Information Technology

Thinking Like an Entrepreneur

It can be a frightening time to be in the publishing business. The economic mechanisms that support the reproduction and distribution of information in print have been disrupted by the economics of digital media. The newspaper industry provides just one example. As Eric Alterman pointed out in a recent New Yorker article, “In the Internet Age,… no one has figured out how to rescue the newspaper in the United States or abroad.” Print circulation is at its lowest level since records have been kept and online revenue from advertising and subscriptions are nowhere close to making up for those declines. It is well known that journals and scholarly presses are also struggling to adapt their business models.

At the same time that established publishing organizations are struggling, more and more academics and academic organizations are attempting to enter digital publishing. They are digitizing new content daily, developing new software tools, and collecting new data. Naturally, the creators of these online academic resources (OARs) wish to make them broadly available and to ensure their continued availability and currency.

These new digital resources have generally been created from one-time grant funding or short-term commitments of resources. However, unlike a printed book, digital resources require continued investment. The software systems and platforms on which they depend must be upgraded and kept current. It is the nature of digital resources to be continually growing and changing, attracting new content, and rapidly cycling through revisions and additions.

Increasingly, therefore, foundations, government agencies and universities are asking where they will find the recurring funding to sustain these online resources over time. They are requiring the leaders of such projects to develop sustainability plans that include ongoing sources of revenue; in short, they are looking for academics to act as publishing entrepreneurs. Success in such endeavors requires entrepreneurial expertise and discipline, but in our experience at Ithaka, few OAR projects employ fundamental principles of project planning and management. Why don’t they?

What we have observed is that deep cultural differences separate the scholarly mindset from the mindset of the e-entrepreneur. Most people overseeing online academic resources are scholars, raised in the academy, accustomed to its collegial culture and deliberative pace, shielded from traditional market forces. However, the rapid changes and ruthless competitive landscape of the Internet require a different mindset. The challenge for a successful OAR project leader is to marry the scholarly values essential to the project’s intellectual integrity with the entrepreneurial values necessary for its survival in the Internet economy.

To assist project leaders in successfully managing digital enterprises, Ithaka embarked on a project to study the major challenges to the sustainability of these online academic resources. Working with support from the Joint Information Systems Committee and the Strategic Content Alliance, we interviewed a range of people both in the academy and industry. During that effort, the fruits of which were published last week, we identified several aspects of the entrepreneurial approach that seem particularly important to creating sustainable digital projects:

1. Grants are for start-up, not sustainability. Most often, project leaders should regard initial funding as precisely that -- start-up funding to help the project develop other reliable, recurring and diverse sources of support. The prevailing assumption that there will be a new influx of grant funding when the existing round runs out is counter-productive to building a sustainable approach. There are exceptions to this assertion -- for example, if a grantee offers a service that is vital to a foundation’s mission or is exclusively serving an important programmatic focus of the funder -- but these cases are unusual.

2. Cost recovery is not sufficient: growth is necessary. Project leaders need to adopt a broader definition of “sustainability” that encompasses more than covering operating costs. The Web environment is evolving rapidly and relentlessly. It is incorrect to assume that, once the initial digitization effort is finished and content is up on the Web, the costs of maintaining a resource will drop to zero or nearly zero. Projects need to generate surplus revenue for ongoing reinvestment in their content and/or technology if they are to thrive.

3. Value is determined by impact. OAR project leaders tend to underestimate the importance of thinking about demand and impact and the connections between those elements and support from key stake holders. The scholarly reluctance to think in terms of “marketing” is a formula for invisibility on the Internet. Without a strategic understanding of the market place, it is only through serendipity that a resource will attract users and have an impact on a significant population or field of academic endeavor. And of course, attracting users is essential for garnering support from a variety of stake holders: host universities, philanthropies and government agencies, corporate sponsors and advertisers. The most promising and successful online resource projects are demand driven and strive for visibility, traffic and impact.

4. Projects should think in terms of building scale through partnerships, collaborations, mergers and even acquisitions. Project leaders need to consider a range of options for long-term governance. Start-ups in the private sector, for example, aim for independent profitability but they also consider it a success to merge with complementary businesses or to sell their companies to a larger enterprise with the means to carry those assets forward. Not-for-profit projects should think similarly about their options and pursue different forms of sustainability based on their particular strengths, their competition, and their spheres of activity. Given the high fixed costs of the online environment, collaborations and mergers are critical for helping single online academic resource projects keep their costs down and improve chances for sustainability.

5. In a competitive world, strategic planning is imperative. In the highly competitive environment of the Web, project leaders must embrace the best operating practices of their competitors -- a group that includes commercial enterprises -- for mindshare and resources. That means they will have to act strategically, develop marketing plans, seek out strategic partnerships, understand their competitive environment, and identify and measure themselves against clear goals and objectives for how they will accomplish their missions successfully and affordably. An academic disdain for “commercialism” can doom many a promising scholarly project to failure on the Internet.

Historically, academic projects have been shielded from commercial pressures, in part by funders, but mainly because their economic environment operated independently from other areas of commerce. This separation between the “academic” and “commercial” economies is no longer meaningful. The project leaders that are most likely to succeed in today’s digital environment are those who can operate successfully under the pressures of competition and accountability, and in the messiness of innovation and continual reinvention.

6. Flexibility, nimbleness, and responsiveness are key. OARs need to develop the capability for rapid cycles of experimentation (“fail early and often”), rather than spending years attempting to build the optimal resource in isolation from the market. Unfortunately, many OARs are structurally set up to do the latter – their grants commit them to promised courses of action for several years and tie them to specific deliverables. Leaders of online academic resources may not realize that many funders would prefer nimbleness if it means that the OARs will have a greater impact. Funders, for their part, must recognize that multi-year plans need to be highly flexible to allow for adaptation to new developments in technology and the marketplace.

7. Dedicated and fully accountable leadership is essential. Running a start-up – and developing an online academic resource is running a start-up – is a full-time job requiring full-time leadership. The “principal investigator” model, in which an individual divides her time among a variety of research grants, teaching assignments, and other responsibilities, is not conducive to entrepreneurial success. New initiatives aiming for sustainability require fully dedicated, fully invested, and intensely focused leadership. If a principal investigator cannot provide it, he or she will have to retain a very capable person who can.

If new digital academic resources are going to survive in the increasingly competitive online environment, the academy needs a better understanding of the challenges of managing what are essentially digital publishing enterprises. Leaders and supporters of these projects must orient themselves to an entrepreneurial mindset and embrace principles of effective management. If they are unable to do that, important resources serving smaller scholarly disciplines will disappear, leaving only those projects that are commercially viable.

Kevin M. Guthrie
Author's email:

Kevin M. Guthrie is president of Ithaka, a nonprofit organization with a mission to accelerate the productive uses of information technologies for higher education. From 1995 to 2003, he was the founding president of JSTOR.

Hey, RIAA and MPAA, Time to Shift Gears

Friday’s news that the recording industry plans to stop its much-derided practice of suing individuals who download music illegally, while welcome, does not in any way signal an end to the entertainment industry’s policing efforts against students and, by extension, their colleges. But because of a subtle change happening right now on college campuses, the content industries and communication companies have a unique opportunity right now to preserve copyrights and make a lot of money – and it is an opportunity that may not come again.

The passage of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act (DMCA) coincided with a large shift in the number of students who brought desktop (and later laptop) computers to campus. A few years later, cellular phones went mainstream and quickly and were quickly adopted by students. Shortly after Napster debuted in the summer of 1999, the recording industry sought to protect its right to profit from the music in which it had invested substantial sums of money. Although the law was not strictly written to address this purpose, the industry used DMCA infringement notices to request that commercial and university internet service providers (ISP) remove infringing content. The industry also successfully sued Napster, all but putting it out of business.

Unfortunately for the recording industry, the death of Napster spawned many other illegal file-sharing services. Since, like Napster, many of these services were open source, as soon as one was taken down, enterprising individuals could tweak the source code and launch another application. The services spread virally on campus and off, and became more and more sophisticated.

