Where will higher education be the day after the current global economic crisis passes? If you think things will simply go back to the way they were once the economy recovers in a year or two, think again.
Many people seem to accept that the financial crisis will take its toll on a number of universities. Mergers, consolidations, and perhaps even closures are all possible outcomes of the financial crisis. The reaction at many institutions has been to plan for fewer students, fewer offerings, the suspension of sabbatical leaves, and salary freezes — intervention strategies focused on the financial ledger. As someone who lives with the crushing budget challenge, I know that those decisions are painful and risk ripping at the core fabric of the academy. They also don’t get at the heart the challenge.
The structural challenges we face are far more complex than (tuition+research+endowment)-(salaries+facilities). Paul Romer is quoted as having once said that “a crisis is a terrible thing to waste.” I leave it to thought leaders across the academy and readers of this blog to opine as to what opportunities might present themselves to universities who are prepared to seize the moment.
One area where I predict fundamental change is the impact of open educational resources on the textbook market. Traditional textbook publishers have held an iron lock on the industry’s model for too long, and universities have been tacitly complicit of the system. In the Web era, however, this oligopolistic business practice is imploding.
Indeed, the whole learning process is changing thanks to the Internet. First professors posted syllabi online and used e-mail to supplement their office hours. Then learning activities like classroom presentations were supplemented by student-published Web pages, searchable discussion forums, and collaborative wikis. In a curve that has only been accelerating these past 20 years, we now have an educational economy of information abundance confronting an educational delivery system that was built for a time of information scarcity. Colleges have shared some of their best teaching using new systems like Apple’s iTunes U, OpenCourseWare, and explosive content-creation activities underway in countries like India and China.
Future generations of learners will no doubt look back at the global economic crisis of 2008-9 and reflect on which institutions were agile enough to make a difference by bringing the wisdom of their scholars together with the acumen of their technology officers and the ingenuity and determination of their university leaders. It’s actually not only the future of the university that is in play. How we produce, organize, and distribute open education resources is at the heart of the future of education around the world. —Lev Gonick
Lev Gonick, this month’s guest blogger, is CIO at Case Western Reserve University.