Archived: “MOOC Invasion”

Wanted: CEO Higher Ed.

University presidents need to compete like corporate CEOs online and off to create a new sustainable business model for an endangered category.

Higher education does not face near-term extinction, but the whole higher education category is now drastically evolving at an accelerated pace and some colleges and universities with enlightened leadership will flourish. Others will not survive, somewhere Darwin is smiling.

When Stanford computer science professors Andrew Ng and Daphne Koller founded Coursera the higher education planet as we now know it had just encountered the beginning of its ice age. Coursera’s launch, sandwiched between the start of the online for-profit education company Udacity, by another former Stanford professor and edX, a non-profit initiative introduced by a coalition of premier universities, signaled an irreversible evolution in education.

College has been disintermediated.

Well, it’s about time. In 1999 Harvard Business School Press published a book—an elaboration of a widely lauded article in the HBR—titled: Blown to Bits. The book described “how the new economics of information transforms strategy.” They termed this disintermediation.

In the book the authors describe “how the spread of connectivity and common standards is redefining the information channels that link businesses with their customers, suppliers, and employees. Increasingly, your customers will have rich access to a universe of alternatives, your suppliers will exploit direct access to your customers, and your competitors will pick off the most profitable parts of your value chain. Your competitive advantage is up for grabs.”

True to form, and like clockwork, the higher education space is almost always plodding 20 years behind commercial categories, and damn proud of that, thank you very much. In higher education “early adopter” is a generational term, not a seasonal one.

But the time has come. Online education has now enveloped the best of the world’s universities in an arms race they are all ill-equipped to wage. Suddenly the University of Phoenix and Johns Hopkins University share something in common. This is excellent news for populations of people seeking truth and learning. This is unsettling for those universities whose reputation as selective and exclusive has been their greatest strategic asset, in essence their brand equity. For many, this means that the universities need hired guns to manage the unseemly business of marketing and branding, so says a recent Wall Street Journal article. Apparently universities are seeing the light and hiring Chief Marketing Officers hand over fist.

Alas, a CMO without a CEO is itself an endangered species as the article indicates.

All is not lost. It turns out that there are very smart people at these business fossils we call universities. The leaders of many of these institutions know what they must do: disintermediate themselves. University presidents have to become hands-on CEOs of the business and evangelists of a new reality. The boss has to make professors more available to undergraduate students, make all administrators, faculty and students more available to the university’s neighbors, make staff and alumni more available to other alumni and make information more available to prospective scholars and their parents. The measure of the power of higher education has always been a direct correlation to the enduring strength and connectedness of its communities. New world CEOs already know this.

Faculty members know this; professors have always taken time from teaching to build communities of influence through their publishing. Now universities as institutions have to grasp this idea—building community is job one. Star faculty members will soon all be available to any scholar who can find them around the world, what the CEO of the university has to reinforce is that the power of a university or college community well-tended is without peer and cannot be supplanted.

From a culture of engaged community comes greater affinity, philanthropy, opportunity, support and loyalty. For many colleges and universities this is the missing link, the corner office needs a new age CEO and the evolutionary clock is ticking.



Risk: The Game of Life


Risk is life.

Life is risk. The words and concepts are almost interchangeable. You can’t take a breath without risk; get out of bed or walk outside your door and the risk increases, there’s also a certain risk associated with doing neither of these but it’s different. Everything we eat or choose to do has risk: at school, our romances, hobbies we pursue, and jobs we take on. People waste a lot of time mitigating risk in these things: hiding, waiting, worrying and keeping their heads down.

To embrace life is to embrace risk.

To paraphrase Farber’s Dean Wormer, “keeping your head down, doing your time and getting through it is no way to get through work, boy.” For some, including many good folks in higher education, everything at work is associated with managing risk, personal and institutional.

When work is the absence of risk, that’s no way to live.

Is the goal of work, more work? Or is it singular achievement. Is it an expression opportunity? Is it enough that you look back on your time at an organization and see lateral and vertical movement, and opportunity for new work? Or do you look back and admire your work as a thing unto itself?

Are you layering on a coat of paint or creating a unique masterpiece that will stand the test of time and define you?

Using a favorite metaphor of mine, when you go to the casino do you go to win, or to lose more slowly? According to most players, for every dollar you wager in a slot machine you will lose 100%. Generally, about 70% of a casino’s gross revenue comes from slot machines. The casinos light the city with winnings from slot players, so that more players can find their way.

It is the house’s game.

The colleges and universities at the top of your competitive sets are “the house” in this metaphor. They have created the rules of engagement. When you play the house game by the house rules, see above. There has been much written about the presence or absence of a higher education bubble. It’s not a bubble. That is just a sensational and scary way to get attention by equating the dynamics of the industry with the far-reaching real estate catastrophe.

No, MOOCaphiles, the category will not burst, nor is the sky falling. However, the bottom will certainly, albeit slowly, fall out. The least of each category will suffer the most. High profile elite institutions will stay calm and educate on. The Chronicle will not cover daily a growing cascade of folding colleges and universities, nor will there be an imminent slate of mergers and consolidations. Instead there will be a deliberate and brutal cleansing.

The attrition will take the shape of wholesale shrinking of lesser-endowed and lesser-regarded institutions. Long-struggling departments will finally fold. Capital investment projects will disappear, footprints will shrink, salaries will be re-adjusted and almost certainly quality will suffer. And a new bottom will be established.

So if you are at the very top of your category, enjoy, invest, educate, repeat. If you are not, perhaps now is the time to take the gamble on yourself and your institution. Invest in yourself, build on your personal story and in the story of your institution and yes, your brand. Your brand is your greatest strategic institutional asset and you can be its most powerful advocate.

But it’s going to be risky, and it’s going to cost more than the slot machines if you want to win.