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Business - Written by on Tuesday, March 31, 2009 17:16 - 15 Comments

Don Tapscott
Colleges should learn from newspapers’ plight

Newspapers are dying. Are universities next?

For many, the answer could be yes, says Kevin Carey, policy director of Education Sector, a Washington think tank.  Writing in the current issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Carey argues that both industries are in the business of creating and communicating information.

It’s clear that newspapers are in a death spiral. The Tribune Company, owner of the Los Angeles Times and Chicago Tribune, is bankrupt, as is the owner of the The Philadelphia Inquirer. The Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer are gone, and the San Francisco Chronicle may not last the year. The New York Times’ debt has been downgraded to junk.

All of this is happening despite the fact that the Internet has radically expanded the audience for news. Millions of people read The New York Times online, dwarfing its print circulation of slightly over one million. The problem is that the Times is not, and never has been, in the business of selling news. It’s in the print advertising business. For decades, newspapers enjoyed a geographically defined monopoly over the lucrative ad market, the profits from which were used to support money-losing enterprises like investigative reporting and foreign bureaus. Now that money is gone, lost to cheaper online competitors like Craigslist. Proud institutions that served their communities for decades are vanishing, one by one.

(As I’ve always said, leaders of old paradigms have the greatest difficulty embracing the new.  Why didn’t Gannett create The Huffington Post?  Why didn’t NBC invent YouTube?  Why didn’t AT&T launch Twitter?  Yellow Pages should have built Facebook and Microsoft should have come up with Google.  And Craigslist would have been a perfect venture for the New York Times.)

So far there is no Craigslist equivalent in the education industry, says Carey. That’s because teaching is more complicated than advertising, and universities are sitting behind government-backed barriers to competition, in the form of accreditation. “Anyone can use the Internet to sell classified ads or publish opinion columns or analyze the local news. Not anyone can sell credit-bearing courses or widely recognized degrees.”

Doubtless universities today are as confident as newspapers were ten years ago.  The confidence by some is justified. “Tony liberal-arts colleges and other selective private institutions will do fine, as will public universities that garner a lot of external research support and offer the classic residential experience to the children of the upper middle class.”

But less-selective private colleges and regional public universities, by contrast - the higher-education equivalents of the city newspaper - are in real danger. To survive and prosper, says Carey, universities need to integrate technology and teaching in a way that improves the learning experience while simultaneously passing the savings on to students in the form of reduced tuition.

One thing for sure.  The smartest students want to get an “A” without having ever done to the lectures.  They understand that there are better ways of learning than being the passive recipient of a one-way, one size fits all, teacher-focused model where the student is isolated in the learning process.  When the cream of the crop of an entire generation is boycotting the formal model of pedagogy, the writing is in the wall.


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Ken Carpenter
Apr 1, 2009 7:10

I’m a former editor now teaching journalism at a community college; thanks for the article — as if I wasn’t already flummoxed!

I think I’m going to open a hot-dog stand in front of Walmart and be done with it!

John Grozik
Apr 1, 2009 22:04

Right on target! After 40 years in higher ed, I left to join the competition. Colleges and universities that charge a “convenience” fee for online courses just don’t get it. Students who don’t use the brick and mortar facilities shouldn’t be charged more for courses than students who attend a similar class in person. Walden, Phoenix, and a host of other accredited online learning businesses will succeed when most other traditional higher ed services will fade. Once businesses start hiring everyone based on their immediate productivity rather than their degree, “no-name” campuses are in trouble. We all need to be life-long learners anyway, and the need for a “terminal” degree may no longer be relevant.

Apr 2, 2009 21:14

If no one minds, I’ll take this valuable opportunity to plug a project that I was (somewhat) involved in. UTS is a reasonably major university in the Sydney region and their problem went a bit like this. Engineering is the most expensive subject to teach, Engineering needs laboratory work and the labs [1] are dangerous, [2] require specialist equipment, [3] require large amounts of upkeep and supervision, and [4] are expensive.


They moved some (but not all) of the labs online, reducing the upkeep, avoiding Occupational Health and Safety issues, and providing 24 hour access for students. Some of the reaction has been that unless you train students to use their hands with real tools and real metal, you aren’t training engineers at all. Other reaction has been more positive (particularly from the Accounts department).

So yeah, there is some understanding out there that times are changing and some recognition that the current leaders are in the best position to grab new territory as it opens to them.

