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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




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