I've Seen the Future of Higher Ed...And It's Shareable U

Higher Ed’s in trouble, in case you hadn’t heard.

Burdened by runaway costs, unsustainable infrastructure, outrage over tuition increases, declining public dollars, and outmoded degree programs, colleges and universities are struggling to satisfy the needs of their current patrons, let alone cater to a global student population that is expected to double by 2025.

Built right in to a university’s DNA, however, is the key to its evolution and, ultimately, its survival: the sharing of knowledge, the sharing of resources, and the sharing of power.

“Traditionally, everything from the built environment to the ethos of universities speaks to public benefit and shared wealth,” argues Neal Gorenflo, co-editor of Share or Die. “It’s all about exchanging ideas and improving on ideas, and doing that together as a community. Scholarship is a community activity.”

In other words, sharing on campus is about more than just stuff: textbooks, bikes, used furniture, and cars. From student-run food cooperatives to waste recovery networks, peer-to-peer lending services to MOOCs, a radical reengineering is underway.

I call it Shareable U. It’s part campus sustainability, part new economics, part DIY, and part open education. What brings all these movements together on campus is a desire to create more value for less money via increased collaboration between people, departments, institutions, and communities. And this is how Higher Ed will ultimately save itself. Not through higher tuition fees, not by enrolling more wealthy international students, not by building bigger rec centers and football stadiums. But by allowing a beautiful ethic embodied in its core mission to guide the reformation of the beast it has become.

SHARING: A TEXTBOOK EXAMPLE

At its most visible level, the blooming of the sharing economy has resulted in a variety of campus-based businesses that to seek to capitalize on the exchange of day-to-day goods, information and services among students. This shouldn’t come as any big surprise; after all, sharing is something of a way of life on campus where a typical student wakes up in shared housing, eats breakfast in a shared kitchen, grabs a book from a shared library, and goes to class in a shared lecture hall.

Students on many campuses can now access a shared-use bicycle by the hour, or even rent a fellow student’s car through a service called Wheelz. Campuswall is a virtual bulletin board that allows users to buy, sell, and trade within their university networks. In Australia, Zookal has warehoused thousands of used textbooks, which it then rents out at less than half the cost of buying them new. Even appliances are now shareable; La Machine du Voisin connects French students’ dirty laundry to their neighbors’ washers.

Building participation among students can be a great strategy for start-ups looking to reach a critical mass of users. Many of the conditions required for successful peer-to-peer (P2P) businesses are present here in spades.

“First and foremost, it is already an existing community,” says Jeff Miller, co-founder and CEO of Wheelz. “It is a place where trust is sort of built in. How can I, someone who has a good to share, get comfortable with and trust the person who is looking for a good to share? When you focus on a college and university environment, that trust or sense of affiliation already exists – you live down the hall, you’re part of the same group.”

Targeting college students also is also a great strategy for establishing lifelong consumer habits. Zipcar may be banking on that strategy; the company has become one of Wheelz’ most important investors, despite the fact that they compete for campus customers. The point is to get students familiar with sharing as a lifestyle, and then allow them to choose the solutions that fit their needs as they age.

A number of other key factors make campuses fertile ground for sharing initiatives: Population density, widespread tech adoption, extensive social networks, homogenous needs, and cash-strapped citizens. With the price of a college education skyrocketing, penny-pinching has become something of a competitive sport.

“Honestly, I think the biggest driver for why someone actually uses these services is the financial savings,” explains Zimride co-founder Logan Green. “When we talk to our users, that’s always number one.”

But Green also sees the rise in popularity of shareable goods and services on campus as evidence of something more complex, more meaningful, ultimately far more profound.

“There are a lot of ways you can save a dollar, right? And people don’t always get excited about that,” says Green. “What makes this something that not only people do, but something that people get excited about is the idea of being able to live a better quality of life while using fewer resources. And it’s a fun opportunity to connect with someone else and have a unique experience. So, I think it’s that kind of trifecta of social, environmental, and financial benefits that makes it so exciting. It’s not like eating broccoli.”

OLD ROOTS, NEW REACHES

The idea that organized sharing could be both self-serving to participants as well as profoundly revolutionary is hardly news to the college crowd. Arguably, a good chunk of this type of activity on campus harkens back to the Sixties, when students inspired by communitarian values explored sharing as an alternative to mainstream consumerism. Campus groups spearheaded a wide range of what we might now call peer-to-peer (P2P) projects, like swap meets, housing and food co-ops, student-run courses, community gardens, and free stores.

