Monday, November 13, 2006

Is higher education on the verge of disruption?

Can higher education adapt to the effects of disruptive technology?
To understand what I am about to say I suggest you read the following Wikipedia entrys:

To quote the Wikipedia entry on disruptive technology

"...a lower-end disruptive innovation is aimed at mainstream customers who were ignored by established companies. Sometimes, a disruptive technology comes to dominate an existing market by either filling a role in a new market that the older technology could not fill (as more expensive, lower capacity but smaller-sized hard disks did for newly developed notebook computers in the 1980s) or by successively moving up-market through performance improvements until finally displacing the market incumbents (as digital photography has begun to replace film photography)."

This is critical to understand! You cannot dismiss disruptive technology by saying it is not as good as the sustaining technology that given time it may replace and dominate. For example, at the turn of the 20th century the steam powered passenger train was the dominate public transportation paradigm. The airplane was invented in 1903. The airplane lacked the capability for long distance travel and there were no facilities available for public use of airplanes. Compared to the airplane, the train was safe, comfortable and reliable. But, transcontinental travel by rail took days. Airplanes were faster than trains. There was an unmet need for speedy travel. At first, the airplane was a niche market device. The airplane had a market that allowed it to develop and evolve in its niche. Fifty years later the airplane had evolved into a transportation paradigm that was safe, comfortable and unlike passenger trains, airplanes are was also fast. We now travel across the continent in hours routinely by airplane. The airplane disrupted the train as the dominate mode of public long distance travel.

So, what does that have to do with education?
Recently we had a presentation in our class of Second Life. Second Life is a type of Metaverse, a virtual world where people interact over the Internet, using their computers, in a three dimensional and highly detailed virtual world. In this presentation a person was in our class, another person was on the east coast, they were linked together verbally using Skype. Using Second Life and using Skype they were able stand side by side and talk to the class and the class was able to talk to them. Then, using Skype Recorder audio recording software, we recorded the conversation for release in a podcast. Imagine being able to come to class without going to class and/or being able to replay what you may have missed in class!

But, you argue, real classrooms are "better"!
If that is your argument you are missing the point! Remember, "a lower-end disruptive innovation is aimed at mainstream customers who were ignored by established companies." Consider the many people who are disenfranchised from, and cannot participate in, the existing paradigm because they have conflicting jobs, travel issues, child care responsibilities and/or other members of their families who require their attention.

In this mix you have, in my opinion, a huge unmet need. That is the niche opportunity for this technology to be developed to meet this unmet need. Add to this scenario Moore's Law, "Moore's Law equates to an average performance improvement in the (technology) industry as a whole of over 1% per week." When you look at the emerging technologies we are seeing now, think of them in light of performance improvements via Moore's Law. Think of them against a backdrop of increasing cost of oil based transportation. And, think of the huge cost of maintaining and sustaining the physical brick and mortar universities we all hold so dear. Will they be replaced by metaversities?

In my opinion, you have the recipe for disruption in higher education. I think higher education as we know it is ripe for disruption and does not have a clue what it is that may be coming at it!

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