Context + Competition (2014)

We attribute value and meaning to people, objects and other things on the basis of the circumstances in which we experience them. Art is the classic example. If we take a work of art out from behind the red ropes, away from the quiet guards, and out of the art gallery, the meaning and value of the art typically change a great deal. In fact, it may no longer be interpreted as art at all by some people - particularly in the case of some modern art. (Figure A)


Context is crucial in commercial markets, too. Vendors go to great lengths to control the context in which their products and services are positioned. Television advertisers, for example, avoid placing ads in the middle of programs that address unsettling topics; that evoke emotions and sensibilities that are not supportive of the product being promoted. “The Day After” was a fictional “made for TV movie” about the aftermath of a nuclear attack on US soil.

The film’s producers found it so difficult to attract advertisers that they choose to run all ads prior to the point in the film when the nuclear attack occurs.  Apparently, convincing people that having fresher breath will make them one of the “beautiful people” is more difficult after witnessing death and destruction.

What, if anything, does this have to do with higher education? Until now, not much. Historically, higher education has been able to control the context in which student’s experience the institution and what it has to offer. Compared to other types of organizations, colleges and universities are like islands, “all-in-one” organizations, in which the student - if they chose - could spend their entire educational career without ever leaving the campus.

Educational Content in New Contexts

But the walls around higher education are becoming less substantial, primarily because of student behaviour. Whether creating work groups on Facebook, or adding their opinion to RateMyProfessor, students are taking elements of their experience outside of their schools to the broader public, piece by piece.

Institutions are cautiously joining in the dismantling of the walls by, for example, creating institutional Facebook pages. But the most interesting effort to reach beyond the walls is the placement of the institution's instructional materials (course notes, lectures) on public platforms, like  Connexions and Merlot and Academic Earth.

The fact that these materials are publicly available is significant, of course. Traditionally, these instructional materials were carefully hidden behind secure university course management systems, available only to students registered in the course.

But it's also significant that the materials are now subject to evaluation and comparison with materials from other institutions. This exposes the institution to an entirely new type of evaluation with its own criteria.

The Net is doing to higher ed what it did for so many other sectors - exposing competitors to brutal side-by-side comparisons; creating a far more informed buyer. As these shared platforms for educational content become more user-friendly visitors may soon be able to compare lectures like they compare fridges.

What the users experience is not always pretty. Philip Greenspun did a minute by minute evaluation of a well known finance professor’s lecture performance on Academic Earth, suggesting that the professor’s lecture was wasteful, self-indulgent and incoherent (Figure C). On the other hand, some of the instructional materials on the sites are celebrated for their quality. (Platforms like Academic Earth highlight the higher rated materials.)

This move to greater transparency is a positive development. But I’m not sure that the majority of academic managers are yet fully conscious of the implications. Indeed, the decision to put educational content online is, at most institutions, left to the individual academic. As these platforms become more popular and the ability to compare educational content/institutions becomes that much easier, we may see leaders paying closer attention to what is published publicly.