the extant university: Is this the equivalent of a credit hour? Does this count toward a diploma? Is what I can get for free as good as what will cost me thousands of dollars? Logically these questions are the same as asking how much purchasing a cast iron pan from Amazon — click to rip for an incredibly low price without even having to leave home — is like going to a neighborhood hardware store that only sells copper pipe. Iron and copper are both metals, but you can’t cook dinner with a pipe.

The question that people should instead be asking is “Which narrative is more compelling?”

Clay Shirky has a great essay on what happened when the new narrative of Napster collided with the story that the established music industry had relied upon for decades. The music industry disintegrated. According to Shirky, Udacity is the Napster of higher education.

Here’s another analogy: clothing. A few years ago, the retail clothing market aimed at teenagers (coincidentally the same people colleges and universities must recruit to survive) was dominated by three companies —  Abercrombie & Fitch, American Eagle, and Aeropostale. These three brands captured more than a third of teenage spending on clothing. Now that figure is down to twelve percent. The lost twenty percent segment of the market? It’s now occupied by twenty-five brands, not three. And Aeropostale is hemorrhaging cash and closing stores.

What happened? Yes, the high unemployment rate among teenagers has diminished their discretionary income. And yes, traditional retailers face stiff competition from firms that can respond to changing tastes more quickly, some by selling directly online. But the game changer, as discussed in the Marketplace article linked to above, is the ability of teenagers to use social media technology to easily choose what they wear on an item by item basis. They no longer need a clothing manufacturer to construct a brand for them, they can create their own, just like Napster enabled music listeners to select their favorite songs instead of buying entire albums. And a story that is believed to be unique, because it has been customized by the owner according to the owner’s needs and desires, is quite a compelling one.