After a spate of bad press for lawsuits against sympathetic defendants like grandmothers and young children illegally file-sharing on commercial ISPs, the industry turned its attention to illegal sharing on college campuses. Some institutions received no DMCA notices, while others have received hundreds of such notices each year. Notices are generally taken seriously by colleges that receive them and it takes significant staff time to investigate and counsel the accused students. Notices come from the RIAA, the MPAA, and myriad other intellectual property owners. Recently, in fact, colleges were handed additional responsibilities by means of amendments to the Higher Education Act.

While the RIAA has now abandoned its strategy of bringing lawsuits against individual users (mostly college students of late), it apparently will continue to send DMCA takedown notices to college campuses. While the subpoenas and lawsuits against individual students have garnered most of the press in this area, many colleges find following up on the much more common DMCA notice to be far more time consuming and expensive than responding to the less common subpoena. One problem with asking colleges, and now commercial ISPs, to police illegal file-sharing is the constant arms race between file-sharing programs and the programs that seek to prevent the trade. Blocking programs often find themselves a step behind open-source sharing programs and the creative programmers who add encryption and other technology. Even if ISPs are simply asked to respond to notices of infringement, this arms race will result in most file sharers not being caught.

The content-producing industries, and especially the RIAA, are regularly criticized for favoring lawsuits and DMCA notices over changing their business model to meet the times. While some of this criticism is valid, some of it is unfair as the industry is desperately searching for new alternatives, and its new stance may be a start.

Yet its inherent conservatism stops it from making the fundamental shifts that can help it survive and thrive in the digital marketplace. In recent conversations at conferences with industry insiders, I have heard two schools of prevailing thought. On one hand, executives at recording companies, television companies and movie studios are spending a significant amount of time looking at new partnerships and business models that will help replace lost profits. One high-placed executive told me that he and his team now spend most of their time trying to create their way out of this issue rather than sue their way out. Yet at the same time, another executive told me at a recent conference that the staggering amount of file-sharing found by the Digital Citizen Project has convinced him that his industry needs to send more takedown notices, not fewer.

Outside of the legal sphere, the 10 years since the DMCA and Napster broke onto the scene saw the mainstreaming of computers on wired and wireless networks. Yet the way students access educational and entertainment content is changing rapidly. A long time ago, in technological terms anyway, (circa 1997–2003), a student would use television, radio and computers for entertainment, use a desktop computer to read and write educational content, and use a cell phone (if they had one) as a telephone.

Somewhat more recently (circa 2004-2007), a student might use a laptop as the primary method for communication and accessing educational and entertainment content, while using a cell phone primarily for calling and text messaging. Now, however, we are moving quickly toward a model where students will use a "smart phone" for almost all tasks: calling, text messaging, accessing the Internet, accessing music and increasingly television and movie content, as well as reading (and sometimes writing) documents.

For students, the computer is becoming like the convection oven while the mobile device is the microwave. When the whole family comes over for a holiday dinner, you cook in the nice, big convection oven. For the daily meal on the go, however, you “nuke” the food in the microwave. So too students are increasingly using handheld mobile devices to do all or almost all of their daily interaction with the Internet. They turn to their laptop to watch movies on a larger screen or to research and write term papers. Many fans of music and movies currently use their computer as a way station for content. They download (legally or illegally) content to their computer, and then transfer that content to their phone, iPod or other portable device.

This shift to mobile devices has several effects on the issue of students who illegally share files. First, colleges and universities have no ability to track such use, prevent illegal file-sharing, or discipline students for violating the copyright law or even their own code of conduct. That means that the student who uses his or her laptop on their campus network is treated differently from the student next to them doing the same action on a Blackberry.

Second, as colleges and universities take stronger steps to prevent illegal file-sharing on their networks, such as dialing down bandwidth, packet shaping, and installing software and hardware to block the transfer of copyrighted files, more and more of the students who seek to illegally share such files will partially or completely abandon the campus wired and wireless infrastructure altogether. As the cost of wireless access cards for laptops drops (and as technical standards allow computer companies to install such cards when manufacturing the laptop) and the speed of cellular Internet access increases, a growing percentage of the student population will opt for wireless Internet access (for both their laptop and their mobile device) through their cell phone carrier rather than through their college. At that point, piling dozens or hundreds of DMCA notices on colleges will be less effective in solving the illegal file-sharing problem and protecting the content industry’s copyrights.

This coming shift allows for a solution, however, albeit one with a short window. The content industry should quickly collaborate with cellular telephone companies to provide content access plans through mobile devices. As more people shift away from their laptops as a primary device and toward their mobile devices, they will want to access content directly through such devices. This presents the content industry with a business opportunity. Before sharing music, movie and television files illegally among cellular phones becomes commonplace, as it has on wired and wireless computer networks, the industry should offer cellular subscribers the opportunity to access content on-demand for an add-on fee to their cell phone plan.

Such a direct access program would be significantly more efficient for the average user. Allowing individuals to access such digital content on their mobile device quickly, and for a reasonable price, will allow them to “cut out the computer middle man” and truly enjoy this content “on demand.”

In offering such a service, the content industry could replicate one of its success stories in the digital arena. When cell phones first came out, their rings sounded like, well, telephone rings. But a few years ago, cell phone companies began offering customers the option of purchasing ringtones and ringbacks (callers to your phone hear a song instead of a ring). Millions of these ringtones and ringbacks have been purchased. The artists are compensated, subscribers get a service they desire for a low price (usually one or two dollars), and, although possible, there is less incentive to steal such tones. It is so easy and inexpensive to purchase such services that there is less incentive to obtain illegal files. Additionally, there is no instant cost as most ringtones and ringbacks are simply charged to the user’s (or his or her parent’s) monthly cell phone bill.

Ringtones and ringbacks parallel two other add-on success stories for the cell phone industry. When text messaging first came out, most individuals used the service sparingly, if at all. My personal plan featured a charge of 2 cents for each message received and 10 cents for each message sent. Fairly quickly, however, the phone companies began offering plans that included hundreds or thousands of complimentary messages each month, or even unlimited messaging, all for a moderate additional cost over base service. In just a few years, we went from a system where people would send messages only in emergencies, to a system where high school and college students routinely send and receive thousands of messages each month. In fact, billions of such messages are sent each month. Similarly, when Internet access on telephones arrived, the companies began offering plans where, for a flat monthly fee, subscribers can access the Internet by phone with few or no limits.

The cell phone companies and content industry should team to offer such a service for songs, television shows and movies. The less desirable (but more likely plan) would be to offer users an “iTunes” for the phone, on which they can access, wirelessly and on-demand, any song, movie or television program for a nominal fee to be added to their monthly bill.

If the companies make such access easy enough and inexpensive enough (while providing quality files that sound and look clear), individual users will have little or no incentive to obtain such files illegally. Over time, however, the companies should develop unlimited plans in which, for a charge of $10 or $20 per line, individuals can access unlimited content on their mobile device at any time. This content can be offered with sufficient digital rights management software such that it can only be played on the subscriber’s phone. Here, artists and content producers are guaranteed a steady stream of income (even if less than they received in the best years of VHS, CD, and DVD production), and individuals can access any content they want at any time. Content producers cannot survive without individuals who willingly pay for their wares. But if illegal downloading puts companies out of business, there will be less innovative content to purchase.

The current system of content producers asking colleges to police file-sharing and protect its rights is ineffective now (at best it targets a tiny percentage of illegal file-sharing), and will become less effective as more people move to mobile devices for content access. It will have no effect at all if students move away from campus networks and toward cellular-network PC cards so as to avoid strict rules on illegal downloading. Companies should cut their losses from illegal downloading on personal computers and head to the next frontier -- the mobile device as the all-purpose media-access machine.

As we approach the 10th anniversary of Napster’s founding, let’s transcend the market for such programs together, once and for all.

Joseph Storch
Author's email:

Joseph Storch is a lawyer in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the State University of New York.

