aggregate, filter and connect

In response to my last post, my friend Ken Katkin said “Reading your essay make me glad that: (1) I traded in the music biz for academia when I did; and (2) I have tenure!” The only problem is that the more I’ve thought about it, the more uneasy I’ve become. I keep saying that the two ways to make money in the digital environment are aggregating and filtering, and in discussing the university business model, I thought it was good that universities were already doing some filtering. But there was something in Ken’s comment that has come to alarm me…

I’ve been saying for quite a while that the problems that the record industry have run into are in large part due to a fundamental misunderstanding of how they were adding value. Record companies thought that they were adding value by developing artists (which most artists don’t actually need help with), when in fact they added value by filtering (the amount of bad music out there is genuinely staggering, and someone has to help us figure out what’s worth listening to). Like universities, record companies were already performing one of the key functions that we need (filtering), but because they didn’t realise that this was where they were creating value, they protected the wrong part of their business model. The thing that scares me about universities is that the odds are high that they also don’t realise where value is being added either.

But then having a chat with my friend Jason Tangen gave me another idea which gives me some hope. UQ has recently opened a Centre for Educational Innovation and Technology, headed up by Phil Long. Jason and Phil have been talking about new teaching models, based on those that Phil helped develop at MIT. The basic idea is that classes will look something like this:

  • Lectures (and other similar content) are pre-recorded via some form of podcasting. Students are expected to watch this material, and read whatever they’re supposed to read, prior to face-to-face time.
  • The classroom time then is oriented around addressing issues that students bring to class. These can by anything relating to the content that they’ve already worked with.
  • The role of the teacher is to facilitate the discussion – and the ‘teacher’ can be the lecturer, or a class member, or a guest speaker

There’s obviously a ton of detail that goes behind this idea, and I’ve almost certainly skipped some important ones here. But this model raises a couple of important points. The first is that the pre-recorded content can come from anywhere. The course co-ordinator can make it, or we can bring in material from superstar lecturers at other universities. The important business model idea here is that the role of the person putting the course together is not necessarily to create content, or to transfer it into the heads of the students. The main jobs here are aggregating and filtering – compiling information, figuring out what is essential, and then creating a framework within which students can explore this knowledge using all of tools (mental, physical and digital) at their disposal.

However, It’s the second and third parts of that model that gave me an important insight. John and I have done some teaching like this – and the real challenge to making this teaching method work is to being adept at connecting up disparate ideas. In general, this is where students gain value in this kind of setting. It’s a very challenging way to teach. There’s no set of slides to guide you, your primary resource is what you know, and there is a small but measurable chance that things can go completely haywire. On the other hand, when it works, it is exhilarating. So I’m adding a third key value adding activity for digital business models: connecting.

Clay Shirky just posted his latest thoughts on news business models. He did some analysis of the original content in his local newspaper, and discovered that the amount of original local reporting actually constitutes a small part of the total amount of information contained in a newspaper. Nick Davies came to similar conclusions using a much bigger sample in research for his book Flat Earth News. This original local reporting is what we need from journalists – this is where accountability comes from. As Shirky says:

There are dozen or so reporters and editors in Columbia, Missouri, whose daily and public work is critical to the orderly functioning of that town, and those people are trapped inside a burning business model. With that framing of the problem, the question is how to get them out safely…

The list of important stories that have been reported in the Columbia Daily Tribune made me realise that these journalists are also connecting. They take things that don’t make sense (why are the beaches at the local lake closed due to elevated e.coli levels), and connect them up with reasons that have been previously hidden (the state government was covering up the research into the cause because it suggests that the government is in breach of environmental laws). Connecting is the key value adding function here.

Connecting is critically important both in journalism and in education. So that makes three value adding activities in the digital economy: aggregating, filtering, and connecting. The lesson to take from the current states of both the music industry and journalism is that you have to have a clear understanding of how you’re creating value so that you build and protect the correct parts of your business model. Perhaps universities can learn this lesson before educational business models are disrupted as well.

Student and teacher of innovation - University of Queensland Business School - links to academic papers, twitter, and so on can be found here.

