Hi My Name is Dan and I’ll be Your Server

In a talk on October 14 blogger Audrey Watters described a dystopian future in which there were only 10 universities in the world.  The narrative arc of her provocation was that the rest of the “industry” would be replaced by variations on MOOCs and distance learning.  The real point of her talk (spoiler warning) was that this was not a necessary future, but one that some contemporary educational visionaries’ ideas are pointing that direction, whether they know it or not.

I envision a different dystopian higher education landscape.  In my version, the rest of the institutions do not disappear.  Instead, they become “outlets” or “franchisees” of a small number of education “suppliers.”  The business model analogy that’s most apt, I think, will be chain restaurants.  Think about the food court at the airport or the restaurants in a strip mall or scattered around either suburbia or most city centers. This will happen because small colleges and universities will face the “make or buy” decision and everything will point in the direction of buy — that is, to outsource the core educational content functions.

The entrepreneurs who run these establishments deliver a dining experience to customers who more or less beat a path to their door.  For better or worse they get a dependably consistent product.  It’s challenging for others to compete with them because they have all the advantages of scale and name recognition and proven processes of food preparation.

If you look around at the contemporary practices of the big education companies (mostly publishers) and countless education startups, what you will see are the seeds of an industry that will (or want to) capture the entire constellation of things that happen in colleges and universities with the exception of student faculty contact, student-student contact, and research.  Before long we will likely see a separating out of education per se and research (for better or worse, well underway), then we can move toward a future in which colleges and universities partner with the education franchisors.  The colleges will be able to put a local wrapper on the experience and they’ll have faculty and staff to “deliver” it, but the actual content, practices, and raw materials will be provided by the supplier.

What role will faculty and staff play?  Hard to say.  But if the best we can muster in defense of the ways we do college education is some variation on “relationships matter” then we might well find that that’s the only part we (the we now is “we faculty”) will play will be to serve up the corporate content and help students to get the most out of the experience.

Like Watters’ narrative, not a necessary future, just a possible one.  To avoid it, I think we need to pay attention to efficiency and productivity within our institutions.  Otherwise, we’ll get lapped by entities that are so much more productive that our claim to difference in kind will be drowned out.

Author: Dan Ryan

I've been an Academic Program Director at MinervaProject.com, a professor at University of Toronto, University of Southern California, and Mills College teaching things like human centered design, computational thinking, modeling for policy sciences, and social theory. My current mission is to figure out how to reorganize higher education and exploit technology so that we can teach twice as many twice as well twice as easily.

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