The Library Web Site of the Future

Academic librarians want their Web sites to attract faculty and students the way flowers invite insects for a visit. The urge to plunge into the cornucopia of electronic riches that lies waiting in the library’s highly organized portal should be irresistible. Exclusive research databases, costly electronic journals and digital books and treasures lay in wait for those who need and are willing to seek them out.

For faculty, at least two powerful motivators should drive their personal interest in expecting a great library Web site. One is their own need to easily find scholarly content that supports their research. The other is a desire to have students discover the resources that strengthen their research and result in high quality assignments.

It should be a scholar’s dream, but there’s trouble in paradise. In August 2008 the Ithaka Group released a report, “Studies of Key Stakeholders in the Digital Transformation of Higher Education,” on the relationship between faculty members and their libraries’ electronic resources. As librarians already knew well, Ithaka’s report showed that faculty perceived the library’s collective electronic resources, particularly in business, science and technology, as far more critical to scholarship than print collections are. But there is a significant disconnect when it comes to faculty use of the library’s website as a gateway, or portal, to access that wealth of electronic content.

According to the Ithaka report, academic librarians rated the function of the library as a gateway for locating scholarly information as “very important.” Asked to assess the performance of libraries as their portals to scholarly information, however, faculty in all disciplines rated them considerably differently. Compared to earlier years of this Ithaca study, faculty no longer perceived the library as an important portal to scholarly information. While the library Web site is not specifically mentioned in the report, for the 21st century library, the Web site is the de facto gateway to electronic research content. The report makes clear that faculty increasingly access what they need elsewhere or simply find alternate routes around the library Web site to get to their desired library e-resources.

Consider as well these other indicators of the declining value of the library Web site as information gateway:

  • A September 2008 a report from Simon Inger Consulting titled “How Readers Navigate to Scholarly Content” presented data about researchers’ preferred starting points. The two most frequently preferred starting points are specific specialist databases, which suggests scholars simply bookmark the library databases they use most often, and general Web search engines. Library Web sites are even less frequently used than publishers’ Web sites, non-library gateways to journals, and even e-mail-based journal alerts.
  • An articled titled “Measuring the ‘Google Effect’ at JSTOR” by Bruce Heterick appeared in the June 2008 issue of Against the Grain, and it documented the increased access of JSTOR content via Google Scholar. JSTOR usage has increased dramatically since its inception in 1997. But more recently a new growth wave is propelled by referrals from non-traditional sites. Heterick writes “another order of magnitude change in scale is introduced when we begin to look at the number of links coming to JSTOR directly from Google and Google Scholar.” The number of links to JSTOR articles from Google-referring URLs increased by 159 percent from 2006 to 2007. It’s just one more reason to avoid the library Web site as a research starting point.
  • LibQual is a satisfaction survey administered by many academic libraries. Faculty will know it by its distinctive structure that requires respondents to identify not mere satisfaction level with the library but one’s minimum, desired and perceived levels of satisfaction with the library. What have academic librarians learned from LibQual? If there’s one thing the respondents dislike more than completing the LibQual survey, it’s the library’s Web site. There is only one question about the library’s Web site among the 20 or so asked on the survey instrument. I attended a meeting of librarians where we discussed LibQual and learned how to use it more effectively. We attendees discovered we all had something in common; none of our users cared for our Web sites.

It is debatable that faculty and students ever perceived the library as the starting point for their research, but these indicators offer convincing evidence that the library’s web portal, more than ever, can make no such claim to that title. We may be fortunate when they go there at all. The future of the library Web site as information portal is bleak. But that’s good news. Libraries have grown too dependent on their Web sites as gateways to electronic scholarly content, and have invested too much time trying to fix what is broken.

This needs to change. The academic library community’s general response to the dissatisfaction is to improve the usability. Tabbed interfaces, simple search boxes and more personalization are a few of the new features site designers are employing in chasing better focus group responses. All of this change suggests rearranging the deck chairs on this Titanic. Now is the time to let this ship sink to its watery grave.

The primary function of the contemporary academic library Web site is to connect a user to content, be it an article database, e-book or e-journal article, and to do it with minimal barriers and maximum speed and ease. Faculty and students tend to have their one or two favorites, for example, JSTOR for many faculty and Academic Search Premier for students. For those highly popular e-resources the portal may get the job done. A serious flaw needing correction is the failure of the academic library Web site to invite the user community to, in simple ways, discover the full range of resources available for their research. Bruce Springsteen laments having 57 channels and nothing to watch. Faculty and students can access from dozens to hundreds of databases with little or no idea what they are or how to find them.

So it is little surprise that faculty and students rarely use the library’s Web site to connect to content that satisfies their scholarly needs. Instead they invent their own backdoor routes to the content, but in doing so may miss related or new electronic resources made available by the library. You may argue that faculty and students forged their own paths to circumvent the library back in the print only days, but now the possibilities for and associated risks of missing important resources are astronomically greater.

Advocating a much needed transformation of the library portal leads to two questions. First, how can libraries more effectively create awareness about their content so users can discover it? Second, what should replace the library portal? The answers are intertwined, but the changes needed depend on faculty recognizing that it is a change they must help to facilitate.

Several years ago academic institutions shifted control of their Web sites from technology wizards to marketing gurus. At the time there was backlash. The change in outlook was perceived as a corporate sellout, a philosophical transformation of the university Web site from candid campus snapshot to soulless advertiser of campus wares to those who would buy into the brand. I observed that academic librarians feared what the marketers wrought, and would resist efforts to let any advertising consultant or marketing vice-president take control of the library Web site. They might just make it more about marketing than connecting people to information.

I was one of the resisters. Now I think the marketing people got it right. The first thing librarians must do after ending the pretense that the library Web site succeeds in connecting people to content is understand how and why the institutional homepage has improved and what we can learn from it. Doing so will allow academic libraries to discover answers to that first question; how to create user community awareness about the electronic resources in which the institution heavily invests.

It’s not that academic library Web sites completely ignore marketing. It’s just done badly. News about the library’s programs, events or new resources are often crammed into a corner of the page, are limited to small bits of text or are relegated somewhere out of the F-zone, the area, according to usability experts, to which most web users’ eyes naturally gravitate. Those prime real estate areas are instead dedicated to lists of links to catalogs, database lists and things with names that mean little to anyone other than a librarian. More libraries are moving to a single search box powered by a federated search engine that retrieves information from multiple resources at once. In order to emulate search engines those boxes are relegated to some familiar space at the top of the page.

Rather than attempting to mimic search engines academic librarians should aim to differentiate their Web sites. They should devote the most eye-catching space to information that promotes the people who work at the library, the services they provide and the community activities that anchor the library’s place as the social, cultural and intellectual center of campus. That shifts the focus from content to service and from information to people. Academic libraries must promote their human side. The library portal experience should emphasize the value of and invite stronger relationships with faculty and students. That means going beyond offering a commodity that, by and large, the user community can well access without the Web site. The next generation academic library Web site must leverage what academic librarians can do to help faculty and students improve their productivity and achieve success.

But if libraries radically change the nature of their homepage, where will all the links to content go? How will the library make those expensive databases accessible to faculty and students? Academic libraries are already moving in new directions that may provide the answers, and it suggests the library portal no longer needs to compete to be the one-stop portal where faculty and their students begin their research. These pioneering libraries distribute the content across the institution’s network and beyond. They are putting the links where faculty and students can find them easily. It changes the library website paradigm from “you must visit our portal” to “we’ll be where you are.”

Course sites are ready made for links to library content. Academic librarians are making it easier than ever for faculty to integrate an array of research tools into course management software or even a faculty member’s personal website. At the Temple University Libraries the librarians create customized content packages that contain just the right databases that students need for their assignments. They can even add in custom Google search boxes and non-library links that may be of use to instructors and their students. If faculty desire links to specific articles, those can be added as well. The content package is sent to faculty as an e-mail attachment. Faculty then simply upload it to their course site. The content installs itself as a unique courseware page and even adds a library link to the course menu. It eliminates any faculty excuses for not integrating the library into their course.

