Gaining a Technology Platform
But Losing a University's Brand Name
The competitive pressures facing higher education these days are often compared to the massive changes that overwhelmed the music and publishing industries in the last decade. The music industry seems to have emerged at the other end of that transformation in better shape than it entered. The same can’t be said of newspapers, of course. But publishing companies continue to evolve and colleges and universities might still be able to learn lessons from the decisions they are now making about their future in delivering content to consumers.
The key decision facing many publishers is how to compete for an audience that faces many more choices about where to get their news content. Publishers early on embraced social networking sites, such as Facebook and Twitter, as another channel to reach passive readers who might not otherwise see their content.
But what has happened in recent years is that readers are increasingly using those social networks as aggregators to make sense of a crowded world of information. So readers stopped visiting individual news sites and instead went right to their Facebook page to get their news. Nearly 80 percent of the traffic to some news sites today comes from Facebook. News sites are now more dependent on Facebook than ever before.
Meanwhile, Facebook wants those eyeballs to stay on its site. So it is now in talks with the New York Times and a few other news providers to become a platform for their content. Instead of sending users off to the New York Times to read a story, Facebook users will read it right in their feed. In doing so, the Facebook brand will trump that of the New York Times in the minds of readers. Readers already often have difficulty recalling where they saw a story. In this new world, the New York Times will become almost invisible to them, although it is the Times that is paying to actually produce that content. And the New York Times is making fewer dollars, if any, off of those Facebook readers.
This tension between the New York Times and Facebook reminds me of what is happening in higher education with the providers of Massive Open Online Courses, Coursera and edX. Last year, when writing a book on MOOCs, students taking the classes often told me they signed up for a course from Coursera or edX. They could sometimes name the professor. Most of the time, however, they couldn’t name the university offering the course even though they were among the biggest brand names in higher education.
Once platform providers like Facebook or Coursera dominate the relationship, universities give up more than a branding opportunity. In the case of MOOCs, institutions give up control over their content: what courses to offer, when to offer them, who teaches the courses, and just how open and free they are to the world.
We’re already seeing such battles emerge between Coursera and its partner universities. Coursera, for instance, wants courses to run more frequently and allow the content to always be available. But that means the universities would need to allow its proprietary material to live online indefinitely. It would also require that professors be available to moderate the course year-round or outsource the job to a paid teaching assistant.
As nonprofit entities, colleges and universities have long had an uneasy relationship with for-profit companies with which they do business. That tension has only increased in the last decade, as colleges have become ever more dependent on outside vendors because of the demands of technology. Colleges would prefer to build online course platforms that they can control, but it’s nearly impossible for them to hire the talent needed to design and then constantly evolve such products.
As a result, campuses are forced to hitch themselves to for-profit companies like Coursera that gain more market share with every partnership they sign, and ultimately more control.
While the idea of the open university might sound like a great idea to students and families just like reading a New York Times story seamlessly on Facebook sounds great to its users, someone has to ultimately pay for the creation of that knowledge. How this issue will be resolved remains a big question for the future and something universities need to think about before rushing to sign up with outside providers as a platform for their course content.
Jeffrey J. Selingo is a professor of practice at Arizona State University and a contributor to The Washington Post and The Chronicle of Higher Education. He is the author of several books on higher education. Jeff also contributes to Ithaka S+R’s blog.