First Food Courts, Next Academic Content Franchises

My conservative prediction is that within five years we will see examples of not-for-profit private colleges turning into franchises for textbook publishers such as Pearson or Cengage.  The relationship will be similar to the one colleges now have with their food service vendors.

The academic content and platform industries (textbook publishing on the one side and products like BlackBoard and TaskStream) will soon converge.  They companies that brought us the mediocrity by turning text books into Time magazine look-alikes and the companies that turn teachers into data entry clerks know a gold mine when they see one.  Students are already accessing all manner of internet content as a part of their education – why not figure out how to package the lot of it and license it to colleges and universities who will market it to students for you? 

There are almost too many contemporary trends supporting this convergence to keep count.  

The play being made by textbook companies has long been facilitated by faculty members who over-rely on textbooks (either because they are over-worked teaching 5 courses a semester or because they’d rather do their research than teach or because they are burned out).

A lot of investment in educational technology is motivated by the dream of allowing administrators to manage education centrally. As often as not there is a direct tradeoff: centralized information and control equals more clerical work for faculty and increased attractiveness of out-of-a-box teaching.

Meanwhile, the push for competency-based education that “emphasizes assessment rather than instruction” further dupes us into believing in “full digital learning experiences” as the El Dorado of higher education.

One could continue with what accreditation agencies and state and federal education departments and major educational philanthropies are up to, but you get the picture. 

This from most recent issue of Chronicle of Higher Education:


And in this corner, Minerva, goddess of wisdom…

Another online education venture in the news yesterday as “The Minerva Project” announced it had recruited Steve Kosslyn (most recently director of Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and before that Dean of Social Sciences at Harvard) as first dean ( 

The “Minerva Project (dot com)” : has been around for about a year now. Their advisory board includes Larry Summers, former president of Harvard, and Bob Kerrey, ex- of the New School. Unlike Coursera and EdX, their model seems to be a little more of a direct competition with the “college experience.”

They have a focus on quick progress to advanced courses that starts with a fixed introductory curriculum (“During their freshman year, all students will follow the same core curriculum focused on subjects including multimodal communications and complex-systems analysis.”) and movement among several physical campuses around the world. Some sources have price point about $20k and initial recruitment focus on brightest minds in the developing world. Iniital campus (2015) to be in San Francisco.

It would behoove us (faculty) to stay on top of developments like this. The alternative is that we are going to hear about it from boards of trustees and college presidents who have been wowed at conferences and in the higher-ed-admin-media (a phenomenon we might call UVAitis). Consider this from Kerrey:

“What he’s got is one of the best private-education ideas I’ve ever heard,” says Kerrey. “I think he’s going to be successful, and as a consequence, university presidents across the country are going to be able to say to their boards and their faculties, ‘We have to change.’ He’s going to have a very, very positive impact on all of higher education in America.” Leigh Buchanan, “A True Elite Education at Half the Price,” Inc. Magazine, 30 October 2012 (


  • ( “Minerva Project Wins Leading Stanford Scholar,” EdSurge Blog Tony Wan, EdSurge 12 March 2013 
  • ( “Minerva Project: Positioning and EdTech Questions” Joshua Kim, Inside Higher Ed, April 4, 2012 
  • ( “A New “Elite University” Gets $25 Million in Seed Funding,” Inside Higher Ed, Audrey Watters April 3, 2012 
  • ( “An Idea Too Sensible to Try, Until Now,” Kevin Carey, Chronicle of Higher Education, November 11, 2012