The Rhetoric of Crisis

Three interesting stories in today’s Chronicle of Higher Ed. Each has implications for discussions of new media, online education and open source.

1: Newspapers are dying. Are universities next?

The first, by Kevin Carey (policy director of Education Sector, a Washington Think Tank) is titled “What Colleges Should Learn from Newspapers' Decline.” It begins with this rather scary question: “Newspapers are dying. Are universities next?”
The analogy works like this. In the mid 1990s, many business experts predicted the dramatic restructuring now happening to newspapers. At first it seemed these experts were wrong, but “now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse.” Carey suggests that something similar is true of higher education. (It’s a bit like that movie The Ring. You see and hear some weird stuff on the telly, dismiss it, and then 7 days later a naked hairy girl crawls out of your screen and bites your face off. Your last thoughts are, “Bugger, I really should have listened to management guru Peter Drucker about the dissolution of the university.”)

How will this happen? Online education targeted at overpriced general education courses will chip away at the financial base of higher ed, shattering its business model:

…universities have their own weak point, their own vulnerable cash cow: lower-division undergraduate education. The math is pretty simple: Multiply an institution's average net tuition (plus any state subsidies) by the number of students (say, 200) in a freshman lecture course. Subtract whatever the beleaguered adjunct lecturer teaching the course is being paid. I don't care what kind of confiscatory indirect-cost multiplier you care to add to that equation, the institution is making a lot of money — which is then used to pay for faculty scholarship, graduate education, administrative salaries, the football coach, and other expensive things that cost more than they bring in… But the number of organizations that can — and are doing it online — is getting bigger every year. According to the Sloan Consortium, nearly 20 percent of college students — some 3.9 million people — took an online course in 2007, and their numbers are growing by hundreds of thousands each year.

Carey states that while there is not yet an equivalent to Craigslist to undermine the financial core of higher education (our version of classified ads), online education is emerging into a similar threat.

And the barriers of accreditation will not stop this:

It would be a grave mistake to assume that the regulatory walls of accreditation will protect traditional universities forever. Elite institutions like Stanford University and Yale University (which are, luckily for them, in the eternally lucrative sorting and prestige business) are giving away extremely good lectures on the Internet, free. Web sites like Academic Earth are organizing those and thousands more like them into "playlists," which is really just iPodspeak for "curricula." Every year the high schools graduate another three million students who have never known a world that worked any other way. Some people will argue that the best traditional college courses are superior to any online offering, and they're often right. There is no substitute for a live teacher and student, meeting minds. But remember, that's far from the experience of the lower-division undergraduate sitting in the back row of a lecture hall. All she's getting is a live version of what iTunes University offers free, minus the ability to pause, rewind, and fast forward at a time and place of her choosing.

There’s actually a certain amount to agree with in this, although I’d diagnose the issues and solutions very differently. I think there could be a really interesting project that looks at online education/new media, and compares the rhetorical construction of crisis, academics, and higher education in the late 90s versus the late 2000s. The different nature of the economic downturns is clearly significant, as is the degree to which the debates have progressed. Neoliberal tropes don’t work quite the same way, and arguments about restructuring the university along corporate lines is a trickier. Appeals to inevitability, very limited choices/alternatives, and terms like accountability, transparency, assessment, etc., are either new of newly inflected.

Hmmm…said I'd discuss 3 articles, and I’ve barely got into one of them. And now I have to leave for a Drupal training course (can’t just waffle about open source, must also put it practice.) This blogging thing is much trickier than I thought…