Alston Road


Category: Higher Education and Productivity


In a recent post, Dr. Lloyd Armstrong writes: “Unfortunately, most of the push-back about using MOOCs so far has been about preserving academic freedom in teaching, and not about benefits to students. Perhaps that will change with time.”

I will avoid adding to the barrage of arguments about what MOOCs “mean to higher education” or how it will all unfold. But it’s interesting to note how the quality of the concerns from faculty about loss of autonomy in response to MOOCs resemble those made during the early years of online higher ed. Criticism in the mid and late 1990s defined the issue in essentially the same terms – as a challenge to embedded occupational models and the labour market value of faculty. This was a key facet of David Noble’s argument: online education, to him, was about the inevitable narrowing and deskilling of faculty labour. This view of online education, though, seemed to fade during the last 10 or 12 years, as faculty saw that universities continue to employ the traditional one course = one instructor model – the classroom model. (The maintenance of the classroom model had less to do with the sector’s pursuit of the best instructional strategies for online courses and more to do with limited imagination and the challenges of restructuring labour in a conservative, decentralized institution.)

Concerns about autonomy and labour market value is clearly evident in a recent paper entitled  The Predatory Pedagogy of On-Line Education. It lays out ten reasons for opposing the growing emphasis on online edu, touching on issues such as the greater potential for surveillance of faculty labour and the growing role of private businesses. It’s worth a read if you are interested in the politics of higher education. However, the essay is limited by its focus on the needs and interests of faculty. It  downplays or outright ignores the value of online learning to students and other stakeholders (instructional, financial, etc). Moreover, it somehow manages to paint faculty as mere victims; a proletarian class under the thumb of administrators and commercial interests. While I’m schooled in the logic of Critical Theory and recognize its’ value, its’ application in this case focusses more on the labour market value of the people practicing critical theory than the people and society that the labour is designed to serve.

The essay begins by citing a speech by Josh Coates, CEO of Instructure (below).

Technology, Transparency and MOOCs


MOOCs have introduced a greater level of transparency in online higher education. They offer students a chance to evaluate and compare institutions to a degree previously unheard of in higher ed. The focus of the evaluations is, primarily, instructional content and related activities. This focus may create new opportunities for less prestigious institutions to compete.


Technology’s Unintended Consequences (Strike Again)

Before the concept of the MOOCs was adopted by elite universities and became “a thing” in 2012, it had  a decidedly anti-establishment posture.  These courses had a DIY quality. They were created and run by people excited by the possibilities of forming ad hoc online communities of learners that could use the Net to learn what and how they wanted. By design, MOOCs operated outside of the constraints of traditional higher education. Today, of course, MOOCs are associated with institutions like Stanford, HarvardMcGill and other institutions which see an opportunity to combine their international brand recognition with open courseware in order to stake out a large slice of the future of digital higher education.

This may not be exactly what the people who started experimenting with MOOCs had in mind, but innovations have a history of leading to unintended, even contradictory consequences. MOOCs are no different. Indeed, the trajectory from DIY to “upmarket” may not be the most interesting unintended consequence; MOOCs may have also inadvertently ushered in a new degree of transparency in higher education.

By providing free and public access to courses and faculty – MOOCs and other “open” initiatives, such as OER – enable learners and other stakeholders to review, evaluate and compare an institution’s core “product” without ever being admitted to the institution. Comments by students are beginning to appear across the Web on the relative merits of different MOOC courses and platforms. And new portals have been created that allow students to select and rate courses from different institutions, much as they would a Hollywood film (see here and here).  The change can’t be overstated. A MOOC can be witnessed by 100,000+ people and discussed in the New York Times. On the other hand, faculty have often been hesitant to have a colleague sit in on their lectures. Night and day.

Transparency & Evaluation of Quality

This is new territory for higher education. We’ve not been subject to the transparency and “perfect information” that many sectors of the economy have faced. For example, customers seeking to purchase appliances at the local mega-appliance store now come armed with more information on-hand than the salespeople. Vacation resorts can’t stop tourists from sharing their bad experiences in online forums. By and large, though, students still make decisions about which institution to attend with virtually no direct exposure to the quality of teaching they will face over the next few years.

If the MOOC phenomenon continues to pick up steam, and more institutions see value in making one or more of their courses available through these public platforms, then MOOCs may become a key platform by which the value and differences of institutions of higher education are evaluated and, as a result, the terrain for competition between institutions.

