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Lonergan ’72: What’s the future for professors at Brown?

By
Guest Columnist
Monday, October 7, 2013

Brown’s faculty members face an immediate and pressing crisis. This column is largely directed at those of you teaching at Brown. Long protected by the cloak of a well-respected university with an endowment, tenure and a reputation as an Ivy League school, Brown’s professors are now facing a world where “their” students are free to study under whomever they please, and “their” university no longer has a monopoly on students’ time and attention.

For example, if you are teaching an introductory biology course at Brown, you are now competing with Stanford University, Harvard, the Massachussetts Institute of Technology, Yale and a host of other universities teaching these courses online. If your students find that Professor X at Stanford is doing a better job of teaching biology, they can skip your lectures and take the online course, showing up only for the tests — and passing them even though they haven’t listened to your lectures. Students now have the option of finding the best courses to fit their needs, no longer bound by Brown’s perimeter.

Textbooks are gone. They will disappear this year or next. In the past, textbooks were a good way for top professors or departments to supplement their incomes. As textbook costs have risen to stratospheric levels, professors have had to resort to continuous updates, obliging students to use the latest editions. This prevents students from turning to the cheaper used-textbook market.

The new way to teach is not through textbooks but through online teaching programs like Khan Academy. Both the teaching and the tests and exercises are online, available and free to all. Students at Brown are asking why, in addition to shouldering over $55,000 in tuition and fees, they must shell out over $100 per textbook.

How can professors adapt to this new environment for teaching? No longer protected by tenure or Brown’s reputation or even by their former monopoly on their students’ attention, things look pretty bleak. Their income sources — salary, textbooks and government research grants — are under threat.

Forward-thinking professors can rejoice in a coming golden era for teaching. Rather than reaching tens of students with lecture-format teaching and one-on-one visits in their offices, they can reach out to millions. Stanford professors on Coursera now boast of teaching well over 100,000 students in some of their most popular courses.

Rather than preparing lectures which are given every semester, professors can concentrate on giving their very best lectures and preserving them online. By “packaging” a lecture, a professor puts his or her best teaching foot forward.

Textbooks are dead, but reaching students has never been more alive. The good professors can count on building star-quality followings well beyond the walls of Brown. Students from around the world will clamor for additional contact with these professors.

Income sources for professors will change. Rather than salary, textbook royalties and government grants, professors will count on online revenues to replace or even exceed their current incomes. Models to derive income from online teaching range from freemium and advertising models — as perfected by Google — to certification, testing, consulting and speaker’s fees for in-person appearances. This is more similar to the current music industry than the traditional teaching model. Salaries and government grants will become a secondary source of income for good professors.

Where are the models for this new way of teaching — and earning income — in academia? There are two tried-and-proven models. Harvard Business School derives significant revenues from the sale of its over 25,000 case studies to other business schools around the world. In the 1700s, professors depended upon fees paid directly to them for their lectures. Adam Smith earned a high income because his lectures were sought-after. The same will be true in the coming years — good teachers will earn more.

How can Brown professors, grad students or lecturers respond to these challenges? They can implement four steps to embrace the change in their environment:

First, they must recognize that they are the key resource for their students, not just the University. Second, they should develop online teaching which makes the most of the benefits of the medium. Study the Khan Academy and the case learning method. Use online teaching to gauge students’ interests and abilities to understand what you are teaching.

Third, develop formal, online methods of communicating with students at Brown and in other teaching settings, including ways to communicate with off-campus students who take your free courses. And finally, do not reach for the easy choice, such as Coursera. In the end, you control your destiny, not an external online teaching resource.

If you believe in bringing the best education to your students, start your process of change today. The changes are happening now. Brown has thrived for 249 years, but it must adapt its methods, as it always has, to stay relevant.

 

John Lonergan ’72 is a graduate of Harvard Business School and a Silicon valley entrepreneur. He wants you to engage with these issues at www.brownnext250years.com. 

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  1. what is this guy’s deal

  2. Ron Ruggieri says:

    John, you might be an ” unconscious ” socialist. The elitist university educational system has been a bastion of CLASS privilege for centuries now.Your interesting and intelligent ideas here can lead to educational ” progress ” for the not so ” deplorable ” working class .

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