I started this blog for a number of reasons. It gives me an outlet for my ideas, makes me feel like I’m doing something worthwhile, and helps me connect with like-minded people. But another major reason I started this blog is to explore non-traditional ways of making money with a PhD in philosophy. In the lingo of the synergistic corporate branding gurus, this field of inquiry is known as knowledge monetization. I’m not a fan of business buzzwords, but this term is quite apt and useful for my purposes. How does somebody like me monetize his knowledge?
Well, there’s always the traditional route: teach at a university. But, for reasons I’ve already discussed extensively on this blog, that market is drying up. There’s a problem though: at first blush, it looks like the only market. Perpetual adjuncts are frustrated by the fact that they seem to have only one market — the university — in which to sell their services. As others have noted, the barriers to entry in higher ed are, well, higher than they are in just about any other industry. You can’t just start a new college as easily as you can start a business or a law firm. Accreditation is a major hurdle. So is there a way to make money outside the system?
My tentative answer is ‘yes.’ I’m not one to trumpet the utopian promises of technology, but its seems like the internet can help us out here. What the internet allows us to do is find a market for our content and to make that content scalable. Even subjects, like philosophy, that are more niche than mainstream can find an audience online. Also, the internet has made possible a new age of the autodidact. There are at least three types of consumers for education: 1) the traditional college or university student who needs certification or a degree; 2) the non-traditional student who is not necessarily seeking certification but an employable skill; 3) the autodidact, who isn’t interested in certification or skills, but in self-improvement. The traditional university services the first type of consumer, but isn’t necessarily the best fit for the second and third. The skill-seeker and autodidact are increasingly turning to the internet for a free or inexpensive learning experience.
Some evidence for this claim is the early success of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOC’s). They have grown very quickly and the entrepreneurs behind them are predicting a revolution in the way that education is delivered. ‘Not so fast’ say the critics. Although MOOC’s seem to have found a market and they’re definitely scalable, there are basically two objections that I’ve heard: 1) they’re impersonal; 2) they aren’t accredited. The former charge might stick if you’re contrasting MOOC’s with the student experience at a small liberal arts college (which tends to be expensive), but I’m not sure MOOC’s are less personal than the massive lecture halls with hundreds of students that’s the norm at big universities. In addition, MOOC’s are free, so people seem willing to trade the personal touch for free tuition. The lack of accreditation is a more serious challenge. At the moment, universities have cornered the market on accreditation. But MOOC’s seem to be doing all right without it, at least for now. Whether it’s a problem they’ll need to solve in the long-term is debatable. Either way, I don’t think it’s an insurmountable obstacle. For example, there’s the idea of independent assessors. This is nothing new. The idea of independent assessment has been proposed for the traditional university too. Robert Koons — quite a conservative critic of higher ed — suggests that state accreditation is a racket designed to limit educational choice, shelter state schools from competition, and keep money in the hands of a few institutions. He advises replacing accreditation with “private companies that provide impartial, third-party assessments, as Moody’s or Standard and Poors does for the bond market.” I’m sure such an option can and will be explored by MOOC’s down the road. Although entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are often accused of naive faith in the market, there may in fact be a free market solution to this problem, should they need to tackle it in the future.
Regardless of whether this is a problem that MOOC’s need to solve, I don’t think it’s a problem that I need to solve. I’m from the Wittgensteinian school of troubleshooting: don’t solve a problem if you can dissolve a problem. Remember, I’m not interested in the broad social question of whether MOOC’s will succeed in the long-run or ultimately replace the traditional model. I’m interested in the practical question: how can I make money outside the traditional system? Although small players like me can’t compete with Coursera and Udacity on the level of scale, we can learn a lot from the market they’ve exposed. The autodidact seems content to take credit-less courses. Moreover, smaller ventures can offer them something that the big guys can’t: the personal touch and a sense of community. How might this look in practice? Well, I’ll a highlight just two examples of intriguing approaches: PEL’s Not School and Dan Fincke’s online course offerings.
The Partially Examined Life is a popular philosophy podcast and blog. You can learn more about it by listening to my interview with Seth Paskin. Recently, they started an online subscription-based community called PEL Not School. Obviously, as the name states, it’s not designed to compete directly with purveyors of online education. It’s not a school, there are no grades, credits, etc. Instead, it’s a community of people who like to discuss philosophy and want to find others who share their interest. They also have access to exclusive content not available on the PEL website. This strikes me as a interesting way to monetize content. I don’t know how successful it’s been so far, but it’s a way to offer amateur philosophers, autodidacts, and hobbyists a relatively low-cost way to pursue their passion outside the ivory tower. The advantages of this model are that it’s low-cost to the user, low-maintenance for the hosts, and community-oriented. Another intriguing aspect of this approach is that it doesn’t seem to sacrifice community for scalability. There doesn’t seem to be an upper limit, at least in principle, (though there are practical limits) to the number of people who can participate. Members can propose their own discussion topics and form their own discussion groups. So there’s space for multiple users and multiple communities.
Another option, which is more like the traditional philosophy course but more interactive, are the online philosophy courses being launched by Dan Fincke (PhD in Philosophy). These credit-less classes are offered for a much lower price than the average college course and, from what I gather from the description, are smaller and more discussion-oriented than lecture-oriented. The classes are facilitated by Google Hangout’s video conferencing feature. This model isn’t scalable, but the added value is in the one-on-one interaction. Again, from what I can tell, Dan has tested the market and found enough interest to warrant going ahead with the project. I certainly wish him well. So there’s at least potential for those who want to teach philosophy to take their content direct to market, as it were, rather than being subject to the vagaries of sessional contracts and the semester system. Of course, you have to provide some reason for people to buy your services and this is where blogging and podcasting are good ways to get your ideas out there and establish some credibility. If people like you, and build a relationship with you, they’re more likely to pay for your services.
Now, let’s be realistic: we’re probably talking about supplemental income here, not making a living, much less getting rich. But, then again, you won’t likely make a livable wage as an adjunct either. I’m still looking for non-academic work, i.e. a ‘regular job’, to provide most of my income, but I would like to carry my passion for philosophy beyond the academy and maybe earn some money in the process. In any case, it’s encouraging that others, with advanced degrees in philosophy, are making the attempt to sell their services outside the academy. I’m working on some ideas of my own, but I’ll say more about that in a future post.