But on what basis are institutions competing?  To answer this we need, first, to recognise that MOOCs expose certain parts of the  participating universities and not others. MOOCs place certain qualities and features of the universities on display, while other features are hidden. As it has throughout history, technology changes what we pay attention; what “matters” and doesn’t. (For example, the advent of television changed what kinds of people were “electable” in our political systems.)

Greater Focus on Instructional Content

The feature that is privileged in MOOCs is instructional content – the material that is presented to the students in the course.

Instructional content is privileged for a couple of reasons. First, because MOOCs are stripped of many of the other common elements and experiences that usually come packaged with being a university student: loans, registration processes, socialising, and concern about grades. (Because of how students are currently using MOOCs, the vast majority of MOOC students are less concerned with grades than in their college or university courses.). Consequently, instructional content is proportionally a larger part of the overall experience. Second, instructional content is a relatively tangible part of the learning experience. While learning is as much a “process” than artefact, evaluating a process is relatively difficult. Instructional content, on the other hand, is tangible and can be compared with relative ease to content in other courses.

On some level, participating institutions already recognise that these courses are being used to showcase the institution and its faculty. Universities are putting more effort into their MOOCs than is typical of online courses. Duke University recently provided a recap of the process they went through creating and launching a MOOC. They reported a total of 620 hours of labour for the development stage – well above sector norms. That included over 11 hours of video (12 individual videos per week) and more than 1000 files for an eight hour course.

But the effort at Duke will likely pale in comparison to the type we will see in future course developments. Once it becomes obvious to university leadership that these courses are serving as a calling card/front door/flagship for the institution we may see what amounts to another variety of the university “arms race” – this time focussed on instructional content in publicly available courses. I think it’s safe to assume that the President of one Ivy League school won’t be thrilled if the courses offered by their institution look shoddy and home-made in comparison to what’s coming out of another Ivy League school.

The significant impact that MOOCs can have on a university’s reputation was nicely illustrated earlier this month when Georgia Tech decided to pull the plug on its Coursera MOOC after only a few weeks, due to challenges with its design and execution. Those that work daily with online courses in traditional colleges and universities can vouch for the fact that many, many bad courses are designed and offered each semester, many of them incomplete at the start of term – no different from campus-based courses, in this respect. But these courses are not pulled from the shelves mid-stream. The difference, of course, is that the Georgia Tech course was part a high-profile initiative. An institution’s reputation was on the line.

Content: “It’s a Good Thing”

Instructional content has received very little attention in digital higher ed, to date. Some equate concern with the quality of instructional content with passive, one-way learning. They see interaction as the primary basis of learning.

While interaction is fundamental, so is content; the importance of one feature does not mean that the other is irrelevant. No matter what the subject matter, high quality, thoughtfully presented instructional content – whether it is illustrations, videos or well designed activities – is an absolutely powerful component of learning.  In fact, I expect the role of content to grow more important as the two currently distinct spheres of content and software merge (e.g. adaptive software, simulations), and as higher education moves beyond the current “cottage model” of content development in which much of the burden for content development falls to lone instructors without the time, incentives or necessary skill sets. I find dismissals of content’s importance quite simplistic, frankly, and when these arguments are put in the form of high quality content, humorous.

The changing status of instructional content can be seen in the trajectory of open educational resources (OER). When individual academics began in the late 90s to make components of their courses available on repositories like Merlot, it was of little significance. Anecdotal evidence suggests that academic leadership were rarely aware of the faculty’s involvement in these initiatives. They reasoned that the intellectual property resided with the faculty member, and if they wanted to dedicate the time to participating in these initiatives, this was the faculty’s concern. Today, decisions about participating in Coursera and other open content/course platforms involves the University Board, investigations by General Counsel, and planning from the VP of Marketing.

The extent to which an institution will seek to use MOOCs as a showcase for their online courses will be influenced by the degree to which the course is affiliated with the institution. Some MOOCs are presented clearly as output of the institution. The most direct path to communicating this direct affiliation is to (a) give the MOOC course the same title as the course within the university, (b) have it taught by an academic of the university, (c ) have the academic identified as a member of the faculty at the university. For illustrative purposes, consider the particular way that Udacity defines the origins of its courses (Figure A).

Compare Udacity’s approach approach to labelling the origins of the courses to Coursera’s, which links the MOOC directly and fully to the institution. Both models rely on the credentials of the instructors (s) behind the course, but Coursera aims to define the course more closely with the partnering institution (Figure B).

