SXSWi 2010: Education in the "free" era

When knowledge is freely available, what is the role of the university?

From South by Southwest Interactive 2010: Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt of Miami University in Ohio detail their experiences in "crisis management" — what colleges and universities need to do to cope with a sagging global economy, the erosion of perceived value in what academia traditionally provides, and the "free" explosion of knowledge on the Internet.

Scott Laningham (scottla@us.ibm.com), Podcast Editor, IBM developerWorks

Scott LaninghamScott Laningham, host of developerWorks podcasts, was previously editor of developerWorks newsletters. Prior to IBM, he was an award-winning reporter and director for news programming featured on Public Radio International, a freelance writer for the American Communications Foundation and CBS Radio, and a songwriter/musician.



16 March 2010

developerWorks: This is a developerWorks podcast, I'm Scott Laningham at South By Southwest Interactive 2010. This is Day Two. I heard a very interesting talk this morning on universities in the free era. And I'm joined now by Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. Is that right? Welcome to you both.

Faimon: Thank you very much.

Platt: Thank you.

Listen to this podcast.

Enjoy Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt's presentation from SXSWi 2010, "Universities in the 'Free' Era."

There is a Peg Faimon page at Amazon with three of her books on design.

Discover more about Faimon's career and accomplishments.

You can follow Faimon on Twitter.

Glenn Platt is the C. Michael Armstrong Chair of Interactive Media at the Armstrong Institute for Interactive Media Studies.

You can follow Platt on Twitter.

developerWorks: So many fascinating things you talked about, but the essence is that universities are in crisis. Their role is changing, the way they do business is changing, what's being expected of them is changing. How do you describe that crisis? I don't know who wants to go first, but go ahead and pass it around if you want. I just want to get your kind of thoughts. What is the crisis?

Faimon: Well universities really need to be looking at more globally at what's happening in the whole world. So we have a changing environment, we have lots of online activity going on, lots of learning happening outside of the formal institution. And universities can't ignore that.

And I think they need to engage what's happening. They need to think more carefully about their own role and how that role intersects and combines possibly with the outside world, with the online environment.

And they need to be more transparent about what they do. They need to think outside of the box, outside of their silo. And they need to connect better with the rest of the world.

Platt: I think what's happening at the universities is two really profound changes, so significant that it pales in comparison to all other crises that they've dealt with in literally the centuries they have been around.

Which, one is the way in which knowledge is constructed, the way in which the very bread and butter of the universities has historically been has changed. It's been completely up-ended, right? So people who want to know about open source, about what developers are thinking, are listening to this, are listening to you, they're listening to their colleagues. And those people are as much experts as the person who teaches the computer science course or the person who writes the article in the leading magazine.

And so that sort of flattening of knowledge construction and expert dubbing that happens means that universities no longer have the privilege or luxury of sitting back on their laurels and saying "well, we've been identified as the place in which truth ... well, the way truth spouts from us, you should line up and listen," but rather, they now need to stake the claim in this particularly loud space ... which is I think the second major challenge to universities in the present day and era ... which is the competition is entirely driven by a marketplace flat economy.

You know, you lived in central Texas 20 years ago, there were just a couple of choices you had about how you wanted to spend your college years. Maybe you got kind of nutty and decided to go over to Oklahoma, but the choices that a student has or anyone has to try to learn what universities normally teach ... it's now global. It's flat.

And the competitive space is marked by people who have been able to take content and offer it in ways that are really creatively monetized and so they can do it for free. And you can get online in Lubbock, Texas, and watch a lecture from an MIT professor or a Nobel Prize winner in California. So universities now need to stake their claim in some other way.

They've got to figure out where their value-add is.

developerWorks: You know part of this, it's similar to what newspapers, I mean, news organizations have gone through. So the Internet is a big driver behind all of this. But there's more to it, right? I mean ...

Faimon: Right, I mean ...

developerWorks: ... there's cost issues and everything.

Faimon: ... and it's really less about the content now. So it's what we do in education, higher education needs to be less about the content because the content is all out there. It's all available.

So what does it need to be more about? It needs to be more about the overall experience.

So what is the experience that a traditional university can offer someone that will entice them to come, to be a part of that experience for a good amount of time. It's big investment of time and of money, as you said. And what is it that we need to do to remake what we have done in the past to offer a better experience, a more holistic experience to our students?

What we've done a lot at Miami is we've looked at connecting the silos of the university.

So in our program, for instance, Interactive Media Studies and another program called the Miami Design Collaborative, we have tried to build a network across the various silos of the disciplines of the university so that those disciplines can talk, can interact, can collaborate, can create together because we can solve big problems only by working together. And everybody knows we have lots and lots of big problems in the world today.

So that's what the university can offer is that kind of an environment where people can collaborate, can learn from each other in a way both in the classroom and outside the classroom that doesn't happen online.

developerWorks: One thing that sounds like is a positive, I mean I'm sure there's many positives and then there's some negatives, challenges being dealt with clearly in evolutionary even revolutionary periods like this ... but one of the positives it seems as if this is all very supportive of getting closer to that idea of lifelong learning, right, and a la carte like you're going to the grocery store. You go to the grocery store all your life, right? I mean, you don't stop eating.

