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Seemingly unrelated disruptive events mark a strategic

inflection point for education, well beyond MOOC’s

FTTHGigabit Fiber to the Home (FTTH)

Much noise is being made about Massively Open Online Courses (MOOC‘s), and the rise of organizations like The Khan Academy and Silicon Valley startup Coursera.  Universities, including this one, are scrambling to develop strategies to respond. While institutions like M.I.T. and Harvard have already embraced open, free education, smaller institutions see a catastrophe on their horizons.  IMHO, broader and deeper disruptive change is already occurring in all education, not only higher education.  The MOOC’s movement is but a small piece of the emerging new paradigm for education. A few months ago I was struck by the visionary predictions of Dave Evans, Chief Futurist, at Cisco Systems in Silicon Valley. Evans very intelligently strings together a vision of education well beyond the current discussion among educators. In Evans future, MOOC’s themselves will be completely obsolete. Google’s strategic initiative to deploy Gigabit fiber optic connections to the home, and to bring Internet connectivity to the farthest corners of the globe may have a greater impact.  I have written on this:
Read more: How Gigabit fiber to the home will transform education way beyond MOOC’s

Precursor event: John Sperling, the “new college” movement, and

the University of Phoenix.


John Sperling, Cambridge don, founder of San Jose State University‘s “New College“, and founder of The University of Phoenix

My university education included the experience of knowing and working with Dr. John Sperling. The California State University system was in its golden period in those days, which is why Sperling was attracted to teaching in northern California at SJSU. As a member of the student government at SJSU, we worked closely with John. One of my fondest memories is of John stimulating students to think about the first Earth Day, which led us to the now legendary burial of a Ford Maverick on the university commons. My friend and student body president, Dick Miner went on to Harvard, and later rejoined John.  I was a student in the nationally acclaimed Speech-Communication program, but my hometown roommate was a member of Sperling’s “New College.”  Sperling had created a completely unorthodox educational program for students who could not otherwise meet the university’s admission requirements. Sperling fostered all kinds of cool and innovative things at New College, and faculty from all disciplines fell all over themselves to be a part of it. Before long, “new colleges” were popping up all over North America. The newest campus of the University of California, at Santa Cruz also adopted many of John’s ideas, and the two campuses cross-fertilized each other. It was a heady time in higher education.  Before long Sperling came up with the idea of a “massively open” for profit educational institution, well before the Internet. The University of Phoenix has had a chequered history, with equal amounts of scathing criticism and high praise. It has now embraced the online world as well. John is now a retired Billionaire who  lives very reclusively in San Francisco.  But it dawns on me that the current strategic inflection point in education actually began with John and the “New College” movement at San Jose State.  It took the Internet to push it into orbit, and now the Internet is taking it well beyond the orbit of Massively Open Online Courses, and into interstellar educational space.


Academic establishment rearranging Titanic’s deck chairs.

Despite Sperling’s innovations 40 years ago,  all of the signs  on the road, the flow of money to this change, and technological advances, I sense that many university academics are still carrying on as if nothing has changed.  This is classic strategic inflection point behavior. Andy Grove described a strategic inflection point as a hiker on a trail, who suddenly realizes he is lost, but has no idea when or exactly where he became lost. I see academics pursuing their traditional behaviors, and worst of all, their petty politics of ego and power instead of embracing the changes, as if they were Andy Grove’s hikers who have not yet realized they are lost.  Some academics characterize themselves as agents of educational change, but in actuality they are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. A few months ago, someone I know had sat through a meeting with UBC President Toope, and came away with the impression that Toope was resisting, and not at all onboard with the coming changes.  I read this recent article below by Toope with some interest, as it seems that he may have rethought his position, a hopeful sign. But we are still a very long way from iTunes University.

Universities must give up control: UBC president


Contributed to The Globe and Mail

Published Thursday, Oct. 24 2013, 7:00 AM EDT
The common denominator, the phrase associated with every recommendation for change in universities, is the necessity for radical transformation. Whether it’s government asking us to ‘tweak’ our research agenda to speed up commercialization; industry questioning our ability to meet the need for skilled workers; grantors placing geographical limits on eligibility for funding; or students wondering why our entire course calendar and library system aren’t online yet; we are getting it from all sides.