The difference stance in relation to universities taken by these two platforms is significant as the closeness of the affiliation to prestigious institutions was the basis of the original excitement about MOOCs in 2012. Private vendors had been doing MOOCs since the 1990s, after all, but to little excitement. Nor would we have read about MOOCs in the New York Times or The Guardian had they come to us via Pocatello Junior College.

The excitement about MOOCs was a by-product and reinforcement of the logic long used to evaluate and rank higher education institutions: the more exclusive, the better. The assumption is that the instructional content made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions. That exclusivity and research productivity doesn’t necessarily correlate with instructional quality is well . . . interesting. And herein lies an opportunity (read on).

A Different Basis for Competition

There is very little stopping less prestigious institutions from producing higher quality courses than the elite institutions. Because the basis of competition has changed, and instructional content is now a key driver of value for learners, other colleges and universities that have made a significant investment in online education could produce high quality courses – as good or better than today’s MOOCs. In fact, as I suggested in a post last spring, the elite institutions may be less well suited to producing high-end instructional media. These institutions established their strong brands through research. Less prestigious institutions have generally focussed more on teaching and dedicated more of their resources to online learning, on average, than the elite institutions that currently dominate the MOOC space.

Technology has the power to change the basis upon which institutions compete. The oil crisis of the 1970s changed what mattered to car buyers; they wanted fuel efficiency. Honda and other then marginal players in the auto industry seized the opportunity and offered fuel efficient cars. Honda and Nissan (then Datsun) likely couldn’t compete head to head with the major US auto manufacturers, but when the way in which cars were evaluated changed, they took full advantage.

Similarly, technology is starting to change how value is defined in higher education. By deciding to take advantage of the technology’s capacity to distribute their courses, elite institutions have provided a previously unheard level of exposure to their core “product” – courses. But in doing this, the participating institutions also provide the means for learners and other stakeholders to determine quality for themselves. In turn, this creates opportunities for ambitious institutions of higher education, just as it has in other sectors, to compete in new ways.

By Keith Hampson, PhD. Analyst and Consultant to the Digital Higher Education Industry

MOOCs: The Prestige Factor

Buried in the public responses to the news about MOOC (Massively Open Online Courses) and OER initiatives from Harvard, MIT, Stanford, Penn, Princeton and others is a deceptively important assumption. The assumption goes something like this: the open digital educational materials made available through these initiatives are of value because they are the product of these prestigious, highly selective institutions.

On the surface, this seems perfectly logical. It’s an interpretation of value based on the deeply engrained logic and criteria that people have long used to rank different institutions: the “best” institutions, like Harvard and Stanford, provide students (those with the money and grades) with access to the most respected academics, and in turn, to the latest and best thinking on academic subjects. The excitement about MOOCs from Princeton and others is that it gives the public access to materials that are otherwise available to a privileged few.

The Mourne Wall, Northern Ireland (From More Intelligent Life)

The traditional criteria for evaluating value in higher education may be misleading in this case, however. Prestigious institutions may, in fact, be the least well prepared and least well-suited of all types of institutions to lead the MOOC expansion. The particular orientation, interests, and market focus of these institutions, may limit their capacity to meet the needs that MOOCs typically seek to fulfill.

Prestigious University = High Quality Digital Instructional Materials?

First, let’s consider the specific “output” of these initiatives. Harvard and others are producing digital education content, wrapped with some form of assessment. This work will flow out of the institution’s teaching capacity and operations.

But these elite institutions earn their high ranking by placing their emphasis on research, not on teaching. This is true on an institutional as well as faculty level. Faculty members hired by these institutions know that their labour market value is based primarily on their research productivity;  the ability to garner research funds, conduct research, and publish. When it comes to teaching, there is remarkably little focus, as Derek Bok – former President of Harvard – writes of American colleges:

“A remarkable feature of American colleges is the lack of attention that most faculties pay to the growing body of research about how much students are learning and how they could be taught to learn more. . . .  One would think faculties would receive these findings eagerly. Yet one investigator has found that fewer than 10 percent of college professors pay any attention to such work when they prepare for their classes. Most faculties seem equally uninterested in research when they review the curriculum.” Derek Bok. 

We have, then, a general misalignment of institutional strengths and incentives with the project deliverables. Yet, it is the research productivity that is at the foundation of the excitement behind these initiatives. The ability and motivation to produce high quality educational media, particularly the type that requires considerable independent learning, is not the same as deep subject matter expertise that comes from a research focus.