In the past, universities did little to expand or accelerate these types of exchanges beyond providing a few kiosks and the occasional bulletin board. Today, many student-led sharing efforts enjoy administrators’ backing right from the get go – whether that comes in the form of access, facilities, or even start-up capital.

In June of his freshman year, Alex Freid and his roommates at the University of New Hampshire went dumpster diving for a few pieces of decent, usable furniture. What they found were massive amounts of high-value waste. That summer they hatched their plans for UNH Trash 2 Treasure, a student-run program that captures and stores discarded furniture, electronics, and appliances and resells them at a giant yard sale, all with the blessing of university administrators.

“In total, we had to get permission from about 40 administrators in 15 different departments to run the program,” recalls Freid. “And that was everything from setting up locations for drop offs inside the dorms to locations where we were going to be storing things to the location where we would be holding the yard sale.”

The proliferation of university-supported reuse and redistribution programs can be attributed in part to the increasing sway of the campus sustainability movement. Free bike-sharing schemes, online carpooling platforms, and farm-to-cafeteria projects have similarly benefitted because they help their institutions meet ambitious carbon and waste reduction goals.

The Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFED) trains student leaders across the U.S. to key in on local food purchasing commitments as means of securing support for student-run food co-ops. CoFED was founded in 2010 by a couple of UC Berkeley grads who launched a co-op after leading a highly public campaign to keep Panda Express off their campus.

CoFED’s Danny Spitzberg argues that one way to advance new economy projects on campus is to tap into “buzzy” concepts like sustainability, leadership, and entrepreneurship. But he stresses that it is also important to re-appropriate them in the process.

“For example, let’s start with leadership. CoFED is really emphatic about leadership as a cooperative approach where a leader is doing the best that they can do when they are creating new leaders though their work.”

In discussing his work, Spitzberg invokes many of the cooperative values unpinning the solidarity and occupy movements, which could be understood as the “deep” sharing economy. He rejects the notion that student-led projects such as his should be dismissed as idealistic or quaint. And he bristles at the characterization of campuses as utopian spaces, like eco-villages, with little relevance to the larger society.

“Throughout history, university life has been the center of cultural shift and change. And a lot of what you’ll see in the next few years will be a direct result of what students are socialized to think and feel and act on.”

OPENING THE GATES ON THE ACADEMIC COMMONS

The vision of the university as a model and living laboratory for a more shareable society is one that resonates right to the very core of the institution. Isn’t sharing ultimately what Higher Ed is all about? The open and unfettered exchange of commonly held knowledge, wisdom, and insights.

In a new twist on this age-old mission, universities are exploring ways to radically democratize access to the commons through Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs like those offered by Coursera and edX. By virtue of an Internet connection, hundreds of thousands of new students around the world are now streaming into the lecture halls of the most prestigious universities, often at no cost.

The movement for open access research is also steadily gaining ground, fueled in part by administrators’ frustration over skyrocketing subscription costs for academic journals. Harvard University caused quite a stir last year when it sent out a memo suggesting that professors go so far as to boycott traditional publications in favor of lower and no cost alternatives. Meanwhile, public activists both inside and outside Higher Ed are demanding access on behalf of the rest of us – particularly in cases when the rest of us paid for it in the first place. A recent White House directive to provide free access to publicly financed scientific research is being heralded as an important step in that direction.

“To the extent that public institutions are funded with state and federal tax money, people are coming to realize that we should share what we build with those public funds,” argues Cable Green, Director of Global Learning at Creative Commons.

Green and other proponents of Open Educational Resources (including UNESCO) want to take the concept of the shareable university to a whole new level. OERs are free and openly licensed courses, textbooks, exams, and other teaching materials that allow users to reuse, revise, remix, and redistribute at will – what Green calls the 4Rs. Think of it this way: If MOOCs and open access journals provide you with free tickets to the show, OERs actually let you take the sheet music and the instruments.

In his last job with the Washington State Board for Community and Technical Colleges, Green built out an entire general education curriculum (essentially all the 101 courses) as OERs. The benefits of this approach accrued on several levels: Students saved on textbook costs; faculty members were able to focus their development efforts on higher-level courses more likely to attract and retain students; and the courses themselves improved over time, thanks to a global intellectual labor force. In the first week that they were made available online, the materials were downloaded 20,000 times in 40 countries – and subsequently corrected, updated, and translated into several other languages, all at no additional cost to the public.

It could be decades before Higher Ed takes heed of these examples and begins to pursue sharing as modus operandi. The institutional inertia of universities has been known to cripple even the most promising and common sense reforms.

Will we stand back and watch that happen? Or will we break open the gates and let the people in?

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