Libraries are also offering new technologies that blow the doors off those traditional subject guides to which faculty and students long ago stopped paying attention. LibGuides is an example of an increasingly popular guide creator that allows librarians to create a highly customized research guide for any single course or assignment. Research conducted by academic librarians made it clear that students preferred customized course and assignment guides to broad subject guides. Why? It puts the links they need to complete research assignments right where they need them. Scavenger hunts through library portals to locate needed databases or e-journals can become a practice of the past. While LibGuides can exist outside of courses, faculty can certainly make it easier for students to discover them by adding links to the guides. They can even take it a step further and allow a librarian to integrate the guide into their course.

The faculty is the catalyst in this transformation of the library portal concept. What they must do to accomplish this task is open the door to greater collaboration with academic librarians. While there are ways librarians can force their presence into institutional courseware, primarily by getting the system administrators to add links to the library here and there in the software, the most effective and direct route is to work with a faculty member to integrate the library’s electronic resources into the course site or class Web site itself. Faculty members can also facilitate this process by becoming more familiar with the library’s electronic resources in their disciplines. Working with academic librarians faculty can achieve both goals: creating greater e-resource awareness and shifting discovery paths from the mysterious bowels of the library portal to the more transparent course site.

To help bring about the demise of the library portal site as we know it today, faculty need to increase their personal awareness of library e-resource content and endeavor to raise the awareness level among their students. OCLC’s research, compiled in a 2006 report titled “College Students’ Perceptions of Library and Information Resources,” confirms that students are heavily influenced by faculty recommendations for electronic information resources. Working collaboratively with their campus librarians faculty could become a more reliable conduit to reaching and enlightening students about the library’s wealth of e-resources. Librarians and faculty share a common goal in wanting to see students succeed academically as they develop the skills needed to mature into the next generation of scholars. Working together to transform the library portal would advance progress in attaining that goal.

In the print era the research library building’s design was intentional in seeking to invite in the scholar and then draw them into the stacks and those places where discovery and intellectual awareness could take hold and grow. In the early stages of research library Web site design, perhaps the same approach made sense, but it no longer works if it ever did. With faculty advocating e-resource awareness and distributing links to the library’s e-resources throughout the academic network, a dedicated portal to those same resources makes less sense. Add to that a body of evidence that clearly points to the growing irrelevance of the “be all things to all campus constituents” library homepage and Web site.

Put simply, the library portal as we know it today is unsustainable. It, along with a host of other indicators such as declines in reference questions and shifts from print to e-resources, signals that for academic libraries a “let’s just keep doing business as usual” mentality is a sure path to obsolescence. If academic librarians fail to grasp the urgency of needed changes to their portals it is quite possible we will read in a future article something along the lines of “Academic librarians thought they were in the information gateway business, but they were really in the learning and scholarly productivity business. They just didn’t recognize it.”

Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?

Steven J. Bell
Author's email:

Steven J. Bell is associate university librarian at Temple University. He blogs at The Kept-Up Academic Libriarian.

The Medium is Not the Message

A few weeks ago, the U.S. Department of Education released a report that looked at 12 years' worth of education studies, and found that online learning has clear advantages over face-to-face instruction.

The study, "An Evaluation of Evidence-Based Practices in Online Learning: A Meta-Analysis and Review of Online Learning Studies," stated that “students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction.”

Except for one article, on this Web site, you probably didn’t hear about it -- and neither did anyone else.

But imagine for a moment that the report came to the opposite conclusion. I’m sure that if the U.S. Department of Education had published a report showing that students in online learning environments performed worse, there would have been a major outcry in higher education with calls to shut down distance-learning programs and close virtual campuses.

I believe the reason that the recent study elicited so little commentary is due to the fact that it flies in the face of the biases held by some across the higher education landscape. Yet this study confirms what those of us working in distance education have witnessed for years: Good teaching helps students achieve, and good teaching comes in many forms.

We know that online learning requires devout attention on the part of both the professor and the student -- and a collaboration between the two -- in a different way from that of a face-to-face classroom. These critical aspects of online education are worth particular mention:

  • Greater student engagement: In an online classroom, there is no back row and nowhere for students to hide. Every student participates in class.
  • Increased faculty attention: In most online classes, the faculty’s role is focused on mentoring students and fostering discussion. Interestingly, many faculty members choose to teach online because they want more student interaction.
  • Constant access: The Internet is open 24/7, so students can share ideas and “sit in class” whenever they have time or when an idea strikes -- whether it be the dead of night or during lunch. Online learning occurs on the student’s time, making it more accessible, convenient, and attainable.

At Walden University, where I am president, we have been holding ourselves accountable for years, as have many other online universities, regarding assessment. All universities must ensure that students are meeting program outcomes and learning what they need for their jobs. To that end, universities should be better able to demonstrate -- quantitatively and qualitatively -- the employability and success of their students and graduates.

Recently, we examined the successes of Walden graduates who are teachers in the Tacoma, Wash., public school system, and found that students in Walden teachers’ classes tested with higher literacy rates than did students taught by teachers who earned their master’s from other universities. There could be many reasons for this, but, especially in light of the U.S. Department of Education study, it seems that online learning has contributed meaningfully to their becoming better teachers.

In higher education, there is still too much debate about how we are delivering content: Is it online education, face-to-face teaching, or hybrid instruction? It’s time for us to stop categorizing higher education by the medium of delivery and start focusing on its impact and outcomes.

Recently, President Obama remarked, “I think there’s a possibility that online education can provide, especially for people who are already in the workforce and want to retrain, the chance to upgrade their skills without having to quit their job.” As the U.S. Department of Education study concluded, online education can do that and much more.

Jonathan Kaplan
Author's email:

Jonathan Kaplan is president of Walden University.

In Loco Parentis, Post-Juicy Campus

The legal and practical implications of colleges standing in loco parentis (latin for “in the place of the parent”) have waxed and waned over the history of higher education.

Colleges traditionally had the same rights and responsibilities as parents; the power to discipline the student as a parent could, but also the liability for harm that befell the student. Both the rights and responsibilities of in loco parentis began to recede as the Woodstock generation declared its independence. As the boomers asserted their freedoms at colleges and universities across the nation, in loco parentis fell away, and with it came a legal regime that treated colleges and universities as bystanders, rarely responsible for harms that befell students. And yet those same boomers, hovering over their children like “helicopters,” now insist that colleges take responsibility for the actions of their millennial children due to the “special relationship” that they believe forms upon enrollment.

As Inside Higher Ed reported, Security on Campus (SOC), a campus safety advocacy group, has interpreted a recent letter of findings by the Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights (OCR) regarding an incident involving a Hofstra University student, to impose a new responsibility on colleges and universities -- “the same obligation to respond to sexual harassment in cyberspace that they have when the harassment occurs in the classroom.”

If what SOC is saying is that they read this findings letter to require campuses to take on the in loco parentis responsibility of protecting students from activities that occur outside of the campus environment, that is not an accurate reading of the OCR decision. Rather, the letter found insufficient evidence of any wrongdoing by the campus inasmuch as the parent of the complainant did not provide sufficient information to the campus.

Contrary to the SOC press release, the letter of findings did not reach the merits of the case. The language cited by SOC as creating a “first of its kind” standard is simply the boilerplate language describing the law and jurisdiction standards that OCR includes in its letters. One sentence of boilerplate that should be noted, however, states “[l]etters of findings are not formal statements of OCR policy and should not be relied upon, cited, or construed as such.”

Juicy Campus and its ilk are a result of some uniquely millennial math. The rise of Facebook, Myspace and other social networking sites allowed first young people (and increasingly many older folks, too) to transform their anonymous selves into mini-celebrities, sending out tiny bursts of “press release” on their minute-by-minute activities, opinions on sports, politics and celebrities, and relationship status. The ideal for some was to acquire as many "friends" as possible and send them as many press-release “updates” and “tweets” as time and patience would allow. Concurrently, celebrity blogs like Perez Hilton and Pop Sugar would casually insult traditional celebrities, instantaneously sharing even the glitterati’s most mundane private secrets, while thousands of anonymous comments spewed forth all manner of vitriol. It was not long before the two forces would meet with anonymous students summoning up their e-courage to cyber-slime their mini-celebrity friends and classmates.