This is not to suggest that there aren’t a number of great educators within these institutions. There are, of course. But the ability of an organization to deliver the best possible value – whatever the type – is always dependent on the focus of the organization; what kinds of work it incentivizes, the criteria used in hiring, how it defines excellence, etc. Whether we are analyzing the politics of global trade or higher education, it’s always important to “follow the money”.

One could counter this viewpoint by pointing out that these elite institutions have the resources to invest more heavily in teaching materials. Which is true, but it also irrelevant. Yes, more money can produce better results and compensate for the lack of focus on teaching and learning. But the goal is “value”, and value is always a balance between costs and quality, and superior value is less likely to come from institutions whose focus lies in research.

Learners and Content, A Misalignment

Again, the excitement generated about these materials and courses is based largely on the fact that they come to us from well-known, elite institutions. It then follows that the more similar these courses are to those traditionally offered from the elite institutions (for the “real” students), the better.  However, the “authenticity” of MOOC’s may actually conflict with the broader social and educational objectives that MOOCs serve.

The majority of people that don’t have access to higher education and who would most benefit from MOOCs are generally speaking not the same people for whom MIT-level material is appropriate. If a student is able learn MIT material via edX, then it is highly likely that they are more than capable of obtaining access to a college education, if they haven’t already. Moreover, to benefit from these initiatives, the learner must be relatively self-motivated and disciplined. The ideal learner for such initiatives, then, is someone that is at the top of the academic ladder and self-motivated; in other words, the cream of the crop.

If these initiatives, on the other hand, plan to pitch the material at a much lower academic level; a level well below what is normally taught at their institutions in order to serve the needs of students that are more likely to need access to free courseware, then the fact that they these initiatives come from elite institutions becomes of little significance, if not misleading.

Do Intentions Matter? 

MIT, Harvard and others are not launching these initiatives in order to grow their markets, expand revenue, or reduce costs. They are not doing this in order to survive a period of budget austerity, as might be the case at other, less well-established and financially solvent institutions. In fact, growth is generally not an objective for these schools; maintaining exclusivity remains their prime concern. In order for these institutions to maintain their relative standing in the higher education hierarchy, there must be exclusivity, lack of access and scarcity.

Rather, the motivation for Harvard and others is primarily social and reputational. While the initiatives may generate some benefits for their own students (going “digital” has a tendency to impose more discipline on course design, for example), they are “giving away” their wares because they can afford to, and because philanthropic acts such as these support their brands.

The motivations of these institutions matters because it influences, first, the likelihood of success and second, sustainability. If our broader interest is in finding new strategies that will improve the quality and cost of higher education, institutions whose success is based on exclusivity and who have the most to lose if the current model of higher education is disrupted may not be the best horse to bet on.


I applaud the efforts of these prestigious institutions. Their participation has generated considerable publicity for new models of higher education. And their initiative creates more movement, more flux in the higher education space which likely will be the impetus for more new ideas, which is exactly what’s needed. Nevertheless, our excitement about their participation in MOOC and OER; excitement based on the traditional logic for evaluating excellence in higher education, has little bearing and relevance in this case. If our objective is to find and support new models of higher education that are likely to address the most needy students, increase quality and reduce costs, I’m not sure that this philanthropic model, coming from institutions with little need to truly innovate, and that have a deeply vested interest in the status quo, will produce the best outcomes.

Thank you to Dr. Lloyd Armstrong whose post edX: A Step Forward or Step Backward stimulated my interest in this issue. 

Barbarians at the Gate: “Welcome!”

Earlier this spring, 800 or so people converged on the Skysong campus of Arizona State University to discuss education. However, reports from the event note that the majority of participants, and almost all of the speakers were not educators, but entrepreneurs, technology company executives and investors. The Education Innovation Summit, now in its third year, has quickly become a key event for vendors to network, generate interest, and raise funds.

Demand for higher education is at record levels, public funds are tight, operating costs are rising, and the move to digital education offers the potential to scale-up services economically.  Not surprisingly, private investment is at levels not seen since the dot-com era.

Also not surprising is that the reception within higher education to private investment ranges from indifference to outright hostility. Higher ed has a long history of managing its needs internally, and is especially resistant to commercial interventions – due to the ideal of free inquiry and the political sensibilities of faculty, among other factors. This tone tends to flavour all discussions of commerce’s role in higher education.

The tension between commerce and higher education isn’t likely to get less provocative over the next few years. While campuses have become accustomed to having vendors assume responsibility for functions like bookstore management, catering and building maintenance, the current focus of education investors is on creating technologies that serve instructional functions – matters that were once seen as the exclusive territory of academics.

