Published on 2013/10/31
Lessons from the Music Industry: Addressing Quality Rather than Focusing on Access and Cost
Higher education can avoid the fate of the music industry by looking to synthesize a broad swath of content, rather than simply focusing on questions of access and cost.
Pundits argue that market forces, along with limited state support of public higher education, are the main reason for shifting the foundations of an institution that has refused to adapt to the changing world. These same people argue that technological changes have revolutionized, and will continue revolutionizing, the way students learn and faculty deliver content.

There are those that say the changes to the music industry will also occur in higher education. The dramatic growth of the Internet during the last two decades has uprooted the way we listen to music. Innovative distribution channels such as iTunes and Amazon have provided the opportunity to listen to music anywhere at any time. In a century, the music industry has shifted from live performances to vinyl LP records to CDs and now to digital music, where consumers can pick and choose what they buy and what they listen to.

With reference to higher education, it is suggested state policymakers and many families no longer support a “teacher-centric” approach to higher education; they demand greater access with the promise of lower cost. Technological changes combined with increasing consumer demand and limited funding from state policy makers have encouraged the use of eLearning initiatives and online platforms such as Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). Proponents of this model and myriad higher education institutions are rushing to take advantage of this new modality for content delivery. Many argue higher education institutions, along with many professors, are not only required to teach in this new modality but should also create their own content for each course and become a student coach by facilitating greater interaction between professor and students.  Online courses as a delivery mode are anticipated to eventually outnumber face-to-face courses, thus liberalizing access and lowering the cost of education per unit (a greater number of students could attend online classes at a fraction of the cost resulting in multiple sections of the same course). It is true that during austere eras, higher education institutions must adapt in order to survive technological demands and market forces. Some even argue that these revolutionary technological changes are leading to knowledge explosion and the expansion of higher education.

However, the missing link between technological changes as a catalyst for knowledge explosion continues as the same old dilemma that many institutions have encountered before. Those institutions relying on eLearning and online platforms in order to enhance access must still deal with the ongoing need for better integration of knowledge, not focusing solely on the delivery mode. Synthesizing knowledge across multiple disciplines is a bigger challenge than the pundits for these changes have foreseen. For example, we graduate civil engineers with knowledge of how to build roads but without any knowledge of walkable communities or designs for sustainable practices.

The current discussion should therefore be around new degrees that draw knowledge from departments and professors from multiple disciplines. Higher education institutions and their departments have become insulated silos, lacking synthesis of knowledge through greater collaboration between varied disciplines. True educational revolution in higher education will materialize only when colleges are no longer organized around specific disciplines, but rather around mixed curriculum drawing expertise and knowledge from multiple fields of study. Degrees should not consist of single subjects; instead, they should bring multiple perspectives of issues facing our society and offer effective approaches to address these issues through multidisciplinary methods of inquiry. Then we can truly claim that we have (r)evolutionized higher education.

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Readers Comments

kenneth y 2013/10/31 at 10:26 am

Some early innovators created “interdisciplinary studies” but, by and large, institutions have failed to make the connections between disciplines, opting instead to package credentials as subject — rather than issue/problem — specific. An exception might be environmental studies, which includes material from geography and the physical sciences, and often also requires understanding of human impact on the environment. It would be good to see more institutions adopt this kind of approach to program development.

Jeff P 2013/11/01 at 10:16 am

Another lesson from the music industry is how little leverage your infrastructure really has. Brick-and-mortar institutions cost more to maintain than virtual universities, and growing evidence suggests there is a lessening demand for them. The music industry is finding itself in a similar situation, with independent musicians foregoing traditional recording studios and choosing, instead, free channels such as YouTube to release their music. The traditional big names in the industry are struggling to adapt.

This is not to say we must get rid of all brick-and-mortar institutions, but I would advise institutions with lots of physical infrastructure to think very carefully about what their expansion might look like.

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