Content vs. service in media & education

/// Content vs. service in media & education

November 20, 2012  |  Blog

Content is that which fills something. Service is that which accomplishes something.

Content starts with the desires of creators to make things. Service start with the needs of clients to achieve outcomes.

We think of media and news and content businesses. Education, too, runs as a content enterprise.

But shouldn’t both be seen as services?

“Now we can provide students with a course that mirrors our classroom experience,” the provost of Washington University, Edward S. Macias, said last week as 10 universities announced yet another consortium to provide online education. What struck me when I read that was how much it sounded like the early days of newspaper editors facing the web. They tried to replicate what they used to do, treating the net as merely a new means of distribution for their content.

Shovelware. Media did it. Education does it. Since those are the two fields I’m in, I’m finding parallels and lessons in both.

Education at least has some aptitude for thinking in outcomes, as that’s how we’re supposed to measure the success of programs: What should students learn and did they learn it? Still, to be honest, some of this process of determining outcomes is reverse-engineered, starting with the course and its content and backing into the results. (And one unfortunate side-effect of outcomes-thinking, I should add, is the teaching-to-the-test that now corrupts primary and high schools.)

Journalists are worse. I find a disease among students that continues into careers, starting a pitch for a story (or in my program, a business) with the phrase, “I want to…” Playing the curmudgeonly prof, I tell them no one, save perhaps their mothers, gives a damn what they want to do. The question they should be asking and answering is what the public needs them to do.

Outcomes.

If journalists started with outcomes, they’d measure their success not by unique users or page views or other such “audience” metrics adapted from mass media. They’d measure their success by how informed the public becomes: Did the public find out what it wants or needs to know because of what we’ve done? Is the electorate better informed? (How’re we doin’ with that?) Do New Jerseyans know where to find gas in a crisis? Today when we do research about news “consumers,” we ask them what they think of our products. Shouldn’t we ask them instead what they didn’t know and now know? If we want to reverse-engineer journalism, we need to start with a standard for an informed public and then examine how best to achieve that goal. A more informed public will not always come as the result of articles — content. It will also come via platforms where the public shares what they know without mediators (i.e., media) as well as data and analysis of data, with journalists trying to add value where they’re most needed.

If education were truly constructed around outcomes, it would start with researching the skills and knowledge students need to meet their goals — whether that is a job or an expertise — and then determine the best ways to accomplish that. And that won’t always come from delivering content in the form of the lecture, time-honored though that may be from the days of teachers reading scarce, scribal texts. I’m beginning to rethink journalism education that way: starting with outcomes, curating curricular materials, making all that open, then adding value for some students in the forms of tutoring, certification, and providing context for how tools and skills are used: service.

When we think of ourselves as services, then we strive not to own products but instead to add value to a process. When we provide service, we become more accountable for the outcomes our clients achieve. (When a teacher gives every student in a class bad grades, it’s the teacher who’s failing. When a community is ignorant, it’s the journalists who are failing.) How much better it would be to architect these industries — and they are industries — in reverse, giving clients the ability to set goals and then providing marketplaces of competing means by which they can meet those goals.

I went to an unfortunately off-the-record conference recently at which I asked a long-time leader in education and the founder of an online education startup about the fate of degrees. The long-timer said that from the moment IBM starts hiring engineers when they can show certificates of completion for some set of online courses, the degree will fade.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t think that is the way the new online startups are built, so far. They deliver courses: content. That’s understandable. It’s phase I of a process of transition: we take what we know and try it out in the new setting, as media have done. These education startups are also searching, as media have done (and still are), for a business model. Coursera is free but promotes its top-tier universities (and might sell a bunch of text books for profs). Udacity wants to make rock-star profs, I think. 2U is charging $4,000 a course for credit (!) in small classes; it’s the anti-MOOC. The University of the People has a mission to educate worldwide masses for free.

Just as I hope that education learns from the disruption of the news business, Clay Shirky hopes it learns from the disruption of music. For much of his post, Clay sees online education the way various of these enterprises do and the way I did when in What Would Google Do? I imagined a distributed Oxford/Cambridge system of international and digital lectures and in-person and local tutors.

But then, as is Clay’s habit, he noted what I think is a key question from these startups: “Meanwhile, they try to answer some new questions, questions that the traditional academy — me and my people — often don’t even recognize as legitimate, like ‘How do we spin up 10,000 competent programmers a year, all over the world, at a cost too cheap to meter?’” That was the same question put forward in what I still think of as a seminal meeting held by Union Square Ventures in 2009 called Hacking Education: They set the goal at making the marginal cost of education zero. That is what these MOOCs are trying to do. If they succeed, then education suddenly scales (and we stop bankrupting our children’s future).

Back again to the media parallel: The marginal cost of gathering and sharing information is already approaching zero. That’s what scares the media industry, built as it is on selling a scarcity called content. At that same off-the-record business conference last week, I heard one media executive say that his industry’s goal is soley to “protect the value of content.” That’s what the copyright wars are over. That is what is beginning to scare universities.

But what’s really scaring them is the the shifting value of content versus service. Google is a service. It delivers and extracts value through knowledge of its users. It doesn’t want to own content, only learn from it. Its highest aspiration is to intuit our intent and deliver what we want before we’ve even said it. Service. Media are factories. They gain value from selling content to customers they don’t know. Products. There’s the real conflict.

I ask us — in journalism and in education (and in journalism education) — to aspire to being services. That requires us to start by thinking of the ends.

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