What are students really buying in an education?

Will journalism education make some of the same mistakes as the journalism industry? It’s a reasonable question to ask because Internet publishing threatens to roil the education industry every bit as much as it disrupted the news publishing business.

Fortunately, I’ve heard from several journalism educators who are eager to get into distance learning, and to find ways to use the rise of the Internet to their schools’ advantage, rather than wait for the Internet to change the marketplace so radically that their schools are forced to react. But moving lectures from a classroom to the Internet is simply a medium change. Like newspapers starting websites, that won’t be nearly enough for institutions of higher learning to prosper in the Internet age.

The key to surviving a business disruption is to understand clearly what it is that you’re actually selling. If you want to look at this from the flip side, it’s understanding the customer need that those customers are paying you to resolve.

Newspapers screwed up by thinking that they were selling daily news reports to home subscribers. What too many newspaper managers forgot was that home subscription fees were token payments that barely covered the cost of distribution. Their real customers were the advertisers.

Similarly, educators might believe that their “product,” if you will, is information – the deep knowledge of a subject delivered by an instructor during a class. If so, those educators would be just as wrong as their colleagues in the newspaper business were.

Sure, lectures and instruction are part of the package that students get when they pay tuition to a college or university. But the Internet has made
university-level knowledge free and ubiquitous online, just as it made classified ads free and ubiquitous a more than a decade ago. If your institution’s distance learning plans are focused on charging tuition-level amounts of money for access to online lectures, you’re future’s as bleak as a 1990s newspaper trying to peddle overpriced online classified verticals. That’s not your strength. So don’t try to make a play on it.

I’ve written before about how the Internet is fueling a revolution in self-directed learning, especially among the tech-savvy young. If you are a broadcast journalism faculty member and looking to find a market for video editing instruction online, you’re going to have a hard time getting people to pay university-level tuition to access that instruction when they can instead click over to Video Copilot get pro-quality tutorials for free. (That’s the site my 11-year-old son told me he used to teach himself Adobe After Effects.)

This isn’t to say that people won’t pay for instruction online. Much of the time, the Internet’s about as easy to navigate as my kids’ rooms. (They are not neat freaks.) Students, whether pre-career or mid-career, will continue to value and pay for instruction that’s well-organized and presented with a clear and engaging voice. But that’s the eBook market, earning eBook prices from individual students. If you want to earn tuition-level prices from individual students, you’ve got to offer more. Much more.

So if journalism schools aren’t selling knowledge, through in-person lectures or online tutorials, what are they selling? What’s the need that they alone can fulfill that allows them to earn income that free instruction sites online can’t?

Here are a few such needs:

Evaluation, not just instruction.

Community, in lieu of isolation.

Coaching, instead of lectures.

The market for higher education lies not in the flow of information from the academy to the public, it lies in the exchange of information between the public and expert instructors at the college or university. And it lies in the development of a community (that word again*) of learning where students help teach and learn from each other as they learn for themselves.

(*I swear, there could be an OJR drinking game – every time I write the word “community,” readers have to drink. If anyone tries this, I urge you to leave your reading of OJR for the final 10 minutes of your work day. And to arrange for a cab ride home.)

You can’t beat the rest of the Internet on pricing instructional tutorials. You can’t go cheaper than free. But if you’re trying to learn how to make documentaries or video news stories, would you rather hear the feedback of anonymous YouTube commenters, or award-winning filmmakers and journalists? There’s going to come a point in your budding career when you need professional guidance and advice. That’s the moment for education online.

Many self-instructional sites include forums and community (drink!) elements. But I know from personal and professional experience that people cherish the opportunity to become members of a community with informed and experienced leadership. Aspirational readers don’t like to settle for online communities led by flame war winners. That’s a business opportunity, and not just for educational institutions.

The most valuable element of my college education wasn’t anything that I learned in a specific class while I attended school. It’s been the opportunity to be part of my alma mater’s community – the connections I’ve built over the years with other alumni and with faculty members at the school, and the “brand name” value of my degree. So a smart distance learning play for a college or university should not only be built around fostering one-on-one instructional relationships between students and teachers (and between students and other students), it should do so in a way that will enable those connections to develop into lifelong coaching relationships.

It’s tempting to take the cheap and easy way out by throwing together some Flashy lectures and slapping a huge price-tag on them. But that’s not a viable model for distance learning. If higher education is going to seize its future online, educators are going to have to do the more difficult work of finding ways to build relationships with and between students using online media. That is what the students are paying for. Only the foolish in college and universities will forget that.

About Robert Niles

Robert Niles is the former editor of OJR, and no longer associated with the site. You may find him now at http://www.sensibletalk.com.


  1. says:

    To answer your lede: It’s not a reasonable question to ask because you have not quantified your point with facts. The journalism schools I deal with as well as my own, have been surpassing the industry’s needs for some time now. The problem isn’t that we are standing still: our tech-saavy students prevent us from doing that. The problem is that the industry is not asking our students to use the skills we teach them. This begs the real question: Should we teach skills we believe newspapers will use in the future or the ones they actually demand today? If your answer is “both” then you understand the curricular quandary I-schools everywhere are in.

  2. says:

    Those three points:

    Evaluation, not just instruction

    Community, in lieu of isolation

    Coaching, instead of lectures

    set San Jose State’s journalism program apart from so many — it’s the basis of how we operate.