Sig Behrens is a president of Blackboard, Inc.
Higher education is the next bubble. Facebook will replace classroom instruction. Textbooks will go away, and some colleges will, too.
In other words, everything is going to change. Or, at least, that's the talk we in education and technology regularly hear these days. It sounds exciting—and, to some, scary.
But it also sounds like what I heard during the dot-com boom of the 1990s when a lot of companies—including Blackboard—began using technology to "disrupt" the education status quo. Since then we've made some important progress, but in many ways the classroom still looks the same as it did 100 years ago. So what's different this time? Is all the talk just hype? Or are we really starting to see the beginnings of major change?
I believe we are.
There are a lot of reasons but one of the biggest is the way that technology has given rise to a new kind of education consumer—the active learner—who is using technology to drive change in ways that we haven't seen before. In the past, change was usually a top-down process, led by campus administrators, district leaders, and other officials. It was often slow in coming, if at all. Look at technology: Mainframe computing gave way to client/server computing and later intranet computing. These shifts were slow and phased—an orderly rollout from the administration with little urgency or room for consumer choice.
And why would there be? Typically students had few choices of any kind, particularly before new options, globalization, and competition began to put cracks in the traditional model of education delivery. But technology has finally tipped the balance. Today the power to drive real change lies with the learner, not the institution.
In the publishing industry, Borders had difficulty meeting changing customer preferences in the digital era. While they struggled to adapt, Amazon established an open platform that gave users more control, letting readers buy and share and discover on their own terms. It let them go mobile with the Kindle and Kindle apps.
Education institutions are now grappling with the same challenge Borders faced: how to connect with savvier and more discerning consumers who have more options today than they did even a few years ago. These consumers—these active learners—have different expectations for their education experience. Administrators must be aware that active learners are willing to go elsewhere if they don't feel their expectations are being met.
Active learners spend more time using mobile apps than they do surfing the Web. They have instant access to information I used to spend countless hours hunting for in the local library. They spend 4.6 hours a week on social media—more time than they spend reading or writing E-mails. But they are often forced to "power down" when they enter the classroom. Instead of leveraging the mobile and social Web to fuel exploration and discovery, education is often still an analog, one-way activity: The instructor delivers information, students have to learn it.
If we're really going to engage active learners, I believe that education needs to become much more open, mobile, social, and analytical.
Instead of relying only on a teacher and a textbook, students should be learning from each other and from countless of sources online. In fact, they already are. Therefore, both educators and education companies should engage learners online and off, through desktops and mobile devices, at night and on weekends. We should harness the learning activity data that is growing every day to give more insight to instructors—and students and parents—to help them improve.
So far, the overall impact of technology in education has been modest compared to its impact in other fields. According to Pew research, 60 percent of students say their technology expectations are still not being met. But it is clear that today's students have more options than ever, with virtual schools, open education initiatives and massive open online courses, and online classes and programs.
Of course, technology is no silver bullet. And it's no replacement for good teaching. But no doubt education is becoming more of a marketplace. With budgets tight and revenue sources less predictable, institutions will need to compete and innovate in order to stay relevant.
Increasingly, education will be a choice made by learners who are looking for something different. And it's increasingly easy for them to differentiate between options that are serious about the future and those that aren't.
Active learners move fast. To remain (or become) successful, institutions must keep up with them, or risk being left behind.