But higher education may need to get over its discomfort with vendors if it wishes to continue its migration toward technology-enabled education. There are very real limits to how effectively higher ed can meet it own needs for technology. Like end users in other sectors, universities are very good at the early stage work of identifying needs and crafting initial product designs. Many of the LMS in use today started in universities. But universities are less equipped to take these products to market, scale-up production/service, and drive down costs. It simply isn’t what the institutions were designed to do.

If we are going to have educational technology available that is as good as those in the consumer markets, we will need considerable involvement of the private sector. It’s not logical to put up with a clunky LMS in our schools, but expect to have the latest iPhone at home.

Educators have started voting with their feet. More and more are integrating tools like Youtube, Facebook, WordPress and Twitter into their teaching and course management practices.  Vendors, too, have moved away from building their own applications to using popular ones from the consumer market. See, for example, Inigral and Facebook, Google and Pearson, Instructure/Canvas and Twitter.

Educational technologies need to be just as good and just as inexpensive as technology in the consumer market. We are moving in this direction – not because we are being forced by evil vendors – but because these tools are familiar, simple to use, and inexpensive.

OESP’s and (Non) Disruptive Innovations

OESP’s and (Non) Disruptive Innovation

"American Ruins" < From More Intelligent Life

“Disruptive innovation”, introduced by Clayton Christensen and now stretched almost beyond recognition, actually refers to a relatively unique, specific type of change in markets. A new product or service is introduced that offers a different set of benefits. Initially, the product/service is limited to a segment of the total market and, when compared to incumbents, is not especially impressive. In time, though, the value of the product/service (the best balance between cost and quality) improves and the types of benefits it offers becomes increasingly important to a larger segment of the total market.

Disruptive innovations can supplant dominant providers. That’s why they are so exciting. They don’t seek to emulate the established institutions and formidable companies, they offer something different and potentially of more value. And established providers are often unable to respond. Incumbents typically have the resources to generate innovations, but their commitments to existing customers, focus on improving existing systems, and their indifference in small, niche markets, stops them from investing sufficiently in new products and new markets.

In higher education, “badges” may be the most potentially “disruptive” innovation of all. If badges become recognized as legitimate markers of knowledge and skill (i.e. increase in value) then they could challenge certain components of traditional institutions, particularly continuing education units.

Non-Disruptive Innovation

But some of the more interesting non-traditional practices in digital higher education seek not to supplant; but to integrate with the existing model of higher education.

OESP’s or online education service providers are a good example. Well-known OESPs include 2Tor, Embanet, Academic Partnerships, Bisk Education and Higher Education Online (UK). These companies provide capital and services that enable universities to more quickly build high-enrolment academic programs. Services include market research, lead generation, admissions, faculty development and support, course development, and more; most of the elements required to develop, market and manage new online programs.

OESPs provide the capital to fund the initiative, typically between 500k and 10+ million (USD). In exchange for this investment and ongoing services, the OESP receives a share of tuition revenue – anywhere from 50 to 80% – for the life of the contract, which lasts between 6 and 10 years.  As enrolment growth of the programs is heavily dependent on the university’s brand, OESP are best served by working with “name” institutions (see, for example, USC, NYU, UNC, Georgetown, Northeastern). For its part, the university contributes the brand and intellectual capital, primarily.

For some universities, the OESP model represents a low risk approach to building online capacity. More than a few clients have earned positive financial returns and express confidence in the quality of the programs.

Unlike disruptive innovations, the OESP model does not seek to displace the traditional model of higher education. It’s not a direct challenge, but a service that can extend the existing model by adding services, skills and capital that are otherwise unavailable. Nevertheless, the OESP model is a change of practice for traditional higher education. And the involvement of commercial interests is never a simple matter. News stories have appeared over the last few years in which faculty suggested that an OESP came too close to infringing on functions normally managed in-house.

OESP are likely to continue growing. University budgets are getting tighter, competition in certain segments of the online market is growing, and the demand for online programs is still rising – particularly for graduate and professional programs. Also, many traditional colleges don’t have a clear idea of what’s involved in creating successful, scalable online programs. Basic questions are still being asked, such as “what will it cost?” (I’m reminded of the 2011 Campus Computing Project in which roughly 50% of respondents said they didn’t know if their online learning programming was actually profitable).

