“Free” and Higher Education = SMUG

Two recent blog posts that are required reading for SMUG students come from Chris Anderson and Jeff Jarvis. They explain why an institution like Social Media University, Global can exist (and much of what makes the rest of the Web work.)

Anderson (Editor-in-Chief of Wired and author of The Long Tail) has a link to his cover story in the current issue of the magazine. It’s called “Free! Why $0.00 Is the Future of Business” and here’s an excerpt:

What does this mean for the notion of free? Well, just take one example. Last year, Yahoo announced that Yahoo Mail, its free webmail service, would provide unlimited storage. Just in case that wasn’t totally clear, that’s “unlimited” as in “infinite.” So the market price of online storage, at least for email, has now fallen to zero (see “Webmail Windfall”). And the stunning thing is that nobody was surprised; many had assumed infinite free storage was already the case.
For good reason: It’s now clear that practically everything Web technology touches starts down the path to gratis, at least as far as we consumers are concerned. Storage now joins bandwidth (YouTube: free) and processing power (Google: free) in the race to the bottom. Basic economics tells us that in a competitive market, price falls to the marginal cost. There’s never been a more competitive market than the Internet, and every day the marginal cost of digital information comes closer to nothing.

Anderson’s article explains the proliferation of blogging tools like WordPress.com offering 3 gigabytes of storage, and unlimited bandwidth, for $0.00. As technology prices fall, the marginal cost of adding another user to the server farm becomes so close to zero as to become negligible.

From the consumer’s perspective, though, there is a huge difference between cheap and free. Give a product away and it can go viral. Charge a single cent for it and you’re in an entirely different business, one of clawing and scratching for every customer. The psychology of “free” is powerful indeed, as any marketer will tell you.

I’ve definitely found that to be the case as I talk to people about blogging, or joining Facebook or trying other social media tools. When I can tell them they can do anything they see on my blog without spending a penny, it takes away their excuses for inaction.

I can’t wait to get Anderson’s book when it’s published next year. I understand he’s working with the publisher on a method to make it available at no charge.

In his post from this afternoon, Google U, Jarvis explains the essence of Social Media University, Global:

Once you put all this together, students can self-organize with teachers and fellow students to learn what they want how and where they want. My hope is that this could finally lead to the lifelong education we keep nattering about but do little to actually support. And why don’t we? Because it doesn’t fit into the degree structure. And because self-organizing classes and education could cut academic institutions out of the their exclusive role in education.

So what if the degree structure is outmoded? What does a bachelor’s of arts really say you’re ready to do? Once you get a medical degree, if you practice, you’re required to take refreshers as the science changes. Shouldn’t we be offering journalists updates as new tools and opportunities emerge in their craft? (Short answer: yes.) And while on the example of journalists, what if it were easy for them to take a course in, say, accounting when they get assigned to the business section, or science when given the environmental beat? So rather than signing on for a one-time degree, what if I subscribe to education for life? Or what if the culture simply expects me to bone up because it’s so damned easy to (and I don’t have to go through tests and admissions and all that)?

This sounds a lot like what I said in my Message from the Chancellor. Credentialed learning certainly has its place. But SMUG is an institution for lifelong learners to get this refresher education Jarvis describes. He is focused on journalism, but I believe this kind of training being available on-line is absolutely essential for professionals working in communications, PR or marketing to keep their skills relevant.

As Anderson says, what makes this all possible is that the marginal cost for each additional user (or student) is practically zero. We’re up to 50 SMUG students now; if you’re interested in hands-on, practical training in social media, why not audit a few classes?

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