What $20 Security Camera Has to Do With Closing of the Memphis College of Art

Why technology makes quality higher education more expensive, and everything else cheaper.

October 25, 2017

This week two stories caught my attention. The first story is about the closing of the Memphis College of Art (MCA). The second story is about the WyzeCam, a new $20 internet connected security camera.

Is it possible that these two stories are part of a one larger story?

From everything that I have read, the closing of MCA is a huge loss to the city of Memphis. This is a school that has educated the creative class in which our culture depends. The closing of this private college is a public loss.

The closing of yet another small tuition dependent college, and the ever-increasingly availability of cheap consumer goods, tells us much about today’s economy. This is an economy where most tasks that depend on people will stressed, strained, and constantly at risk. At the same time, we can expect that stuff will get both cheaper and better. We are in a race between falling prices for things, and a diminishing number of people with the resources to afford all the cheap stuff that is being produced.

No institution will be immune from the forces that are pushing MCA out of existence. This is not a story about mismanagement or bad decisions. In hindsight the school could have done some things differently, but in reality no organization makes perfect choices.  Expecting that every college president and board of trustees will be able to thread the narrow needle of economic sustainability in our digital economy not realistic. The fact is that any entity that depends on people to make things run is seeing costs go up faster than revenues can be brought in. Educated workers, the sorts of people that colleges depend on, are becoming prohibitively expensive. This is because labor is inherently not very flexible (unless you are Uber), and costs such as healthcare keep increasing (unless you are Uber).

The big costs that the Memphis College of Art had to carry, like all colleges and universities, are people. At some point you can’t run the place with the number of people that can be supported by tuition. MCA used lots of technology to teach its students, but that technology could not substitute for the people who worked at the school. Rather, technology in education becomes an additive cost - as the real source of the value is people (educators) working with the technology to create a quality educational experience.

Most colleges and universities will not close.  Every college and university, however, will struggle with understaffing. We are all MCA - we just don’t know it yet. Every indication points to the conclusion that we are in for a future where the higher education work to be done will keep expanding, while our ability to employ people to do that work will keep diminishing. We will try to substitute cheap technologies for expensive people, and in doing so we will only diminish the quality of the education that we offer. As always, those with least resources - precisely the people that higher education is intended to create a more level playing field of opportunity - will suffer the most.

While higher education suffers, products like the $20 WyzeCam will get cheaper and better. A ChromeBook will now set you back $219, and will be a perfectly good laptop. The combination of Moore’s Law and the advent of cloud computing really is bringing down the costs of consumer technologies. These consumer technologies are stand-alone. They don’t require the integration of people with the technologies to make them work.  They are free to get cheaper.

There seems to be an emerging inverse relationship between the cost of people and the cost of our technology stuff. Work that can only be done at human scale - and I’d argue that education is one of those tasks - will inevitably increase in costs. Tasks that can be accomplished by technology alone will only get cheaper.

A human-scale higher education that is reserved for only the wealthy is a future that I don’t think any of us want. But this it is where I fear that we are heading. A world in which professors are reserved for only the affluent and most gifted, while everyone else gets screens and adaptive learning platforms, is not a higher education that I want to take part in creating.

If we accept that the inability to find a path to economic sustainability for small and tuition dependent colleges is a structural economic problem, and not one of bad choices, then where does that leave us?

Are there solutions that will allow schools like MCA to keep going?

Can we get beyond the tired left / right debates, and find ways that both conservatives and liberals can support higher education in the digital age?

What is MCA and the WyzeCam trying to tell us?


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