Microlender Kiva Now Offering Student Loans

As the cost of college in the U.S. spirals higher and the levels of student debt become ever more crippling, the assumption that getting a college degree is always the smartest financial move is increasingly coming under question. While I'm certainly a supporter of education, I'm much more interested in learning than in degrees and we all know there's a big difference between receiving degrees and getting educated.

That said, in settings where higher education has been out of reach for most, earning those degrees can have a much stronger financial impact than in the U.S. So I'm very excited to see that Kiva, a U.S. based nonprofit microlender, is now facilitating small loans to students in Lebanon, Paraguay and Bolivia with more to follow. They're starting in those countries because they have evaluative depth there due to their work with small businesses. Now they're going to leverage that expertise in evaluating student loans.

It's an exciting move and I look forward to seeing what happens because these are students that have had no access to student loans as we know them in the States and these funds will do so much more in their countries than they would here. And they certainly won't be taken for granted.


Personal Disaster Planning in Higher Education

Courtney Danforth guest posts at ProfHacker on the topic of Disaster Planning and the Academic Career. It's an interesting use of disaster related perspectives for academics as they face the inevitable fact that disasters happen.

Planning for disaster is good advice for everybody. But I've discovered that when one attempts risk analysis in an everyday setting, people just don't want to think that way and remain unprepared for the things that can go wrong.

I'm mentioning this topic here at Cultural Research not because I want to encourage professors or even everyday people to get into disaster planning. What I want to see is risk analysis and disaster planning in graduate curricula.

For my own part, everybody I worked closely with in my graduate training were incredibly encouraging and supportive, yet none of them helped me prepare for the disaster of not getting a job in higher ed. In fact, once I got beyond writing and research, they appeared to have very little to offer related to anything practical that went beyond the aspects of their jobs that they valued.

Beyond my own education, I also found that many college professors have ways to avoid the topic of their involvement in a system that seems to ensure that a majority of doctoral students will NOT get a job doing what they're training to do.

For example, I remember talking to a faculty member from a different school who generally treated me like a colleague, a reasonably common occurrence given that I was an "adult" student publishing and presenting original, solo research at major conferences beginning in my MA program. I was pointing out some of the shoddy behavior I was encountering in the job application process, including things that seemed to undermine all parties involved. Her immediate response was to say that "not everybody gets jobs." Unfortunately, I was so taken aback that I have no idea what would have happened if I had pushed to clarify that she was missing my point.

But I recognize her response at one level as a pragmatic way of dealing with a very touchy situation. I also recognize the manner in which it was deployed as a coping mechanism that indicated that she wasn't actually hearing what I said. I think she basically slotted my observations into a category that didn't actually fit and then attempted to end that topic of discussion.

In fact I found with most faculty that having an honest conversation about any aspect of the higher ed job situation during the period when I was actively looking for a job to almost always be uncomfortable and to always require me to work them past their initial assumption that I was simply complaining about my own situation. And even when we got past their incorrect assumptions, I never met anyone in higher ed who seemed to have a clue about how to begin to address the situation. At the end of the day, they mostly seemed helpless and in denial.

But my point is not that I encountered clueless people in academia who were avoiding the harsh realities of the system that paid their bills. That's universal given that cluelessness is randomly distributed at all levels of society. My point is that if folks were having honest discussions in grad school about job prospects and that if risk analysis and disaster planning perspectives were included in those discussions, grad students would be better prepared for the actual world and faculty might have a productive basis for looking at what's happening within their own institutions.

But you know what? I believe we're more likely to see the continued destruction of the professoriat as higher education continues its current transformation to the degree that such concerns will overwhelm academics' opportunity to address the underlying issues. And that's unfortunate because when smart people avoid dealing with obvious problems when they're not being forced to address those problems, they won't have the requisite skills to handle the unavoidable disasters when they hit.


University of the People: World Computer Exchange, Library Services Advisory Committee

I'm going to be doing some catch up posts with fairly recent news that should indicate the emerging focus of this blog. Of particular interest, given the disruptive nature of free as a pricing choice, is the news that the tuition-free University of the People and the World Computer Exchange are partnering to:

"expand UoPeople's reach in developing nations and strengthening their shared missions of democratized access to education. WCE is now beginning outreach to our Partners and contacts in the following six countries: Bangladesh, Dominican Republic, Haiti, Liberia, Palestine and Zimbabwe."

