29 June 2013

Pioneers And The End Of The Traditional University?

Regular readers here know that I, as a committed homeschooler, post often about problems and issues in American education, as well as current and future trends in education. The stunning success of the homeschooling revolution has impacted the educational establishment in ways much deeper and profound than most of the "inside experts" are willing (or even realize) to admit. It is now common knowledge that parents can do a better job (and at a fraction of the cost) than can the inefficient, bureaucratic behemoth that is public education. This fact has altered even the psychology of Americans' views on what more be done outside the traditional model. We can credit 3 things for this: Christians (who first ventured out into homeschooling due to the Darwinism influence in public education), freedom and liberty in America to homeschool and, lastly, technology.

Let's think about the technology aspects of all this for a moment. Look what Amazon and technology has done to the publishing world and local bookstores. 20 years ago, there were 2 thriving independent bookstores in my area - both had been in business for decades. They're both now closed - have been for several years. That's not necessarily a good thing, but it is a fact. I buy 95% of my books from Amazon. Used ones at a discounted price - the free (freedom) market at work. The failure of the education establishment and parents to instill a love of reading in children has also played a role in the demise of the local bookstore - but that's another topic for another day.

All pioneering movements have phases. Homeschooling is no different. There are always those first brave souls - the ones who "take the arrows" so to speak. (No offense to my wife's Indian heritage intended.) My wife and I were one of those pioneers back in the early '90's. We were mocked and made fun of - even by those with whom we attended church. I was actually on board with homeschooling several years before my wife, but she was hesitant, more cautious. I can't blame her. She was the stay at home Mom and would be doing all the heavy lifting of homeschooling 4 of our 6 children. Then we had the opportunity to meet homeschooling guru Mike Farris when he was running for Lt. Governor of Virginia. We approached him after a speech and told him that we were thinking about homeschooling but my wife was unsure. She didn't think she could "do it." Mike took a sincere interest in us and our questions and rattled off some facts regarding his own experience with homeschooling - he and his wife homeschooled 9 children. His words and advice hit home with my wife. I was looking at her face when the light came on. As we thanked Mike for his time and counsel and turned to walk away, my wife said to me, with great confidence, "Let's do it." It is one of the best decisions we ever made in regards to our family. And it continues. All but two of our 16 school-aged grandchildren are now, or have been at some point, homeschooled.

As pioneers in movements begin to see success, others follow and then the establishment and those who hold a stake in the "old model" take notice and dig in their heels to stop the "amateurs" from taking "their turf." They persecute, they lie, they lobby corrupt politicians to enact freedom-restricting laws (ostensibly to protect others, but actually themselves),  and they intentionally mischaracterize and malign the movement they oppose. We see this pattern repeated over and over again throughout history. The dinosaurs died, but I'm quite sure they didn't go willingly.

Look at what's happened to the publishing world. Anyone with a $200 computer and access to a local McDonald's that offers free wi-fi can be published, quite literally, overnight. The dreaded "rejection notice" is  a thing of the past. You can bypass the issuers of rejection notices and self-publish. I was reminded of this last week when I heard of the passing of author Vince Flynn. Flynn was a fascinating man but this is what I found interesting about him:
Mr. Flynn was supporting himself by bartending when he self-published his first novel, ‘‘Term Limits,’’ in 1997 after getting more than 60 rejection letters. After the book became a local best-seller, Pocket Books, a Simon & Schuster imprint, signed him to a two-book deal — and ‘‘Term Limits’’ became a New York Times best-seller in paperback.
The St. Paul-based author also sold millions of books in the international market and averaged about a book a year, most of them focused on Rapp, a CIA counterterrorism operative. (Source here.)
I had a similar experience - though unfortunately not on the same scale as Flynn. After receiving a kind "no thanks" from a very well known publisher (I am rather well-acquainted with the executive editor), he referred me to a self-publishing, print on demand company which would help with limited editing, cover design, and distribution. I kept all rights and was paid a much higher royalty rate. That book was The Maxims of Robert E. Lee for Young Gentlemen. It did OK for my first effort - I believe I sold around 1500 copies before Pelican Publishing picked it up. Since then it's sold an additional 7000 copies and the folks at Lee Chapel tell me it is one of their best-selling titles. It was also a featured offer in a book club. Since then I've written and published 3 other books via the traditional route. And am working on a 4th, with plans for more after that (I plan to self-publish again at some point). But it was self-publishing and technology that gave me a leg up. Technology and the free market has put authors in more control over their work and decentralized the whole industry. It's quite breathtaking when you really think about what's happened over the last 20 years.

In both instances - homeschooling and publishing - the centralized, established players could not control what freedom and technology spawned. They were overwhelmed and those unwilling or unable to adapt got left in the dust.

We may soon see a similar outcome for the traditional university. In the last few years, I've read more and more articles about this possibility. Actually, it is already becoming a reality. But like the homeschooling movement and self-publishing, the dinosaurs are scoffing. 

Here's a recent headline at the U.K. Guardian:

Do online courses spell the end for the traditional university?

And here's the lead in:

Publishing, music, shopping, journalism – all revolutionised by the internet. Next in line? Education. Now US academics are offering world-class tuition – free – to anyone who can log on, anywhere in the world, is this the end of campus life? 
The piece goes on to explore how online classes are revolutionizing learning at the university level. Personally, I don't think traditional colleges and universities will ever "go away." Like primary education and the publishing industry - there will still be room for both the old and new models. But I think the writer is actually underestimating what is going on and the ultimate ramifications at the college level. There are other things pushing this revolution beyond technology and tuition costs which the writer does not discuss. You can read the piece and decide for yourself


E.J. D'Agrosa said...

That's interesting. I never knew that about Vince Flynn. Sad he died so young too.

As a writer myself I really appreciate the ease and relatively low-cost that it takes to self-publish these days. While I remain a predominantly traditional reader and my home library fills up faster than I can acquire bookshelves, the e-book has given me a new medium to publish on my own, and hopefully get noticed by bigger publishers.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Aim for the moon!