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Wednesday, September 5, 2012

"Instructors are to educational media what doctors are to pharmaceuticals" - A Missing Chapter from Simulations and the Future of Learning

One central premise of all of my work is that our reliance on traditional linear media (books, term papers, paper based tests, and filmstrips) has resulted in a predictably shaped curriculum that over-emphasizes some skills (such as analysis and recounting timelines) while under-emphasizing others (such as leadership or project management). In fact, the "affordances of media used" shape what can and is taught in schools, even more so than national need or desire.   I later attempted to make this argument in the introduction to The Complete Guide to Simulations and Serious Games, called The Campfire and the Veld.

Another parallel analogy that has persisted with me is, "instructors are to educational media what doctors are to pharmaceuticals".  (Or, in some cases, "instructors are to educational media what fast food workers are to frozen food".)  As I was thinking about this, I stumbled upon this chapter I had written about a decade ago for my 2003 book, Simulations and the Future of Learning ,but that was later edited out of the final edition.

Media shapes our schools more than unions, budgets, even national will.  In a world when Electronic Arts has figured out how to spend 40 million on new computer games, and Hollywood spends 100 million on new movies, our collective failure to create a pipeline of great educational media is a scandal that overshadows and makes ridiculous any jabs at, for example, teacher unions.

Here is the missing chapter from 2003.

Many years ago, the original “aspirin” was made from white willow trees; then the early pharmaceutical companies found that with the addition of coal tar to salicylic acid, the action of the aspirin would be stronger and with a more long lasting effect.
- Carol Geck, Birch for bones, flesh, cartilage, skin and eyes, May 2000 Idaho Observer.


It is so hard to imagine a young pharmaceuticals industry, asking customers to ingest smelly powders and liquids to fix problems previously unfixable (or requiring invasive surgery), sometimes working, sometimes not.

Did the early proprietors of apothecaries dream of the miracle drugs to come?  Could they imagine, as they crushed their minerals and bark and sold “pick me ups” next to perfumed water and luxury soaps, the industry that would grow up to utterly change the world?

It is equally hard for all of us, as instructors are reformatting their PowerPoint slides on the weekends, to imagine that e-learning will follow a similar path. And yet, it has already begun.

Changing the course of nations

As with life-extending drugs, e-learning is transformative in nature; it will change what people do, when they do it, and how they do it.

Today, you probably have better health care than kings and presidents had one hundred years ago, at a much lower cost (inflation adjusted!).  Within our lifetime, anyone will be able to access business, medical or legal courses that make today’s top schools look like absurd in comparison.  “Why did we think that would work,” history will ask us of today’s schools.

Just as many areas were able to skip generations in telecommunications, moving right to cell phones without building telephone poles and wires, regions in China, India, Africa, the United States, or South America will be able to move in ten years from having unskilled to skilled populations. This today would take at least three generations.

This will be one of the core engines to elevate our children to the next standard of living.

High Upfront Costs

This is exciting, but it will not be easy.  Like pharmaceutical companies, e-learning vendors will have to be highly innovative, with tremendous research and development budgets.
This is all the more important because of the young age of the e-learning industry. Vendors, standards bodies – and even worse, industry spokespeople -- talking about the process and theory for creating online courses, sound a bit like doctors in 1890 talking about the purifying spirit of fire or the role of vapors. There is not yet a human genome project on e-learning’s horizon – but we now at least have the equivalent of aspirin.

But low cost deployment

For e-learning vendors, the cost of deploying any course that is already created will continue to be small – much like the cost of making a few more pills. A vendor’s incremental costs for adding another student will be less than one percent of the retail cost.  If the new student pays a thousand dollars for the course, it’s costing the vendor less than ten dollars for the administrative and support needs of that student.

Moral Dilemmas

These three realities – high R&D, the product’s transformative nature and the low incremental cost of expansion -- strongly favor consolidation among vendors.

They also introduce the political dilemma the pharmaceutical industry is facing right now: What happens when underdeveloped countries ask for products at a low cost?  Will our industry have a moral obligation to educate needy people? Some e-learning companies are already donating courses to welfare-to-work programs, which is a generous but dangerous precedent-setting move.

Privacy, too, will become an important issue in the e-learning industry. Our lifelong learning portfolio, containing a record of every course we’ve ever taken and how we scored on each one, will be as much of a target to marketers and future employers as our medical records.

A Changing Profession

One of the most interesting relationships in the pharmaceutical industry is the one between vendors and doctors. While doctors are not being replaced, their role has changed permanently because of drugs. One of their primary outputs is to dispense the right medication to the right people at the right time, both instead of and in addition to surgery.

Learning professionals at corporations – and college professors, too – will see their roles changing in a similar way.  E-learning will both accompany and selectively replace other types of content.

E-learning will fragment into two types of products: over-the-counter (an off-the-shelf course on sexual harassment) and prescription-only (a custom-developed course on the company’s new sales process), the latter being significantly more expensive.

Some e-learning pundits advocate dropping the “e” in e-learning and just focusing on the learning.  To me, that makes about as much sense as dropping the phrase “pharmaceutical” and just focusing on good health.  It represents the right alignment, but not the right structure.  E-learning will increasingly, not decreasingly, require highly specialized skills.

Maybe a better analogy for learning professionals is the role of doctors hired by professional sports teams. They are often forced to make choices between an individual athlete’s health and the overall goals of the team. For e-learning leaders of the future, the challenge will be to weigh the needs of the organization that pays them against the needs of the learners looking to them for help.

Major Export

E-Learning will also turn into a major export of a few companies, including the Unites States, India, Ireland, and Israel.  It will eventually represent billions of dollars of revenue to the right organizations.

Globalization and E-Learning

Even if the time frame is uncertain, the future of e-learning is assured because of the critical role it has to play.  We are all just understanding that globalization and e-learning are inextricably linked.  It is impossible for one to out-pace the other for very long. In fact, the globalization of the 1990’s created large numbers of “have-nots” that were resentful and worked violently against globalization at the beginning of the new millennia.

On a more micro level, globalization without e-learning is self-limiting because:
  • Too few technical skills exist to maintain and build the infrastructure (as we saw with IT workers in the late 1990’s). 
  • We need everyone!  Too many of today’s “have not’s” are brilliant and hard-working.  Given the economic value of just a few great ideas, we are suppressing ourselves as much as a 70% tax rate.
  • We all are crippled in our ability to communicate meaningfully with people who are different, both within and outside of our enterprises and cultures.  This created the interpersonal equivalent of incompatible technical standards.
E-learning without globalization would be equally self-limiting because:
  • The size of audience would not be sufficient to create next generation courses;
  • People in under connected regions would be less interested in taking courses if the opportunity did not exist to practice and benefit from the new skills; and
  • The technology infrastructure to deploy and run the content wouldn’t exist. 
Only by increasing both in concert will growth be sustainable.  The opportunities to participate that are currently taken advantage by a few can then be taken advantage by nearly all. And when this happens, the world is in for quite a revolution.

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