So Google has decided to pull the plug on its RSS reader Google Reader effective July 1, 2013. And people are not happy about it. Google Reader grew to become a popular tool for aggregating, sharing and distributing information. It was not only “revolutionary in function,” writes Wired’s Mat Honan; “it was beloved.”
No matter what you think about Google’s decision to off Reader, you have to admire the company’s ability to make a decision to get rid of services that either a.) have no demand (remember Google Wave?) or b.) aren’t part of a key business objective. Google is a sprawling company that has forged its way along many paths. In that regard, its focus has been about as fuzzy as most colleges and universities, which strive to provide as many programs and options as possible to as many types of students as possible.
But what Google has done that higher ed seems incapable of (for the most part) is to realize that something that was once a smart thing to do has outlived its purpose. Google Reader has been one of the most popular and fruitful experiments, and now it’s on its death bed. Google made the difficult but unpopular choice to get rid of the service.
Colleges and universities have a difficult time focusing on core business objectives. They struggle to eliminate programs and efforts that aren’t critical to their missions. And when people freak out about administrative attempts to focus, then university leaders often back down and move forward with business as usual, or with some incremental change.
Last night, as I was reading about the demise of Google Reader, I also spotted this piece from Poynter about the University of Indiana’s decision to merge its journalism program with communications, telecommunications and film studies. This is a pretty bold move for a university, and not popular with the old-school journos at Poynter (or elsewhere, I’d imagine). Yet the provost argues that the way journalism has been taught for the past 100 years won’t work for the future. “[T]he field of journalism, in particular, has been the subject of numerous recent calls for renewal.” This push for a merger is IU’s attempt at that renewal.
Will it work? There will be backlash. Just as there is now with Google’s decision with its beloved Reader. (Remember in 2011 when Google eliminated the ability to share via Google Reader? I do. And boy was I hoppin’ mad about that decision. But guess what? I got over it. Other services have entered the marketplace to replace that function to some extent. And some of them do a better job of it.)
Making a decision to let go of something that is beloved is never easy, and rarely popular. But sometimes it’s the right thing to do. We’ll see if that’s the case for Google as well as IU. Maybe the rest of the higher ed community could learn from both of these examples.