It will be interesting to see how the OESP model evolves, particularly as more universities centralize their online education operations and increase their investment on related in-house resources. These trends may make the decision to create a separate and distinct unit for online education – which the OESP model encourages – less logical. I suspect OESP’s will seek to find ways to ensure that their services increasingly serve the interests of the entire institution and meld, more fully with centralized services.

Faculty Lounges: Naomi Schaefer Riley (Author Interview Series)

Naomi Schaefer Riley is a former Wall Street Journal editor and writer whose work focuses on higher education, religion, philanthropy and culture. She is the author of God on the Quad: How Religious Colleges and the Missionary Generation Are Changing America, and most recently of The Faculty Lounges … And Other Reasons Why You Won’t Get the College Education You Pay For. Riley is also the co-editor of Acculturated, a book of essays on pop culture and virtue published this spring by the Templeton Press. Ms. Riley’s writings have appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, the Boston Globe, the LA Times, and the Washington Post, among other publications. She is a contributor to theChronicle of Higher Education‘s Brainstorm blog.

Below, I pose questions to Ms. Riley about her most recent book, The Faculty Lounges.

KCH: Before our interview, I reviewed some of the early responses to your book. I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that academics (particularly those with tenure) are not pleased with your thesis. However, the tone of some of the comments was extraordinary: some questioned your motives, others challenged your intellectual capacity, and one claimed that you write “soft-core ideological porn.” Wouldn’t it be less dangerous for you to write critically about the military-industrial complex or, say, organized crime? 

Despite being quite familiar with the world of higher education, I have to say I was astounded by the level of vitriol that I encountered in when I wrote op eds and blog posts on the subject of tenure or higher education reform in general. I understand that people have an instinct for self-preservation, but I think that needs to be mixed with some common sense. Public confidence in higher education is at an all-time low and this might be a good time for the professoriate to listen to some of its critics. There are plenty of pundits and politicians out there who think higher education is a complete waste of time. I am not among them. I think a good liberal arts education can completely transform a person’s life. And I think that strong vocational education programs also have an important place in our country. In my book I have tried to provide some constructive criticism for administrators and faculty and a kind of roadmap of the higher education sector for parents and students.

KCH: It seems logical that the tenure system would support much-needed innovation by allowing faculty to operate free of restraints. Yet you see tenure creating a highly cautious approach to change on campuses. Why?

I think there are several reasons but let me highlight two. The first is I think the amount of time that faculty members spend trying to get tenure. If you think about the years that it takes to get a PhD–a median of 11 for an English degree, by the way!–and then the years spent working as an adjunct or assistant professor trying to get tenure, you could be easily talking 15  or 20 years. During that time we train people to keep their mouths shut and their heads down if they want to make it to the next level. What is the likelihood that after all that time, someone is going to suddenly start speaking up at the age of, say, 40? Job security becomes the be-all end-all of the profession.

The other reason that tenure does not seem to encourage much in the way of dissent is the system of “departmental majoritarianism,” that is, the system by which members of a particular department seem to keep voting in clones of themselves. There is no outside input in the process. Most administrators are rubber-stamping faculty decisions. And so there is a kind of insularity to it all. Since there is so little movement in the academic world–junior faculty might as well be waiting for someone to get hit by a bus in order to get a job–the members of a department are basically stuck with one another for life. They don’t want to alienate the people they will have to work with for decades to come and they don’t get many new ideas because there is so little new blood coming in.

KCH: You quote the work of sociologists David Reisman and Christopher Jencks from their 1968 book, The Academic Revolution: Administrators . . . “are today more concerned with keeping their faculty happy than with placating any other single groups. They are also, in our experience, far more responsive to students and more concerned with the inadequacies and tragedies of student life than the majority of faculty.” Despite being on the “front lines”, as you put it, administrators don’t often have the authority to make substantial changes at their institutions if the required changes directly involve faculty. How did we find ourselves in this situation and how do you suggest we get out of it? 

NSR: We have in place a system of faculty governance whereby professors have essentially gained a stranglehold on power at the university. The system of faculty governance is an important feature of the modern university. Starting in the late part of the 19th century, when the German model of the research university made its first appearance on our shores, the role of the professoriate changed from one of imparting knowledge to students, to one in which the primary focus was on research. This made sense for much of the biological and physical sciences, where scientific advances were happening at a rapid clip, too rapid perhaps for the average citizen to understand. But the research mandate was extended to the social sciences and the humanities. And professors of all stripes were increasingly understood to be society’s experts, its public intellectuals. And since what they were writing was considered above the heads of ordinary folks, they needed to govern themselves. Their work could only be judged by their peers.

