Josh Boldt

Contributing Editor at Vitae

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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9 Comments
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  • In Josh's context, I am a "provider" -- an underpaid one at that, formerly PT and still NTT. Still, I see things slightly differently. The "distributors," unlike Time Warner, have some but not all of the culpability for scandalously rising tuition. For public universities (like mine), more than half the blame falls to the state legislatures who have decided to cut public support and thereby disadvantage even further their economically underprivileged constituents; the providers must make up the difference somehow. Since the numbers of the underprivileged are growing thanks to the dynamics of our "1% centric" economy, this may in the long run be self-correcting. Perhaps a more serious problem with the analogy is that there are many "providers" in academia compared with the number of television networks like CBS who have exclusive football rights. The cure for that one would be solidarity among providers, which is nigh impossible in "right to work" states like mine. Nigh, perhaps, but not totally impossible; organizations such as the AAUP hang on even in "right to work" states in a continuing effort to bridge that gap.

    Robert Scott
  • @Robert:
    Good point. Maybe the state legislatures are like the advertisers in this scenario who underwrite the whole system, and whose dollars can ultimately make or break it?

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • Who are the measurers - those who assess/evaluate and grant credit - in this scenario? Unbundled, who will they be? This seems where the real power and opportunity for gain will be found and thus most bitterly contested.

    Vanessa Vaile
  • @Vanessa:
    Very true. If this were to happen, the accreditation process would look much different.

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • Adjuncts and NTTs withholding their services and gaining power? That's hard to imagine. Even tenured and TT faculty draw legitimacy from the institutions they're attached to. All those great Coursera prof's matter because they're at A+ universities.

    Also, universities' bundling adds value. Student support services, living-learning communities, undergraduate participation in research, alumni and professional (job-placement) networks, even sport teams–all of these things make the whole more than the sum of its parts.

    The analogy is provocative, but it gets too much wrong to be meaningful.

    Fred Martin
  • Josh -- I agree that some sort of unbundling in higher ed is inevitable. What is often called "nontraditional" higher ed has been doing this for some time, with increasing sophistication. Nontraditional degree programs provide mechanisms that allow students to collect credits from multiple institutions and creditable learning experiences from non-academic sources, add institutional coursework, and complete a degree. See, for example, Empire State College and CAEL's Learning Counts initiative. As an earlier commenter pointed out, the real leverage will come at the point of credit- and degree-granting. This is because the students see the degree as the ultimate product here.

    And that suggests a couple of places where I would quibble with your description of the system. Faculty are content creators only if we conceive of content as discrete courses of study, intellectual dispositions and skills, and disciplinary knowledge. From the faculty perspective, those are highly desirable contents. But from the student perspective, the product they seek is a degree. Achieving that degree may include the acquisition of content as the faculty conceive of it, but the credential is the product. And faculty do not produce or create credentials; institutions do.

    This is true of your cable TV example, too. CBS is a creator of content as a highly organized and structured institution. The individual writers, producers, editors, actors, etc. who work within or for CBS are not by themselves content creators from the marketplace perspective. The individual creative employees of CBS have no leverage over providers of content, even though they are the ones doing the work of content creation. It is the collective institution of CBS that has that leverage.

    Your parallel between faculty as creators and universities as providers doesn't seem to work. In fact, universities are the content creators, with faculty as the individuals engaged within the institutions doing the work of content creation. And I'd suggest that there have thus far been no real "providers" (in the cable TV-model sense) in higher education up to this point. The creators have also been the providers... so far. What we are seeing now, I think, is the initial development of non-university providers who might find ways to take the content created by a university and distribute it in new ways that could (potentially) benefit both creator and provider. (Or it might just benefit the provider, if the creator cannot find the leverage to enforce some sort of mutually beneficial deal.)

    To keep working the entertainment industry metaphor, it might be more accurate to say that higher ed, to this point, has been like a theater company, not a cable TV provider. The theater company creates the content and delivers it in a very localized, time-bound, place-bound way. The audience must come to the theater to access the content, and it is a communal, evanescent, multisensory experience. And then someone comes along with the technology to magically record the performances of the actors on the stage and then re-play those recordings for other audiences in other places and times. The members of the theater company might say, "Pshaw, it will never catch on. This film-devilry cannot recreate the experience of sitting in the theater, smelling the greasepaint and feeling the collective emotional tides of the audience!"

    But it does catch on, and audiences cease to look for the "theatrical" experience as they become accustomed to the film experience. Eventually, those filming the plays realize that they can create far more compelling films outside of a theater, drawing on new technologies and inventing an entirely new entertainment experience. Perhaps a few of the actors, writers, and directors cross over to this new world, but generally, the theater companies are left behind, while the former film providers metamorphose into content creators and providers, only to be disrupted by some new provider....

    Sorry, carried away by the metaphorical parallels. -- It is important to rightly understand, define, and explain the content that we create, as well as the content/product sought by students, and find ways to bridge the gap between the two. It is also important to think not only about faculty as individual content creators, but also as members of the institution that creates and delivers content. Finally, it is important to engage with those new providers who offer ways to extend the delivery of content to new audiences.

    (And on an unrelated note, CBS used football as its economic lever with which to move Time-Warner. I imagine some universities are also tempted to see football as a potential economic savior!)

    Judson Curry Judson Curry
  • Sorry, but "Off Track" is off track. Ask an economics colleague, or look it up, 'fallacy of composition'. So, the faculty member who is providing 4 sections of a general education elective, how is s/he going to distribute that to the students who want it? And get paid? Providing education, higher or not, is not a business, and market based economic models won't work in attempts to describe it.

    richard wilt
  • @Richard:
    I would argue that is the mentality that could sink the current higher ed model. Educational alternatives are pounding on the door while we put our fingers in our ears and proclaim that we have nothing to worry about.

    I do agree with you, though, that some disciplines probably would not translate well to an unbundled model (like gen ed, for example). This is part of the reason I'm weary of the change--because I don't want teachers and students to suffer. I'd rather see higher ed get serious about integrating new ways of learning into their current structures (and I'm not not talking about MOOCs).

    Josh Boldt Josh Boldt
  • Hello Josh,

    My name is Shaw Warren. You might remember me from my attempt - nearly 2 years ago now I think - to introduce you and the Adjunct Project to the models for higher education reform I have been developing. As I have on the Professional Society of Academics blog, you speak of "middlemen" and "methods" or "models" that (better) "balance" the interests of institutions, academics and students.

    The models I am developing are entrepreneurial and I note you "definitely don't entirely trust the motives of the 'edupreneurs'." Nevertheless, in light of this piece I thought reintroduction of my ideas might now prove more persuasive.

    Cheers,
    Shawn

    Shawn Warren Shawn Warren