What resulted were anonymous gossip sites that targeted ordinary individual students. Juicy Campus was the best known of these sites. Started by a recent Georgetown University graduate in 2007 ostensibly to discuss important campus issues, the site facilitated anyone to post essentially any statement about any topic or any person, true or otherwise. While some topics on these sites are mild, much is lewd, insulting and often times horrifying.

Unlike the “bathroom wall” of old, here professors, potential employers and grandmothers could log onto a Web site and read the gossip. Juicy Campus closed its doors in February of this year, although other, less-well-known sites such as College Anonymous Confession Board (ACB) and Campus Gossip continue on. Juicy Campus may be gone, but the genre is not. Like the National Enquirer and other supermarket tabloids, the site was universally denounced, but a popular read on campuses. It took the Internet to turn public slander into a private, anonymous weapon which, once created, will never fully recede.

When Juicy Campus arrived on a particular campus, the first instinct of student affairs professionals was one of pure in loco parentis protectionism; they sought to block network access to the site. Two campuses did so. Yet blocking is inadvisable for several reasons.

First, these sites are not hosted on campuses so the college has no more jurisdiction than it does over the bathroom wall of a local bar. Blocking such sites is as effective as telling students they cannot drink at said bar; it will only pique a prurient interest. Second, now that the Blackberry, iPhone and other Internet-capable smartphones have become almost ubiquitous on campus, students are not limited to accessing the Web over a college broadband network; if students cannot access content on their college network, they will access it on their phone, at the local Starbucks, or while at an off-campus apartment.

Blocking may even discourage students from accessing the Web through the campus network, sending them to the more expensive, but less regulated, Internet services offered by cable, telephone and cellular companies. Finally, when a college blocks one offensive site, it had better be prepared to block all offensive sites. It is hard to justify blocking Juicy Campus (or its progeny) but not blocking Neo-nazi sites, antisemitic, racist or homophobic sites, or, in traveling down the slippery slope, political and media sites that include language offensive to some students. Free speech is so central to the experience at most colleges that a process of blocking offensive sites would quickly lead college administrators down the garden path.

The costs to students of anonymous cyber-sliming are not small. Self-harming thoughts and activities, cutting, and suicidal ideation were reported among students who were victimized on these sites. Unfortunately, when the danger and harm to students comes from outside (especially digital) sources such as anonymous gossip Web sites, there is little that a college can do. Holding colleges responsible, as Security on Campus argues, for “stop[ping] the harassment of ... students on gossip sites in cyberspace” sets up an impossible standard for colleges to meet. Even more extreme, the idea that somehow an “effective response” by a college might entail “schools shut[ting] down these sites altogether” is beyond the pale.

Colleges have no such power over Internet sites. The days of Web site operators receiving cease and desist letters from colleges and quickly deleting the content while begging for mercy are long over (to the extent they ever existed). Today's Web site operators have a healthy skepticism for legal notices, may have their own lawyers, or take the legal stance that Juicy Campus took -- Section 230 of the Federal Communications Decency Act protects the site from liability for content created by individual users. Juicy Campus declared on its Web site that with the exception of lawful subpoenas and certain violent threats, it would not take down most posts even when contacted by college presidents.

Also discomforting is a logical extension of SOC’s expansive argument, that if a student complains about harassment on a Web site and the campus does not make heroic efforts to silence the slander, the campus would take on liability for later harm against the student, whether inflicted by another or by the student him or herself. Contrary to the widely-read SOC press release, such revolutionary change in college responsibility is best left to courts and legislatures, not to a controversial reading of an OCR letter that found no liability.

Yet courts are not likely to make such a leap. For public policy reasons, courts will often assign responsibility to the party able to prevent harm in the most efficient way. Here, colleges have no real power to prevent such harm, and assigning such responsibility would not efficiently empower colleges to protect future student victims. While, in some cases, colleges may appropriately act when threats or insults are hurled on campus by members of the college community (including when community members identifiably use cyberspace to defame other community members); colleges can do little with truly anonymous speech in cyberspace.

With the digital age in full swing, colleges must reconceptualize what it means to act in loco parentis, and how, to the extent they can do anything, they can best serve their students. The answer is not to read into OCR investigations a new era of control and responsibility. Disaggregated problems require disaggregated solutions. Colleges cannot wrap their students in bubble wrap whenever they venture outside of their comfortable residence halls, and even bubble wrap does not protect against digital slander. Rather than reasserting rights and responsibilities under in loco parentis and seeking to envelope students in a protective aura, colleges should return to their core mission and educate students on how to interact within, and protect themselves from, the dangers posed by the digital world.

Through extracurricular education, colleges can empower students to turn the tables on challenges within the digital environment and use the tools presented by the Web to their benefit. In another generation, lessons on how to balance a checkbook would help students better navigate their world. Today technology services and student affairs staff can join their professorial colleagues in educating students, concentrating on imparting lessons that help students navigate the churn and froth of the digital environment (a good example of such education is Tracy Mitrano's “Thoughts on Facebook”).

Whether it is through orientation sessions, programs and speakers spread throughout the academic year, e-mails and advice letters, or other means, colleges are in a strong position to provide a robust education on practical lessons students must learn outside of the classroom. In so doing, colleges can best empower young people to defend and protect themselves in the digital environment, both as students and later as alumni. Holding colleges responsible for policing cyberspace won't protect our students or serve their educational needs.

In part two of this series, Benjamin Bleiberg and I will lay out the framework for a set of disaggregated resources and strategies students can use when confronted by digital defamation.

Joseph Storch
Author's email:

Joseph Storch is a lawyer in the State University of New York’s Office of University Counsel. In addition to campus representation, he concentrates his practice on the legal issues surrounding emerging technologies. The views expressed here are his own and do not necessarily represent the views of the State University of New York.

'Design Thinking' and Higher Education

As an advocate for the position that higher education benefits from studying the lessons of business and selectively implementing those ideas that help corporate and non-profit entities to prosper, I was pleased to come across Inside Higher Ed’s report on the publication of the multi-part work The Business of Higher Education (Praeger), edited by John C. Knapp and David J. Siegel. The author observed, correctly, that “many college and faculty leaders bristle at the suggestion that the institutions -- and their students -- would be better off if only institutions operated more like their counterparts in the private sector.”

That’s why I propose a model that may meet with the approval of those who think higher education is just fine ignoring business models: design thinking. For starters, it’s an idea with origins as remote from business as design itself. While their work is hardly nonprofit, designers are rarely found destroying the competition, maximizing profit margins and exploiting their employees. Few of the designers I know personally would fit the negative perception of corporate America held by many academicians. Design thinking is about helping people and organizations to solve their problems for long-term satisfaction, not achieving efficiency for short-run gains.

While it is true that more businesses are adopting design thinking as a model for achieving better results, enhanced innovation and improved service to customers, as evidenced by several new books about innovation design and design thinking targeted for the business market, the ideas behind design thinking emerged from the methods that are common to nearly all design fields, be it industrial, graphic, instructional or any other design profession. These basic operating principles constitute a process that might be expressed most simply as the way that designers approach problems and achieve solutions. Designers think of themselves as problem finders more so than problem solvers because their solutions start with a deep understanding of the problem requiring a solution.

What can design thinking offer to higher education? In a word, change. Not just change for the sake of creating change or trying the latest fad, but thoughtful change for the higher education institution that wants to position itself to better withstand the challenges presented by both old and new competitors. Change not just for technology’s sake, but change based on better understanding students and putting into a place a mechanism for institution-wide innovation. (I’ll provide some examples later.)

