The Future of Books, Amazon, and the Academy

How does the marketing of books affect the future of higher education?  Does it matter how we read them – on screens, on paper, on loan?  Does it matter where or how we purchase them?  As SUNY Geneseo English Professor Paul Schacht asserts, it is extremely important that we understand higher education’s evolving relationship to knowledge, the future of knowledge sharing, and the role of liberal arts residential institutions in the landscape of the 21st Century information age.

Many instructive analogies have been drawn between higher education and the publishing industry, print news media, and the health care industry.  Though analogies are only that, and are not determinative of outcomes, it is indeed useful to consider how other professional and information based industries have changed and adapted to the disruptive competition and practices brought about by digital innovation.

In the New Yorker of February 17, 2014, George Packer in his essay “Cheap Words” explores the impact of Amazon on the book world.

He quotes Dennis Johnson, an independent publisher:  “Amazon has successfully fostered the idea that a book is a thing of minimal value – it’s a widget.”  Analogously, one might argue that free (or cheap) open online courses (massive or not) foster the idea that a course (let’s say in biology or literature) taught by a PhD-prepared professor in a face-to-face environment is a “thing of minimal value.”  Thus we find ourselves hearing both that a college education is crucial to individual financial success and that a college education is over-priced and perhaps unnecessary.

Partly this argument is about gatekeepers.  Who decides what books get published?  Who decides which students have successfully mastered a body of knowledge?  But of course, the gatekeepers (editors, professors) in the knowledge media do many things besides keep gates.  They mentor, they recruit, they improve, they support, they integrate.  There are advantages to getting the gatekeepers out of the way:  I can publish my own work quickly; I can substitute self-paced learning or prior experience for structured learning in a classroom.  As Packer says, “The business term for all this clear-cutting is ‘disintermediation’:  the elimination of the “gatekeepers,” as [Jeff] Bezos calls the professionals who get in the customer’s way.”

Partly this argument is about speed – slow versus quick production, reading, education, human development.  What losses might result from a preoccupation with speed?   If writers are not supported by publishers or institutions to take on difficult, complex, controversial projects, will they still take risks?  If students can complete a bachelor’s degree with 40 or 60 credits after high school, is the residential college still relevant?  If the focus of the traditional campus becomes simply degree completion at high speed and low cost, will institutions continue to support the teacher-scholar model and the lengthy basic research that guides undergraduates into significant inquiry and develops faculty scholarship?

Partly this argument is about access.  Cheap words and open educational resources suggest greater opportunity for the many.  But Packer theorizes that the trends in book publishing fueled by the Amazon success are hollowing out the middle of the book world, creating “a few brand names at the top, a mass of unwashed titles down below… :  the book business in the age of Amazon mirrors the widening inequality of the broader economy.”  Writers without independent means may be less able to undertake substantial projects.

Similar predictions have been made about education in the digital age:  the middle range of colleges will be weeded out, with the wealthy able to attend the remaining institutional titans who still offer direct contact and influential communities, while others gather technologically mediated information with minimal guidance from mentors and scholars.   The ranks of the professoriate will also be “hollowed out,” with the superstars supported in the organizations and institutions that create content, while others become product delivery specialists or evaluators of alternative competence documentation.

One can jump readily to the defense of the current sector of residential liberal arts education.  Its results are strong and have provided the base of values and skills for the shaping and sustaining of human culture for many decades.  That does not, of course, excuse us from revising our methods and content, as we have done before, and will do again.   It does not excuse us from considering new ways to adapt our pathways, timing, and accessibility for changing technologies and audiences.  As the needs, skills, and capacities of our surrounding community alter to become more virtual, more on-demand, more data-rich, more global, we must fit the tools and practices of the academy to the changed context.

George Packer asks:  “When the last gatekeeper but one is gone, will Amazon care whether a book is any good?”   When the last college but one is gone, will we know or care about the quality of educational outcomes?

The challenge ahead is to imagine an educational environment where multiple gates provide flexible access to learning at variable speeds.  Addressing the arguments about gatekeeping, speed, and access, liberal education may not “create a machine that assumes the shape of public demand,” as editor Tim Appelo suggests Mr. Bezos is trying to do, but it can clearly refine its entrance points, adapt its pace to the communities around it, and provide paths to both quality and opportunity.   Then perhaps readers will continue to debate the quality of that good book, no matter where they acquire it or what reading technology they use.

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