Technology and the Future of Education

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Technology, in various forms, has always held forth the promise of improving education. This is true whether one speaks of higher education, K-12 or their cousins, corporate and commercial training programs.

Computer-assisted instruction (CAI), instructional television (ITV) and programmed instruction (PI) can be counted as early instances of technology applied to education. The most recent, perhaps most visible, cases in point are web-based training programs and degree-granting programs from fully accredited institutions offered via what is known as "distance learning."

When technology succeeds it becomes commonplace. This is amply illustrated by such mundane and ubiquitous artifacts as chalkboards, training films and videos, overhead projectors and transparencies (including Microsoft’s PowerPoint) and, lest we forget, that most common of all artifacts, the textbook. Technology, it would seem, confronts us, seduces us and then surrounds us.

But, before we explore the topic serving as the title of this piece, let us first say a few words about two of the more important underlying processes: teaching and learning.

Teaching and Learning

Teaching and learning can both be defined as processes, that is, as bounded portions of larger streams of activity. From a process perspective, it is next to impossible to view the learning process as the output of the teaching process. Such a view would make teaching a process-creating process. Even though it might be argued that teaching is helping others learn how to learn, learning how to learn is a process within the learner, not a process that a teacher creates independently of the learner.

Learning can also be defined in systems terms as a state change in the student (e.g., an acquired ability to solve problems in long division). When learning is defined this way, it is easy to see how teaching can produce, lead to, or facilitate learning. Although I will gladly admit to having learned some things as a result of someone else teaching me, I will also assert that we all learn many things independently of any teaching. This is especially true of what is known as tacit knowledge. As noted above, not all learning occurs independently of teaching, especially those things we learn in our early years. That aside, the older we get, the more likely it is that whatever we learn, we learn it more or less on our own. Indeed, reliance on the ability of the learner to learn on an independent basis seems to lie at the very heart of distance learning. With these basics in place, let us move to examine some of the related issues.

Sorting Things Out

In keeping with the discussion above, one issue related to technology and the future of education involves how to identify those things that can and should be learned independently. A related issue involves identifying those things that are more easily or more appropriately learned with the aid of a facilitator, teacher, coach, or mentor. A similar sort can be made between things better learned—and taught—inside and outside formal institutions (e.g., schools, colleges, and universities). Nor does it seem unreasonable to speculate that a great deal if not most of what is currently taught inside institutions of higher learning could be learned outside of those same institutions (whether via high-tech distance learning or its still-living, low-tech ancestor, the correspondence course).


A second issue relates to feasibility. As in the business world, we are concerned with three forms of feasibility: technical, financial and operational. The technical feasibility of supporting and facilitating learning outside higher education institutions doesn't seem to be an issue. Operational feasibility doesn't seem to be much of an issue, either. The third leg of the feasibility stool—financial feasibility—is a different matter, and for reasons that have mainly to do with relative economic value.

Relative Economic Value

To begin with, off-campus or distance learning has the potential to be considerably less expensive than an on-campus education (tuition plus room and board). Yet, at this time, distance learning is not much less expensive than a tuition-only college education for students living at home nor is it likely to become less expensive in the near future. Cost is one part of the equation. The value of the degree is the other.

It is not clear that a degree obtained via distance learning has equal stature or standing with a degree obtained by attending classes on the physical premises of an accredited higher education institution. Accreditation itself is not the issue because fully accredited institutions are currently offering degrees via distance learning. However, the value attached to distance learning degrees does not seem to be as great as the value attached to a degree obtained via the on-campus route. (This possibly ties to the contacts and connections made in an on-campus setting as much as it does to any significant difference in the quality of learning. No small amount of research is called for here.)

Change in the Offing

However, the relative economic value of on-campus and distance learning degrees obtained might change—and suddenly. If large numbers of people who obtain their degrees from off-campus sources perform in comparable or perhaps better ways than people who obtain on-campus degrees, their employment and promotional prospects will be greatly improved and the perceived value of a distance learning degree will increase. Let us assume the following:

Given these assumptions, it seems likely that distance learning degrees will appeal initially to those who can't afford an on-campus degree. These degrees will also appeal to those who for one reason or another are not able or do not want to attend on-campus classes at pre-appointed times and dates. The number of people who can't afford an on-campus degree is much larger than the number of those who can. The number of people whose educational requirements span their entire working careers is increasing. This means that there is a large and growing market for inexpensive, high quality, higher education offered via distance learning. Existing institutions of higher education can ignore this market or they can respond to it. Profit-oriented corporations are almost certain to respond to it and they will see to it that the successes of their graduates become their successes. There is a virtuous cycle waiting to be exploited and a host of currently dominant institutions waiting to be dislodged.

A Word about Competition

What will the competition look like for delivering content and certification? In a word, the competition will be fierce. If I were running a for-profit entrant in this market it would look to me as though I could spend large sums hiring the very best teaching talent and then leveraging it over a much larger audience than any bricks-and-mortar-bound institution might manage. The presence of an unforgiving bottom line will alter the ground rules considerably.

Some Conjecture

What will be the fate of physical campuses? There will be far fewer of them overall and still fewer in the hands of the state(s). Some private institutions will simply be bought up (some already have) and some of the state-supported institutions might be sold. Highly-selective institutions—where contacts made play a key role in later life—will continue to prosper, maybe even doing better than at present. (After all, those who can afford it will pay whatever is necessary to obtain whatever advantage they think they are buying.)