We do need to change, we need to change a lot, and we need to change fast. But “vital change’ is not the same as radical transformation. ‘Radical’ means ‘root.’ It means changing in essence. And if we do that – and some of us are already making moves in that direction – we’ve lost.
I have one change driver that you can use as a lens to look at all change drivers; and one criterion you can use to evaluate every next step. The common denominator of every driver of change, from digitization to climate change to global mobility, is direct experience. Universities arose out of an ecclesiastical culture that presumed a responsibility for mediating its followers’ experience of the sacred. That paternalistic dynamic stayed with us even after our transition to secular institutions, and has perpetuated that ‘ivory tower’ reputation among those we’re meant to educate and serve that persists to the present day.
Other sectors have led the way for us, demonstrating both what to do and what not to do. The music industry now has its iTunes, and the film and video industry, its Netflix. In both cases, the end user has access to all available content at any time and in any way she wants it. The business model is both economical for the user and profitable for the owner.
The proprietary, exclusionary control of content is obsolete. Every change, from the ones that are upon us to the ones we can’t see coming, is going to be driven by people’s desire for ever more direct experience.
It is a university’s job to lower barriers that limit or disallow direct experience. I’m talking about the invisible barriers between individuals of different backgrounds, cultures, and orientations on our campuses; I’m talking about the borderlines we’ve drawn between our campuses and the communities we serve; the boundaries between disciplines, fields, and faculties, and those between our institutions that exist because of geographical distance or philosophical difference or market share competition.
Why are our undergrad students left to make so many of the connections themselves? To do the integrating and synthesizing? Why do young professors with joint appointments fear they won’t get tenure? Why do so many of our funders limit the grants and scholarships available to international scholars, and so limit the nature of study and research partnerships? Why do so many of our staff see themselves as ‘supportive of’ rather than ‘integral to’ our mission and vision?
I’m also talking about the barriers – from financial to political – that keep too many local students and scholars homebound and too many would-be international students and scholars locked out. We claim to be graduating global citizens, but how many of them have traveled? How many have had a transformative encounter with someone whose views and beliefs differed markedly from their own? How many, actually, have left our campuses after four years without ever having thought seriously about how their fields of study – whether music or mathematics or marine biology – relate to the fundamental challenges of our day?
I will say that universities’ failure so far to fully democratize access to direct experience – whether it be information or intercultural encounters – is based in fear. Our fear – of losing control. Of being irrevocably and detrimentally altered.
So what do we do? Is there one magic criterion by which every decision in the difficult decade to come may be safely gauged? I believe there is …Be yourself.
Universities have a mission that is unique in all the world: to serve the world, through the preservation and dissemination of knowledge, and the creation of new knowledge. That is our task, and our task alone. Our survival rests in holding to the unique and necessary role we carved out for ourselves 800 years ago. Our challenge lies in the fact that we are no longer optimally organized to fulfill it.
We’re nation-based, and our national systems do not fully support our need for mobility. The classrooms in our older buildings are physically structured for a hierarchical and passive dynamic of pedagogy, and don’t reflect what we now know about how people best learn. Our most important funding mechanisms are inwardly focused. And we are often preoccupied with superficial measures of reputation, short-sighted research funding, and commercialization over sustainability.
We have forgotten the value of the core service we provide. Four years ago, UBC launched the most ambitious fundraising and alumni engagement campaign in Canadian history, with parallel goals of raising $1.5-billion and engaging 50,000 alumni annually in the day-to-day life of the university. With two years still to go, we’re already approaching both targets, and I believe it is because we are better serving our alumni and because we have opened up meaningful opportunities forthem to serve.
Show – don’t tell, show – your political leaders of every stripe the economic long view, and your place in strengthening it. Offer your faculty members incentives for crossing barriers of discipline and geography. Reward your staff for the ways they contribute to sustainability, intercultural understanding, international engagement. Expand free access to course content. Add online components to your face-to-face classes, and vice versa.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.” Know yourself. Know your value. Let your barriers down and invite in the messiness of transformation. Change structurally if you must, but don’t change radically; keep your medieval roots.

Post Author: David Mayes

Founder, Mayo615 Technology Partners Ltd., UBC adjunct faculty, Intel alumnus, technology assessment, international business, cleantech, fly fisherman, native Californian and citizen of France, who has been very fortunate to have traveled, lived and worked all over the globe. My wonderful wife, Isabelle has reintroduced me to my French Provençal heritage.

2 Replies to “Strategic Inflection Point: iTunes University Transforming The Ivory Tower Whether We Like It Or Not”

  1. One need only to take a stroll around the UBC campus to be exposed to mostly “International Student Body” the “different backgrounds, cultures, and orientations” whom by virtue of the almighty dollar, have greater access to higher education. Toope’s vision of democracy is indelibly linked to capitalism which, conflicts with his premise of a level educational playing field. This reads like ramblings.

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