Journalism, higher education share similar challenges

William Powers Jr.

Journalism and higher education have a lot in common. Both are venerable institutions that form a bedrock of our civic way of life. And both are undergoing enormous change in response to a rapidly shifting environment, including technology and cost structures. Neither has settled into its next stable form. How we respond to change — indeed, whether we are the ones driving the change rather than merely being driven by it — is critical to the survival and relevance of each of our spheres. The question is how we drive that change.

The print media will fail if it doesn’t use the Internet to reach readers. But it won’t succeed either if it becomes merely an Internet provider and ignores its core competence of gathering and analyzing news.

Michael Rooney, the head of marketing for The Wall Street Journal, once made this point: Those who succeed focus on their core competency. In the case of The Wall Street Journal, this is as a producer of high-quality content and analysis. They use new platforms, but they focus on creating content no one else can duplicate. Media that focus first on the platform instead of on the content tend to stray from their core competency and struggle.

Universities face the same choices. A university that did not use technology would not only be unappealing for those raised as native users of technology but would be failing in its mission to prepare students for adult life. On the other hand, strictly online universities may be useful for people in a particular stage of their lives, but they shouldn’t be confused with first-class institutions, all of which are still residential universities where students and teachers become part of an educational community and learn from each other in profound and subtle ways that will never be fully replicated online. The ideal, of course, is an institution that combines the best of both, and that is what the University is aspiring to through several intensive projects.

You’ve probably heard of the “flipped classroom,” and many of you are in one. In a flipped classroom, the traditional order of learning is reversed such that students study the material first, often by watching video lectures and taking online quizzes, before then coming to class ready to interact with the teacher and each other. Technology is a key piece of this emerging model.

You’ve probably also heard of our entry into the world of MOOCs, or massively open online courses. As part of the UT System we’ve joined the edX consortium, begun by Harvard and MIT, and we’re offering nine MOOCs in the coming school year — four this fall, five next spring. To date, more than 30,000 people around the world have signed up for these free courses, including “Ideas of the 20th Century,” “Energy 101,” “The Age of Globalization” and “Take Your Medicine — The Impact of the Drug Development.” There will be challenges around the growth of these courses, but the excitement is self-evident in the sheer number of new people the University of Texas will touch through this.

UT is a high-quality content provider, in both discovery and teaching. Of course, we need to use new technology — including online delivery models — just as we have been using new technology to make discoveries. And as long as we continue to focus first on our content, we’ll always be rising to our mission as a university of the first class.

Powers is the president of the University of Texas at Austin. This column was adapted from remarks given April 6 at the Texas Associated Press Managing Editors Conference in San Antonio.