The Future that is Already Here

In several conferences I have attended lately, I have heard much debate about the expected changes higher education is facing—changes in how the learning experience is delivered (e.g., distance learning); changes in who is delivering the learning experience (e.g., the growth of the corporate university); changes in the role of the professional educator (e.g., tenure, ownership of intellectual property). Some speakers believe these changes threaten the nature of the learning experience. Some believe the changes will accelerate.  I suggest the changes have already happened, and we are now seeing the results.

Management guru Peter Drucker supports the same premise in a recent article titled "The Future That Has Already Happened" (Drucker, 1998).  Drucker writes about a future that is making itself known in the present via tremendous forces of change, forces that promote the inescapable outcome of past events. While Drucker is known for not making predictions, he does comment on some predicable events, such as: the raising of the average retirement age to 75; the growthof the economy solely from the productivity of knowledge workers; and the absence of any single dominant world economic power. All will be the result of demographic changes in the third world countries. Drucker's logic is compelling; I encourage you to read his article. While you may debate his arguments, the concept that the future has already happened is useful when considering the future of  education.

Look at the list of events that can act as catalysts of change in education:

These three forces already are in action. The implications are highly significant for the education industry. We can already see changes in the demographics of learners: fewer than 25% now fall into the traditional 18–22 year old group. The ever-increasing rate of change in knowledge drives the growth in lifelong learners; some studies report that more than 75 million people are participating in non-credit learning experiences. (Compare this to the US Department of Education projection that 15.4 million students will study in institutions of higher education in 1999.) [Need in-text citation for stat.] The affordability of technology and telecommunications leads International Data Corporation to project that the number of Internet users will be 329 billion by 2002—up from 82 million in 1997. [Need in-text citation for stat.]

What are the implications of these forces that are already in place? And how will they affect higher education? What happens when demand for a good exceeds the ability of normal supply channels to meet it? New suppliers come into the market—thus the growth of commercially based educational institutions and the demand for unlimited access to education. The level of demand; the ability of low cost technologies to distribute learning through means other than traditional classroom and institutions; the willingness of competitors to enter the learning market (e.g., the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University) all lead to a de-facto deregulation of the higher education market. This deregulation of higher education is not a prediction; it is a future that is already happening.

It should be clear that the field of education is going to go through sea changes that will affect almost every institution and individual in it. New institutions will spring up; old ones will die away.  New professions will spring up to serve the new markets along with the new institutions, while demand for old professions will shrink. The debate should no longer be about the possibility of change. The future of higher education is already in place, driven by forces that we can already see. The debate should be on how to harness, where possible, the forces that drive change.

The effectiveness of "sage on the stage" teaching has been proven. Changes are coming not because this approach did not work, but because it no longer meets demand. This means that, in all likelihood, the traditional means of teaching the traditional student will remain. The debate on harnessing the forces of change should focus on how best to use what we know while also employing new technologies to meet new demands. How can we put the "sage" in touch with the learner using technology? How can we maintain the teacher-student relationship that has proven so valuable in the past? These are the kind of questions on which today’s debate shouldcenter.

The same can be said for how traditional institutions manage themselves. Rather than opt for the total replacement of current operations, managers should ask how they can use new technologies to provide needed services to new markets. Corporations are establishing their own universities not because that is their line of business, but because they need training programs that address their core business objectives. Today's universities and colleges could draw on their own expertise in educational delivery and management to meet corporations' demands for specific educational and training objectives. By using the new information technologies to better manage, deliver, and respond to the needs of the market, educational institutions could find huge new growth opportunities.

In that same vein I would like to pose a new question to help focus thinking on the end result of the forces we see affecting our future: "What happens when the cost of education delivery tends towards zero?"

Perhaps academics would focus their answer on per unit delivery cost of education when traditional lectures are videotaped and delivered via streaming video to thousands of learners worldwide. Where does their new value lie, traditional content or new thinking about new information? Perhaps the administrator would focus their answer on the relative weight given student services in a competitive environment where customer service is the deciding factor in where a student buys their education. Is the quality of the relationship is more important than the content [which could be purchased and resold]? Perhaps the senior management team would focus their answer on mass content market or the narrow experience market. Is the quality of the life experience more important at that institution than the content delivered?

Perhaps we could all better understand the changes in education by looking at the forces that are already happening, in the process of answering the posed question.


[Please remember to put the references in APA style, which includes full bibliographic citation. See the author's guide in the call for manuscripts at /ts/call.asp]. Check our reformatting below to make sure that the information is still correct.]

Drucker, P. (1998, November). The future that has already happened. The Futurist, 32(8). [page numbers?]

Petersen, J. L. ([date?]) Wild cards: Looking at the options. Arlington, VA: The Arlington Institute.

Defries, R. S. & Malone, T. F. (1989). Global change and our common future. [place of publication?] National Research Council.