Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Free! The Price of Educational Television: Part 2

In my last blog the debate sparked by Chris Anderson's new book,
"Free: The Future of a Radical Price"
(Hyperion; $26.99) and the responses by Malcolm Gladwell, Mark Cuban, Seth Godin and Chris Bogan inspired me to reflect on the model of distributing educational video. For years I worked at the University of Washington's UWTV and at the ResearchChannel. Besides producing programs and managing the production department, one of my jobs was to get people to produce and air their programs on the channel and the internet. It was not always an easy job. A typical conversation often went like this:

Me: "You should let us record your lecture so we can put it on television."
Professor: "How much will you pay me?
Me: "Nothing."
Professor: "How many people will see it?"
Me: "I don't know."
Professor: "Can you prevent anyone from stealing the content?"
Me: "That will be hard."
Professor: "How much will it cost?"
Me: "Oh, between 2 and 5 thousand dollars."
Professor: "Are you an insane idiot?"
Me: "Um…."

So we now know "Free" is the new future and as many say, the future is here.

As Andrea Ford's article in Time Magazine, Logging On to the Ivy League,
makes clear there are a lot of advantages for those schools who have embraced distributing their video content on television and the internet. Among other things the videos promote the school's presence, their faculty, programs, research, as well as connect with their alumni and reach out to prospective students. Some content providers have told me that the videos are in many ways better than traditional advertising. For example a medical school will record a medical ground round that features a particular operation or procedure. This program will then be seen by a doctor across the country who will then recommend his patient seek treatment at the university's medical center. Other schools feel that the programs are a good way to showcase their research and will impress potential funders and granting agencies. When I asked one researcher who his audience was he told me the state's legislature. Many non-Ivy League schools use this platform to gain attention. It is one thing to have a paper published in a peer reviewed journal and quite another to have 25,000 views on YouTube.

The question now returns to who pays for this "free" content"?

The term "free content" already established that the consumer is not paying and most on-line distributors are providing the service for no cost and are not going to pay for the content. This leaves the schools to pay for production and distribution. Production can cost anywhere from a couple of thousand dollars to the low six figures depending upon the subject and how it is shot. Who generally pays these costs and why?

Those readers who work in academia are already aware that universities and colleges are not monolithic organizations with clearly stated goals and obvious objectives. The English Department, Athletics and the Medical School will not only have different funding models and goals but different constituents and measures of success. Many schools embrace this laissez-faire approach for content creation and if the medical school finds it in their best interest to produce and distribute videos and the English Department can't buy ink for their copier that is fine. Fewer schools look at free content distribution in a holistic way to promote the school or achieve some public outreach goals.

There are many who believe that the entire content production and distribution model should support itself. The reports of millions of dollars being made by photos of silly cats on-line have convinced many academics that the nation's top physicist should be able to do the same. But even if YouTube.EDU shared revenue with content providers like MIT's academic rock star Walter Lewin, Dr. Lewin would be hard pressed to cover the cost of production. His all time most popular video with over 234,000 views is just a third of the traffic make up guru Michelle Pham generates in just one week.

Of course Michelle Pham doesn't make money showing videos on YouTube she makes money selling make-up to people who watch her videos on YouTube. What is MIT's goal, or rather what is Walter Lewin's goal? What is the measure of success? What does it mean if a professor who normally speaks before an annual audience of a couple of hundred students now has an audience of a couple of thousand people worldwide? Does that have a value? Is there a return on the schools investment? Should academic knowledge be reduced to an ROI?

The cost of production including the work of digitizing and posting the video is borne by the school or the department. Let me know what you think. Are there other funding models? Is it worth the effort? I'll be exploring these questions in more depth over the next few months.


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