This explains how faculty have gained the privilege of deciding which of their colleagues deserve tenure or promotion and which deserve to be fired. But faculty are in charge of so much else at universities these days. They vote on university investments, decide whether students are guilty or innocent of sexual assault, as well as control more mundane affairs like when classes should be taught and which classes should be taught.

Today, faculty control of universities has created any number of problems. While the state legislators and parents and students and taxpayers are having discussions about reforming higher education–fixing the cost structure, changing the curriculum, adding more distance learning, making professors teach more, etc.–they are not likely to have a significant effect any time soon. One reason is that every battle in higher education is a battle of attrition. The faculty will outlast any president, any administrator, any parent, any student, any trustee, etc. And so they will always win. When people ask me why I have focused on the issue of tenure, it is because I believe that changing this system is the key to making any other reforms work.

KCH: You identify a number of problems in higher ed that, in your view, are exacerbated by tenure. If the tenure system is eventually dismantled, who and what will most likely be responsible for its demise?  

NSR: If tenure is dismantled intentionally, it will be done first by state legislatures. With budgets tighter and more scrutiny of colleges and universities, these politicians are probably in the best position to do some kind of reform. They can vote to stop offering tenure to new faculty members and instead replace the institution with multi-year renewable contracts. Private universities may eventually follow the lead of public ones, but they won’t experience much in the way of direct pressure on this issue any time soon.

But as everyone knows, tenure and tenure-track positions are becoming a smaller percentage of the academic job market. What may happen, unfortunately, is that this diminishment will continue in a haphazard way and that universities will simply fill up with adjunct faculty. I see this as a problem. Adjuncts are often not treated well by their institutions, making low salaries, finding out whether they will be teaching only a few weeks before the semester begins (if that). They are forced to hold jobs on different campuses and often don’t have much contact with students. A higher percentage of adjuncts on campus correlates with lower graduation rates. I hope that we can stop this inevitable slide toward adjunctification by thinking seriously about faculty roles and contracts now and moving forward with a plan that is in the best interests of students.

What Makes a Great Professor (Survey)

Interesting. Notice what falls lowest as a source of value for professors from the student’s perspective: the very things that serve as the basis of value to the professor’s themselves and the institution’s that support them – research prowess and credentials. A structural flaw in the extreme.

The Freemium Model and Digital Higher Education

Free and Higher Ed?

Offering customers something for free in order to generate sales may be as old as commerce itself. However, in his 2010 book, Free : The Future of a Radical Price (as well as in an earlier set of articles), Chris Anderson argued that the Internet and the rise of digitally dependent businesses was remaking the possibilities for and scope of “free”.

The change he observed is the result of the rapidly declining costs of bandwidth, storage, and processing power – core elements of the digital industries. The markets most influenced by the changes are those in which the products and services are primarily in the digital format: web services and software, and certain kinds of content.

I’m interested in better understanding how the changes highlighted in Anderson’s work relate to digital higher education. As more of what constitutes higher education moves into the realm of digital networks, the theory may help us identify new ways of improving the quality and cost structures of higher education. The notes that follow are my first attempt to begin unpacking the theory in the context of digital higher ed.


Anderson distinguished between three common uses of “free” in industry.

Type 1: The customer is offered something free of cost if they purchase a second, related product. If you use a coffee service at your office, for example, the vendor likely lets the office use the coffee machine free-of-charge, but charges for each coffee sachet.

Type 2: Here, the core product or service is offered free of charge. Revenue is generated by selling access to the customers of the core product to other companies. This is the basis of advertising-sponsored mass media such as radio and television.

Type 3: The third variety, the “freemium” model”, is the focus of Anderson’s work, and is a by-product of the Internet and digitally dependent industries.

The “freemium” model . . .

“. . . enabled by digital markets where the marginal cost of production and distribution is close to zero. This is the one that allows the “freemium” business model, where 90% of the users get the basic product for free and 10% chose to pay for a premium version. In economics this is called “versioning” and is a form of using price discrimination (where the main price is zero) to maximize both the consumer utility and the profit in a market. In this model, charging a small percentage of a large user base beats charging a large percentage of a small user base. Obviously best for consumer products with potentially large appeal, it’s the main Web 2.0 business model and can be found everywhere from Flickr and Flickr Pro to open source’s “support included” commercial versions of Linux.”

