Food Trucks and Higher Ed

Restaurants are to food trucks as colleges are to (blank).

August 18, 2014

When was the last time that you ate at a food truck? Where? When? Details please.

My favorite local food truck is The Box, a falafel joint on wheels started by a couple of Dartmouth Tuck alumni. (The fact that The Box is Hanover’s only food truck should not minimize the force of my recommendation - The Box rules!).

Food trucks are trending.  

I’ve been learning all about food trucks from a terrific book that I’m reading, The Tastemakers: Why We're Crazy for Cupcakes but Fed Up with Fondue by David Sax.

What can we learn about the world of higher ed from the world of food trucks?

One thing that I never knew was the degree to which the incumbent restaurant industry has opposed the spread of food trucks.Sax recounts efforts by the restaurant industry to place burdensome regulations and taxes on food trucks. This makes sense in a way, as food trucks may steal customers and avoid many of the costs of traditional fixed restaurants.  (Such as rent!).

Food trucks, like other lower-cost and more convenient insurgents like the taxi-busting service Uber, have proved difficult for the incumbents to squash.  

People love food trucks, and the folks who run and eat at food trucks tend to be social media savvy.  Woe to the city council member or local mayor proposing new food truck restrictions, as they may find themselves the recipient of thousands of nasty tweets and unflattering blog posts.

Complete this sentence: Restaurants are to food trucks as colleges are to __________.

Are to what?

In the past we might have answered - “online learning”.

But today that analogy doesn’t really seem to fit.

If MOOCs have done nothing they have succeeded in making traditional online learning appear  - well traditional.  

It turns out that regular online courses, the kind with a few students and which are taken for credit, are actually not that much of a stretch for the typical institution of higher learning.  

Our long predicted erosion of hard-and-fast categories across online / blended / face-to-face teaching has eroded. 

Every class is a blended class.  

Fully online programs don’t seem all that scary anymore.

A similar merging that we see in residential / online teaching (blended learning) is alto occurring in the food truck world.  

Food trucks, for all their sexiness, are actually a pretty lousy business on their own. They can’t serve booze (which is where the money really is), they scale poorly (one customer at a time), and nobody goes to a gourmet food truck in a blizzard.  

Many food trucks are actually mobile extensions of existing restaurants. The restaurants already have the kitchens (little actual cooking happens in the truck), so using a mobile outlet to try out new food concepts is an easy stretch. And many food truck entrepreneurs see the truck as the first step in the journey to an eventual sit-down (booze serving) restaurant.

Successful online programs are most likely to be embedded in traditional residential colleges and universities. 

Online programs become a new opportunity for experimentation and learning (and perhaps some new students and revenues), but they depend on the infrastructure and expertise of the residential institution to run.

So if online learning is not higher ed’s food truck, what is?


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