How to Save the University: Lessons from the Possible Saving of the News

We are all well aware of the decline of the newspaper industry. A number of factors have contributed to this decline:  shift to on-line news sources, decline of newspaper advertisers who find other media are more cost effective, a shift to news packaged and presented as politics and entertainment, and the inefficiencies of news agencies based on a daily or regular paper medium whose news is necessarily no longer news before it is physically available.  It is generally understood that Google and net-based services have contributed to the decline of newspapers.  However, as discovered and reported by James Fallows in his The Atlantic article “Inside Google: The Company’s Daring Plan to Save the News (and Itself)” (June 2010), Google has initiated a range of actions in the direction of saving the news if not the paper forms with which it has so long been identified.

I think that the recent decline of newspapers offers a lesson that might be applicable to the inevitable decline (though few are ready yet to acknowledge this) of university (and other levels) campus based education.  Consider a few possibilities.  Let’s say that university faculty begin to package their courses as on-line courses and they begin to shift their work from a single campus base of operation to a world-wide audience.  Of course, on-line courses are already quite common and have been for some years.  It is thus only an incremental step before on-line delivery becomes the principal method rather than a supplement to classroom delivery.  Let’s say that state legislatures continue to be financially stressed as they have been now for some years.  It doesn’t seem that the end of state government financial stress is yet in sight and the structural changes being presently made are changing most universities in fundamental ways (ways that may well be beneficial).  Let’s say that family income available for higher education continues to be in short supply so that an increasing percentage of families shop for lower priced, yet still high quality, education.  There is currently an explosion in enrollment in community colleges, evidence that this trend is well under way.  Let’s say that studies begin to show that for most students for many courses they take, the goals of education can be effectively met by on-line courses.  If faculty are not limited to a single institution, the very finest faculty in the country or world in any subject could offer the bulk of the on-line courses.  There is further advantage in that such courses are available to learners inexpensively and accessible at any time from any location.  Perhaps these studies will show that students may benefit from one semester residence for every two years of traditional campus based learning, with the rest being done effectively at home or while working or performing community service or even traveling.  Should students spend but 25% to 50% of their educational time on campus, the economies of operating physical university plants could be greatly reduced.  Campus colonies (as Thomas Frey has suggested) might develop to use some of this unused space enabling a learning while working community led by faculty and non-university professionals directed towards a work/learn environment that actually creates products, performs services, and so forth incorporating learning as an essential dimension.

No one of these potentials is unlikely and most are not only likely but would result in high quality education for far less cost to both states and other education deliverers and the families paying for education.

Whereas the newspaper industry suffered decline and devastation, with the help of Google and others, it may find a way to transition into a better, stronger, news industry.  Hopefully, universities and higher educators will initiate the creative transition to new models and practices.  This can happen only if educators actually think to the future and take action.  I see little evidence that either is a present concern.

In this proposed model it would be possible that some few students will still find valuable a full four-year campus experience.  These would be the students who would pursue the more classic liberal arts understanding of education, that is, education understood as cultivating a fully minded-bodied person rather than education as information or information processing.

In this model the economy of scale would afford faculty greater independence, autonomy, opportunity, and support for research in the more traditional sense of inquiry motivated primarily by curiosity and experimentation, rather than research motivated largely by industrial and defense demands.  This is the kind of research that can produce entirely unexpected results.

Sam Gill – August 26, 2010

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