Higher Education is about to crash and burn, says Seth

I couldn’t help but agree with Seth Godin’s summary of the coming melt-down in higher education – it’s an almost perfect echo of the themes I have been harping on about for ages. I also happened to read it shortly after finding the short video of me talking about the dysfunctional nature of education at DOTT Cornwall (I was very jittery – too much coffee before speaking and a sand glass with only four minutes to get it all out). It’s nice to know it’s not just me thinking this way.

You should read Seth’s complete post, but here’s the summary of the main reasons:

  1. Most colleges are organized to give an average education to average students.
  2. College has gotten expensive far faster than wages have gone up.
  3. The definition of ‘best’ is under siege.
  4. The correlation between a typical college degree and success is suspect.
  5. Accreditation isn’t the solution, it’s the problem.

Out of all of these, the last point is key because it contains the other four. Higher education institutions have based the value of their currencies (the degree you leave with) on the quality of its education and what you can do with the proof of that education afterwards. That currency’s value, like any currency, is entirely based on its reputation and scarcity – it is pretty much divorced from the reality on the ground. The convergence of the points Seth lists – along with shifts such as aging populations, changing business structures, the shift from industrial command and control thinking to a more networked, service and knowledge mode of thinking – are very real and most likely to coagulate into a big shift behind most of the major player’s backs. Seth sums it up well:

The only people who haven’t gotten the memo are anxious helicopter parents, mass marketing colleges and traditional employers. And all three are waking up and facing new circumstances.

Does this mean there is no future for higher education (and that I am out of a job)? I hope not. It’s not that places like Cambridge or Harvard are going to die out, it’s just that they’ll end up the way that most people view politics (in the UK at least) at the moment – highly bureaucratic monoliths that don’t appear to be very relevant to anyone’s lives anymore. That doesn’t sound to exciting to the average teenage school leaver if you ask me.

I think there is a place for higher education, but I think institutions must think radically for them to remain relevant. Instead of thinking about accreditation – either of themselves to government or of the students – they need to think about the service experience they offer. It’s the experience of higher education that has real value, not the delivery of knowledge. That’s the reason behind the COTEN Project that takes a service design approach to thinking about innovation in higher education.

PaperC – Replacing the Library Photocopier


A recently launched service in Germany called PaperC (Twitter: @Paper_c) looks like it might become a pretty handy resource for students and researchers. It is an online library of commonly used textbooks for studying. You can read all of them online for free, but you can also download PDFs, make notes and bookmarks, and copy and paste quotes. The latter functions cost something, but not much. A PDF of 10 pages costs 1 Euro. The idea is not that it replaces books, as such, but replaces the photocopier. So far they have 2,799 books in their library.

Here is some info about the founders and their rationale behind it (my translation to English). It’s a good example of a service developed out of personal observation and frustration:

The founders of PaperC are Felix Hofmann, Martin Fröhlich and Lukas Rieder. The idea for PaperC came into being as Felix was commuting between Berlin and St. Gallen while writing his final thesis and having to schlepp many textbooks from the library around the place. At that time, there was no comfortable, online library. So we developed PaperC as an online platform for textboks. What was important to us was that one could read the complete book online, not just an excerpt. Our vision is to make knowledge freely available and at the same time allow authors and publishers to the possibility to offer their content online and earn money from it.

They have done a pretty good job of the service design of it (although I think the pricing should be more obvious) and it’s the book equivalent of being able to buy individual MP3s instead of an entire album.

What is interesting for me is that it’s really a service that universities should have already built themselves. [Update: The PaperC guys point out that it was built as part of a research project at St. Gallen’s Institut für Medien und Kommunikationsmanagement with Bozena Izabela Mierzejewska. Good for them for doing this, but I still think the point below is valid.]

The question is why they haven’t. My guess is that it is an example of how most library IT systems – and IT departments in general – tend to make little effort to understand what people need and what their daily tasks and frustrations are. Many of the existing IT solutions in universities (not just HSLU, but around the world) are purchased in one of two scenarios: an IT company selling a solution to someone who has no idea about the technology and is dazzled by the features, or an IT company selling a solution to an IT department, who are dazzled by the features (and, perhaps, the ease of implementation/security). Niether scenario includes the end users in the requirements gathering for such a system. This creates opportunities for services like PaperC.

Why should universities take note? Because it is a service that, had they developed it themselves, would have made much greater use of their limited resources. Libraries have limited space for multiple copies of books and books that are in great demand often aren’t available. When they are, they are often in poor condition with many notes written in them (if that’s you – stop it!). A service like this solves that problem and saves money – they need less copies of books and they don’t need to replace damaged ones.

Additionally, the library also has to maintain photocopying facilities that students pay for with their copy cards. This is conjecture, but I suspect the copy machines in most university libraries are under a leasing and service contract and that a large amount (if not all) of the copy card money goes to the leasing/servicing company and not the library. If the uni had developed the service such as PaperC themselves, the money would go towards improving the system, buying new titles and expanding the library offering. Of course there are the initial development costs, but it’s not hard to imagine that funded by a research project. [Update: Ditto the previous update]

There’s usually a downside to a service that replaces another. In this case it is that you have to print out your own copies instead of using a copy machine, which means, potentially, you have to pay twice (once for the PDF and again to print it out – either at uni or at home). But you don’t have to print them out because you can always read the PDF on screen. I’m tempted to say that is more environmentally friendly, but the power consumption and resources in your laptop probably offset not printing out copies. The real payoff is having a library of texts both stored in your online PaperC account and/or on your computer at home and not having to haul a bag of books around the place. Of course, a potential weak spot in the system is that ‘enterprising’ students share the cost of a PDF and pass it around. The PDFs have no DRM as far as I am aware, but they do have your email address stamped across the top.