But with so much of us kind of through at least through a period of history have grown up with this idea that you learn up to this stage and you get this degree and maybe you get one more, maybe two more, but at some point you stop and you just do stuff.

And is this helping to change that? I mean, is that one of the positives you see in it?

Platt: I think absolutely it is. And it's in fact sort of a this odd sort of rethinking of how market segmentation happens. I think we historically have segmented markets by age. I think almost every industry has done that.

And the kind of technologies that enable this lifelong learning like you're talking about are ones in which you start segmenting your market about where they are in their learning process, what do they want to get out of an experience? You start to ... those sort of demographics become almost meaningless.

developerWorks: You know, you say other markets but are there other markets than education that segment by age? I mean I'm trying to think of anywhere 12 year olds all get stuck together. I mean, even swimming lessons, that's still education, you know.

I mean, is there anything in life other than education that has been traditionally just kind of age grouped?

Faimon: There are things that are grouped by category, 18- to 24-year-old or 35-45. But it's so specific I think it's hard for me to think of one, just 12-year-olds or just 14-year-olds. Yes, it's more of a range usually.

developerWorks: Was that issue more of an administrative issue or was it more of a practical issue in terms of how the product was delivered? I mean, maybe it was some of both, right?

Faimon: Yes, it could be. It could be.

developerWorks: But this certainly seems to be disrupting that model.

Faimon: It really disrupts it and I think in really quite a wonderful way. Instead of the walls of the university being about the 18- to 22- or 23-year-old, we can now dive down and engage with high school students and junior high students. And we can think about how a university education can impact some of those students.

And then on the other end of the spectrum think about how can alumni, how can people have exited the formal space of the university, but how can they stay engaged in a way that's really wonderful? And so it's a continuum of experience instead of being just a single four-year isolated experience.

developerWorks: More village learning kind of thing, right?

You all talked about, commercial businesses becoming more involved, public institutions becoming more private. What were the percentages that you mentioned there? I mean in terms of funding ...

Platt: Well, I mean, our institution at Miami University, we're looking at funding getting below 15 percent of actual state funding ...

developerWorks: Wow!

Platt: ... coming from the state.

developerWorks: In a public university?

Platt: In a public university. Technically a public university. And there are public universities with even less state funding.

developerWorks: What are the positives and maybe are there negatives in a shift towards more companies being involved in a relationship with universities like at IBM, who I work for, obviously has a very significant participation in the academic arena. I mean what are your thoughts?

Platt: We see a lot of really positive things about our relationship with industry. Industry ... I think historically academia has a certain reticence about letting industry be involved. They don't want to be somehow associated with purely a vocational experience.

developerWorks: It's a trade school thing?

Platt: Yes. And I think that they've dipped their feet in the pond really, really slowly and started to realize that that isn't what industry wants either. When someone ... when IBM wants to get involved with the university, they want to make sure that the kind of people that are graduating from there are critical thinkers, are problem solvers. They're not simply learning how to code something in one specific way.

So I think the other thing that working with industry has really done for higher ed is that industry tends to be a lot more nimble and so academia gets pulled behind sort of kicking and screaming sometimes, but industry asks the hard questions and sometimes identifies frontiers, which most folks think of universities as serving that purpose, but quite often that's not the case.

developerWorks: And IBM is going to get involved with areas of computer science and software, not necessarily art history or the football team. So, I mean ...

Faimon: Right.

developerWorks: ... or music study or ...

Faimon: Their interactions tend to be focused, focused interactions. I think one of the fears I'm seeing that have certainly not come to pass that I've maybe seen colleagues express concern about ... "well the company will tell us what our curriculum is supposed to be."

And I mean, we've done a lot of interaction with different companies both non-profit and profit companies and that has never happened. And it's really more of a sense of collaboration, what will benefit both of the parties.

Platt: One of our colleagues in Interactive Media Studies, just occurred to me, who is a humanist, she's an English professor, got a grant from IBM where she was using supercomputers to data mine ancient 18th century poetry and to do this sort of really, really deep complex and quick data mining.

And IBM was interested from the perspective of it was an optical character recognition and some other interest that they had as far as their products were concerned. But they sort of blindly in a sense, funded research.

When you say that computer science is where IBM would be interested, I think the fascinating thing is the kind of academic areas that industry is interested in that would surprise you, like English, like art.

Our code, our artists in our program who do code are getting support from industry that's interested in visualization and how people process information, those sorts of things. So there's some fascinating partnerships that come up.

developerWorks: So an embrace of the totality of the educational experience and all that it means to building the next generation of entrepreneur or worker at a corporation or whoever that person is going to be.

Platt: Right.

developerWorks: What about, you all spoke about the role of the university and the role of professors and how those things are changing, what are the critical things that they need to fulfill to be relevant now. Can you kind of recap what that was, I mean, or do you need the slides. I know you talked about counselors.

