In April 2001, MIT president Charles M. Vest announced that the Institute would bring the “open-source” software sensibility to higher education and offer-for free!-its curricula and courseware to the world via the Web. This “OpenCourseWare” initiative represents a radically different approach to digitizing, marketing and globalizing education.“OpenCourseWare looks counterintuitive in a market-driven world. It goes against the grain of current material values,” said Vest at the time. “But it really is consistent with what I believe is the best about MIT.” He concluded, “Simply put, OpenCourseWare is a natural marriage of American higher education and the capabilities of the World Wide Web.”
Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t-don’t forget that marriage is hard. Still, no serious observer doubts that digital technologies are already transforming the cultures, content and economics of higher education. What’s so striking, and what Vest (to his credit) so readily acknowledges, is that the technology of higher education is becoming as much a function of market mechanisms as digital media. After all, the largest single private university in America is the University of Phoenix-a decidedly for-profit institution with an enrollment north of 100,000 students whose average age is 35 and whose average annual income is $56,000. Not incidentally, nearly two-thirds of its students are women. How’s that for diversity?
Once dismissed and derided as “diploma mills,” schools like Phoenix, DeVry Institutes, Strayer University and their counterparts have already had an enormous impact on American postsecondary and postbaccalaureate education. Yes, MIT, Harvard and Berkeley are fabulous brands. But there’s every reason to believe that market-oriented entities like Phoenix have every economic incentive to be even more innovative than an MIT in crafting compelling online curricula and content. A decade hence, whose “courseware” sensibilities will be educating more people faster, better and cheaper around the globe? MIT’s? Or Phoenix’s?
Reframe that question in an open-source context: would you rather bet on Linux (MIT) or on Windows (Phoenix) as tomorrow’s dominant operating system? Or is the software world better off with both-each synergistically/antagonistically keeping the other in check?
Anyone who cares about the future of software needs to understand market trends as much as digital design. Similarly, anyone who genuinely cares about the future of higher education must accept that market forces are now as critical as technological innovation.
Rebel with a Cause by John Sperling and Higher Ed, Inc. by Richard S. Ruch are two stylistically different books that offer useful perspectives on these issues. The former is an intensely personal memoir of a combative entrepreneur with a University of Cambridge PhD who battled the not-for-profit academic establishment and won. The latter is a smoothly written survey by the former dean of a for-profit revealing why these schools will matter even more tomorrow than they do today. Anybody with an “elite” university education will be intrigued and provoked by these tales. Anybody who thinks that “elite” universities will be immune from the influences of these upstarts will probably have to think twice.
In Rebel with a Cause, Sperling does not come across as the most likable entrepreneur or educator to ever pen his memoirs. Compared to Harvard president James Bryant Conant’s My Several Lives, or his MIT counterpart James R. Killian Jr.’s The Education of a College President or former MIT president Howard Wesley Johnson’s recent Holding the Center, Sperling’s book portrays him as less an academic statesman than a ruthless buccaneer, determined to topple the cozy incestuousness of America’s higher-education establishment. He’s spoiling for a fight and almost never fails to find one.