Possibly the best examples of the freemium model are the web-based file storage services like DropBox and Box.Net. Each allow customers to store and share files free of charge up to a certain volume (e.g. 2GB). Revenue is generated from sales to high need or “premium” customers that require more storage space and other special features. Evernote, a note-management application, has a similar business model. The goal of the company, of course, is to convert as many non-paying customers to premium, paying customers as possible. But the majority of their customers will never pay for the service.

Price in Higher Education

Many higher ed institutions use differential pricing. Tuition levels are manipulated, and scholarships allocated, in order to attract a desirable mix of students (e.g. student-athletes, promising scholars, race/ethnicity). As with the freemium model, some customers are absorbing a greater share of costs.

Secondly, tuition levels in higher education have a somewhat unique relationship to value. In most industries, lower prices increases value (value: balance of cost and quality). However, because it is difficult to measure value in education (and the sector has been reluctant to get serious about outcome measurement), stakeholders have had to rely on surrogates of quality to measure value. Surrogates include the institution’s research success, “name” academics on the faculty, exclusivity (admissions), and notably, tuition levels. Here, higher tuition levels are often used as a symptom of quality; the assumption being that the higher the tuition, the greater the quality. And, of course, as the tuition increases, so too does the degree of exclusivity, which in turn, increases the ability of the institution to charge higher tuition levels.

In higher education, digital and otherwise, the most frequent reference to “free” is with respect to OER – open educational resources. On the surface, OER doesn’t appear related to Anderson’s concept of freemium; certainly advocates of OER don’t think of it in these terms. Nevertheless, like “freemium”, OER content is paid for by premium customers – albeit indirectly. The institutions and their individual faculty produce OER materials are supported by “premium” customers – those that pay tuition. This may not always the case. There may come a time when academics and their institutions see the broader, global public as their audience and/or the funding for this content comes from some sort of supra-national body.

As noted above, the freemium model assumes that some of the users of the free products or services can be converted to premium, paying customers. While individual academics that support OER do not routinely consider the promotion of their institution as their motivation for distributing free instructional materials, this is not the case at the institutional level. For senior academic and IT leaders in universities, OER seems like an opportunity to both “do good” and generate positive public relations. Taylor Walsh touched on this function for OER in her recent book Unlocking the Gates, (see, also my interview with the author) and I’ve been in meetings where university management have imagined that by putting their school’s best lectures on iTunesU, Merlot or Connexions that they may be able to build the institution’s brand. I suspect there’s little promotional impact from such efforts – but that university management would see OER as a means of “converting leads”, however indirectly, puts it in alignment with the freemium model.

Examples of Freemium in Higher Education

A great example of the freemium model in higher education is Flat World Knowledge (FWK). In fact, Flat World was highlighted in Chris Anderson’s book. FWK emerged out of a recognition of the limits of the traditional textbook industry that has resulted in rapidly climbing book prices, awkward customization options, and virtually no opportunity for students to define their own needs. FWK produces high quality digital textbooks across a range of disciplines. The basics of the business model are:

  • FWK content is licensed under creative commons.
  • Students have full access to a free web-based version of the book.
  • Instructors that adopt the titles for their courses, can modify the book as they wish; changing text, adding components, reordering the content, adding third-party content (e.g. Youtube videos).
  • If they choose, students can order additional versions of the textbook including black & white or colour print versions, audio versions, study aids, tablet version, and so on. All of these are sold at prices well below industry standards.

This particular use of “free” ensures that all students have access to their course textbook – which is an increasingly important issue as higher education serves an ever-broadening range of socio-economic groups, increases the learner’s control over how they learn, places more control in the hands of the academic running the course, and, of course, it addresses the issue of price.

It seems to be working. After only two years in operation, there are now more than 1600 academics using textbooks by Flat World Knowledge.

Another instance of the freemium model in higher education is the recently launched Test Drive College. As the percentage of the population that wishes to attend higher education climbs, so does the number of prospective students that are unsure of their true interests, and whether they are adequately prepared for college. TDC offers students free online college courses. If successful, students can apply the credits earned through TDC to college programs that are affiliated with TDC.

In this business model, then, the colleges that form affiliations with TDC are the premium customers that generate the revenue. The benefit to the college is the stream of students that begin their college careers better prepared, having already demonstrated their capacity to learn and commitment to complete college courses. TDC is compensated by the admitting college.

We are at the very earliest stage of testing new business models in higher education. The above models – FWK and TDC – have found ways to leverage the changing economics of digital learning. It will interesting to see how other companies employ new variations of the freemium model in higher education.

Note: I am on the Advisory Team at Flat World Knowledge.