Out of all the industries based on the production and distribution of information (and make no mistake about it…music, books, TV shows, films, etc. are just information), there's one industry that (for the most part) is still partying like it's 1955…higher education.
Taking the online universities out of the equation for a second, traditional "college" shares most of the characteristics of the "old media" industries I mentioned earlier:
They're rigid about how they want to deliver their product. Teachers deliver content to a group of students and only do so in classrooms (whether physical classrooms or online courses).
There's a very high barrier to entry. Not only is college increasingly expensive (and increasingly under scrutiny for the high levels of debt students are graduating with), but starting a college is incredibly difficult not only from a financial standpoint (we're talking tens if not hundreds of millions of dollars to build an actual college campus) but also from the standpoint of government regulation and industry accreditation.
They're resistant to changes in consumer demand and behavior. In a world where kids spend as much time communicating electronically as they do face to face, where most of us expect to change careers (or, at least employers) several times during our lifetimes, and where we're exposed to as much information in a day as an 18th century scholar may have been exposed to in his lifetime, colleges are pretty much the same places they've been for hundreds of years. A time-traveling university student from the 1800's would probably feel at home in the lecture hall of today (as long as they got over the presence of laptops and jeggings). While a demand exists for faster, more flexible delivery, most traditional schools stick to the same models they've used to deliver their product for literally hundreds of years.
They're still bound by physical space and time. Colleges still deliver their "consumer" product (teaching) in a particular place at a particular time. Like the broadcast networks of the past, if you want something in particular, you'd better be prepared to show at a certain time or expect to miss it. Yes, many offer "online" options, but those online courses typically run within a specific period of time. Miss it and you've missed out.
Differentiation is getting more and more difficult in an increasingly connected world. Next time you read a physical newspaper or magazine that contains a number of ads for different colleges (ads for MBA programs are especially good for this exercise), try a little experiment: take your thumb and cover up the logo on one of the ads and try to guess which school the ad is pitching. Chances are you're going to have a hard time guessing the name of the school. In the past, location was a differentiator. Today, as more and more schools go "online," those who can't make a case for why they're better than their competition (other than their "convenient" location) are going to have an increasingly difficult time competing in a crowded marketplace.
They're rigidly hierarchical. There are "professors" and there are "students," and students are expected to dutifully learn what the professors teach them. While the rest of the world has been transformed by the principles of the open source movement, online collaboration, and "virtual" organizations, the "sage on the stage" is still the prevailing model in many schools. The idea that professors and students might actually be able to collaborate (or that students might be able to learn by collaborating with each other with little or no guidance from an "expert") is unheard of.
They're having their lunch handed to them by their competitors who have responded to the changes brought about by digital communications. The University of Phoenix has over 380,000 students. Arizona State (the largest public university) had a little over 58,000 students in 2010. Even if you count entire university systems, Phoenix's 380,000 students would put it in fourth behind The University System of Ohio (478,000), The State University Of New York (SUNY) system (467,845), and The California State University system (417,000). Not bad for a school founded in 1976.
As a marketer, why should you care what's going on in the somewhat rarified world of higher education? Here are a few reasons:
It's a huge industry. By most estimates, higher education is more than a $260 billion industry.
It touches all of us. More than half the adults in the U.S. have had some college education and chances are if you're a successful marketer, you've been to college.
It will touch us all at some time in the future. According to Google's Eric Schmidt, today we produce as much information in two days as all of human civilization did up to 2003. The only way to keep up is to keep learning. Add to that the increasing need for higher and higher credentials to get jobs, and chances are all of us have a lifetime of learning in front of us.
The changes going on in education affect every level of our society. From jobs to innovation to politics, there are few aspects of our lives that aren't changed by what's going on in education.
The changes that are going on in education today give us a great case study in how the Internet disrupts an industry. If you missed the crazy early days when the music industry was turned on its ear by disruptors such as Napster and iTunes, don't fret: just keep an eye on what's going to happen to higher education over the next decade to better understand the real impact of the digital revolution.
As gloomy as all this might sound, don't get me wrong: I'm an optimist when it comes to the future of education. There's a lot of innovation going on out there in terms of new models (there's a fantastic list - and a fantastic article about this same topic - here) including the free online universities such as Khan Academy and University of the People, Apple's iTunes U, and Sophia, a fascinating startup dedicated to creating a social space for teaching, learning, and education.
Yes, there have been problems with for-profit institutions (many of them online) that took advantage of the turmoil in the industry, but they're starting to be reined in. And innovation is starting to move to the forefront with initiatives such as MIT's OpenCourseWare and other schools offering free online courses and alternative means of delivery.
But there's a long way to go and a lot to change. Issues with quality, standards, assessment, sustainable business models, access, pedagogy, and online education platforms are just a few that will have to be addressed if higher education is going to reinvent itself like so many of the other information industries. While we'll have to wait to see the new face of education, one thing's for sure: it will change. And those changes will impact all of us.
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Sean Carton has recently been appointed to develop the Center for Digital Communication, Commerce, and Culture at the University of Baltimore and is chief creative officer at idfive in Baltimore. He was formerly the dean of Philadelphia University's School of Design + Media and chief experience officer at Carton Donofrio Partners, Inc.