The rise of “free” content may be shaping higher education and news journalism in similar ways. 


Writers concerned with the future of higher education frequently point to the music recording and news industries as evidence of what’s in store for higher education. Apparently, the change won’t be pleasant.

As described in a previous post, these forecasts for higher education typically draw on the intertwined concepts of “disintermediation” and “unbundling”. It’s argued that learners will increasingly bypass universities to learn directly from other, direct-to-consumer providers (i.e. disintermediation) and they’ll assemble (i.e. unbundle) their own, unique portfolio of learning experiences (e.g. individual courses, nano-degrees).

There’s much to like about this vision from a purely instructional point of view. If well executed, it puts more choices in front of learners and enables a new degree of personalization. Examples of non-collegiate providers that might reflect this vision include General Assembly, Fullbridge, and Codecademy.

But the comparison to the music and news industries tends to understate the degree to which individual learners are restricted from seeking out and assembling educational experiences according to their own criteria. Whereas consumers of music and journalism are free to make up their own minds as to what constitutes good value, what constitutes “educated” is defined by social conventions, regulatory and loan systems, and, of course, employers. Therefore, determinations of what constitutes good value in education can’t be made unilaterally. New and more flexible forms of credentials will continue to become more widely accepted, but the processes of disintermediation and unbundling will unfold far more slowly in education than in other sectors.

Scaling Back High-End Journalism

There is, however, an alternative parallel that exists between higher education and, in particular, the news industry. It springs from the unique economics of the Internet and the ways in which it has expanded the number of content sources, role of free content, and the sustainability of relatively expensive content.

Revenue in the news industry has declined sharply during the last decade. While consumption of news remains high, the Internet has expanded the number of providers, and dispersed advertising revenue more widely. Many major news organizations have been forced to reduce costs.

Funding of relatively expensive types of reporting has been especially hard-hit. Journalism that takes longer to produce, involves a larger and/or more experienced team of professionals, and requires substantial research is obviously more costly.  The social and political implications of this change are considerable. Nicholas Carr, a longtime analyst of the relationship between society and technology, believes that the Internet has ultimately weakened professional journalism:

“If we can agree that the internet, by altering the underlying economics of the news business, has thinned the ranks of professional journalists, then the next question is straightforward: has the net created other modes of reporting to fill the gap? The answer, alas, is equally straightforward: no.” Nicholas Carr

Provocateur Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur and The Internet is Not Enough, argues that the rise of free content by non-professionals is undermining the quality of journalism and other fields.

“What you may not realize is that what is free is actually costing us a fortune . . .  “The new winners — Google, YouTube, MySpace, Craigslist, and the hundreds of start-ups hungry for a piece of the Web 2.0 pie — are unlikely to fill the shoes of the industries they are helping to undermine, in terms of products produced, jobs created, revenue generated or benefits conferred. By stealing away our eyeballs, the blogs and wikis are decimating the publishing, music and news-gathering industries that created the original content those Web sites ‘aggregate.’ Our culture is essentially cannibalizing its young, destroying the very sources of the content they crave.” Andrew Keen.

Free Instructional Content in Higher Education

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education

Free content has also come to occupy an important role in higher education. Educators regularly capture free content from the web for use in their courses. Most of this material is found through general web searches (i.e. Google), but a small and growing percentage is found on sites dedicated to free curated instructional content (OpenStax, Merlot). In limited instances, educators take steps to share content they’ve created on these sites, as well.

The vast majority of free, publicly available content built expressly for instructional use in higher education is developed in a DIY fashion – by instructors working independently, drawing on a limited range of skills, and supported by minimal investment.

Although the Instructor may intend to share the content with instructors and students at other institutions, the funding model for course development in place at colleges and universities typically is designed according to the assumption that the material will be used only within a single institution for a single course. This limits the investment of talent, time, and money that can be made in each effort, as a limited number of end-users, which subsequently limits the revenue generated from the material (i.e. tuition and grants), which in turn limits the development budget. Despite the social benefits of sharing instructional content, institutions are not designed to underwrite the instructional costs of other institutions, or inclined, I suspect.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 14.52.51
Source: BC Open Campus

As a result, the free instructional content built for use in higher education tends to be limited to simple lecture video, home-made graphics, and text – the types of materials that this particular resource configuration allows. What this resource configuration doesn’t enable is the development of instructional materials that are more capital-intensive, such as games, adaptive learning, extensive feedback mechanisms, and rich media.

Both types of content are valuable. Both are needed. The danger is that free content may limit the sector’s ability to sustainably produce and distribute more expensive forms of instructional media and software that offer different types of instructional value – types of value that are simply not possible through the DIY model.

Screenshot 2015-06-12 12.40.51
Source: Wall Street Journal

One symptom that this may be occurring is the state of the textbook industry – historically, the source of more third-party instructional material in education. Second-hand textbook sales, piracy, as well as the growing volume of freely available materials are all contributing to declining revenue.

Textbook publishing is organized to enable a relatively high-level of investment in instructional materials. Whereas a open-content initiative may offer a faculty member the chance to produce a new open textbook with a $5,000 grant (often from public sources), a textbook publisher can easily spend 100 times that much on the same effort.

It is entirely possible that open content is built with a larger pool of talent, more time, and far more funding. And it’s not unheard of; examples include The Big History Project, produced by Intentional Futures and funded by the BMGF, and RSA Animate Series, a product of the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures, and Commerce.

But open content as this time seems to be aligned with an interesting mix of culture, politics and occupational standards that eschews larger projects and celebrates individual, “edu-punk”, DIY-style efforts. Indeed, anti-corporatism is part of its identity (c.f. .Never Mind the Edupunks; or, The Great Web 2.0 Swindle). The antagonistic, “us versus them” stance taken by some advocates of open content regularly targets the traditional publishing industry.

Parallels: High-End Journalism and Instructional Media

We have, then, something of a parallel between the news industry and digital higher education. As citizens we need to ensure that we have ready access to the more substantial, in-depth reporting by experienced professionals, As educators, need to ensure that digital learning is not limited to simple, DIY forms; that we find ways to regularly test, develop and distribute more advanced forms of digital instruction.

The ability of individuals to produce and distribute content – both journalism and education – is one of most positive and important developments in the early 21st century. It expands the range of voices and pushes back against entrenched interests and their perspectives. But we need to be certain that our desire to push-aside corporate and other large scale enterprises doesn’t weaken our capacity to provide students with more sophisticated forms of instructional media that are only possible through more extensive investment, wider pools of talent, and the luxury of time. Improving learning outcomes has proven very difficult, and we need to begin to take fuller advantage of the possibilities of new types of instructional media and software.

Keith Hampson, PhD is the founder of digital / edu / strategy, a research and consulting service that helps colleges, universities and education businesses develop better strategies for maximizing value. 

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