Faimon: Yes, we talked about the experienced designer and we talked about that a little bit here and what that means. So building an experience for a student, so thinking about the educational, the time that we have as students, the educational span, as really an experience that they can engage in deeply.

A curator, so somebody who looks at all that is out there and helps the student decide what's valuable, what is key to their learning. And what's honestly not valuable.

Project manager, obviously training our students and building up our curricula and doing our research ... those are all projects, so there's a lot of management that goes into that.

developerWorks: Are any of those roles brand-new roles now that ... or are they all just evolving? Are some of them ...

Faimon: I really see it as ...

developerWorks: ... unique to these times.

Faimon: ... I really seeing it as evolving and not necessarily sort of popping out of nowhere. Do you see any as being ...

Platt: They're not roles that traditionally professors do. I think they're the kind of things even 5, 10 years ago you wouldn't see people thinking about that as their job when they're a professor, they would think more of it standing up and lecturing and maybe doing some advising and publishing papers. And so they didn't literally pop up new, but they're absolutely new roles for people to be involved with.

Faimon: Life coach.

Platt: Yes.

Faimon: That's a new one.

Platt: Helping to sort of be a guide, to be sort of an education concierge, to understand where all the resources that are out there, how do you connect them up so that people can solve the problems and look at the things they're interested in and learn about how to do something. And curating that experience isn't quite the traditional job description of a professor.

developerWorks: No more ivory tower; no more I'm the resource in the one class.

Faimon: Right. And somebody came up to me at the end of the presentation and made a really good comment and we're going to add this to the presentation. But they said in all the rules that we identified the one that we should think about adding was learner.

So the new professor as learner.

And that gets exactly to your point regarding the fact that you have to be willing to show and express when you aren't the expert and when you do have things to learn. And sometimes the students know more than you do, especially regarding specific technologies that you might not have that much awareness of and they're deeply involved with.

There's a lot that they can show us and teach us and we need to be open to that, to be more of a collaborator with our students as opposed to the master.

developerWorks: What about, kind of as a closing thought, you all talked about the whole validation role of the university and the educational experience so that people walk out with some credentials or some proof that they know something about something. Right? How is that changing?

And I thought there was a really good question at the end. Someone was asking "if the validation role here is diminishing in any way or evolving, what's taking its place? What are the other ways to get validated? If it's not simply, I spent this much money to get this diploma with this university's name on it, is it evolving beyond that really limited model, and if so how?"

Platt: Absolutely. And I think that's one of the most exciting things about this, that it didn't used to be the case very much that higher education was a signaling model. It would signal that you were smart enough to get into a school and whether or not that school actually had anything to do with how smart you were coming out almost didn't matter. And that's kind of a messy signal.

Sometimes you could get into a school because your parents went to that school or you lived near that school or maybe you just got lucky on your SATs. But what's happened is because there's been so much noise now in this space and so many other online opportunities and new universities popping up, the degree itself, the name and the letter on that degree ... that value is being eroded.

And so these new measures have to start arising and have already started arising where you're looking for what people do — what have they done? What have they accomplished? What are the projects they've been on? What are the new ideas that they've created? You've got 17 year olds in Russia making chat roulette, right? You've got these kids in college inventing Facebooks, right?

And so it almost creates this gray ... it lifts this veil out and creates this wonderful transparency in which people can be judged about by what they do and not what kind of pedigree they have. And I think that's like this wonderful leveler.

And so I was talking with some folks after the session about what can they do, how can they get into academia, they were worried about having the right degree from the right place.

And today, to get into academia, I think more and more it's about what you've been able to accomplish, where have you been able to add value in your world. And I love that and I think that's the exciting thing.

developerWorks: So a key there is making sure you're doing, not just absorbing, even as a student, right? It's becoming more and more about starting to produce right off the bat then, huh?

Faimon: Yes, I mean, I really think a portfolio of experience is very important. It shows what you know, what you've done, and how you really act. I mean, it's one thing to talk about it and it's another thing to actually do it. And that action is becoming more and more important because that's the true indicator of what you have to offer.

developerWorks: Do you think this means that ... I saw an article in the Huffington Post not long ago online talking about the enormous explosion of student debt and even at the undergrad level, where the average student loan debt at the end of an undergrad degree is anywhere from $25,000 to $40,000. This is going to change that?

Platt: I think it has to change that. It absolutely does. That's not a sustainable model at all. And I think the thing about having all this great free online content is that it frees up universities that want to be on the cutting edge to be able to spend their time creating opportunities for students to be able to do and prove and make and see and be thinkers as opposed to trying to explain how to do second order derivatives or what object-oriented programming is.

And that kind of thing you can teach in a lot of other ways ... let's try to think of ways in which we can get people out there actually being involved in the creation of knowledge. So I hope so.

developerWorks: Great.

Peg Faimon and Glenn Platt of Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, I appreciate your time both of you very much. Thank you.

Faimon: Thank you.

Platt: Thank you.

developerWorks: This has been a developerWorks podcast. I'm Scott Laningham at South By Southwest 2010. Talk to you soon.

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