Apocalypse Later

November 21st, 2011

Changes brought on by the internet are more often long-fuse time bombs than quick explosions, and current and coming changes heralded in higher ed seem cases in point.

That, at least, was the general sense  I got when catching up on some reading. I was working through a backlog going back to being on a panel at EDUCAUSE, one of several conferences in the fall spinning off announcements that breed equal parts buzz and skepticism. The big announcements there included Pearson and Blackboard competing to offer the big open LMSs, which was passing strange considering the parties involved. Not long after, the Sloan-C conference  on online learning coincided with the release of the annual survey of online learning that is now in its ninth year. That survey always has a thicket of commentary shoot up around it, and this year was no exception. (One of the better reviews of the survey is in our own Tony Picciano’s blog.)

Of all the commentary the survey spawned, perhaps the most provocative, at least for me, was a New Republic article titled “A Much-Needed Challenge to Low-Quality Universities” by Kevin Carey. Probably cued by the survey’s own admission that growth in online learning isn’t at the pace it was (though still growing at a rate that surprises those who thought the trend was spent or at least would be flatlining because the economy is), Carey argues that the change in the offing could indeed be huge precisely because it is incremental (but apparently relentless).  He invokes Peter Drucker’s notorious claim that “Universities won’t survive” — something that would come to pass in three decades, and said a decade and a half ago.

So Drucker’s wrong, right? Not so fast, says Carey. He says that “what we’ve also learned during that time is that some correctly apocalyptic predictions take longer to come true than others. The newspaper industry thrived for nearly a decade after the dot-com boom, and then collapsed. Amazon.com didn’t push Borders into the grave in 1999—it took until 2011.”

I can’t resist the temptation to qualify some of these supposedly done deals. I’m pretty fond of my digital subscription to the New York Times, for instance, and arguably get more out of the paper now that it’s not paper –giving me news alerts on my iPhone, etc. I think the collapse is more like a mutation or metamorphosis, and the same thing is likely to happen in higher ed. You could say we’re in a very busy chrysalis stage.

What this talk of apocalypse by accretion does do (even if we back up and call “apocalypse” something like “fairly dramatic change over time”) is help shed some light on non-trends. I mean the steps back when we we’re in a two-steps-forward-and-one-step-back shuffle. Every once in a while, the electronic frontier feels a little too wild to some. and they decide, by gum, that there’s going to be more order in this town (like there used to be). So you have Georgia Tech shutting down student wikis or the University of Missouri banning the recording of classroom lectures. The thing is to see that these are steps back in a march forward — no more like turned corners than any other attempts to stuff the genie back in the bottle.

This is not to say that progress is inevitable. Like Millard Fillmore, our most forgotten president, I’d acknowledge that we sometimes mistake change for progress. Change is inevitable. Whether it leads to real improvements is a real question, perhaps one for another time.

  1. The Food Coma Round-Up : Footenotes Says:

    […] Otte had a great post over at Tributaries about the steps and missteps being made on the march towards better online learning.  I think it’s safe to say that if […]

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