Disruptive Technologies

First it was the music industry. Or maybe it was the travel agents. Then newspapers, in tandem with the postal system. If the movie and television industries thought VCR's and TiVo, which lets viewers edit out the commercials were bad, they may look back in nostalgia a few years down the road at the good old days of 2013.

We refer, of course, to some of the industries that have been turned upside down by the arrival of mobile computer and information sharing technology. The above list is hardly exhaustive. Anything that can be digitized and stored on a computer server somewhere in "the cloud" will be, for all the reasons you can think of - cost and efficiency being the two leading ones. Print advertisements that used to be developed by in-house ad departments now get sent halfway around the world to be designed and produced in shops where the costs - think labor - are a fraction of what they would be here. In time, that could shift again, as we are already seeing in some manufacturing industries where the cost differential between domestically made goods and those made overseas is beginning to narrow. Maybe.

We're going through an era where technology in the form of mobile devices like smartphones and tablets that do more things and pack more wallop than a NASA space engineer could have dreamed of 10 or 20 years ago is rewriting the rule book in one industry after another.

In what is close to a supreme irony, the next one could be makers of desktop personal computers. Remember them? What was cutting edge in the mid-1980s are today's near dinosaurs. The speed and pace of the change is breathtaking all by itself.

But standing next in line, and what would constitute perhaps the most far-reaching change of all, are colleges and institutions of higher learning.

The past few years have seen an unrelenting drumbeat of angst over not only the cost of colleges and universities, but the loan debt that many students have taken on to finance their way through those institutions, in the belief that their future success in the world depends upon obtaining that diploma. And they are correct - while it's not a guarantee and every individual has to prove their ultimate worth - as a whole, those with college credentials fare better in today's vastly more competitive workplace than ever before. So the idea of college isn't going the way of music CD's, printed newspapers and desktop computer makers, but how we deliver such services well might.

Colleges need to figure out ways of reining in their costs. That won't be easy because, much like the Titanic couldn't change course fast enough to avoid its rendezvous with an iceberg, there is much innate momentum driving colleges forward in one direction - business as usual. There are all those buildings that may still need to be paid off, and large salaries to be paid to university administrators, faculty and let's not forget, football coaches. Socially, college has long been seen as a phase of life where students loosen the ties with home and parental control, learn to live semi-independently, explore a broader social world, while learning how to think and solve problems. It's the main cog in the great sorting out wheel that directs students in one direction or another. It's difficult to imagine modern life without such a sorter.

And yet, it may soon be possible, based on the role of knowledge and skill acquisition and the sheer cost of the enterprise. As digitalization has already shown, over and over, when you can save large amounts of money and be more efficient at the same time, digitalization trumps the old way. Today, many colleges have moved passed the mere experimentation phase with online learning and are figuring out how to do it on a larger scale, without undermining the integrity of the college diploma. We're not there yet, but you can see its outlines emerging. In the nearer term, going to college may involve something of a hybrid experience, where classes still meet on occasion - once a week, perhaps - and classroom dialogue continues to play an important role in the learning process. It probably always should - it worked well for Plato and Socrates. But much of the learning, in the college to come, in the form of research, reading and homework, would take place online.

And when that point arrives, it will raise the question of how colleges can justify some of their eye-watering costs. To note a few: It will cost incoming freshmen who are Vermont residents about $13,000 for room and board and tuition for an average number of courses. If you're from out-of-state, make that $23,500. For those planning to attend Bennington College, the corresponding number is up around $57,000, according to their Web site, regardless, apparently, of where you are from. Most students will be able to take advantage of scholarships, loans and grants to offset some of these costs, and only a small percentage of incoming students - or their parents and grandparents - will pay the full freight. Even so, those are some sobering numbers, and indicate the cost that students, whether attending public or private colleges, have to factor in to their future earning expectations.

If ways can be found to deliver educational services for academic credit that could pare down those kinds of costs, without impugning the product, look out. That would be a far-reaching sea change. Any number of newspaper publishers though, chastened and bloodied from years of hand-to-hand combat with the growth of digital media, might well advise college presidents that they can't take anything for granted, and only the Harvards and Yales of the world, like the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal, have bulletproof brands. And they're bulletproof today in good part only because they've figured out some ways, and not always perfect ones, of sleeping with the enemy.


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