Taylor Walsh’s “Unlocking the Gates” of Academe

Early in her new Unlocking the Gates: How and Why Leading Universities are Opening Access to their Courses” Taylor Walsh repeats management guru Peter Drucker’s dire warning:  “Thirty years from now the big university campus will be a relic. Universities won’t survive in their current form.“ Unfortunately, that message gets lost.

It’s not exactly Walsh’s fault—Unlocking the Gates is an excellent book with detailed and exhaustively researched accounts of how a handful of elite universities have embraced low-cost education using the Internet. But those leaders themselves don’t fully understand how precarious “open learning “ is and how dramatically it is likely to change in fact, since the book has come out the landscape has already changed. Walsh’s conclusion is that these institutions started a revolution. It is less clear whether they will benefit, or—as Drucker seems to predict—their demise will only be hastened by it.

Colleges and universities that want to try open learning would do well to consider the uneven fate awaiting early adopters. Walsh’s book is their roadmap. The seven case studies that make up the bulk of this book to make it easy for academic leaders who want to offer or adopt open content. She carefully lays out the origins, organization, and underlying business models for early ventures like Fathom (Michael Crow’s Columbia experiment) and Carnegie Mellon’s Open Learning Initiative. 

Most of the case studies end on a melancholy note as the reality of the marketplace collides with institutional ambitions. Sometimes there is a new benefactor waiting in the wings but just as often once-pioneering programs simply shutter their doors.

Much as Rockefeller and Carnegie were the invisible guiding hands for American universities of the last century, the names Hewlett and Gates represent the omnipresent forces behind Unlocking the Gates. Proposal after proposal to their philanthropic foundations with titles like “Four Courses, Millions of Users…” promised to rock higher education to its core and pried out millions of dollars in return.

What is missing from these experiments is a palpable sense that all of this has changed the world. A case can be made that a tipping point has been reached beyond which old economic rules of access and scale no longer apply. Beyond, there is peril awaiting institutions that choose to ignore the portents of change.  It is this sense of irreversibility that colors every word of former Princeton president William Bowen’s remarkable foreword:

I have been on record for some time as being skeptical about the likely effects on productivity in higher education of various new technologies. But the evidence that Walsh presents about the work at Carnegie Mellon has caused me to rethink my position.

Walsh gives us the actual words of the leaders of the revolution, and with few exceptions (Michael Crow, Jonathan Cole, and Chuck Vest among them) they each had modest visions—visions formed by competitive pressure and in many outright fear that “if we don’t do it, they will.” It is the vision of incumbents.

What Walsh describes is as much an Internet revolution as an academic revolution. If the history of the Internet teaches us anything at all, it is that the web is seldom kind to the incumbents. But preserving incumbency is what motivated these institutions. Columbia hoped to make money from its venture. Yale wanted to use the web to allow its quality to shine through to new learners. For Larry Rowe’s colleagues at Berkeley, their webcasts were a value-added service to students. India’s NPTEL was aimed at the systemic failures of a vast but badly run educational bureaucracy.

Walsh tells her story through the leaders of the open learning revolution. It is an incomplete story because the revolution is still in process, but also because the main players have mistaken their roles. 

Almost completely absent is the bubbling ferment of academic outcasts like for-profit universities (although their motives are in the main not easily distinguishable from those of traditional, non-profit institutions). There is no role in Unlocking the Gates for Kahn Academy and the dozens of imitators who stand outside academia and wonder at the inability of traditional colleges to see what lies ahead. Unlocking the Gates was written before MIT announced MITx—a serious attempt to shake up the very notion of a college credit—and Sebastian Thrun’s decision to form a company outside Stanford to develop and market his brand of massive, open, online courses. Perhaps with the perspective of time, interviews for a second edition will reflect former IBM CEO Lew Gerstner’s estimation of the future that lurks just ahead:  “if that doesn’t send a shiver through the academic world, I don’t know what will…”

For now, we have to accept the view of Walsh’s sources that they will ultimately prosper from this revolution even if it is not clear exactly how that miracle will happen. Deputy Provost Diana Kleiner explains why Yale was in it: “We really didn’t know how it was going to go, but we thought an institution like Yale needed to be a leader in this space.” It’s a party that we are being invited to attend, but we are not privy to the guest list and no one seems to know when or how it will end.  

I’ve been to that party before.

Just before a sabbatical leave in 1993 my Purdue colleague George Vanacek burst into my office. “Have you heard of the World Wide Web?” He didn’t give me a chance to respond. “They’re connecting everything! Everything is going to change.” I had learned to listen when Vanacek said everything was going to change. I was puzzled, but I was also forewarned.

Almost exactly a year later I was in my office at the University of Padua when my research assistant Andrea pounded on the door. “Have you heard of Java?” And without giving me a chance to respond—almost without taking a breath—he started to tell me how everything was going to change. I would have been hard-pressed that year to explain exactly what was going to change or how, but watching the web explode from my post at a medieval university had an interesting effect. The world seemed to me to have changed overnight.

When I had left the US for Italy, almost no one outside a few computer science research labs even knew what a web address was. When I returned, they were everywhere. There were posters on buses and full-page ads in news magazines that said http://www.nyt.com, an unpronounceable phrase that when typed into a Web browser took you here: 

E-commerce had exploded, information was commoditized, distribution was democratized, and dozens of new players who claimed to add value were competing for attention. As I chronicled in Abelard to Apple, hundreds of new hub-and-spoke networks replaced brick and mortar institutions as technology and economic interdependence began in earnest. The economics of scale and popularity replaced the economics of reputation. Thomas Friedman’s flattening of the world we had known before was off and running. 

Incumbents were blissfully unaware of what was actually taking place, and the newspapers, who thought they would be much better off—leaner, more agile, hipper—with all of this new technology were first to be affected.

Media companies—old and new—partied in 1995, but over the next decade, local newspapers began to wink out of existence like so many fireflies on a summer evening. One website alone drove revenue out of print advertising at a breathtaking rate: hundreds of local newspapers that depended on classified ads for profits found that their cash cows had been appropriated by Craigslist. As classified ad rates dropped the incumbents raised subscription prices which further contributed to the cycle of decreasing overall ad rates and revenue, and, ultimately, financial ruin.  Newspapers were not the center of their own industry any more. They were mere bystanders as events unfolded. They had become relics.

You do not get the feeling from most of the main characters in Walsh’s drama—many of whom lead institutions whose prices continue to spiral out of control as their value is systematically hollowed out by the very technologies they once championed—that they lived through any of the events of 1995. They clearly know that a 21st century revolution is under way, but they think that their institutions are at the center of it. In reality, they are bystanders. They have already been pushed to the margins to watch as their world is reconstructed elsewhere. They are the incumbents, and they may already have become Peter Drucker’s relics.