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27 thoughts on “aggregate, filter and connect

  1. Tim – I make no claims of insight or innovation for this suggestion that perhaps we have to turn our thinking about what is most effective and productive for f2f vs. asynchronous learning on its head. It’s just a logical extension of what it means to put students more in charge of their own learning (student centric approaches) and how to make the very limited face time with the academic most productive for the student.

    It’s key, however, to make sure you explain what you’re trying to do to the students very explicitly. Students come to class with a strong expectations for the behavior that takes place in the classroom. Turning the tables, creating a disjunction between their expectations for what they have to do to ‘succeed’ in the class and what you really expect them to do in this new environment can generate some real conflict. As the academic staff you owe them an explanation – the rationale you offer needs to be sound, well argued and backed up by data. At the same time however, it’s the student’s responsibility to meet reasonable academic staff expectations, even when it may be different from their past patterns of behavior which guided them in the past.

    One thing is certain – you can’t hide behind the podium. You have to know your stuff and think on your feet. But that’s what you’re expecting of them so why should it be different for you, the academic staff?


  2. Thanks for that Phil (and also for all the resources you sent via email!). I haven’t fully thought through the pedagogical issues on this one yet, but I definitely agree with especially your last point. In my small experiments in this area, the increased demand for thinking on my feet is the most striking aspect of teaching this way – and also the most exciting/interesting.

    From a business model standpoint, I’m pretty well convinced that this is a good model. It makes the stuff that is relatively easily reproducible less of an focus for the academics, which is good since this is the part that is most under threat from digital sources. More of the focus then goes on the parts that we’re actually best at (or at least should be), which is making connections that others might not have seen. I haven’t thought too much about how this scales, which is clearly where you’ve been putting a fair bit of work, but my feeling is that we have to be moving some kind of model like this if we’re going to stay in business.

  3. Tim,

    Two reactions (perhaps unrelated) to the post. The first: unfortunately, some of the pioneers of making the lecture more of a multimedia event (that is pre-tapes and already available for download) are also the laziest teachers around who would rather tape one lecture once and keep re-offering it year after year forever and never meet another student ever. (Yes, I am thinking of a particular associate professor who does exactly that at UQ – not at UQBS though). There is no problem with being lazy (I am too), nor is there a problem taping lectures (they can be very a convenient way to “attend”). The problem is when we associate the later with the former.

    The second: students, as you know, are always asking “what do I need to learn to pass?” which reflects their view that the classroom is a place where facts are to be memorised. These students get quite a bit annoyed when I teach them because, according to them, I “give” them nothing to learn and force them to think instead. That is, I try to draw on their existing base of facts to draw new knowledge by posing what I hope to be “provocative” questions.
    My successful lecture is invariably one that mixed all three, a minimum amount of fact-passing, an appropriate amount of provocation and a maximum amount of student engagement. I don’t think the university should be in the fact-passing business (for the same reason why newspapers should not be in the realtime-news business) so that only leaves critical thinking and student engagement. But student engagement is so overwhelmingly important that it can render the first 2 to almost non-factors. So perhaps that should be the focus of universities?

  4. Marco – Pre-taping the lectures definitely has to be combined with changing the delivery of other parts of the course – simply substituting recorded content for live content leaves you worse off than when you started. As to the second point, I agree that this is definitely an issue. Phil’s comment has some good pointers about how to deal with this.
    Student engagement is certainly critical. At the moment, I’m giving more thought to how to structure a business model that will create that successfully than I am to how to best engage students. But the two are pretty closely related…

  5. Nice post Tim. I especially like your articulation of the ‘connecting’ dimension. Would the business model change for undergrad vs. post-grad classes?

  6. That’s a really good question Sam. The model that Phil & Jason are talking about is specifically designed for undergrad teaching (especially in fairly large courses). But then John & I have adopted a fairly similar format for our upcoming advanced innovation exec ed course, which is almost diametrically opposite in terms of students & objectives. So I’m thinking it might end up being a general model. Not entirely sure about that though…

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