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Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century by Tim Higgins

Published in August 2021

How might we think about Tesla in higher ed terms?

Try this on for size:

  • electric cars = online/blended learning
  • autonomous driving = low-cost online scaled degrees

Over the next X years, transportation will progress through two revolutions. (I say “X” because we don’t know how long these changes will take.)

First, we will transition from internal combustion engines (ICE) to battery-powered electrical propulsion. From gas to electricity.

Next, cars and trucks and buses will become self-driving. Or more self-driving. Or something.

The first transition -- gas to electricity -- is inevitable. We just don’t know how long it will take.

The second transition -- human-driven to AI/sensor-driven -- may or may not be perpetually five years off.

To come back to our transportation/education equivalencies, we can be confident that most (not all) postsecondary education will transition from a fully residential format (ICE) to some form of blended/online learning (electric).

We have no idea -- at least I have no idea -- if we will ever achieve high-quality/low-cost online degrees at scale (autonomous driving).

What I’m going for is to convince you -- higher ed reader -- to read Power Play: Tesla, Elon Musk, and the Bet of the Century. You don’t need to be a Tesla owner (or wannabe owner) to get value from reading this book. (Although, of course, it helps.)

If you read Power Play (and you should), keep the transportation/higher ed equations in your mind.

Think about what it has taken for Tesla and the electric car market to get to where it is today while pondering what path blended/online learning is likely to take. And then give some thought to the challenges of autonomous driving, and think about what will need to happen for us to vastly reduce the cost of degrees through scaled online programs.

With that higher ed framing in mind, what we learn in Power Play might be a bit worrisome.

Why is it that Tesla has achieved dominance in the electric car market, and the incumbent -- legacy -- automakers (GM, Toyota, Volkswagen, Ford, etc.) are all playing catch-up?

If today’s universities are more like GM than Tesla, then what new organizations will emerge to push the frontiers of learning and credentialing forward?

If Power Play is to be believed (and I find Higgins’s reporting credible), the only reason that you and I are coveting that Model Y today is the idiosyncratic tenacity of Elon Musk. Musk mostly comes across as not a very good human (sometimes abusive, always grandiose, etc.) but as a singular visionary who willed the modern electric automobile industry into existence.

In reading about the history of Tesla with higher ed eyes, one is most struck with the idea that a personality like Musk would never ascend to a university leadership role. At least one hopes not.

In academia, we value collegiality, consistency, civility and calmness. Effective higher ed leaders are said to do what they will do.

Musk has none of these attributes.

If Musk did, Tesla would still be producing a couple of hundred electric roadsters -- or more likely would have disappeared.

Will higher ed need its own Elon Musk to accelerate the diffusion of online learning and push the creation of genuinely high-quality/low-cost online degree programs?

Do you read books on electric cars to make sense of the future of higher ed?

What are you reading?

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