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Many start-ups address slivers of the educational pie. What about Google, Apple, and the other big players? We can expect them to use all the too… Read More
Many start-ups address slivers of the educational pie. What about Google, Apple, and the other big players? We can expect them to use all the tools at their disposal to dominate, and cartelize on-line undergraduate education. Moreover, all universities are is a library with add-ons. What happens with Google takes that market? Read Less
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Originally published January 2012
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Back in the day, when newspapers actually printed new news (not a reprint of yesterday’s internet news), the Times of London once reported that most academic reports are only read by the author.  Possibly 97% or some percentage thereabouts. Recently, I learned that academic journals avoid publishing negative results, too. There is a strategy to getting noticed by the “best” journals.  You work your way up.  There is an incentive, a conflict-of-interest.

Slow change and slow debate worked when we used parchment, and printing press, and typewriters.  It made sense to publish only the results, and to possibly publish only the positive, when we used expensive paper.

Why now? Why this holdover from those ancient days?  Is it to manage the debate?  Why did Luis and Walter Alvarez’ K-T theory take decades to accept?  And the global warming debate—shouldn’t collegial ruminations be public?

To an entrepreneur, Failure is the necessary part of innovation and idea advancement. I’d rather fail—and soon.  That’s how we learn.  Both scientists and entrepreneurs propose hypotheses and test for evidence.  But academicians do not publish negative results.   Even with the debate—and demand—for open source publishing.

Doesn’t this make Big Science something secretive?  Isn’t this a failure of vision and integrity?   A failure of credibility?  Feynman, are you rolling in your grave?


The New York Times reports that the institutional barriers that block easy open publication are falling down, (1) with independent, free-thinking science innovators getting past the traditional publishers who slow reporting down to an innoculatable, digestible gobble.  So you might hope that Internet access makes Failure Reporting more likely.  But this is not happening.  The traditionalists still hold sway.  They only publish positive results.

But tablet sales’ have jumped [29% of Americans now own at least one tablet.(2)]  And Apple is in the textbook business; and iBook manufacturing costs are 20% of Mr. Gutenberg’s products;and cut 33 to 35 % off printed book supply chain markups.(3)

Textbook publishers are obviously antsy.  But what about university administrators?  Have SOPA (in the USA), and Bills C51-53 (in Canada) attracted their undying love?  In a completely linkeable world, are they the most at risk?

The most byzantine of societies, the administrative structure of large universities is something akin to the Holy Roman Empire.  A patchwork of city states politely competing over funding, prestige, and patent earnings (ie. revenue, cash flow, profit margin, and competitive mindshare).  All quietly dependent on a cozy little world of academic publishers who control the flow of free ideas and easily digestible innovation.(5)

What do they have to lose?

If the competitor is GoogleU, the world’s first truly global university, possibly nearly everything.

GoogleU – commoditizing undergraduate education everywhere.

There will be people who continue to want a degree from a storied university.  And there will continue to be research and discovery and applied science.  But what will happen to all the academics who don’t get cited now?  Their research might have future value.

But are we subsidizing them go through the motions of discovery when they are actually needed to teach.   When university undergrads can learn from any school—anywhere with a WiFi connection—shouldn’t they be learning and discovering and teaching as free agents, on someone else’ payroll?  Wouldn’t you rather learn Ancient Greek from a professor in Athens, or Thai at Chulalongkorn University; from someone without the intervening social, cultural,and racial and ethnocentric filters?  Someone living the life?

When Udacity.com can teach 500,000 students at once; as our population ages and simultaneously all human knowledge is accessible through the cloud, and students can be anywhere, shouldn’t all those emptying halls be re-purposed?  Those departments shrunk?  The undergraduate market (and all those professors) commoditized?

Will small universities have the upper hand?   Is the extensive physical plant of big universities competitive anymore?  Do we need all those expensive lecture theatres, and dormitories, and department-after-department-after-department, when we already work and teach, and exchange ideas remotely now?  Are mildewing, hallowed halls evidence of mildewing culture?   How will you fund research when Undergraduate Income Units get taken by virtual/distributed universities?   Will GoogleU harvest the best teachers?

In a networked, always on, 24/7 world, do formal degrees—and all that tasseled flummery—have value anymore?  Now that we are living Seth Godin’s Forever Recession(7), shouldn’t we be using that money to encourage more entrepreneurship—more ways for grads to leave the nest; more ways to become independent scientists and entrepreneurs?

If you are a large university administrator, you’d better start wondering.  Because the future just snuck up.


How will you respond?

And further, Schooling is the way societies transmit shared values.  Here in the West, we (sometimes still) admit rancorous and messy debate.  We sometimes still have a Loyal Opposition.  Theoretically speaking, we (still) admit many versions of the truth.

Will ISPs start burning the kindling (forgive me, Amazon) of good debate: the books; the ideas; the discourse it does not like?  Make discomforting literature disappear?  If virtual Uni's start stripping ideas from public discussion as easily as Google, in shades of Fahrenheit 451, strips swaths of landscape from Google Earth, how will you protect public discourse, intellectual freedom, and peaceable dissent?

Traditional publishing is an artifact of the days of moveable type, but with gazillions of bits of datastorage, you already have the capacity to publish the whole story of every experiment.  So aren’t academics making data disappear already?  Aren’t you already Googlish, a self-interested monopoly contemplating the new kid on the block?   Is the new Google about to make your department shrink or disappear?   Your school?

If you are a university leader, your question now is to ask:  Do I compete with Google?   Throw in the towel?  Partner?   Continue the old cartel?    Ask Parliament and Congress to protect your oligopoly?   Transform those dormitories into industrial parks, just like defence departments did with surplus airbases?

You’re about to be disrupted.

What will you do?

* * * * * * * * * * * *

(1) http://www.nytimes.com/2012/01/22/business/apple-america-and-a-squeezed-middle-class.html?_r=2&ref=charlesduhigg&pagewanted=all
(2) http://pewinternet.org/Reports/2012/E-readers-and-tablets/Findings.aspx?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=TBIR%20Beta&utm_campaign=Post%20Blast%20%28research%29%3A%20BII%20Express%3A%20RIM%20Shuffle%20Means%20More%20Of%20The%20Same
(3) http://allthingsd.com/20120123/350000-textbooks-downloaded-from-apples-ibooks-in-three-days/?utm_source=Triggermail&utm_medium=email&utm_term=TBIR%20Beta&utm_campaign=Post%20Blast%20%28research%29%3A%20BII%20Express%3A%20RIM%20Shuffle%20Means%20More%20Of%20The%20SameNo
(4) http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/8862770/Murdering-St-Pauls-Cathedral.html
(5) http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2011/aug/29/academic-publishers-murdoch-socialist
(6) http://dmarron.com/2012/01/26/can-one-professor-teach-500000-students-at-once/
(7) http://www.cbc.ca/strombo/videos.html?id=2183085294