That's a great development for UofP given that the idea is to reach students with limited resources which would extend to issues of internet access, a particular concern for online learning.

In other UofP news, I contacted them a while back about offering my skills as a web librarian and have gotten some info but that opportunity is still under development. However, they did recently announce the creation of a Library Services Advisory Committee which probably took a bit of work. I look forward to sharing future developments.


Reboot: Cultural Research, Disruptive Innovation & Higher Education

Just a quick note to let you know I'm thinking about how best to focus at Cultural Research.  Going forward I'm going to be using the blog as a place to connect my academic research background and library training to the topic of disruptive innovation in higher education.  That will include libraries but more so the forces affecting libraries and radical changes at libraries as opposed to a more general focus on innovation in academic libraries.

More soon!


Where I've Been: Selling, Relaunching, Planning Ahead

Though I think about posting here on a fairly regular basis, other projects are consuming my time at the moment.

I've been negotiating the sale of a couple of entertainment websites and I'm hoping that will be wrapped up soon.  Meanwhile, I have to keep running them!

I've also been relaunching College Textbook News and getting it ready for a promotional drive so that people know it exists.  I need to be blogging there more as well but everything else involved in running the site, from posting press releases to making sure all systems are functioning smoothly, seems to be falling into place.

Look for an official launch announcement next week accompanied by a bit more posting here since the two projects cause me to follow related news.


Higher Education Online: Disruptive Innovations and the Disaggregated Future

Michael Fienen draws together some excellent resources in a Sept. '09 post, The Online Education Game is Changing, that sketches out some of the fascinating changes that have been drawing my attention.

He begins with a look at StraighterLine, a company that is attempting to offer web-based, low-cost, easy-to-transfer college credits, that he discovered through an article about the company by Kevin Carey.

Fienan then goes on to explore some of the aspects of such companies that make them disruptive rather than sustaining innovators and therefore a threat to established players.

He closes with the slideshow by David Wiley embedded above. It's well worth a look and, yes, I checked out all 85 slides, a rare event in my world!

Interestingly enough David Wiley is not only an active faculty member at Brigham Young University but he's also a "founder and board member of the Open High School of Utah and Chief Openness Officer of Flat World Knowledge." That means he's viewing the situation from multiple angles with experience in both sustaining and disruptive innovation.

Related Cultural Research Coverage:
Understanding Sustaining vs. Disruptive Innovation
in Higher Education and Academic Libraries

Understanding Sustaining vs. Disruptive Innovation in Higher Education and Academic Libraries

I take the concepts of sustaining and disruptive innovation from Clayton Christensen whose book, The Innovator's Dilemma, I highly recommend. Like all good concepts, the related terms are used to mean other things by other people. Here's what I mean:

I typically use "sustaining innovation" to mean innovations that can be incorporated into the existing practices of organizations including innovations that disrupt standard modes of practice but that can be integrated into the already existing structures of dominant players.

"Disruptive innovations" are disruptive in an even deeper way than simply forcing changes in existing practices in that they disrupt existing models of success. Disruptive innovations are initially inadequate to the jobs performed by current solutions. Perhaps worse for those with a currently successful business model, disruptive innovations require different models to succeed, models which dominant players are unable to effectively pursue because their skillsets are based on past success rather than emergent realities.

For example, the call quality of mobile phones meant that they were inadequate to many of the needs of fixed line callers but for those who needed mobility, poor call quality was an acceptable trade-off to be able to conduct business or keep up with one's friends.

Over time the quality of mobile phone networks improved but, by the time mobile phones became a threat to existing landlines, incumbent players were too far behind to catch up. Though the full story is more complex and landlines have not disappeared, their role is shrinking at a rate that no one would have expected even a few years ago.

Disruptive innovators perform like stealth companies in plain view. Everyone can see them yet those who are threatened cannot see what they are until it's too late. Such shifts may take years to become overnight successes but suddenly everything will have changed and brands that seemed all powerful will be laid low.

A recent example in education has been the uptake of Google Apps for Education as an alternative to Microsoft Office. At first, nobody would have thought free online services could replace Microsoft Office, given the software's incredible ubiquity and complex development, but it's happening.

An example still in the "there's no way that will every be a threat" category is the University of the People (UoPeople), described as the "world’s first tuition free online academic institution". The UoPeople has gathered some serious support and, from what I recall but can't currently find online, their first entering class had a sizable percentage of students from the U.S.

