Six Questions with Mark Greenfield

Mark Greenfield

Mark Greenfield is everywhere. One day he’s speaking at major conference. The next, he’s publishing a must-read blog post. Or he’s visiting a campus, helping a college get a handle on the latest trends in the higher-ed web space. Later, you might find him engaged in a Twitter discussion about the future of education. Or, maybe he’s debating the highlights of the latest concert he’s seen. Among the things on his Twitter bio alone: Higher ed web professional, consultant, keynote speaker, futurist, uwebd overlord, lacrosse coach, tennis player, music lover and dog rescuer. (Full disclosure: among the many things Mark’s involved in, he’s on the board of HighEdWeb as well.)

We were able to catch up with him and talk about the flattening of higher-ed, the design of a perfect classroom building, and how he missed out on a chance to see Led Zeppelin live.

1) You’ve talked in several places about higher-ed facing a “flattening” rather than a “bubble.” What makes you think that?

What I’m talking about is not a bubble — that implies an eventual return to the status quo. What I’m talking about is the need for systemic change. We currently have an education system that was built for a world that no longer exists, and this system will be flattened. My reference to the word “flattened” comes from Tom Friedman’s book The World is Flat and is defined as “When the impact of the Internet and globalization render and industry unrecognizable, and in many cases, obsolete.” This has happened to the music industry, the newspaper industry, and yes, I think it is happening to higher education. Examples include IT staff being laid off by the hundreds on a single campus, language programs being eliminated (including tenured faculty) and, the one that hits closest to home, web positions being eliminated.


2) What steps should colleges and universities be taking to position themselves to benefit from this flattening?

Two things. First, become ruthlessly efficient. There is growing pressure to make colleges more affordable and we must do everything we can to control costs. Secondly, colleges must focus on who they are and what they do well. A book making the rounds among campus administrators is Prioritizing Academic Programs and Services: Reallocating Resources to Achieve Strategic Balance. The quote from this book I frequently use in my presentations is “Most institutions can no longer afford to be what they’ve become.”  It’s time to focus on strengths and not try to be all things to everyone.


3) It’s your lucky day. We’ve just given you free reign to design a new classroom building on campus. What will it look like?

This is a great question for me since I got my start in higher education by helping integrate technology into the classroom in the late 1980s. My classroom building would have very few classrooms in the traditional sense. The days where the majority of learning happens in the classroom is becoming a thing of the past. Instead of traditional classrooms, we need “learning landscapes,” a term used at the University at Buffalo that describes spaces that stimulate learning everywhere on campus by blending traditional instruction, self-paced discovery, faculty guidance and peer learning. And these spaces will be connected with the latest technology to facilitate communication and collaboration not only across campus, but across the world.


4) So often we see advertising and marketing in Higher-ed about student-to-professor ratios and personalized attention in the classroom. In the Internet age, does that matter to students anymore? And if not, is it a good or bad thing?

Yes, personalized education is more relevant now than ever. In the current model of education, we teach everyone the same way and at the same pace, which is a disservice to the majority of students. Instead of a one-size-fits-all education system, the technology now exists to support  personalized education that fits each person’s individual way of learning. DIY U by Anya Kamenetz is a must read for anyone interested in how pedagogy is evolving.


5) In the same way that iTunes made the song the unit of music that a consumer purchases, rather than the album, will the Internet make the class the unit of education that a consumer purchases, rather than a degree?

Great analogy, especially in the context of the need for lifelong learning. As Don Tapscott says in his recent book Macrowikinomics: “Yesterday you graduated and you were set for life. Today when you graduate you’re set for, say, 15 minutes.” The half-life of knowledge has changed tremendously, especially in technical fields. There is tremendous opportunity for higher education to think beyond the traditional degree provided to the traditional student.

And let me add another wrinkle to this idea. Tapscott, Kamenetz, and others question the notion of the ivory tower as the fundamental unit of higher education. In a digital world, why shouldn’t a student take a course from another university? Tapscott envisions a world where a student receives a custom learning experience from a dozen universities.


6) You’ve been, by your own admission, a tough critic of college web sites and a big believer that web sites should first and foremost help schools build and sustain relationships. What features would you like to see more of on school sites that would help accomplish that goal?

I could write a book on this (in fact I might!) My short(ish) answer: Make your .edu site more social.  Instead of sending your audience off to Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube for social interactions, build this functionality directly on your .edu site  Jeremiah Owyang, whom I consider to be the preeminent analyst in the social media space, recently conducted a great webinar called “How to Integrate Social Into Your Website.” He makes a compelling argument that organizations that link away from their main web site to Facebook and Twitter are doing themselves a disservice, and I agree.

In addition to integrating social into the .edu site  we we will need to move beyond #girlsundertrees and marketing hype and focus directly on building relationships. The Cluetrain Manifesto has been my job manual since it was first published in 1999 and we would all be well served by following Thesis #25: “Companies (Universities) need to come down from their Ivory Towers and talk to the people with whom they hope to create relationships.”


6a) You’re a well known music lover. What’s one band or artist you haven’t seen live yet that you absolutely have to see?

The toughest question of the bunch! I’ve been to hundreds of concerts in my day and the one band I have never seen is Led Zeppelin. I was set to see them in 1977 only a couple of miles from my house when Robert Plant’s 5 year old son Karac died two weeks before the show. I still have the ticket . So Robert, Jimmy, and John, find Jason Bonham and put together that one final tour. No matter what it takes, I’ll find a way to see it.