The seminal work on design thinking, The Art of Innovation (Currency/Doubleday, 2001) came from a business outsider, Tom Kelley, then general manager of IDEO, one of the world’s leading design firms. Those interested in learning more about design thinking are well advised to start with Kelley’s book, as it introduces the “IDEO Method,” a five-step approach to understanding how designers think. In a nutshell, the process requires its practitioners to internalize the following:

  • Understand: be an empathic thinker and put yourself in the shoes of your student or whomever it is that you provide a service to.
  • Observe: watch people in real-life situations to better understand how they really use a service or product and those things that both please and frustrate them.
  • Visualize: brainstorm with colleagues to identify new ideas and concepts that will give those you serve or teach a better (learning) experience.
  • Prototype: take time to explore multiple iterations of an idea before exposing those you serve or teach to a potential solution or enhancement.
  • Implementation and Evaluation: be thoughtful about when and how to implement a new idea and invest time to evaluate its impact, and then re-design as needed

For those who need a faster introduction to design thinking, take 22 minutes to watch "The Deep Dive," an episode of “Nightline” that profiled how the staff at IDEO tackle a new problem and develop a solution. As one learns from this video, the designers at IDEO are experts in using the design thinking process to identify and approach problems and then develop elegant solutions to them. That’s how IDEO has designed everything from the mouse you use nearly every day to NASA equipment to toothpaste dispensers and microwave ovens.

As the design thinking method gained popularity, IDEO added organizational consulting to its product design business, and now works with health care and K-12 education systems on restructuring and re-engineering workflows to eliminate dysfunctional practices and improve user experiences. One recent book about design thinking, Change by Design, by Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, reads more like Zen philosophy than it does a how-to for businesspeople out to rule the world.

But even those who count themselves among higher education’s anti-business faction may benefit from another new book on design thinking authored by -- shudder -- a business school dean. The Design of Business, by Roger Martin, dean of the Rotman Business School at the University of Toronto, is a good example of a business book that even the most business-phobic humanist could enjoy reading. To be certain, there are a number of case studies profiling businesses that achieved success with design thinking, but there is still much food for thought for those who think their school or department could do better.

For example, Martin elegantly explains how businesses emerge and evolve, through a multi-stage process he describes as the “knowledge funnel.” It begins with a mystery in which the fledgling innovator seeks to build a better mousetrap, such as how to organize all the world’s information. The business creates a heuristic or an intuitive sense of how to solve the mystery that allows it to offer an initial product or service. As it moves out of the exploration stage, it develops an algorithm to operate the business so that the core solutions are efficiently exploited.

To illustrate this end stage of the knowledge funnel he points to companies like McDonald’s. What started as mostly a guess that Americans would eat fast food became a highly mechanized process that is easily replicated with great efficiency. McDonald’s has no interest in stimulating employee creativity or innovation; just keep the burgers and fries coming. But blindly adhering to algorithms can cost dearly when a competitor, like Subway, brings new thinking and imagination to the same mystery.

The problem, according to Martin, is that some organizations are operated primarily by intuition while others are rigidly controlled by algorithms. His core message is that organizations guided by design thinking achieve a balance between the two so that both intuition and algorithms merge to keep the organization searching for and solving new mysteries while avoiding the extreme exploitation that leads to obsolescence. When they “satisfice” for exploiting old ideas, businesses are ultimately confronted by upstart competitors exploring new mysteries. Thus emerge disruptive innovations offering products or services that better meet people’s needs.

It’s a cycle that endlessly repeats itself, and higher education is equally susceptible. Consider higher education’s long reign using the same delivery and organizational structures after hundreds of years. It now is pressured by new competitors, many of them for-profit businesses offering low-cost, convenient options that leverage advanced educational technologies. The new mystery is how to deliver higher education in ways that are both affordable and sustainable, and that meet the needs of a new generation of both traditional and nontraditional learners.

Are there ways in which design thinking could help America retain its place as the crown jewel of the world’s higher education system? Admittedly, higher education is a unique industry owing to the vast independence of its primary employees, the faculty. Each faculty member is in his or her own way an independent agent trusted with the responsibility to deliver learning to the students and pursue a highly individualized research agenda. Learning is not a McDonald’s hamburger that can be manufactured on demand guided by a scientific algorithm designed to assure a predetermined outcome. What faculty do in classrooms is largely guided by intuition; there is no algorithm for great teaching.

Despite the differences that distinguish colleges and universities from the corporations that Martin profiles in his book, design thinking is a potential solution by which higher education institutions could create the balance between intuitive and algorithmic methods. But to make that happen both faculty and administrators need to take a closer look at what design thinking can do for organizations.

Martin’s book offers a case study that provides a good example: the turnaround at Procter & Gamble. In 2000, when A.G. Lafley was appointed CEO, P&G had lost market leadership to newer competitors across a wide range of its consumer products. Like higher education in 2010, P&G’s expenses were soaring while Walmart and others introduced cheaper, lower quality private-label products that attracted consumers away from P&G’s more expensive branded goods. Lafley needed to boost innovation at P&G while simultaneously becoming more efficient; a blending of the intuitive and algorithmic sides of the organization.

In 2001 he appointed Claudia Kotchka to turn P&G into a design thinking organization. He invited outside designers to assist with the development of new products, a strategy not previously invoked at P&G, and by 2006 about 35 percent of P&G’s new products had origins outside the company. Perhaps the most critical change was obtaining a deeper understanding of the company’s consumers. Hair care product team members began to visit salons and homes to see how the products were actually used, and listened to the suggestions and complaints of consumers. Within three years of Lafley’s arrival P&G was achieving growth and recapturing market share in nearly every brand category.

The parallels between P&G at its weakest and the plight of many contemporary colleges and universities seem strong enough to suggest that design thinking is an idea worth considering. What might it look like to do so?

To follow the Procter & Gamble example, in higher education students endlessly evaluate courses, but what’s lacking is a committed effort to observe students as they learn and to then listen to their concerns. In a design thinking culture, faculty and administrators would empathically put themselves in the place of the students at their own institution and elsewhere to fully understand how to improve what happens in and beyond the classroom.

Consider the perplexing conundrum presented by scholarly publishing. Faculty members produce research that, in order to achieve tenure, they give away to journal publishers. Publishers, particularly in science, technology and medicine, edit and package faculty’s intellectual property and sell it back to higher education institutions at high prices that require constant increases to library budgets. Despite years of discussion about the scholarly communications crisis, we still have only partial and little used potential solutions.

The scholarly communications crisis presents what Martin would describe as a “wicked problem”, one that requires more than analytical or intuitive thinking. In his book The Opposable Mind, Martin states that when neither option A nor B works, design thinkers must create option C that blends A and B, offering a new and completely untested solution. Proposals to solve the scholarly communications crisis tend to fall into two camps: different pricing models and open access. The former attempts an analytical solution by transferring the existing system to a new price model so money changes hands differently. The latter attempts an intuitive solution by encouraging scholars to distribute their manuscripts through free (to the reader) distribution systems. Could design thinkers develop a C solution?

The design thinker would start by unraveling the real problem that fuels the crisis, which might well be the nature of the research and tenure system itself. Identifying the problem is paramount. The design thinker (or design team) would talk to all the parties involved and learn as much as possible about the scholarly communication process from the experts, both authors and publishers.

Next, the design team would bring back for analysis all the pieces of information, and process it in a brainstorming (“deep dive”) session. Out of the brainstorming would emerge prototypes for a new or modified system of scholarly communications. The design team would implement the prototypes deemed to have the most promise. The prototype that most closely approaches a “C” solution would emerge for implementation. That C solution might be some combination of a change in the tenure process and what counts as scholarship, a de-emphasis on publication in high-impact journals, an editing and publication process in which some publishers could participate, and options for self-publishing and archiving that are simpler, with clear benefits to faculty. In other words, some combination of existing practices and untested ideas that offers a completely new solution.

Design thinking is no panacea for all that ails higher education. Resolving challenges such as low retention and graduations rates, escalating textbook costs, an overdependence on adjunct faculty, lean budgets, for-profit competitors and myriad other problems will take more than a business as usual approach. However, higher education is not a business, and faculty and students will always respond caustically if they believe corporate solutions are being foisted on them by an unsympathetic administration.

