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Sep 14, 2012

Selling experience

It is not clear what higher education is all about. For centuries, people believed it was about wisdom or virtue. For a few centuries after that, they believed it was about knowledge. Now all of it is in question once again. Knowledge seems to be abundant and cheap, and expensive teaching services seem to be replaceable. What are we selling then? It increasingly looks like we’re hawking credentials rather than actual knowledge. This is probably an overstatement, but it is plausible that we’re selling knowledge at a higher price than market is willing to bear. We cornered the market through the peculiar regime rooted in three things: academic credentials, accreditation, and professional licensure laws. Yet the cozy arrangement may not be as stable as we may think. There may be an unlikely coalition forming to shake the system up: social conservatives suspect we’re pushing an ideology on students; fiscal conservatives think we may be wasteful; and the creative Left thinks we’re too conservative and not innovative enough. All of them are looking for a technology that makes higher education less expensive if not obsolete. Literally, hundreds and thousands of very smart entrepreneurs and engineers are working on ending higher education as we know it (and as we learned to value the paychecks coming from it). No one yet came up with a plausible technological miracle. Although the media, TED talks, gurus and other such exulted things make it feel as if the Messiah is already here. No, he, or rather it – the revolutionary technology - is not here yet.

However, it would be foolish to ignore our precarious position. The fundamental ritual of college – a lecture – can be cheaply broadcasted. It is not clear why thousands of professors should deliver a similar lecture across the country. The other fundamental interactions – a discussion, even a lab – can be reproduced online, and become potentially less expensive to deliver. We can circle our wagons, but the monopoly may not hold anyway; not because of the technological threat, but because of the massification of higher education (I published a paper about that very phenomenon recently).

What we could do is the same thing other industries have done, when their goods became less expensive and more widely available: we should sell experience. The essence of human life is experience; it’s the adventure, the challenge, the struggle and triumph, the making of memories, and writing one’s own life story. You can buy a pair of shorts for cheap online with minimal effort. Or you can dress up, go to the mall with your significant other, do some people watching, check out what’s new in the stores, see some colors, eat some ice cream, catch a movie, and, by the way, buy the same pair of shorts at twice the price. Although there is an element of unpredictability here, like in any game – you may run into a sale, and feel even better. What did you just buy, shorts or the experience? Are shorts merely an excuse, a byproduct, an extra benefit to what is the real commodity here – your experience, your life.

It is the same for college. It can either go to the inexpensive no-frills Wal-Mart-like transaction, or become experience-rich, experience-centered enterprise with knowledge as a bonus. How this can be done is not yet clear.

1 comment:

  1. Anonymous6:18 AM

    Maybe it’s part of the experience, but I think we need to be selling relationships. Interpersonal relationships among students and professors inspire both to do better. They lead to improved teaching and learning within and beyond the classroom, with outcomes that improve communities and society. Interpersonal relationships lead to interactions that are characterized by much more than masterful delivery and dedicated devouring of content. Students will not be lured to campuses to spend large sums of money and time for content they can get with a decent connection to the internet, but they will be lured by the promise of a connection with someone that genuinely cares about their development and their future. Interpersonal relationships with students improve professors’ teaching as well. When you know your students’ aspirations, their journey, their struggles and talents, it’s almost impossible to let them down. Teaching becomes less about the transference of content and more about student learning and growth, which is far more motivating for both.