Higher ed: Adapt or die

When the economy is down, folks might run back to school in droves, but the ones who’ve made it out enter the workplace with poor prospects and it immediately begs the question, Why should I go to school at all?

A recent Chronicle piece entitled What Colleges Should Learn From Newspapers projects a future that might seem distant now, but won’t be for long if the trends that we’ve begun to see continue.

Much of what’s happening was predicted in the mid-1990s, when the World Wide Web burst onto the public consciousness. But people were also saying a lot of retrospectively ludicrous Internet-related things — e.g., that the business cycle had been abolished, and that vast profits could be made selling pet food online. Newspapers emerged from the dot-com bubble relatively unscathed and probably felt pretty good about their future. Now it turns out that the Internet bomb was real — it just had a 15-year fuse.
Universities were also subject to a lot of fevered speculation back then. In 1997 the legendary management consultant Peter Drucker said, “Thirty years from now, the big university campuses will be relics. … Such totally uncontrollable expenditures, without any visible improvement in either the content or the quality of education, means that the system is rapidly becoming untenable.” Twelve years later, universities are bursting with customers, bigger, and (until recently) richer than ever before.

The arms race that leads to bigger, better palatial campuses with more amenities simply won’t do in an increasingly digital world. The still too overly reliant on paper, fee-increasing financial drain of the current higher ed marketplace simply won’t cut it for future generations who are already tuning out marketing efforts that wouldn’t look out of place a decade ago, despite the massive innovations and tools at our disposal.

What will the future of higher education look like? Will an iTunes-like application provides access to thousands of university courses from around the globe, allowing students to download a la carte courses and craft them into a customized degree? Will brand name degrees backed by credible institutions replace accreditation?

No matter where the industry heads, one thing is for sure. A lot of adaptation and change will be needed, if many of the schools in this country expect to survive into the next decade.

Social media is not a must have

When people ask me about things like Twitter, Facebook or the value of other social media platforms, I’m always quick to tell them that social media is an investment. Social Media Bandwagon

What that means is, just because other colleges and universities are using social media, you shouldn’t jump into the media simply because you think you need to keep up.

Many of us in the higher ed blogosphere are early adopters or people who evangelize technologies because we’re adept at using these tools. But it’s important to understand your institution and your wherewithal to support the development and management of new content.

If you need to update content on your web site, you probably shouldn’t worry as much about whether you have a huge presence on Facebook or. Why? Because it’s not guaranteed to be here tomorrow. No social network is. Once you’ve made a huge investment extending your brand to the platforms, how do you recover it once they go away?

The three keys to remember about social media deployment are:

1. Doing it wrong can hurt you, more than it can help you.

2. Learning and maximizing any new technology takes time and money. Without the personnel to effectively deploy and utilize these tools consistent with your messaging, you’ll found yourself floundering on another platform. With more work to do.

3. All of the social media in the world won’t revive a moribund institutional brand with no focus. You have to create a cohesive message and promulgate that in all your other areas of marketing, to extend your value into social media.

Social media is not a must have, despite how many people will tell you that’s where you need to be. You have to make a commitment and provide adequate resources or your efforts are likely to fall short. There’s a great deal of value in these tools and it’s incumbent for institutions to start pushing the envelope; not just in how these tools are used, but how their teams are structured to maximize benefits, break down silos and create better information sharing within institutions.

But make no mistake, social media is not a low-investment, high-yield tool. It requires attention and dedication to achieve success.

Illustration by Matt Hamm, used under a Creative Commons license.

Some changes

One of the reasons I started this blog was to talk about interesting things and provide insight that I couldn’t find anywhere else on the web. I hoped it would help me network within higher ed and outside of it. Mission accomplished.

But one of the things that’s been pretty important to me is finding a voice that makes some sense to me. Working in higher ed has been great, but it also starts to constrain what you talk about. Everyone’s experiences are different, but I find if you’re blogging for the sake of it, you start to resort to tricks like writing tips in bullets and attempting to get people to comment by finding sensational topics to blog about and taking a different opinion for fun. (College debate habits never die, it seems…)

As I head into the second year of this particular blog, I’ve decided to make a few changes. This blog will be moving to a new domain – edustir.com – after all, what I do most of the time here is stir up the pot with thoughts, ideas and open-ended conversations aimed at getting people to think more incisively not just about what we do, but why we do it.

I bought a domain last year for a Synonym project that we ended up not going forward with, but there it was sitting in that pile of domain names that get purchased and never used (I know I can’t be the only person who does that!?) and it occurred to me that it’d be a good way to get this thing off the clumsy address it’s had for the past year (which has always annoyed me, but I didn’t have a better solution until now) and it’ll give me a chance to really zero in on some specific things in web strategy and education as a whole that I’d like to talk about.

So stay tuned for what I believe will be a wealth of interesting new content, commentary and conversations borne out of the exciting new professional adventures heading in my direction this year.

Thanks to everyone who reads, contributes and has mentioned both here on the blog and in person how much they like what I do here. I have very modest intentions when I put this thing together and so far they’ve been completely surpassed, but it’s been through the strength of a vibrant and fast-growing higher ed community that I continue to be edified!