This is where design thinking can make a difference. It’s more than a short-term strategy for boosting profits. It’s a roadmap for future-proofing one of society’s most valued resources. And since it involves no acquisition of or investment in sophisticated new technology, only a desire to try a new way of identifying and tackling institutional challenges, it’s right for the times. Those who want to engage with these ideas can begin with the Deep Dive video mentioned above or choose from a host of blogs written by experts in design thinking and user experience.

In 1972 Cohen, March and Olsen introduced the Garbage Can Theory of decision making as an effort to create a predictive model for how decisions are made in higher education organizations. The model describes colleges and universities as “organized anarchies” that make their decision by heaping multiple solutions into garbage cans. The detached solutions in the garbage present no utility until a problem presents itself to which one of the solutions could be attached. For too long the organized anarchy label has proven itself relatively accurate in describing what derails progress in higher education.

Design thinking, based on the premise of correctly identifying the problem before developing solutions, is as far removed from the garbage can theory as a decision making model can be. What is relatively the same since Cohen, March and Olsen devised their model is that higher education still confronts what Martin calls the “wicked problem,” a challenge that is not merely complex but is characterized by ambiguity, shifting qualities and no clear solution. Design thinking may be just what higher education needs to clean up its garbage can.

Steven Bell
Author's email:

Steven Bell is associate university librarian at Temple University and co-author of the book Academic Librarianship by Design. He blogs at Designing Better Libraries and From the Bell Tower.

Adapt or Decline

In a faraway colony, one in a thousand people -- mostly young, rich, white men -- are sent to live in isolated, rural Christian communes. Some are pious, learned, ambitious; others are unruly younger sons with no other prospects. The students spend hours every day in chapel; every few years, the entire community is seized by a several-days-long religious revival.

They also get into lots of trouble. In their meager barracks they drink, gamble, and duel. They brawl, sometimes exchanging bullets, with local residents, and bother local women. Occasionally they rebel and are expelled en masse or force administrators to resign. Overseen by low-paid clergymen too deaf or infirm to control a congregation, hazed by older students, whipped for infractions of the rules, they’re treated like young boys when their contemporaries might be married with children. And, oh yes, they spend a few hours a day in rote memorization of fewer than a dozen subjects.

This was the typical 18th century American college, loosely modeled on England’s Oxford and Cambridge, which date to the 13th century. Nine colleges were founded in the colonies before the Revolution, and they’re all still in business: Harvard, William and Mary, Yale, Princeton, Columbia, Penn, Brown, Rutgers, and Dartmouth.

For universities, history is authority. It’s no accident that America’s most prestigious institution, Harvard, is also its oldest, or that some of the oldest organizations of any kind, worldwide, are universities.

Surveying the history of American colleges and universities with a jaundiced eye convinces me that many aspects of the current so-called crisis in higher education are actually just characteristics of the institution. It has always been socially exclusionary. It has always been of highly variable quality educationally. It has always had a tendency to expand. In fact, it is precisely because we are always asking more and more of education at all levels that its failures appear so tremendous.

Still, the United States does seem to have reached an impasse today, given escalating demand for higher education, spiraling costs, and limited resources. Unlike the 1860s and unlike the 1960s, there is little national will to grow our way out of this problem by founding more colleges or spending much more money on the ones we do have. Is this merely one more symptom of national decline? Have we hit some kind of natural limit for an educated population? Or is there a mismatch between the structures of the past and the needs of the present?

America can’t remain a global economic powerhouse while it slides to the middle of the heap in education. Nor can we grapple with the challenges we face as a global community without meeting the world’s burgeoning demand for education. Nor can college leaders get away with claiming that their hands are tied and only more taxpayer and tuition dollars can solve their problems.

There are two basic options the way I see it: fundamentally change the way higher education is delivered, or resign ourselves to never having enough of it.

The good news is that all over the world people are thinking big about how to change higher education. Brick, stone, and marble institutions with centuries of prestige behind them are increasingly being joined by upstarts, both nonprofit and for-profit, and even more loosely organized communities of educational practitioners and apprentices.

The open courseware movement started at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 2001, when the school decided to put its coursework online for free. Today, you can go online to MIT OpenCourseware and find the full syllabuses, lecture notes, class exercises, tests, and some video and audio for 1,900 courses, nearly every one MIT offers, from physics to art history. As of March 2010, 65 million people from virtually every country on Earth have raided this trove.

Open educational content is just the beginning. Want a personalized, adaptive computer tutor to teach you math or French? A class on your iPhone that’s structured like an immersive role-playing game? An accredited bachelor’s degree, in six months, for a few thousand dollars? A free, peer-to-peer Wikiuniversity? These all exist today, the beginnings of a complete educational remix. Do-It-Yourself University means the expansion of education beyond classroom walls: free, open-source, networked, experiential, and self-directed learning.

This opening world presents huge questions about the true nature of a college education: questions that are legitimate even when they are raised with self-interest by traditional educators.

The university is over a thousand years old, older than modernity itself. On American soil it has grown like Katamari Damacy, the Japanese video game in which a magical “clumping spirit” snowballs around the world collecting everything in its path until it attains the size of a star. The latter-day “multiversity,” as it was dubbed by the University of California president Clark Kerr in 1963, clumps teaching with research, vocational and technical education with liberal arts, sports, clubs, and parties with intellectual life, accreditation and evaluation with mentoring and friendship. For students “college” means very different things at different times: the place to grow up, be out on your own, make friends, take leadership roles, prepare for and find a good job, and even learn.

Technology upsets the traditional hierarchies and categories of education. It can put the learner at the center of the educational process. Increasingly this means students will decide what they want to learn, when, where, and with whom, and they will learn by doing. Functions that have long hung together, like research and teaching, learning and assessment, or content, skills, accreditation, and socialization, can be delivered separately.

There’s no good way to measure the benefits of the old-fashioned face-to-face educational model; there’s worry that something important will be discarded in the race ahead. More fundamentally, no one knows if it’s possible to extend the benefits of higher education to the majority of a population without diluting its essence. But those are questions that educators ought to be testing and investigating rigorously. College leaders who want to be on the right side of history won’t hold stubbornly to the four-year, classroom-hour-based “butts-in-seats, nose-to-nose, face to face” model as the only way to provide the benefits of a liberal arts education. They will innovate to meet students wherever they are, and they will reinvent assessment to provide much better transparency about what students are learning.

Here are four trends guiding this transformation, as they might look from the point of view of college leaders:

1. The 80/20 Rule. Is your institution part of the leading-edge 20 percent? How will you attract and serve the “nontraditional” student who is the new norm? Most of the growth in higher education over the next century will come from the 85 percent of students who are “nontraditional” in some way -- older, working adults, or ethnic minorities. They will increasingly attend the 80 percent of institutions that are nonselective. This includes most mainstream public universities and particularly community colleges and for-profit colleges, which saw the sharpest growth in the 2000s.

For-profit colleges are the only U.S. institutions that have both the resources and the mission to seriously expand their numbers in the foreseeable future. Community colleges already enroll half of all undergraduates. Both disproportionately enroll the demographic groups that dominate the next generation of Americans: Hispanics, all other minority groups, and first-generation college students. Some of the boldest thinking is happening in institutions that are far from the ideal of either the multiversity or the colonial “little college.” Yet, they typically lack the opportunity for undergraduates to participate in original research, not to mention many of the intangibles of college life like dorms and extracurriculars. Concerns about quality and affordability in the new mainstream of higher education have to be addressed head-on. The answer is not for established institutions to exclude the upstarts from the conversation.

2. The Great Unbundling. Which services and departments are core to your mission? Where can you partner, outsource, or pool resources across the state, the nation, or the world for greater efficiency? Universities have historically combined many social, educational, and other benefits in one-stop shopping. Increasingly, some of these resources (e.g., faculty time) are strained, while others (like written course content) are approaching a marginal cost of zero.

As it has with industries from music to news, the logic of digital technology will compel institutions to specialize and collaborate, find economies of scale and avoid duplications.

Books can be freed from the printed page, courses freed from geographical classrooms and individual faculty, and students freed from bureaucratic obstacles to transferring course credit between institutions, or designing their own courses of study.