Does anyone know of an equivalent English language service, especially one offered by universities?

A note for Apple addicts: although you can read the PDFs on your iPhone, you can’t use the web service on it because they use Flash to control the online PDF reader. But they do have an iPhone version in the pipeline, which means they will also have an iPad version in the pipeline, and that makes the whole offering sound pretty attractive.

Beyond the Fold, Print Lives On.

Although newspapers are struggling to work out what to do about the decline of the printed sheet, the death of print doesn’t seem to be anywhere near happening. The rise of self-publishing and print-on-demand services like Lulu and MagCloud are probably the everlasting afterlife of traditional publishing models. Less risk, less waste.

Despite Amazon’s Kindle 2, the popularity of Classics, the iPhone eBook reader and Amazon releasing a Kindle reader for the iPhone, it is still pleasant to touch and smell a paper book or magazine and there are some things only paper can still do, like folding.

Onlab have collaborated with illustrator Tobias Krafczyk to create a special Intersections supplement for Domus magazine.

The march issue discusses the mechanisms, strengths, frailties and possible scenarios on the eve of Web 3.0. For us, the tools, services and problems of the new or other internet are commonplace and part every day life – both at work and in private. From personal experience we know that the Web is a powerful medium, but it is not the only one. To contrast with the discourse about the impact of the web, we decided to produce an Intersections that only the printed form of a magazine could create and a possibility for tactile interaction by the reader.

The result is in the above video – the reader must fold all the pages of the magazine in to turn the somewhat Cubist looking shards of image into “Miss Web 2.0”.

It’s a nice idea and a clever take on the issue, but I can’t help feeling there are similarities to cinemas installing seat-rumblers or 3D glasses in an attempt to halt the rise of TV in the 40s and 50s.

It also reminds me of Mad magazine’s famous Fold-Ins, which isn’t a bad thing at all.

The Network Generation is in The White House


Photo: barackobamadotcom on Flickr

It is hard to overstate just how different these US elections were and what a shift in thinking Obama and his campaign signify. Is this the dawn of a fourth republic, whose cycles are “linked indirectly to stages of technological and economic development,” as Michael Lind argues? Or is this the rise of a kind of new informality or informalism, to bastardise a perfectly decent word into another -ism?

Just four years ago, at the time of the previous US election, the blogosphere consisted of around four million blogs, now it’s difficult to even count, but it’s possibly 133 million. In those four years we have, of course, seen blogging become and integral part of mainstream media culture. As The Guardian’s Jemima Kiss noted, this was a truly cross-platform election, with TV woefully slow to catch up with calling the election win for Obama compared to those online.

But what was impressive and very different about the Obama camp approach was how much they clearly get these new media forms.

Twitter’s election feed was – and still is – a torrent of posts and opinions, but during the voting we got to hear people’s accounts of waiting in line, the excitement the atmosphere. I’m not American, what should I care? And yet. And yet, it was hard not to be drawn into the sense of shared experience.

Obama has (or had – it’s been a bit quiet since the elections) a Twitter stream and being on Twitter during the vote was a shared experience. The Obama camp made great use of Twitter to push for support, to spread the message. The exit poll stats show just how much the 18-29 year old turnout had increased from 2000.

What is essential to remember here is that Twitter isn’t just a computer-based chat space, it is completely integrated into mobile devices too. That means Obama’s tweets, and those of his supporters, reached people on the way to or in the waiting lines of polling booths. It’s direct and intimate.

The world has become cynical of politicians who have long since appeared to ignore the protest and voices of the people who elected them. Whether Obama himself wrote his Twitter tweets we will probably never know, but the fact a presidential candidate is aware of it shows a much more direct connection with people – and not just US citizens. Even if there’s a lowly paid intern tweeting on his behalf, there is a sense that it might filter up. And, of course, there’s always the secret hope that Obama himself is doing the tweeting.

The Flickr photo set above show’s Obama with his family and aides watching the results of the election, watching McCain’s concession speech and being congratulated by his family. They’re intimate, often off-guard and in many he looks quite nervous as if he’s thinking “Oh God, now I actually have to be president”. It’s like looking at post-ceremony, pre-reception drunkenness photos of a freshly minted bride and groom.

The most striking thing about these pictures, though, is that they’re covered by a non-commercial Creative Commons licence. These photos (by David Katz) that picture editors all over the world would love to use to sell their papers remain out of their reach. But they remain usable by the millions of bloggers around the world.

The difference in approach is striking – these aren’t polished, selected, vetted images, tightly controlled by a PR office. They’re informal and out there for the world to see and use. It’s unthinkable that Bush – or any other major politician – would have done anything remotely similar on the “internets“. (The cynic in the back of my mind wonders if they maybe are vetted – there are no photos of Obama shotgunning a beer and flicking the Vs at McCain on TV, after all. But that doesn’t seem like his style.)

A day after the election, Obama’s campaign set up change.gov with, naturally, a blog. (Compare it to the stiffness of whitehouse.gov).

So, now we have a US President who blogs and twitters – or whose staff do at least – and appears to be open to opinions and voices from all over the world. In an age of increased surveillance and control, of clipped civil liberties, of an attempt by the previous generation to hang onto control at all costs, this different attitude and use of technology signifies a much bigger, generational shift. It is a shift to a mindset in which collaboration, conversation and the network mind are much more powerful than spin and top-down control ever can be.

It’s what anyone using Twitter, Facebook or writing a blog has known for some time, but now it’s as mainstream as it gets. The network has grown up. The network generation is in The White House.