Radiohead Meets The Bursar

I wouldn't usually point to recording artists like Prince, Madonna, Nine Inch Nails and Radiohead as indicators of any trend in education, but stay with me.

These artists are moving away from the conventional music sales model. This month the British band Radiohead announced they would sell their new album (for now) by digital download and not through a record label & on CDs.

Maybe more unconventional is that buyers can decide how much they want to pay for it.

The band has said that it anticipates having the usual CD release early next year, but since their contract with the huge EMI Group is finished, there's no contract right now.

I have heard from good sources that bands generally only make up to $2 on a CD sale, so even if fans decide to only pay $4 for the CD download, Radiohead is making more from the sale than usual.

I could make an edtech point here about "new methods of delivering content to students" but I'll let you do that in your head and continue a bit.

This might be a smack to the record companies, but it's also a smack to Apple's iTunes Music Store (which was itself a big departure for record companies). iTunes usually sells individual songs for 99 cents each (albums are about $11) but Radiohead (though very digitally savvy) had passed on iTunes because it didn't want individual tracks sold but only the entire album.

So Radiohead fans now choose their own price for the digital version of the 10-song album In Rainbows,which is free of DRM (digital rights management or copy restriction). The band is asking its fans to put some dollar value on the music they love.

Music blogs like have written a lot about all this and reported that the album sold 1.2 million copiesin its first week.

Of course, it doesn't stop illegal downloads at no cost (or profit) from happening. According to, the album is #6 today on the charts of things being downloaded using Bit Torrent. (Yes, there are best sellers charts for illegal downloads.)

This idea of variable pricing is new but has been talked about ever since iTunes started.

And now the iTunes Store has a well-positioned competitor - the Amazon MP3 store which opened at the end of September. Unlike iTunes, Amazon MP3 sells unprotected songs which will play on any portable digital music player. You can buy EMI songs in an unprotected format from iTunes for $1.29 (the DRM versions are 99 cents), but on Amazon MP3 many songs priced are 89 cents and are in a higher-quality 256 kbps bitrate (for you audiophiles).

These big record companies (some of which are part of even bigger media companies like Sony) are slow to change. They seem to have no vision for where all this digital content is headed, and they resist the change.

Slower to change than schools? That's hard to imagine, but perhaps.

Think about the resistance to distance learning 30+ years ago - and still today in many ways. Delivering courses on CDs, DVDs or now in podcasts in iTunes U or any other way.

Want to really leap ahead? We offer courses for free. Call it open courseware. We offer some of those same courses for thousands of dollars in tuition. The latter is the "deluxe boxed set" with all the extras - a teacher, tests, discussion, grades, credits and degrees. Where is the "variable pricing" model for courses?

What if I want to take a course in web-based training design from NJIT (Rob Myre in my department offers it as PTC650). You can download the podcasts free in our NJIT on iTunes U. You can register for the course but it'll cost you $2000-3000.

What about if someone wants to take the course, including all the deluxe features - but NOT the credits? What's it worth?

Yeah, yeah, I know - we're trying to convert these students into full time students or at least graduate certificates. But maybe that will happen. You take the course, enjoy it, want to take another and start thinking, "Hey, if I'm going to spend $1000 to take a few of these, maybe I should get some credit and pick up a degree." So they have to back pay on the course & pay the balance on the current tuition. And if they don't matriculate, is that so bad? Lifelong learning. Continuing education. Personal & professional development. Not so new. Or is it?


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