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Photo credit: José Manuel Suárez



Editor’s note: The following is a guest blog post by Ken Fairbanks, a lifelong learner who is now Director of Distance & Distributed Learning at Wytheville Community College. 

Distance learning, cloud computing, social networking, desktop virtualization, augmented reality, smartphones, tablets and the arrival of the post PC era… this all sounds a little scary, huh? Welcome to the world we live in. A world impossible to predict. A world characterized by disruptive technological, social and economic change. How do we prepare ourselves, our employees and children for the future?

The answer is “Lifelong Learning.”

Disclaimer: I work in higher education. I am the Director of  Distance & Distributed Learning at a community college and what you are about to read is more than a little biased.

I just want to get that out of the way!

This should not be news to you. Most of us, who have survived the business climate changes over the past two decades, have internalized the idea of lifelong learning and adaptability. How many job and career changes have you experienced? Depending on your age, you’ve probably had at least two or more. It’s now predicted that new high school graduates may experience 8-10 career changes in their lifetimes. That’s career changes… no wonder my college student son can’t decide on a major!

What we need is a new educational model that is focused more on creating a new breed of entrepreneurial workers, who can adapt to rapid change. A system more about knowledge acquisition and problem solving and less about taking standardized tests.

I think Sir Ken Robinson in the video below and a recent manifesto by Seth Godin are on the right path.

The biggest changes occurring now… are how, where, and when we are learning. When I transitioned into higher education in 2001, distance learning was still pretty new and many thought it was a fad, while others dismissed it as inferior to the traditional face-to-face education model. Today, that has changed and around 30% of all college students nationwide are enrolled in at least one online course and by 2014, that number is predicted to increase to 50%.

Being part of the change doesn’t make us immune to change. Distance learning itself is undergoing massive upheaval… the past two years have been all about mobile devices. Our assumption that students taking online courses, were using a computer to access their materials and perform their work has been shattered. Increasingly, students are using smartphones and tablet devices to complete online coursework. It’s simple economics, smartphones and tablet prices are falling making these devices ubiquitous and our primary tools for accessing the Internet. Students can also use their mobile device to interact with the world around them in real time and share their experience with fellow learners and instructors. Now we have mobile learning… talk about a game changer!

Augmented Reality (AR) will be the next evolution in technology to impact education. We are currently planning AR campus tours using Google Earth and the Layar app. Google has announced that they will be releasing AR glasses by December 2012,  very similar to the Nokia prototype highlighted in the below video.

The future of higher education and distance learning is evolving, as new competitors from the private sector enter the marketspace and big brands like MIT, Stanford and Harvard reinvent themselves. The ideas of open source content and education are gaining popularity. MIT and Stanford are now placing many of their online courses on Apple’s iTunesU for free download by anyone interested in learning. Of course, if you want their degree you will have to pay… but the learning is still there for the taking. Companies have formed their own universities for training and new entries like Khan Academy that are blowing up the traditional education model. The key over the next few years, will be the accreditation of these new open source forms of education.

Add to this disrupted reality, the recession driven increases in college enrollments and decreases in government funding and you will find higher education scrambling to embrace new technology to drive down costs and remain competitive.

I’m proud to say that community colleges have been in the forefront of many of these educational advances. I think the reason for our success has been our small size, connection to the community and ability to adapt quickly to meet the needs of today’s business and industry leaders. Community colleges have become the higher education equivalent of the start-up tech firm that can easily adjust and seize new market opportunities.

As business leaders what do we need to take away from this?

  1. We need to embrace change and look for value adding employees capable of adapting to the changes and competitive forces in the marketplace.
  2. We need to continuously invest in ourselves and our employees (human intellectual capital) through internal and external educational opportunities.
  3. We need to stay abreast of new technologies and leverage them for training and building value in our employees.
  4. We need to realize that the new generation of workers coming up, will expect instant access to education and training through mobile technology.
  5. We need to recognize that our current education model needs to change, if it’s to be successful at meeting the demands of our new economy.

