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Information Technology and the Internet continue to transform our lives. The ways that we read, shop, and communicate with others have all shifted dramatically in the last two decades, and they continue to change and evolve.
In some cases those changes have been truly disruptive, transforming entire industries such as music distribution, advertising, and publishing. One of the starkest examples is the Encyclopedia Britannica, which stopped the presses in 2012 after 244 years in print. Why have a multi-volume encyclopedia on the shelf when you can have all that knowledge – and even more – at the tips of your fingers on a computer, tablet or even on the phone in your pocket?
In other industries the impact has been less straightforward, sometimes defying common sense. Business travel is a good example. As the cost of phone calls has dropped towards zero, and videoconferencing has become both better and cheaper, one would expect a corresponding drop in business travel - particularly during the global economic downturn.
Yet the opposite has happened, with global business travel continuing to grow amidst a precipitous decline in telecommunications costs (Figure 1). What is going on?
Figure 1: Spending on business travel and the cost of international phone calls (1988 to 2008)
A potential answer is that low-cost telecommunications are, somewhat paradoxically, both a substitute for business travel and a driver of increasing demand for that travel. Most professionals have experienced both of these. Joining a teleconference or webinar can be a great substitute for travel, enabling us to engage in meetings around the world while saving valuable time and money. But those same technologies also enable us to build and maintain even more relationships - personal, business and academic - around the world, which in turn fosters more travel.
So what do these examples mean for higher education? Are we destined to go the way of Encyclopedia Britannica or of the global travel industry? Perhaps a bit of both. Here are three potential implications:
1. Institutions that treat education as information transfer will go the way of Encyclopedia Britannica. Universities, programs, and courses that see education as merely dumping information on large numbers of people are ripe for disruption. In the past, students had to hold their noses when paying precious tuition dollars for unengaging and poorly taught classes. Increasingly they have access to online options that are both better and cheaper than a weak in-person course. To use the analogy of business travel, why waste your time and money going to a lousy meeting when you can get an even better experience through a webinar?
2. Traditional universities that create a compelling human experience will thrive. The lesson from business travel is that people will continue to seek face-to-face meetings with each other - even amidst cheaper alternatives - if the experience warrants it. Universities that create a compelling academic experience will continue to see strong demand for in-person courses. They may even see their numbers grow, as business travel has.
3. Don’t panic: overall demand for higher education will increase. In some ways we’ve been here before. In the 15th century the world was shaken by another disruptive technology that dramatically lowered the cost of sharing information. It was the invention of the printing press, which reduced the cost of a book more than a hundredfold. The long-term result was a more knowledgeable and complex society, with an increased demand for education.
Information technologies are rapidly changing our world, nearly eliminating the cost of moving information and making the world a more complex and connected place. That increased complexity will continue to drive the demand for higher education. The lesson from business travel is that both on-line and high-quality in-person learning can and will survive and thrive. However, traditional existing institutions that don’t offer a compelling experience will be severely tested in this competitive and increasingly online world.