Colleges should learn from newspapers’ plight « Roger Bayne’s Blog
Apr 3, 2009 7:56

“Newspapers are dying; Are universities next?” | OpenMarket.org
Apr 3, 2009 15:38

[...] Wikinomics warns that non-elite colleges risk the same plight now facing newspapers. Rarely do the dominant industries lead innovation, and in the case of the papers: [L]eaders of old paradigms have the greatest difficulty embracing the new. Why didn’t Gannett create The Huffington Post? Why didn’t NBC invent YouTube? Why didn’t AT&T launch Twitter? Yellow Pages should have built Facebook and Microsoft should have come up with Google. And Craigslist would have been a perfect venture for the New York Times. [...]

Apr 4, 2009 13:34

I am getting my Master’s in OD at Fielding fielding.edu .. this is an institution that does just that – has a learning process that is anything but being a passive recipient to someone elses’ opinion about what is true, good and beautiful.

Ron Mader
Apr 4, 2009 19:28

As a journalist with numerous friends and contacts at universities, I’ve been disappointed by the lack of interest from my professional colleagues in both universities and the news room. What is most frustrating is the confidence that many have that having a training seminar or conference is enough to understand the new paradigms. “Wiki? We had a workshop about that last year,” said a journalism professor who was asked me to supervise a student’s work in Oaxaca last year. She was also versed in Twitter, but the only technology she would use was email, usually laden with heavy attachments.

Likewise when I have spoken at universities about tourism or environmental issues, there is a general nodding of heads of ‘how to use the Web’ but the institutional presence itself hasn’t changed since 1999. There’s a nascent agreement that changes need to be made, but what remains unclear are the immediate steps forward.

Cole M
Apr 15, 2009 15:45


I believe that you are hitting on an even bigger failure of post-secondary education – that is, the inability for such organizations to adapt to the Net Generation. You really hit this point in Grown Up Digital, but I will add a few of my own observations as I recently graduated from an Ontario university.

The failures of the university to provide a customized education and small class sizes – both of which were promised to me – was a huge let down. Perhaps 10% of my classes were led in a collaborative manner and it was only these 5 or 6 classes that presented relevant knowledge and wisdom that would be useful in the future. Instead of preaching textbook jargon, the instructor guided discussions that gave us, the students, the opportunity to build our own conclusions and take away something much more practical.

Overall, most of the classes I experienced could have been completed from home in a shorter period of time, but it was the select interactive classes that made me excited to be at school – something that cannot be easily replicated using online accreditation.

I think that John’s quote from above, “we all need to be life-long learners anyway, and the need for a ‘terminal’ degree may no longer be relevant” rings true, but it is difficult to filter those willing to commit to a life of learning and those who are simply looking for a job. University degrees, in part, act as such a filter for employers.

Will universities go the way of the newspaper? It’s possible and hopefully, to an extent, it does. Unfortunately, the move online can take away from some of the more intrinsically-valuable parts of being a post-secondary student – working with your fellow students and professors. As far as online collaboration has come, I would find it difficult to replace some of the most valuable experiences I had as a student with technology.

Linden Head
Apr 17, 2009 10:11

I would argue that it is not necessarily government backed accreditation that is the main limitation, but moreover the thought process that this accreditation represents: society’s view that the services offered by these institution are irreplaceable. I think that this notion arises because of the necessity of infrastructure for the generation of research and delivering effective professional programs.

The physical infrastructure provides an environment for knowledge creation that simply cannot be duplicated by online knowledge generation. A great deal of research (physical sciences, micro-biology, technology, etc.) requires physical facilities. Given the importance of this type of research in developing vaccines and innovative technologies, the demand going forward for such facilities will only increase.

The instruction offered at professional schools (medical, dental, etc.) could not be delivered as effectively without the physical interaction and collaborative environments that are currently utilized. Given that demand for professional programs will only increase as population increases, demand for all colleges and universities that can contribute to these teachings will continue.

I would agree that the simple knowledge transfer associated with most undergraduate degrees (B.A, B.Sc., etc.) could be replicated online. However, I would argue that the knowledge creation (in certain disciplines) and tacit knowledge transfer required for effective professional programs could not be duplicated online. Going forward colleges may require a shift away from the replicable undergraduate programs and towards a focus on programs that simply have no substitute. However, I believe this is a more manageable transition than the one imposed on the newspaper industry.

