Higher education faces a toll much like the music industry once did (opinion)

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It’s a Friday morning in September 2010, and I step into the great space of the legendary Columbia Studio A in Nashville, Tenn., For a full day of conversations, panels, and great music. I am in the company of 50 executives from across the music industry. I have just been appointed the new Facilitator of Leadership Music, a program where industry leaders and artists from Nashville, New York and Los Angeles engage in year-long conversations, panel discussions and seminars for learn from each other, build a stronger music community and prepare for changes, disruptions and opportunities in the industry.

But that day was not happy. Nor the other days of the following year. This talented, successful and resourceful group of artists and executives – from the person who ran Taylor Swift’s label to the owner of one of America’s largest country radio stations – were going through the second stage of mourning. Ten years after Napster crashed their party, allowing fans to freely share music on the internet, people were angry.

They were angry that in the years after Napster total music sales in the United States had dropped precipitously. (They eventually went from $ 21.5 billion to just $ 6.9 billion, adjusted for inflation). And when people are angry, they get caught up in a tale of victimization and blame. Tech companies were evil; the fans were thieves and pirates. And everyone was fighting each other – the labels with the publishers and the broadcasters, the songwriters with the performers, the venues with Ticketmaster, the promoters with the agents.

The music industry has been caught with its head in the sand as technology has turned the entire business model upside down, creating new winners and losers. Today, renting music, not buying music, is the norm, and Spotify and Apple Music, YouTube and Tik Tok are the big winners.

Four years ago, writing on technological change and higher education, Joshua Kim asked, “Could the higher education industry find itself in a situation similar to that of the music industry?” registered? In 2021, more than 20 years after Napster, the answer is yes. The question now is whether we – who work in over 4,000 private and public institutions – can we choose a different path?

Let me quickly paint a picture of the music industry in 1998. Hundreds of labels, owned by five major conglomerates, worked with thousands of artists each year to release and release thousands of albums. Labels have invested years of energy and resources to develop these artists, produce their albums, and market, promote and distribute their songs. Hundreds of millions of people have purchased these albums as CDs – 20 songs on a digital disc. Whether or not you wanted all 20 songs, you had to buy everything. Maybe you liked two, but bought 20. That was part of the great music ensemble.

In addition, the labels essentially “owned” the artists, who could not sign with multiple labels, and their intellectual property. And they controlled the distribution. They determined which songs the stations were playing on the radio. In short, they grouped songs, controlled intellectual property, and determined the format in which people accessed music: where they bought it and on what devices they listened to it.

Now let’s think about higher education today, where we are consolidating 120 credit hours. You have to buy it all or you get nothing. No diploma. No login. Faculty members are like artists who get signed to labels. Just as labels have developed artists, universities develop professors through doctorates. programs. Professors then go to work at colleges and universities that have rights to their intellectual property, including the discoveries they make and the courses they design and teach.

Finally, universities determine the format in which consumers or learners access knowledge. Their approach is generally this: you have to come to us, to our campuses, and pay our parking fees, pay to live in our dorms, pay for the amenities that we provide. Everything is consolidated, tightly controlled and distributed largely through their own institutional infrastructure.

Universities are different from music labels, of course. But the general point is difficult to dispute: they too are based on a business model that exerts control over talent and forces consumers to a rather restricted set of choices. You must purchase the entire CD.

Questions for the future

But we live in a world of singles. While we may wonder if this is good for music, musicians, or culture, it is our reality. What does a world of singles look like in higher education? What happens when higher education is unbundled? What happens when new players enter the market to offer new types of titles: micro-certificates, badges, skills-based diplomas? What happens when educators not certified by higher education institutions deliver compelling content independently? When education becomes as much about sharing between learners as it is about transmitting content from teacher to learner? Peer-to-peer could be as disruptive to higher education as it has been to the music industry. All of these changes are already well advanced.

Today, the music industry is thriving, with total revenues over the next decade expected to be bigger than ever. People are spending more per capita than ever before on monthly subscriptions, merchandise, concert tickets and more. And the rapid proliferation of digital content – movies, television, advertising, games – has created an explosion in demand for licensed music.

But while total music revenue from all sources is likely now above pre-Napster levels, and experts predict revenue will double over the next decade, the players are different. The models are different. Platforms are more important than labels. Artists are now building their own careers as independent entrepreneurs, surrounded by a range of legal, marketing and business services that help them run their own businesses. And the live music exploded. Attendance at concerts before the pandemic was at an all time high. Music festivals attract millions of people every year. The digital switchover has created a consequent imperative for powerful face-to-face engagement.

What can we learn from this in higher education? As with music, people will spend more than ever on education in the future. It will be ubiquitous. And like the music industry, universities will have to accept the “rental model” of education. Maybe you will become a member and have access to it all, all the time, for the rest of your life as long as you pay your membership fee. It could be like open-loop university, an idea put forward by Sarah Stein Greenberg, professor at Stanford University, where people come and go all their lives, grabbing the learning resources they need when they need it. need. Coursera has already moved in this direction.

Like music, higher education may find that platforms are more important than campuses. We’ll need to design and build platforms that meet our values ​​and drive our goals forward – rather than working behind the eight ball to fit into a business model we didn’t design, that’s exactly where the he music industry has found itself. the last decades.

And like musicians, teachers may look more and more like independent artists with their own intellectual property. How can those of us at various universities inspire them to work with us? Labels and artists negotiate “360 deals”: revenue sharing between multiple products and services, including digital sales, streaming dollars, merchandise, brand sponsorship, tours. What will our 360 agreement be with the faculty?

How to organize and empower all emerging independent educators, beyond our traditional faculty, who have something to offer? Can we build armies of instructional designers to work with experts in every sector imaginable to extend education beyond what full professors can provide?

If music festivals are any indication of the value and demand for intense face-to-face engagement, what can we learn from them? Perhaps most learning in the future will be digital, but people will be looking for opportunities to use that learning in spaces where they can collaborate, create things, conduct experiences, and have intense and transformative social encounters. Perhaps universities are becoming sites of shorter term engagements rather than full time residency. Perhaps most learners in the future will be in low-residency programs where they learn, design, review, improve, prepare, prepare, prepare, and then meet a few times a year for powerful in-person experiences. Think about how much more efficiently we could use our spaces and how many more students we could serve.

The four-year degree won’t disappear, and neither will the album. But the way people access this thematically organized and organized content has changed forever. A handful of artists can still aggregate their content and monopolize the way it’s distributed. Taylor Swift. Jay Z. Adele. And only a handful of top universities will continue to be in the album business.

Most will adapt to another reality of singles – independent university entrepreneurs. A world where learning is everywhere – everywhere, all the time, continuously and on every platform imaginable. There will be many other ways to obtain credentials and many other providers that will offer these credentials, often based on skills acquired and not academic credit units purchased. Face-to-face will become more of a special and intense experience and less routine. Universities can become as much if not more platforms than residential campuses.

When a disruption occurs, organizations are faced with a calculation and reassessment of their value. What distinct value do they offer compared to new competitors? What are their differentiated strengths? What do learners and consumers really like and need?

Technology and the pandemic have disrupted universities. We are living in a great unbundling, as Ryan Craig argued in his 2015 book. If we keep our heads in the sand, we will look a lot like the angry and lost faces in this Columbia Studio A room in 2010 – looking for someone. one to blame, rather than celebrating our crucial role in educating, at scale, the next tidal wave of learners.


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