Friday, October 24, 2003

Commodity Courses

George asks a big question: What's Up With Education? More specifically, he heard a slick ad for the University of Phoenix on the radio in Winnipeg (!!), and wonders how a good local college like Red River can survive in the face of market-oriented online competition. He speculates that courses (and the content that goes with them) are becoming commodities that will continue to drop in price.

Like music, news and any other information that can be digitized, the web will drive the price of courses toward zero. Institutions are starting to realize it -- MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative seems to be tacit acknowledgement that institutions are no longer in the business of providing information for a fee.

George throws out some good ideas to add value beyond the commoditized and industrial-era courses -- learning services, communities, accreditation and prior-learning assessments included -- and I think he's probably on the right track. Not everyone thinks that post-secondary education should be customer-driven, but the U of P's greatest competitive advantage may be that they're willing to view the entire process as a real business, which means giving clients what they want at a price they're willing to pay.

And what do they want? Do the students at Red River College today even care about the courses themselves or really want the learning for its own sake? I'd guess that the majority are there for the credential that they believe will lead to better employment. If a good job is their true motivation, then that's where the value lies -- connections to the local job market, local networking, trusted accreditation and individualized employment services. A college could also add value in assessing and conveying what students can do (skills, portfolios, etc), rather than testing and grading what they know.

Focusing on the applications of learning rather than the theory makes sense for a community college, but what about the University of Winnipeg, or any other traditional university? I'd be more worried about the threat to them than Red River. Peter Merholz wrote a conference summary this week about experience economics. Check out the graphic he's included there. What would the equivalent be if you translated it into learning experiences? Traditional courses are obviously lower on the pyramid, but what goes in the upper reaches?

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