Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Music, Newspapers, Universities: The Domino Theory

Much of the current thinking about the future of Universities rests on supposed similarities between Education and other sectors who core product is knowledge or information, like music, or newspapers. Many of these similarities are entirely superficial, and that idea that Universities will suffer (or enjoy?) the same fate is not a given.

The idea goes like this. First, the web made the marginal cost of distributing information effectively nil. Industries whose core product is information, such as the music industry, were first against the wall the revolution came. For music, Napster was the first wave, and the old music industry fought back with law. In time, iTunes made the model work, and now internet downloads are the main sales channels, old fashioned music shops are emply lots on the high street, and successful musicians and garage bands can increasingly 'go indie' sell direct online, and disregard the conventional mill of the record company.

The same thing is happening to newspapers. eBay, Craigslist and Google hollowed out the advertising revenue. Individual website and bloggers bypassed newspapers and spoke directly to readers on the subjects they cared about, publishing instantly. The idea of an omnibus daily newspaper, covering everything from world news to local sport, read by all, is increasingly an anacronism. Why pay for superficial coverage of everything when what you really just want is the financial news from Singapore, or in depth coverage of Canadian Lacrosse?

The same logic is applied to the third domino, Education. Why go to a general university and hear a third rate lecturers give an indifferent presentation of material from a 20 year old textbook, when you can download great lectures from Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Why settle for a lecturer who wrote a booklist when you can hear the lecturers who wrote the books on the list? The domino theory would imply that Universities too would become irrelevant intermediaries on the sales channel of knowledge, as expert teachers can be reached without them, just as you can buy singles direct from the bands website, or follow leading thinkers on their blogs and podcasts.

It's absolutely correct, of course, but it rests on the assumptions that Universities are selling knowledge to end consumers, just like newspapers and record companies. This is untrue. Universities are selling knowledge for resale to employers, and this introduces a generational lag into the scenario.

Most people earn a degree with the hope it will help them get a job. If good jobs were available without the time effort and expense of University, most wouldn't go. The degree sits, bright and hopeful, on the leading page of the new graduates oh-so short resumes, hoping to catch the eye of a potential employer, typically a generation older. The degree is not bought for itself, it is bought to appeal to that person. It's just like the interview suit. It may be a nice suit, it may be well cut, but it's chosen to appeal to someone a generation older. The degree, just like the suit, is bought for resale to an interviewer.

This means the domino effect will come to universities a generation later than commentators think, when that interview panel has caught up. Imagine, if you will, if a new graduate was employed based on their record collection. The graduate would choose carefully to appeal to a person born in the 1960's. There would be a little glam rock, some Some classical, but not too much. Perhaps some carefully chosen collectible vinyl. Absolutely no hip hop.

And so it is with education. It will only be in 2040, when the Twitter generation is sitting on the interview panel, that a person truly 21st century tertiary education will be taken seriously. You learned a degrees worth of knowledge from Youtube? Your learning journey documented on a Connectivist ePortfolio? Great. You'll never make the interview shortlist until the recruiters know what those things are. Until then, they'll want to see a degree from the University of The Twentieth Century, just like they have. Until that changes, the University as we know it is safe.

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