What’s behind this conjecture? Well, the "educational services industry" is roughly an $800 billion, fragmented industry (Morris, 1999). A conservative extrapolation of the 1996 figures contained in the Digest of Education Statistics suggests that approximately $250 billion of this outlay is spent on postsecondary education (Synder, 1998). Big dollars and fragmentation spell consolidation. There is a lot of money to be made. Where there is money to be made we inevitably find people busy making it.

Are elementary schools in danger? I doubt it; their custodial function will protect them for quite some time to come and that, in turn, is protected by an economy that requires both the husband and wife to work. Are the middle schools in jeopardy? Perhaps, but to a lesser extent, although "drop outs" might simply "tune in" to alternative sources of education and learning instead of simply "hitting the streets." Are high schools in jeopardy? I think so, although not as much as what we normally think of as "higher ed." Is higher education in danger? I would classify its danger as "clear and present." Peter Drucker has remarked that higher education as we know it has about a 30-year life span: "Thirty years from now the big university campuses will be relics. Universities won't survive" (Lenzner & Johnson, 1997). Let's suppose he's wrong by a factor of two. Sixty years isn't all that much longer in the larger scheme of things.


Is higher education threatened by technology? Well, that’s one way of looking at it. I prefer to think of higher education as confronted by challenges and offered opportunities that are rooted in technology, but not as "threatened" by technology. (Besides, it is people who experience feelings of being threatened, not organizations.) The real issue is whether or not those who lead our institutions of higher education will recognize and respond to the challenges and opportunities they face. If not, someone else surely will.

Will higher education as we know it disappear? You betcha! I’m with Drucker on this one. Why? Because the "shelf life" of many areas of knowledge is already extremely short and growing ever shorter. Unless institutions of higher education can figure out how to update their curricula at a much faster pace than seems to be the case today, they will be displaced by those who can. "Time-based competition" is not peculiar to the private sector. Gone are the days when one could rely on the undergraduate degree obtained at age 21 or 22—or even an advanced degree obtained in one’s middle or early 20s—to carry one through an entire working career. Moreover, the shift from learning through education that is "bunched" early in one’s life to a process of lifelong learning through continuous education redefines the market for education and its distribution channels. Too many factors are in flux for higher education to remain unchanged and have any hope of surviving. As Peter Drucker (1992) observed in a Harvard Business Review article:

[It] is a safe prediction that in the next 50 years, schools and universities will change more and more drastically than they have since they assumed their present form more than 300 years ago when they reorganized themselves around the printed book. What will force these changes is, in part, new technology, such as computers, videos, and telecasts via satellite; in part the demands of a knowledge-based society in which organized learning must become a lifelong process for knowledge workers; and in part new theory about how human beings learn. (p. 97)

Is there hope? Of course. But only if those leading our institutions of higher education do what is known in the business world as "answer the mail." In the last analysis, the challenge facing higher education is a simple one: be responsive and adapt to changed conditions or take a trip to the boneyard. The choice should be an easy one.


Morris, K. (1999, May 10). The reincarnation of Mike Milken. Business Week, 92-104. Retrieved 17 June 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Drucker, P. (1992, September-October). The new society of organizations. Harvard Business Review, 95-104.

Lenzner, R., & Johnson, S. S. (1997, March 10). Seeing things are they really are. Forbes. Retrieved 17 June 1999 from the World Wide Web:

Synder, T. D. (1998). Digest of education statistics (NCES Publication No. 1999036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.


Critical Reviews

Critic I

Publishable -- as a commentary.

Enjoyable reading and thought provoking. There should be contextual researches and literary framework references for the sections on Teaching and Learning, Relative Economic Value, and Change in the Offing as there are in the section about Some Conjecture. Also, more explanations, descriptions of the Forms of Feasibility, and again other research frameworks to support the assertions of the article.

Critic AA

Taken as a whole, this article restates many of the ongoing points of debate that can be found in earlier discussions of the future directions of distance education, without offering anything particularly new or insightful. The change in style and tone from semi-formal in the early sections to almost casual toward the end cheapens the author's message and conclusions.

The section on "Teaching and Learning" offers some interesting observations, although these observations might be hotly debated by many. If we accept the author's premise that independent learning correlates to age, why then should we accept the premise that adult learners will seek distance education opportunities?

"Sorting Things Out" raises an important issue that is often neglected - how to identify courses that are suited to a distance delivery method, and matching the method to the nature of the course content. The author, however, simply restates this idea without suggesting any framework or decision criteria that should be applied.

"Feasibility" dismisses technical and operational feasibility as unimportant issues. Many would argue that these issues will come back to haunt many of the institutions that are making sizeable investments in these areas without adequately assessing the financial feasibility or truly understanding their potential market.

"Relative Economic Value" raises the interesting question of perceived value of a distance education degree. As the author states, this is an area that deserves further inquiry. Missing in the author's analysis, however, is any mention of the value of distance education to prospective students who may NOT be interested in pursuing a degree. What percentage of distance education students are registering for courses that fill a particular educational, certification, or training need, as opposed to pursuing a degree? Where do organizations that grant only certifications fit into the picture? What about WGU's assessment approach versus traditional credit hour/seat time criteria?

As the article currently stands, I would not recommend it for publication. Based on the above comments, and those of other reviewers, perhaps the article can be revised. It seems to offer little, however, that has not been stated more convincingly elsewhere in the literature.

Critic X

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