About the Author: Ken Fairbanks is Director of Distance & Distributed Learning at Wytheville Community College, in Wytheville, Virginia. Ken also works as a multimedia designer and provides corporate training in leadership, problem solving, marketing and team building. Prior to moving into higher education, Ken was Director of Marketing for a successful advertising agency in the Tri-Cities and also worked in the television news business as a reporter and anchor for several years. Ken currently lives in Abingdon, Virginia with his wife Beth and two boys. When he’s not developing online courses or blowing up Facebook and Twitter with his latest thoughts… he’s probably running, walking, or biking on the Virginia Creeper Trail! You can contact Ken via Twitter, Linkedin and Facebook




Follow me on twitter @MarketingMel.

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14 Responses to “Disrupting Education: The Collision of Emerging Technology, Education and Economy”

  1. It’s so interesting to read your perspective on life long learning and the many options available through technology now. I was one of the first people to ever develop what was then called “computer assisted learning” for hospitals way back when. SO different now! It’s amazing and gives the world such opportunity!

    • Ken says:

      Thanks Sue! It is amazing to think about how far learning has evolved. Augmented reality really starts to create an interactive world where information will be tagged to all the items and places surrounding us and the computer just disappears. It will be interesting to see where the technology takes us.

  2. Ken says:

    I mentioned that future accreditation of open-resource learning will be key. Well, Disney-Pixar, Nasa and Mozilla have a creative solution that takes me back to my boy scout days: http://goo.gl/z2z2w

  3. I agree that life-long learning is a necessity not just for business people, but for all of us. I’m still overwhelmed when I see how far technology has come since the days when I was punching cards to run through the machine that took up an entire floor of a building at my university. Now I’m losing the battle of staying one step smarter than my Smart phone.

    • Ken says:

      LOL! I remember the punch card and paper tape days, as well! Back then, I could have never imagined the level of involvement I would have with computers and technology. I think the key for most people is to stop trying to outsmart the devices and accept that you have this incredible tool in your pocket that allows you to communicate with the world and for the world to poke you back. I advise faculty members at my college to find an app they like and learn it… then move to another. Next thing I know… they are sharing new apps with me!

  4. As a trainer and coach seeing and reading about the massive changes going on and the exciting opportunities for assisting people in growing, learning and developing just blows me away – thanks for sharing!

  5. Ken, thank you for being on the forefront of leading change in our education model. And thanks for this very thought-provoking post.

    • Ken says:

      Your Welcome, Heidi! I see advances in technology and training occurring more quickly in the private/corporate sector, than in higher ed. I know that two years ago at the ASTD TechKnow Conference… mobile learning was the hot topic. What do you see as trends, when you are out training?

    • Ken says:

      You’re welcome, Jeff. Thanks for taking the time to read the post. I hope it was useful.

  6. Things have changed a lot and I think it’s great. I remember taking a distance learning course in Spanish when I was in college and we had to watch terrible telenovelas on the TV as part of our coursework. Oh how nice it would have been to watch those spanish videos on You Tube with my iPhone or iPad.

    • Ken says:

      I have a friend that teaches online Spanish and watching YouTube videos is part of the class. These days the students also post to a voice board that allows them to demonstrate their language skills and starting next semester they will be participating in synchronous web conferencing sessions spaced throughout the course. The iPad and other tablets have really changed the way we interact with the Internet. Thanks for taking time to read the post and reply.

  7. Joe DiPietro says:

    Educational paradigm shifts have occurred since Plato’s “classical” university. Tools, whether a handsaw, or computer or the internet were and are developed to meet the needs of the “worker” to support their skill sets, or new ones being learned. Not much use for tools, if there are no demands for mastered skills to use those tools. American education’s dilemmas do not necessarily sit with evolving technologies–it sits in not fostering and expecting requisite skill sets for the profession or trade being learned–it’s “the fastest way” to get to the end point, rather than understanding. My dad often said, “Tools make a master not–due diligence, focus, patience, and understanding do.”

    Somewhere, somehow, pundits sold us on “mass education” versus “education of the masses”, as Jefferson put it…fact is, all of us have different magic (gifts and talents) and differing levels of potential–and education in all its forms is to be purposeful in: fostering curiosity; making learners “thirsty enough” to dig deeper and farther; holding learners to real standards of performance; showing everything is not necessarily negotiable.

    • Ken says:

      Very well said, Joe. While the modalities that we use for teaching and learning may change… the essence of quality education remains the same. Thanks for adding your comment.

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