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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Non-Disruptions

What happens when the predicted disruption didn't occur?

December 3, 2018

“Online education provider Udacity announced the layoff of 125 employees. The cut in staff will start today and continue over the course of early 2019 as part of an effort to reorganize the company and redefine its global strategy.” – VentureBeat, 11/28/18.

In 2012, Sebastain Thrun, co-founder of Udacity, declared “In 50 years, there will be only 10 institutions in the world delivering higher education.”

If this is to come true, it seems clear that Udacity isn’t going to be one of them, not just because they’re shedding employees, but because Udacity continues to “pivot” away from education and towards corporate training, helping companies “upscale their talent” in Thrun’s parlance.

“MOOC” does not appear once in the news of the layoffs. The Udacity nanodegree job guarantee program is currently on hold, perhaps never to return.

So MOOCs aren’t going to kill higher education institutions. This disruption isn’t to be.

You know what else isn’t being disrupted? Independent bookstores.

In fact small bookstores are “booming.” 

Amazon is threatening to swallow the world and Barnes & Noble is circling the drain, but small bookstores are only increasing in number, largely driven by the fact that print books are not going the way of the dodo, and the best place to find print books is in a local bookshop, carefully curated by experts familiar with the needs of the community.

Diving inside these non-disruptions reveals more interesting insights. While the share of e-books sold through traditionally published channels is flat or declining, there are thriving e-book marketplaces which exist outside those worlds. Kindle Direct allows for authors to skip the process of finding an agent and publisher and Wattpad exists as a kind of social space where its 65 million users can post original work in search of an audience.

E-books are also booming. It’s just that they’re filling cracks we didn’t know existed, and filling those cracks doesn’t necessarily come at the expense of what came before.

In a way, MOOCs have done something similar in education. MOOCs were positioned as a superior alternative to “sage on a stage” courses, given that they could select the absolute best sage and open up a view of the stage to anyone with an Internet connection, but those static sage on a stage lectures turn out to be bad pedagogy, particularly when standing alone and when students do not have access to any human element in their learning.

Sage on a screen was no better – and in fact worse – than a sage on the stage.

Print journalism is another industry where people see disruption, but it’s important to know that it wasn’t journalism itself that was disrupted, but the business model (advertising) which fueled journalism that was disrupted. Journalism remains vital, and papers can thrive if they are empowered to focus on the work that is most meaningful.

This is not confined to the big dogs like the New York Times and Washington Post either.

My hometown paper, the Charleston Post & Courier recently completed a multi-part series on the South Carolina education system that reads like an indictment of political indifference and negligence and shines a powerful light on multiple generations of failure at the legislative level to address these problems. 

The Miami Herald exposed the tragedy of injustice regarding “serial sex abuser” Jeffrey Epstein, and the powerful forces which allowed him to escape multiple criminal counts which would have had him jailed for the rest of his life, but from which he escaped with a slap on the wrist. 

These tales of non-disruption reveal some interesting findings we may make use of going forward.

One, focusing on the values-based mission is “good business.” Small bookstores service their readers’ needs better than large retain chains or an online retailer. They offer something vital that enough people want. Local newspapers offer the same value proposition. Where information can become a commodity, they must offer something better: knowledge, expertise, connection to community. MOOCs are a “product” which can’t embody any of those values.

Two, sustainability beats financialization. Independent stores can be managed towards sustainability as opposed to the kind of relentless growth and increasing market share demanded by a company beholden to its stock price, like Barnes & Noble. As low-margin businesses, independent bookstores are never going to create vast fortunes for all involved, but they can be run profitably, to the benefit of owners, employees, and customers. Newspapers which follow this path are doing better than those being stripped for parts by venture capitalists

Three, humans matter. The successful small bookstores and local newspapers are sustainable because they are fundamentally human endeavors conducted at human scale. As an individual citizen, I have access to the journalists who produce my local paper. Walking into a local business like a small bookshop is not just a consumer transaction, but a civic act.

Even online education providers are recognizing this as they open physical “storefronts” which will allow prospective students human contact. 

Four, funding must be sufficient. A small bookstore or a local newspaper are entirely doable enterprises, but they must have the resources necessary to fulfill their core missions. A local newspaper cannot succeed because of its mere localness. A bookstore can’t run on customer goodwill alone.

It is this last finding that I believe applies most directly to education. The only reason higher education appearedripe for disruption by something as truly limited as MOOCs is because we’ve allowed a system where public money is drained from the pool, to be replaced by that of students and parents, many of whom are required to take on debt which significantly constrains future prospects.

At the same time, the adjunctification of the faculty has drained some measure of the human element from the workings of the institution.

Asking institutions to run like a “business” has financialized something which is better viewed through the lens of sustainability. Competition has proved both costly and inefficient when applied to public higher education. 

Which brings us values and good business. So many institutions seem to have lost the plot here, a losing which was significantly exacerbated by falling on the wrong side of these other factors for sure, but the only way back is to reclaim and invest in those values in very sense of that word, invest.

Some people believed disruption was going to be some kind of savior, rather than a destroyer. Turns out, it’s neither.

What’s next?



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