Saturday, 3 September 2011

The newspapers of the future

Matt Yglesias bravely predicts that universities are the new newspapers - by which he means that their business model is about to be undermined by technological change which is making it cheaper and cheaper for people to find information on line. My first reaction was 'how absurd'. Its pretty clear that the specific curriculum learned at university is one of the least valuable parts of the process - even in highly specific vocational fields like medicine most of that curriculum gets forgotten once you are in the job.

But on reflection I see that there is more to it than that. After all, information about what happened yesterday is only a part of the value proposition in a newspaper too. Specifically for students on professional programmes with professional accreditation requirements to meet, curriculum content is important - at least until the accreditation is achieved. New institutions like Western Governors can offer a route to that accreditation more cheaply than the traditional ones. So maybe there is a future where new entrants can undercut (some of) the functions of the traditional university sufficiently to undermine the viability of traditional business models for some or many established universities.

But I don't want to push that too far. I've had some experience of distance and online learning, and it seems to me that the model can easily be one of a few delighted students, but many more drop-outs. This is pretty much the picture at the Open University, where those students who survive to the end of the programme are amongst the most satisfied in the country, but also a minority of those who start. This makes me suspicious of the kind of journalism I linked to in the paragraph above. The positive stories of successful students are only part of the overall picture.

So maybe universities will be the next newspapers, but I think probably not. At any rate, I'm not revising my career plan yet.

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