A text about network connectivity offered quite a few connections to aspects of my “real” (really virtual?) life outside of academe.
OK, so this isn’t exactly part of life outside academe. It’s the staff side of my professional position that drew a connection to the economic value of higher education in Castells’ (2010) illustration of the valuation process in the global economy. He writes, “Two key facts appear to be at work in the valuation process: trust and expectations” (p. 159, emphasis mine). Profits aren’t the primary indicator of value in the global economy. He uses the case of Amazon, which as of writing the 2000 edition had not yet turned a profit, as an instance of investor trust and expectation resulting in high stock valuation: “in spite of losing money, the institutional environment of the new economy… had won the approval and trust of investors. And expectations were high on the ability of the on-line selling pioneer to move into e-commerce beyond books” (p. 159). In the case of higher education, profitability is not the primary source of valuation (although recent decisions by accreditation agencies to shutter schools because they were no longer profitable is an interesting change of course). Instead, parent and student expectations of the long-term monetary and occupational value of education offered through institutions, along with trust (based on past history) that the school can provide an education that offers and holds that value define the way higher education institutions are “valued.”
That said, I also drew connections to the erosion of authority (and perhaps trust) in higher education in Castells’ (2010) depiction of a flattened network of cultural expression in the integrated communication system of the network society: “it weakens considerably the symbolic power of traditional senders external to the system, transmitting through historically encoded social habits: religion, morality, authority, traditional values, political ideology. Not that they disappear, but they are weakened unless they recode themselves in the new system, where their power becomes multiplied by the electronic materialization of spiritually transmitted habits: electronic preachers and interactive fundamentalist networks are a more efficient, more penetrating form of indoctrination in our societies than face-to-face transmissions of distant, charismatic authority” (p. 406). While higher educators are likely to bristle at terms like “indoctrination” and “distant, charismatic authority,” the fact that higher education finds itself lagging behind other industries in transforming itself into a network enterprise is troubling. How long will higher education be able to “preach” its gospel of access, accountability, and value through local channels rooted in the space of places?
I don’t see this transformation limited to classroom experiences, either. Many fundamental organizational structures in higher education are vertical and hierarchical, not horizontal and collaborative. How long will the Richmond schools like the University of Richmond, Virginia Commonwealth University, Virginia State University, Virginia Union University, John Tyler Community College, Richard Bland College, and Reynolds College be able to differentiate our instructional products in the Richmond metropolitan area? At what point do the obvious synergies of labor talent, instructional content, and pedagogical practice become too obvious to ignore — and will collaboration and partnership be able to surmount historical boundaries of location and culture? And at what point does the Richmond metropolitan area either become part of either the greater Washington or greater Hampton Roads mega-city? And if it doesn’t become part of one or the other, will it be passed by as a node in the network society? At which point, will any of the higher education institutions, either collaborating or separated, survive? Castells’ depiction of the global informational economy makes the case for the need to restructure or die.
Maury and I will be presenting Thursday at the “Humanities Unbound” conference about the role Google Drive plays in re/defining identity in our composition classrooms. With thoughts about the role of Google Drive in my classroom lurking in the corners of my mind, I read the following statement Castells makes about ways multimedia support what I would now (in 2014) consider an adolescent (rather than emerging) social/cultural pattern. One of the characteristics Castells (2010) points out is that “communication of all kinds of messages in the same system… induces an integration of all messages in a common cognitive pattern…. From the perspective of the user… the choice of various messages under the same communication mode, with easy switching from one to the other, reduces the mental distance between various sources of cognitive and sensorial involvement” (p. 402, emphasis original). Castells appears to predict the blurring and merging of genre conventions as a characteristic of communication in the Information Age. Google Drive reflects just such blurring: is a Google Doc a word processing document or a web page? Maury and I have used Google Docs like web pages as much as, or more than, we have used Google Docs as word processing documents. While this appears to be an instance of reducing “the mental distance” between cognitive and sensorial involvement, the localized facts are more interesting. In my own class, there are two or three students who have embraced Google Drive as a multimodal tool for writing, revising, collaborating, embedding, and linking. These are students whom I would consider embedded in network enterprises. Other students in my class struggle to use Google Docs effectively or proficiently. These are students whom I would consider embedded in the space of places, localized, lacking adequate experiences, background, training, or tools to engage fully and deeply in the global informational economy. These are students I’m seeking to “indoctrinate,” because I worry that they will find themselves unlinked, passed by as lacking value in the global economy. Worryingly, several of these students embedded in the space of places work in higher education.
I am a professional writer. This realization came as a surprise to me. I make money by writing, editing, proofreading, and managing web and other copy. I never thought I would make money from writing. I work on a team of four marketers, each with differentiated expertise and experience. We work as a collaborative team among what I would characterize as a vertically-structured collection of departments and divisions. While the fact that I work on a team that values and expects collaboration is not entirely germane to my next point, it explains the critical approach to higher education I shared earlier in this post.
As a professional marketer, I live out the reality that, as Castells (2010) puts it in “McLunanian” language, “the message of the medium (still operating as such) is shaping different media for different messages” (p. 368). My team develops different media for different messages. To attendees of regional graduate and professional school fairs we create a collection of integrated print pieces that focuses on the flexibility of our graduate degree programs, especially the ability to attend school part time while working in a related profession. To those who visit our site by clicking on ads we place on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google search results, the Google Display Network, and Bing search results, we craft webpages that are customized to each segmented audience. And to members of our Osher Lifelong Learning Institute for learners aged 50 and over, we print a larger piece that focuses specifically on their interest in engaging in the life of a traditional private liberal arts college campus. We don’t mix these messages or these media; we segment messages by target audience with a large degree of granularity, and we use distinct media to convey those messages.
Market segmentation is the reality. We now advertise in only two traditional “mass media” — radio and billboards. And we continue to funnel more funds toward segmented online advertising efforts and away from the mass media. We can target highly specialized audiences on online advertising platforms, and as a result we can expect better return on investment (ROI) for the dollars spent to capture prospective students. This, in turn, leads to greater segmentation as web visitors expect even more highly individualized marketing messages, and as technological boundaries expand to enable ever greater granularity in advertising and marketing.
I appreciated and enjoyed that Castells wrote about my professional world. That was cool and welcomed.
Castells, M. (2010). The rise of the network society [2nd edition with a new preface]. Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell.
Louisiana State University. (2013, September). LSU enrollment mgmt org chart 9 2013 [Illustration]. Retrieved from http://studentlife.lsu.edu/category/search-keywords/organizational-chart