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Originally posted in Today’s Campus
A panel discussion entitled “What Nonprofits and For-Profits Can Learn from Each Other About Teaching and Learning” was held at the most recent Educause conference. The panelists were from proprietary schools, a non-profit university, Inside Higher Ed, and a think-tank. It was at this talk that an audience member repeated the claim that proprietary colleges, unlike non-profit colleges, are unwilling to “share”. Proprietary colleges won’t, for example, provide people outside of their organizations with access to their courses, materials and other related information because these institutions are, well, proprietary. The comment put the representatives on the panel from the proprietary sector on the defensive. I think that was the intention.
The criticism of proprietary colleges has a moral and political quality. It suggests that non-profit colleges share because the practice is consistent with the institution’s mandate of social responsibility. The more we share, the better off we all are. And, of course, this is true; indisputable, in fact. The exchange of information between individuals, communities, and nations is an important ingredient of innovation and our collective progress.
While claims to moral superiority are often legitimate; sometimes they serve to mask complexity, even mislead. Indulge my cynicism for a moment while I take a second look at the seemingly simple issue of sharing in digital higher ed.
First, the distinction between non-profit and proprietary in terms of sharing is often overstated. Non-profits do not have a stellar track record of sharing. For example, academics can work in the same department for years without actually witnessing each other teach. It’s considered intrusive. Professional autonomy and sharing are not always aligned. Similarly, academic researchers are unlikely to share their unfinished work with researchers at other institutions with whom they are competing (for attention, grants, journal acceptance, etc); not until the research is published and credit is formally attributed. And on an institutional level, recent research by AEI and Education Sector suggests that the majority of publicly sponsored colleges and universities don’t provide students with all of the information they need to make sound academic and career decisions – even when the disclosure of this information has been mandated by regulators.
Second, we need to ask why organizations choose to share or not. Is it strictly for social and moral reasons? I’m generalizing, but I don’t think most organizations will share information if it is fundamental to their success, no matter what their social mandate. Consider, for example, college courseware. Proprietary schools tend to put relatively more resources toward the design and development of their courses. It makes sense that they do. Unlike non-profit colleges, they can’t rely on tradition or reputation in order to compete. They don’t offer residential experiences, research, or climbing walls. Their focus is teaching and learning. As Richard Vedder of Ohio University argued recently in the Chronicle ,”the for-profits are incentivized to focus on student outcomes and learning—paying laser-like attention to this most critical mission of higher education.”
For-profits focus on those parts of their operation that can be controlled and which are central to their value, such as courses. They do it through top-down, management driven processes, which is unpalatable to many in traditional higher education, but they do it to survive. So, the question we might ask is this: would non-profit colleges provide outsiders with access to their courses (which, again, they do in very limited ways) if access to this information could potentially weaken their status, revenue or both, and directly bolster a competitor?
What makes this issue particularly slippery is, first, the fact that quality in education is difficult to define and, second, because most traditional, non-profit colleges don’t compete on the basis of the quality of their digital courses. Consequently, we can only speculate as to how willing they would be to share access to their courses under more competitive circumstances. But the fact that researchers in competition with each tend to approach “sharing” in a far less generous manner suggests that the standard rules of competition apply.
Finally, the value of sharing is that it supports innovation that, in turn, supports the common good. And the claim made against for-profit colleges is that they are not inclined to share because they are competing, not collaborating. Again, there’s a great deal of truth to this view, but it ignores an especially large elephant in the room: for all of modern history, market economies have relied on competition to generate innovation. And now, after two centuries of unprecedented innovation, I think we can now safely say that it works. We’re not always pleased with the results, but there’s no question – at least in my mind – of the power of competition to generate high levels of innovation. So, the argument that competitive practices are counter to innovation is, regardless of the context, is – as my dear Mom often put it – “a bit rich”. Rather than contrast innovation and competition, can we agree that competition – like sharing – is a means of generating innovation?
Sharing is a positive force in higher education. But let’s not use the term indiscriminately. We need a more thoughtful, less politically charged dialogue to identify what should be shared and how.