Greg Graham
Apr 30, 2009 9:45

I’m a student at University of Dallas, and I have benefited from being in small classes with knowledgeable, experienced, and skilled teachers, as well as thoughtful fellow students, who impart knowledge and wisdom I would not find on the web. Although online discussion is better than nothing, you can’t beat face-to-face communication and community.

Bill Davis
May 13, 2009 13:26

In the late 80′s I changed from one liberal arts grad school to another and discovered and amazing diference in the quality of the learning experience in the second school where the model was much more collaborative. I found that I remembered the content of these collaborative courses after a significant time had passed. The experience was the catalyst for my search for a new pedagogical style in my own doctoral studies. The future of education will depend on the ability of institutions to change and reflect the reality of the student body.

Jun 2, 2009 20:15

And the doctors will be replaced by computers that read your symptoms and dispense drugs at the automated pharmacy that reads all your vitals and checks your identity.
And the lawyers and judges will be replaced by courts that are run by computers that make perfect, unbiased decisions.
And the police will be replaced by RFID chip readers and robots.
And all the clerks, assistants, secreteries, cooks, brokers, realtors, architects, and construction workers will be replaced too.
Then blogs will write themselves based on computer programs, and research will be done online by AI bots.
And then… it will be us few million in computer land surrounded by 6 billion humans from the third world with sticks in their hands.
That’s where the space ships come in.

Courtney H
Jun 4, 2009 18:35

First, while it’s possible that TV is becoming ambient noise for some, Nielsen indicates that TV and video viewership are both on the rise[1], and it is possible, even likely, that at least part of that increase is attributable to actual viewership. The most obvious evidence that this is true are YouTube and Hulu, the success of which indicate not that the broadcast model is obsolete, but that people want more choice in what they receive. One cannot simply “turn on” YouTube; rather they must make a conscious decision to watch, and to continue watching. This argues very much against the concept of background noise. And while this is an interactive process, it is only the selection of material that is interactive — like picking a course from a course list — rather than the viewing process itself.

Which brings us to the point of learning models. The instantaneous access to information through the internet, and its indexers such as Google, has certainly changed the way we learn, insomuch as it has become unnecessary to remember methods and attributes in detail. Rather, it is enough to remember that they exist, and then to reference them as needed. That has perhaps always been true to some extent though. What has really changed is the time cost to research information rather than remember it.

And while it may be true that modern generations are accustomed to leveraging this instantaneous access to information known as the internet, that does not obviate the need for an experienced guide. On the web, Google serves this function by reducing the signal-to-noise ratio to help you find information more quickly. It “knows” which pages are relevant to your topic, and which are not. Likewise, a professor knows (or should know) which information is relevant to becoming skilled or knowledgeable in a certain area. Furthermore, a professor knows pitfalls, caveats, and red herrings to avoid — information which may be just as valuable as the process itself, if not more so.

The problem with self-teaching (which is what you really seem to be advocating with “interactive learning”) is this: You need to know what you need to know. And figuring that out can be a very inefficient process. If it were as simple as cracking a book and following along, then the popularity of education would likely have been inverse to the rise of the printing press. A professor can provide information you would not have thought to look for, excitement and motivation you may not have otherwise experienced, and answers to questions that Wolfram Alpha did not know what to do with.

Because, in all but the largest of lecture halls, in the most elementary of introductory courses, for all but the most inept of professors, a course is much more interactive than a simple broadcast. This is why universities such as MIT and Standford can afford to make available their lectures and course materials for free — because actually having a professor available to guide you and to answer your questions is a far superior experience.

[1] http://i.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2009/images/02/24/screen.press.b.pdf

Case study: social media and how it’s affected newspapers « Project : Arena
Mar 6, 2010 14:29

[...] shift towards embracing the social web and ways of the gift economy. As Don Tapscott, author of Wikinomics notes: «Why didn’t NBC invent YouTube? Why didn’t AT&T launch Twitter? Yellow Pages should have [...]

Is grad school a waste of time (and money)? « Not Another Framework
Oct 12, 2010 21:51

[...] As someone growing up in an immigrant family with a strong emphasis on education, it’s somewhat blasphemous to suggest that grad school is a waste of time. However, there does seem to be a growing sense that the traditional ROI associated with higher education is shifting. Rising tuition is being met with fewer job opportunities (especially for PhDs) and a renewed interest in entrepreneurism, while at the same time education in general is coming under fire for its antiquated model of pedagogy. [...]

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