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Nostalgia and networks: What to make of University of Phoenix’s ‘Hall of Success’ campaign

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Jan 8, 2014

Those of you who took time out to channel surf over the holidays may have come across University of Phoenix’s Hall of Success ad campaign. For those who haven’t seen it, the commercial takes viewers through a hallway of portraits profiling University of Phoenix alums who are, in the words of the narrator, “expanding the influence of our proud University of Phoenix network.” The digitally generated portraits of successful alumni resemble those that you are likely to find lining the hallways of traditional universities where well-known alums, beloved professors, and college deans from across the ages stare back at students.

Without getting into a truth-in-advertising debate, the commercial strikes me as an interesting glimpse into how a disruptive player in online education matures in two ways: first, seemingly ironically, the ad inspires a keen nostalgia for the more traditional institutions of higher education that online universities are in fact aiming to disrupt. Second, the ad may signal the company’s acknowledgement of the inevitable role that building a social and professional network plays in educational pursuits.

Disruptive innovations offer something cheaper and more accessible to those who otherwise lack the wealth or expertise to access mainstream products. Online universities offer students a more flexible means to access higher education; this, along with a lower barrier to entry, opened up higher education to a large swath of former nonconsumers in the postsecondary market. These nontraditional students offered a classic “disruptive foothold”, or starting point, from which online universities could evolve and improve.

Historically, the appeal of these institutions was precisely their nontraditional structure, which makes the notion of a brick-and-mortar hallway lined with portraits a bit counterintuitive. But the nostalgic flavor of the “Hall of Success” reflects a phenomenon that I’ve seen in other disruptions as well: just because something is “innovative” it may still aim to evoke a “traditional” sentiment. Think of photography in the age of Instagram: film was disrupted by digital printing which in turn was disrupted by camera phones and platforms like Instagram through which you can share photos instantaneously. But even Instagram harkens back to the symmetry and tint of old Polaroids. In other words, a disruptive technology may borrow and brand itself around a nostalgic look and feel because we find that aesthetic to be either evocative of high quality or familiar and comforting. The Hall of Success’s beveled frames and dark wood paneling seem to do the same. (Ironically, perhaps, traditional institutions are now loath to advertise their powerful networks through more modern platforms like LinkedIn for Students.)

Nostalgic look and feel aside, more importantly the ad demonstrates the University’s expanding emphasis on social capital. Much like the company’s earlier “Lucky socks” campaign—which depicts a lucky alum donning red socks discovering that his interviewer, likewise an alum, is wearing the same—the Hall of Success bespeaks the broad alumni network that the institution can offer to prospective students. Online universities got their start doing targeted skill building in a more efficient anytime, any-place manner than their traditional counterparts. As they attempt to move upmarket, however, they likewise need to show prospective students and employers that they represent powerful networks that will pay off in the labor market. I will be interested to watch how University of Phoenix and others deliver on this— not simply as part of a marketing campaign, but in actually forging the strong connections and meaningful opportunities that a healthy alumni network can offer long after graduation. It’s also worth watching how technology might play a role in helping to foster social capital within these institutions.

It’s noteworthy how various companies navigate these academic and non-academic “jobs to be done” as they grow. A company like University of Phoenix appeared to focus on nailing the job of skill-building first and now network-building later on. On the other hand, LinkedIn’s original premise was to cultivate networks, but it may be shifting toward playing the role of certifier for skills acquisition programs. This is not to suggest a false dichotomy between skills and social capital; rather, the Hall of Success suggests that the ability to do both is gaining traction in online education and certification.

Julia Freeland Fisher

Julia is the director of education research at the Clayton Christensen Institute. She leads a team that educates policymakers and community leaders on the power of disruptive innovation in the K-12 and higher education spheres.