In Marc Parry’s article on Mitch Duneier in the Chronicle of Higher Education from September 3, 2013 (http://chronicle.com/article/A-MOOC-Star-Defects-at-Least/141331/), the author discusses Duneier’s decision to defect from offering his massive open online course on sociology through Coursera. Professor Duneier’s recent change of heart occurred after Coursera asked to license the course so it could be offered to other colleges. Mr. Duneier felt this move would act as an excuse for state legislators to cut funding to state universities. Essentially, politicians fighting against a tight budget would begin to shop around for the right balance between affordability and brand-name recognition in higher educational mediated course products.
This article got me thinking about the future of higher education if not worldwide, then at least in the near future within the United States. One definite ephemeral trend if not sea change will be what I refer to as “the malling” of higher education. The worry behind Professor Duneier’s reason behind no longer offering his online course I feel fall within this new trend. Specifically that very soon an increasing number of both online and physical spaces previously marked by one educational vision, motto, or even just brand, will soon resemble more a common shopping mall or galleria with a multitude of educational brands from which potential students can not only sample but purchase. While this style of a la carte selection has never gained traction in cable television, it will in higher education.
If you look at the photograph on this page from a current U.S. community college, you see that the already established practice of satellite campuses act as a pilot form of this future malling effect. In fact, some could argue that much like our favorite local malls, we know their name but obviously only go for the brands which anchor the physical space. So, in this photograph, the name of the community college is certainly displayed, but it is the more well-know four brands that draw the eye with most likely the Rutgers branding acting as the anchor for this particular piece of educational real estate. We see a similar trend in online education as large state universities – among other institutions – continue to contract out online class support hosting to prominent educational product companies even if the university itself has already built proprietary online class support interfaces.
These moves undoubtedly save money by using third-party vendors and this same market logic applies for the malling effect for both educational producer and consumer. Beyond social experiential reasons, why go to local state university if “the best of Harvard Business School” learning modules are available, somewhat affordable, and easy to access? Especially if one could bundle that module with say “University of Chicago” best of psychology or social research? As for those benefits of networking that come with a collegiate experience, there are now supposed online alternatives such as Inigral, a private, branded community meant to replace such networking (Delbanco, 2013, p.xii). While it is true the what we used to call the knowledge business “has become selling an experience, an affiliation, a commodity that can be manufactured, packaged, bought, and sold” (Twitchell, 2004, p.116), this commodity may simply become a luxury good for the flush or discerning college buyer, leaving the majority of the available product for the local mall masses. In the short-term these moves at malling may help shore up attendance numbers by offering satellite versions of attractive educational brands but ultimately lead towards monopolization by brands within higher education.
This is not to say increased educational access and work within communities is always a negative occurrence. While most of us lament the death of mom and pop bookstores within local communities, the now nearly ubiquitous practice added to the suburban middle-class habitus of patronizing a Barnes & Noble to read, work, or drink increasingly European-styled coffees may be viewed upon as a slight embrace towards increased interest in literacy (even if what are advertised as “best-sellers” is barely literature, but I digress). If this taste for a corporate version of the reading life within the local community is true, I do wonder if or when the physical book business declines, if we’ll fill these now-vacant Barnes & Noble, etc. spaces with more malled versions of higher education. Why not stop by for a coffee as you’ve always done, spend time reading, and then take a class either physically or online from a trusted educational brand supplier such as Harvard, Yale, UC Berkeley, or even Rutgers? It would be the logical conclusion to this trend: the malling effect returned to its origin of practice. We would just need some fake ivy to go along with the already fake dark rich mahogany wood paneling adorning the coffee shop…
Delbanco, A. (2013). College: What It Was, Is, and Should Be (New in Paperback). Princeton University Press.
Parry, M. (2013, September 3). A Star MOOC Professor Defects—at Least for Now. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from http://chronicle.com/article/A-MOOC-Star-Defects-at-Least/141331/
Twitchell, J. B. (2004). Branded Nation: The Marketing of Megachurch, College Inc., and Museumworld. Simon and Schuster.