Is Education the cartel that technology will break next?

Jonathan Nalder
27 March, 2013
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Imagine if the streaming music app Pandora was the education system. How would that change things?

The obligatory history lesson:

It happened to the record industry first. Rock ‘n’ roll/ Pop music was growing up for many teenagers. Your identity, your dose of rebellion. You payed for it, and the music industry that arose with the ability to sell ‘albums’ on mass in the 70’s when distributable media and players first became widely available paid very little back to artists. And you paid for it again for a piece of magnetized ribbon encased in plastic that required skilled pencil-winding just to keep it running for a couple of years. After that, the music encoded on that cassette tape perished. And you bought it for a third time on CD.

But that’s where technology turned. CD drives in computers, plus early sharing software like Napster, meant that instead of perfectly mashing the pause button on your stereo so the cassette stopped recording before the ads kicked in, you could rip a whole CD to MP3 in minutes and upload it for anyone who was also connected to the net. You could also bypass the record stores entirely by downloading songs, for free. It meant you didn’t have to buy your music a fourth time in some other format – you now controlled the file. No it wasn’t legal, but it was what the people wanted.

Prior to this, a cartel, or “an association of suppliers with the purpose of maintaining prices at a high level and restricting competition” existed. They held the content and the means of distributing it to you – the passive consumer. But since the MP3, things have changed. Now we can choose to buy tracks one at time instead of ten at a time. NOW we have Pandora, and Spotify and Rdio et al. Now Music gets pushed to me. Now I tap a thumbs up button and more great tunes keep rolling in, for free if I put up with the Pandora ads every 15 minutes.

The ‘cartel’ has been broken, or at least radically forced to change its ways. Dropping DRM restrictions on music files for instance means we the customer can choose when, where and how we want to store and play our music. Funny then that last year was the first time in a decade that the music industry saw an uptick in profits – after finally signing licenses for online services that are very similar to Napster.

Now get ready to lose your job – so says Jon Evans in a recent article at TechCrunch. His argument is that nearly all industries are facing a similar shakeup as the digital revolution enters a new stage and the stuff of the world moves into silicon. He quotes Chris Dixon’s remarkable idea that just as in the previous four technological revolutions, we are at the stage where new tech is replacing traditional jobs before new digital industries –  that will appear –  have had a chance to create new ones. For example, as information has moved online, print newspapers are failing faster than they can hit on a successful digital strategy. Indeed, Wired reported nearly a year ago that some sports journalism jobs have already been taken by software that, in part takes advantage of the proliferation of easily accessible data.


The MOOC did it, the iPad did it: What it all means for Education

“Education is the cartel that technology is going to break next” Heppell, 2011.

“Higher education is just on the edge of the crevasse … I think even five years from now these enterprises are going to be in real trouble” Clay Christensen, 2013.

So what about the education system? I mean it’s truly one of the only things that everybody has in common. In Australia its 5 days a week for 12-18 years!  It’s a system where what you will learn (the content) and how you will learn it (the curriculum) is highly regulated and centrally controlled, with the user/learner having very little say in either. It’s also traditionally been an industry slow to adopt new technology. The US Department of Commerce found in 2003 that Education was actually the least IT intensive of 55 major industries. Can a total collapse ala Dixon’s model and the dotcom crash be averted?

There are some signs of change. It was in February of this year that TechCrunch declared that ‘Massively Open Online Courses’ (MOOCs) were replacing physical colleges at a ‘crazy fast pace’, citing the 125 million people who had signed up to MITs Open Courseware project and the fact that some colleges are now offering courses that require no class time at all. Talk about giving the people what they want. Basically, the rise of MOOCs means that while there was a time when you chose one college or university and hoped that each semester there was one interesting subject available to you, the situation now is that anyone with an internet connection can choose a course from the world’s top universities, sometimes for free.

The other example of Education defying its ‘slow to adopt’ past has been the rise of the iPad. From nowhere in 2010 to outselling all Apple desktops and laptops in schools by mid-2012 by a factor of two, the impact of the iPad in Education has been an immediate one. Tim Cook reported in October 2012 that over 2500 US schools were already using them. It has also been the rise of the app-culture that arrived with the iPad that has impacted learning. As Jonny Ive said when it was first introduced, the iPad is a device that fits to you, not the other way around. So new apps like Zite push news about your interests to you for free in a way that apps by traditional newspaper publications don’t seem to have ever considered. And the aforementioned Pandora does the same for music. In addition, the free iBooks Author software allows anyone, not just traditional textbook companies to create professional-level textbooks for iPads.

Here in Australia we’ve seen this uptake also. The ground-roots success of the community (disclosure, I’m a co-founder and one of its 1200 members) and the fact that teacher demand is seeing it about to run its 5th iPad-focused event in 3 years, is a sign of that. This time its being held in Western Australia, where the University of Western Australia has had an iPad program since 2011, as has the state’s early years sector. Early trials in Victoria in 2011 and over 5000 iPads deployed to special needs students by the new Queensland government in 2012 are just some examples. In addition, the Catholic Education Office told the Sydney Morning Herald in July 2012 that 60% of its primary schools had adopted iPads and the University of Western Sydney announced in December 2012 that 11,000 students will be equipped with iPads.

So what will the Education system look like once this phase of massive online courses and iPad integration stabilises into a ‘deployment’ phase and will it be lead by educators or entrepreneurs? A tension that apparently was highly obvious at the recent South by Southwest Education event in the US.

If you want my opinion and, lets face it, you’ve read this far: I see that what is emerging will be schools based on interest not just on the luck of the draw method we currently have that’s decided by postcode. Once MOOC thinking trickles down to a primary school level and super-capable mobile devices like the iPad are deployed widely enough to provide ubiquitous access, it’s really only how we keep some strategic face to face time in the mix that remains to be solved.

Another way of putting what all this means is to call it self-serve education. Just as self-serve shopping put the super in supermarket in the 70’s and 80’s, the new level of digitally-accessible education means we can pick and choose our own learning rather than waiting for the ‘grocer’ to assemble it for us.

Can we actually trust people to choose their own education like they choose toothbrushes, or say, tracks on Pandora? Sugatra Mitra who just won the US$1 million dollar TED prize for his ‘school in a wall’ work would say yes. Do yourself a favour and ponder all these questions while watching his presentation here. Does it get a ‘thumbs up’ in your stream of learning content?


You can read more of Jonathan’s ‘jnxyz’ articles here at Mactalk, his Education blog, or at his ‘Appcessories’ review site here. Follow his #EdTech, #Slide2learn and #iPadEd tweets as@jnxyz.

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