Restless Natives

Dr. Susherwood, man of international intrigue, is now dealing with jet lag and blood rain, so I’ll start off the month . . .

Lord of FliesAs I wrote in my last post on the subject, universities are reluctant to abandon the traditional narrative of higher education. The narrative defines what students should learn and how they should learn it. On one hand faculty and administrators dismiss new modes of learning as not meeting the standards of academe, and on the other they try to shoe horn these new modes into the existing institutional framework. Ultimately, to paraphrase something that Clay Shirky reputedly said, universities want to preserve the problem to which they have been the solution. This strategy will eventually fail for a few interrelated reasons.

First, the population seeking to learn what universities have historically provided has changed significantly. Only a minority of students at the undergraduate level participate in the four-year, full-time, residential college experience. Those who do cost universities more in support services and financial aid, because they come from families with fewer economic resources. So-called adult students — those more than twenty-four years old — are often less interested in learning for learning’s sake than in occupational advancement. They care more about learning only what is just good enough for a bump in salary. Enrollment in online education has exploded, but it often simply replicates the  stale and exclusionary curricula found on physical campuses. In sum, universities are relying on systems developed centuries ago to compete against each other in a shrinking market.

Second, digital technology is changing how readers read and watchers watch, so there is no reason to assume that it won’t affect how learners learn. The once-dominant players in print, audio, and video media industries used to regard online production and distribution as inconsequential to their core businesses. They assumed that few people would buy or read a book that they couldn’t physically hold in their own hands, and that no one would want to watch video on a tiny screen in disjointed five minute segments.

In the decades immediately following World War II, three broadcast networks controlled what people saw on television. In the 1980s, the USA was wired for cable television, and instead of three channels, people could watch hundreds. CNN, HBO, and Fox soon reigned supreme in their respective market segments. Now the country is wired for broadband internet, and the web is a medium in its own right. While legacy media firms can buy audience access, they aren’t designed for the environment that the audience inhabits. Jenna Marbles, with over one billion views on YouTube, can turn on a dime. Paramount can’t. Amazon opens an on-demand e-publishing platform with the slogan “inventory free fulfillment.” Netflix uses a statistical analysis of its customers to design its own content and then stream it back to them. Radio programs like This American Life can skip third-party distribution by contracting independently with radio stations. Or it can bypass the system entirely by streaming directly to subscribers, as World Wrestling Entertainment now does.

Many of the above examples are digitally-native technology companies that produce media, as opposed to media companies using new technology. The former are very lean operations, often with years of experience in doing business online. The latter are trying to graft a new branch onto a very old tree.

Technology companies now also sell learning, but in a fundamentally different manner than universities are using technology. As a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education points out, these education upstarts have quickly figured out how to

“divide the massive higher-education market into segments based on what students want and need, and then create offerings that appeal to only a slice or two of the overall market. Such a lean approach, of not trying to serve everyone, is definitely cheaper, and often better, for meeting student demands.”

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