Josh Boldt

Technology Director at University of Kentucky

Off Track: What Higher Ed Can Learn From Cable Television

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Remember a few months back, when Time Warner and CBS had a dispute that resulted in millions of customers missing Letterman for three weeks?

Well, the argument was about the balance of power between creators, providers, and consumers. CBS is a content-creating network. It makes shows that Time Warner, the provider, needs in order to draw consumers. CBS decided that Time Warner was making too much money on those shows and not passing enough of that profit back.

Time Warner wasn’t so fond of that assessment, so the company pushed back, resulting in a bit of a stalemate. Here was the catch, though, for Time Warner: It forgot about football. CBS airs a lot of it. And if there’s one thing we know about Americans, it’s this: Do not mess with their football.

So as the opening kickoff of the 2013 NFL season loomed closer, Time Warner got antsy. It knew if that if couldn’t deliver football on Sundays, it would start losing customers. Once it was backed against a wall, the company capitulated to almost all of CBS’s demands. Football was saved. And so was the cable television model.

The takeaway here is pretty clear: CBS recognized its power as a content creator and exerted its leverage over the gatekeepers of its content. See where I’m going with this?

Look, the executives at CBS are certainly no starving artists in this scenario, and the Time Warner power brokers were only doing what any business would do. But in this case, one side had a definitive edge: the side that actually produces something, as opposed to the side that distributes that something.

What would have happened if Time Warner simply refused to give up some power to CBS? If the provider decided its needs were more important than those of the creators? It’s hard to say for sure, but it wouldn’t be a huge leap to suggest that CBS might branch out—either by finding other paths of distribution or ramping up efforts to deliver content through, say, Internet apps.

The point is, if you create a product, you can decide the best way to get it to your consumers. If you step outside of the traditional channels, the obstinate middleman could quickly be left holding the bag, to his great surprise.

Now let’s get down to business.

The system of higher education operates according to a similar principle of stasis, with clear providers (universities), creators (professors), and consumers (students). As with cable television, the whole apparatus can collapse if one branch demands too much.

That’s what appears to be happening. Over the past couple of decades, administrative budgets have risen, while professor salaries have stagnated or dropped (especially for adjuncts). At the same time, tuition has more than doubled in the last ten years alone. Just like the Time Warner/CBS scenario—or the superficial strawman version that I've established for the sake of drawing a parallel—the providers are taking more than their share at the expense of the creators and the consumers.

As with the cable dispute, the creators should have leverage. Without professors, the university stops. If adjuncts and other non-tenure-track teachers withheld their content, the providers would be forced to negotiate. That negotiation could very likely end up looking pretty good for those teachers, just as it did for CBS.

And if negotiations failed, the content creators of higher education could likewise explore other methods of reaching their student consumers. I don’t think anyone yet knows for sure what those other methods might look like, but there are many people who are thinking about it, for better or worse.

Maybe you’ve heard rumors of cable television’s doomsday scenario: unbundling. If unbundling occurs, we could soon see an every-network-for-itself situation in which consumers subscribe only to the channels they want. No longer would consumers be at the mercy of gatekeepers who determine a couple of clearly-defined packages from which everyone must choose. Content would instead flow directly from creator to consumer.

Could a standoff between faculty and institutional providers facilitate the unbundling of higher education?

Just weeks ago, Richard Wellen of York University published a journal article in which he discussed some of the more controversial forms of academic unbundling. Perfect timing. I recommend Wellen’s article, if you’re into this sort of thing. He explores the “disruptive” technologies that could become platforms for the unbundling. Some I like, some I don’t. When it comes to MOOCs and their kin, I can’t bring myself to entirely trust the technology, and I definitely don’t entirely trust the motives of the “edupreneurs.” And what about the students? Can they be trusted to sort through the mire of an unbundled education system?

I have a lot of apprehension about this unbundling process. It’s potentially very dangerous to American education and even to the teachers who facilitate the system. Wellen points out that “online courses simply allow higher education institutions to save money by outsourcing teaching work through the use of technologies that make teaching content portable.” You better believe this concerns me (as it does any loyal reader of Jonathan Rees).

But in an ideal world, unbundled education can empower teachers—those people who actually have a product to sell, to use the vernacular. Several companies have purported to facilitate this empowerment, but frankly, I’ve yet to see the model that appropriately balances that equation of student, teacher, and provider.

When someone does find this balance, it will shake the system to its core. Higher education has not exactly been a bastion of public confidence lately. Based on the direction we’ve been heading for the last few decades, I’m ready to see something else happen.

Unless universities decide to share more profits with the people who actually do the teaching, I'd say it won’t be long before the lights get cut during football season.

Off Track examines the multifarious worlds of faculty who aren't on the tenure track. Josh Boldt is a writer and editor in Athens, Ga., where he also teaches at the University of Georgia. Connect with him at @josh_boldt.

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