Could any of your departments flourish on its own? Stripped-down institutions that focus on instruction or assessment only, or on a particular discipline or area, will find more and more audience. The most cutting-edge sciences and the most traditional liberal arts can both flourish in a specialized, concentrated, and technologically enhanced setting. I have seen professors elevate the craft of teaching rhetoric, composition, and critical thinking to new heights using social media and applying cutting-edge research about learning.

3. Techno-hybridization. Are distance learning decisions confined to the IT office? Are you creating online courses through a cheap, hands-off process, or are you experimenting across disciplines with the best ways to integrate online and offline experiences? How can you identify and support your internal innovators among faculty? Department of Education research shows that a blend of technology-assisted and traditional class instruction works better than either one alone. This blending can occur with institutions enrolling students on campus or off, in classrooms or online -- studies have shown that students do a better job collaborating online if they meet in person even once.

4. Personal Learning Networks and Paths. How well does your college serve the transfer, dropout, and nontraditional student? How easy do you make it for students to design their own experiences? People who graduate from high school at 18 and go straight through four years of college are already a tiny minority of all young Americans, around one in ten. Pulling America out of its educational slump requires designing programs flexible and supportive enough to reach the 44 percent of students who currently drop out of college and the 30 to 35 percent who drop out of high school. These programs have to provide socialization, personal development, and critical thinking skills, not just job training.

Self-directed learning will be increasingly important. Already, the majority of students attend more than one institution during their college careers, and more than half seek to enhance their experience with an internship. In the future, with the increasing availability of online courses and other resources, individuals will increasingly forge a personal learning path, combining classroom and online learning, work and other experiences.

The open-education pioneer Alec Couros at the University of Saskatchewan talks about assembling personal learning networks that include mentors, colleagues, media sources, books, and collections of links. The existing system will be challenged to come up with new forms of accreditation, transfer credits, and certification so that the value of this work can be recognized by potential employers and others.


Education is an essentially conservative enterprise. If we didn’t believe that one generation had something important to transmit to the next, we wouldn’t need education. So changing education makes lots of people nervous, especially school leaders whose salary comes from the old model.

Still, in an ideal world, we can agree that opportunities to stretch your abilities, test your personal mettle, follow your natural curiosity, and jam intellectually with friends, colleagues, and mentors -- all the good stuff that is supposed to happen in college -- would be more open to more people at all ages and transition points in life. Traditional colleges will continue to find plenty of eager applicants who want the experiences only they can provide.

The 80 percent of American college students who currently attend nonselective institutions will have many more options, and so will the majority of young people, those who drop out or who never apply. Alternatives to the four-year bachelor’s degree will get more visible and acceptable, which might help bridge one of the biggest social divides in American life. Tuition costs would reach sane levels due to increased use of technology, true competition, and better-allocated federal and state incentives. This would lower one of the most important barriers to educational access.

By modifying the economics of the nation’s second largest industry, we’d save money, and tap the resources and energy of a whole new generation to tackle challenges like building a greener society, expanding the middle class, creating better jobs, and providing people with health care. Whether these incipient changes will lead to that kind of positive transformation, however, still hangs in the balance.

It depends largely on whether the guardians of existing institutions embrace transformation, or let history pass them by.

Anya Kamenetz
Author's email:

Anya Kamenetz's new book is DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education (Chelsea Green), from which this essay is adapted She blogs here.

Drawing the Wrong Conclusions

As someone who researches and works with distance education consortia in both the United States and Canada, I have received several inquiries over the past week about “what really happened” in the closure of the University of Texas’s TeleCampus. Just two weeks earlier, I had met with Darcy Hardy and Rob Robinson, the leaders of the TeleCampus. They were charged last May with meeting an accelerated timetable for making their organization self-sustaining. Their efforts appeared to be bearing fruit. That was the first of several wrong conclusions drawn by me and others in recent weeks.

In this article, I raise other conclusions that were offered to me.

Is distance education dead? Commenting on Inside Higher Ed’s article announcing the closure, one observer suggested that the pursuit of distance education is driven primarily by monetary motives. He added that universities “find distance education is not infinitely scalable and scramble for some reason to drop such programs.”

It is wrong to conclude that the TeleCampus closure reflects negatively on distance education as an enterprise. Distance education enrollments continually grow faster than the on-campus population. Officials at Colorado Community Colleges Online recently told me about their 49 percent enrollment increase over the spring 2009 term. Although some would like it to do so, distance education is not going away.

Are distance learning consortiums dead? Some suggest that it no longer makes sense to have separate structures, like the TeleCampus, to support distance education. That conclusion rings hollow for me, especially since I heard about two other states considering new consortiums in the last week. In my 2008 study on financing consortiums, I harshly concluded that these multi-institution entities need to evolve or dissolve.

As technology and constituent needs change, so must consortiums. They should focus on services that the institutions cannot do on their own or for which economies of scale improve quality and costs. Consortiums can also add value by conducting research on emerging technologies and teaching techniques. Successful consortiums constantly evolve their structure to assume new roles while shedding activities once they become entrenched on campus. The Connecticut Distance Learning Consortium embraces an entrepreneurial spirit by developing e-portfolio and online tutoring services that have expanded well beyond state borders. If a consortium does not meet the evolutionary challenge, it should dissolve. Failure to evolve was never a criticism of the TeleCampus.

Are services redundant? The TeleCampus was criticized for unnecessarily mirroring services offered by the UT campuses. That conclusion does not universally hold either. Not all campuses have the same level of services. Redundancy multiplies as each campus regenerates lost services once offered centrally. Efficiencies of scale evaporate and the costs shift to the campuses. Collaboration efforts struggle mightily in meeting needs that are urgent on one campus, but absent from another. Now the campuses will be struggling to fill the void in the next few months.

Can we say the TeleCampus mission is complete? The press release announcing the closure asserts that “a new organizational support structure is appropriate as the next step in maximizing distance education opportunities for our students. The UT TeleCampus has accomplished its mission of providing this capability to our campuses.”

Again, a conclusion that is tough to substantiate. As with other consortiums, the Telecampus’s mission is to “extend the reach” of its member campuses. That strikes me as an ongoing goal and not one with a defined endpoint. While I am delighted that the UT System will continue to support its program to accelerate baccalaureate degree completion, I remain very interested in seeing what else the new centralized support structure offers.

Is UT TeleCampus one of the best distance learning consortiums? I have called the UT TeleCampus one of the leaders in the field and an exemplar for other consortiums. Upon reflection, that conclusion is wrong. Given the strength of its staff and quality of its services, it is the best. Oddly enough, Darcy Hardy learned of the closure after returning from a trip on which she was one of 20 national leaders invited to meet with a prestigious foundation.

What lessons can be drawn? Many theories on the TeleCampus closure have been offered, including those around financial, leadership and organizational dynamics. My sincere hope is that others do not draw the wrong conclusions from this experience in assessing the worth of their own consortium. Consortiums are unique entities. While general principles may apply, their value can be judged only in each unique, local environment. The local landscape contains political, financial and historical barriers and opportunities that do not translate well from place to place.

Am I saying that we cannot learn anything from this experience? No. There will be much to learn. WCET’s eLearning Consortia Common Interest Group includes leaders from many consortiums in the United States and Canada. This decision renewed efforts within the group to examine consortium success factors and to identify practices that do (or do not) work. Keep watching for developments.

In the end, why is the University of Texas System closing its TeleCampus? I remain perplexed, and I hesitate to guess, as I will probably draw the wrong conclusions.

Russell Poulin
Author's email:

Russell Poulin is associate director of WCET.

Pressing Beyond E-Books

Smart Title: 

Technology, encouraging mass production and homogeneity, could appear a natural enemy to those who still celebrate regional idiosyncrasies. And the online bookstore, ideal for marketing e-books to a global audience, might seem to portend short shrift for regionally themed books that are more suited to a smaller, more local market.

New Option for Student Shoppers: E-Books

Smart Title: 

8 college stores plan to offer electronic texts this fall, but will they sell?


Subscribe to RSS - Information Technology
Back to Top