Whatever you think of such an institution's potential threat to established universities, consider the fact that this school does not have a library or employ librarians and does not appear to offer a separate course in information seeking skills. Since disruptive innovations succeed when key chunks of soon-to-be outdated business models are removed, it's incumbent on librarians to take a proactive stance, one that goes far beyond simply finding new allies or incorporating new technologies within a structure that may well collapse unexpectedly.

Steven Bell Explains Why Triage May Be a Key Skill for the Survival of Academic Librarians

Steven Bell recently wrote a pretty staggering column on the implications of the humanities PhD crisis for academic librarians. I have to respect anybody within academic walls that is willing to point to the failure of humanities scholars to create sustainable positions [collectively] in academia, a failure shared by many sectors of higher ed, and to say, it's time to focus librarians' energies on stronger allies.

That's called triage and it's startling to see such a hard-edged calculation from a librarian in the halls of academia. But he puts it all rather politely in the end and I think the ultimate goal is to encourage librarians to become more proactive at analyzing the landscape and transforming their roles accordingly. I just wonder if upgrading allies will do the trick.


Why Not Turn George Washington's Late Fees Into a Library Fundraising Campaign?

So apparently George Washington and some other historical folks have late fees for unreturned books at the New York Society Library. While getting anything more than a publicity boost out of this situation may seem difficult, there is a way to monetize the moment and raise some funds for the library.

What if they came up with a figure based on the accumulation of those late fees to date, the article mentions $300k for Washington's fines alone, and launched a public campaign to raise funds by getting people to pay off the library debts of George Washington and other famous people with such uncollected fines?

Sorry, I can't hear your response to that question, the "KA-CHING" sounds in my brain won't stop going off!


Butler University Scrambles With Servers After Advancing to NCAA Final Four: Time for Outsourcing?

While the situation of Butler University's website overload after advancing to the Final Four of the NCAA is relatively unique, the reality is that any website can be suddenly overloaded due to unexpected moments of national or international visibility.

It sounds like the IT department handled it ok in emergency fashion but the fact that they insist on keeping web hosting in-house when such services have become commodified in the marketplace and continue to drop in price is what led to their outage. They did not have to have an outage at all because 137,000 is just not that many visits at this point in time.

Though I would not expect a college or university to use shared hosting, Yahoo! Small Business shared webhosting is but one example of how radically pricing has dropped. For $7.46 a month Yahoo! offers:

# Unlimited disk space
# Unlimited data transfer
# Unlimited email storage (Details)
# 24-hour customer service
# Reliable and secure hosting

Honestly, "unlimited" is never really quite that but I think such a service could easily accomodate 137,000 visitors and Yahoo! is a good example of a company that knows what it takes to stay online during traffic surges. Though few such services make claims to offer "unlimited data transfer", other services offer the ability to go over your limit and be charged a fair fee after the fact. Either way, no outage.

Of course, pricing would go up for services that aren't shared, which is definitely the way to go, but my point is that academia's digital ivory tower has walled itself off from solutions that could be saving them lots of money. In Butler's case, I would be willing to bet that the labor costs related to the time spent working on this issue would have covered the hosting and quite a bit more. While I'm not trying to put anybody out of work, it's a bit difficult for me to understand why such situations exist given the incredible financial crunch institutions currently face and the inevitably worse financial realities ahead.

But don't rely on just little old Clyde for insight.  The Brooking Institution has just released a paper by Darrell M. West titled Saving Money Through Cloud Computing focused on the needs of the U.S. government.

From the Executive Summary:
"To evaluate the possible cost savings a federal agency might expect from migrating to the cloud, in this study I review past studies, undertake case studies of government agencies that have made the move, and discuss the future of cloud computing. I found that the agencies generally saw between 25 and 50 percent savings in moving to the cloud."

Update 2:
Kyle James at .eduGuru discusses what he considers a "Lost Marketing Opportunity" for Butler and I have to agree.

Mr. James feel that the Butler University homepage and overall website did not take advantage of the near win in the NCAA that consumed so much of the nation's attention and, looking at it now, on Saturday, April 17th, one gets the sense that the road to #2 is rather insignificant news though hackneyed claims like "Academic Excellence" make the current homepage slideshow.

To be perfectly frank, I had to double-check to make sure I was at the right school's website since I was unfamiliar with Butler U and have certainly heard nothing about it since people stopped talking about the Final Four.  But maybe they're just too small to need to take full advantage of the moment in time that is now forever gone.  Sounds like a nice position to be in!