It was 12:01 a.m. on August 1, 1981 when MTV flickered to life and broadcast its first music video, Video Killed the Radio Star by The Buggles. In the song, Video stands as a marker of the coming technological tsunami that would change everything about how human beings thought about, produced, distributed and consumed popular music.
Today, a similar technological tsunami looms. Technology has made information ubiquitous; the ivied halls of higher education no longer serve as sacred repositories of information. Anything anyone needs to know is only a mouse click away. This transformation in how information is distributed has profound consequences for higher education. But the tsunami racing toward us carries other changes equally profound.
The technological wave also brings with it broadband, affordable portable devices and an ever-growing number of software applications that support learning. Advances like these have destroyed traditional academic concepts of space, time and learning, and have replaced them with flexible learning networks. These learning networks sometimes look like a new frontier as wild and woolly as Dodge City, Kan. used to be not so long ago. Besides, with America’s natural affinity for all things frontier-like, what is one to make of it all?
Because of relatively new and powerful learner markets (adult learners, especially) and of the growing recognition learning is lifelong, distance learning has grown spectacularly by unbundling learning from the accoutrements usually associated with higher learning (quads, resident halls, campus centers, homecomings and so forth). Distance learning is still like all learning, though; that is, it varies in quality. The distance learning frontier is crowded with producers that challenge the monopoly traditional institutions have had on higher learning. Add to this new entities and methods of distributing distance learning — driven by potentially lucrative relationships with these new markets.
Higher learning is being consumed in new ways, many of them more intimate and personal than in a lecture hall with a hundred other individuals: by a single mother at home with her two children at night after bedtime, by a business woman waiting for her flight to Phoenix at the airport or by a soldier called to duty half a world away. Our industry is composed of producers, distributors and consumers — wild and woolly, indeed.
So we stand awaiting the impact of the tsunami, seeking shelter where it can be found. What will be left and how it will be arranged is unknown at the moment. What’s not unknown is that higher learning will look very different after everything dries out. Learning is about to change. Like its impact on popular music, technology will change how human beings think about, produce, distribute and consume higher learning.
When all else fails, humor helps to numb the anxiety now coursing through higher education institutions. Whoever named Massive Open Online Courses “MOOCs” knew this. So I offer the following silly anthem as a marker of impending changes, with thanks to The Buggles.
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