Tales from the Creative Destruction Front

An image of the Teachers Pay Teachers website where teachers sell their lesson plans to other K-12 educators.

App Bullying and Kindergarten Teachers

If I had 99 cents for every time someone in my immediate family or extended family at William & Mary has said, “Pablo you should write an app and put it on the App Store,” I’m pretty sure I would have a lot more change in my pockets than if I had created this “theoretical” app. Granted, I have been tempted by a few ideas so far, but never quite enough to commit the time and resources to create one.

After the repeated shamings about not being the author of a popular and profitable app, it was a bit of a guilty pleasure when I came across a CNN blog post about a kindergarten teacher who has become a millionaire selling lesson plans online to other teachers.  The plans cover a couple of weeks in the classroom and sell for a few dollars each through an App Store-like website. So far this “open marketplace” is very much geared to the K-12 crowd, but who knows what, if anything, the future will bring with this model as far as higher education. At least I finally had a comeback for my “app bullies” — “well if a kindergarten teacher can become a millionaire with her lesson plans, I can only imagine what you could come up with….”

Creation, Transformation, and Destruction: the Internet

As you may know, the first computer networks were conceived of and originally created for use by the military in the US and physicists at CERN in Switzerland – these networks began the history of the World Wide Web.  What you are less likely to be aware of, especially since I’m probably making this up as I write it, is that the Internet’s “patron saint” surely must be Lord Shiva, the Hindu deity of creation, transformation, and destruction.  Obviously the creation of the Internet has brought a huge bounty of new options and capabilities, transforming much of our everyday life and social structures in less than 20 years (the first graphical web browser was introduced in 1993). It has utterly transformed how we purchase things, where we get our news, how we watch/listen to our entertainment, contact our friends who live overseas, or how we find the closest coffee shop.

So great: creation and transformation — but destruction? If you’re not sure about this aspect of the Internet feel free to ask the manager of your neighborhood Tower Records, Borders bookstore, or Blockbuster. But it’s not just media retailers.  Nearly every major sector in our economy has been significantly impacted by the invention and popularization of the Internet. Some institutions have been strengthened, many have gone extinct, while many new ones have sprouted up to replace them, but few have been unaffected.

But it isn’t only Hindu deities that understand how these phenomena are related. Surely the Internet is one of the greatest agents of what economist Joseph Schumpeter calls “creative destruction.”  Creative destruction describes the process by which old economic orders and centers of wealth are destroyed when new ones are created. Along the same lines, is the idea of “disruptive innovation/technology,” a concept coined by Clayton M Christenson which describes similar processes from a different perspective, but with the same results: radical changes, often brought by technology create, transform and destroy the entire sectors of the economy. Of course to a geologist, such as myself, this seems awfully familiar — a system with punctuated equilibriums.

The general the Internet creation/destruction cycle seems to go something like this:

  1. A mature market sector is chugging along quite nicely in the pre-Internet environment. The sector is usually well diversified into many individual businesses/institutions that are well adapted to the geographic, economic and social constraints of that environment.
  2. Following the creation of the Internet, at some point it significantly begins to impact on the above ecosystem.
  3. New players that are more cost-efficient, flexible, and not limited by geographic constraints start to compete in the market. Often, the product initially offered by the new comers is significantly inferior but at a significantly lower cost than the traditional one. In some cases the product is free, can be delivered much more quickly or in scales not available to the pre-existing institutions.
  4. The diversity of the pre-Internet players drops significantly, and only the ones that offer the best product, value (including face to face interaction), or the ones that significantly adapt to the new environment survive. This is usually followed by a greater diversity of new players that have sprung up and compete in the new Internet-based “ecosystem.”
  5. The remaining “traditional” and new post-Internet players reach a new quasi-equilibrium for the new environment. That is until Shiva does his thing again and starts a new cycle.

So, Where Does Education Fit in?

The degree to which institutions/businesses are affected by this cycle seems to be dependent on many complex factors, with a major one being the extent to which human interaction is critical or an absolute requirement to the interaction or transaction. Is higher education one of those institutions?

Clearly higher education cannot be replaced whole-sale with an Internet-based equivalent in the way that Amazon has replaced local bookstore chains. Nor does it seem, as the story of our millionaire kindergarten teacher illustrates, that we are completely immune to the opportunities and accompanying dangers that the Internet presents. For the past few months, much discussion in academic technology circles has focused on the implications of massive open online course (MOOC) providers such as Coursera, EdX and Udacity on traditional institutions such as W&M.

It’s also not hard to imagine that someone like Mike Duncan could eventually build an excellent college-level course from his outstanding (and free!) History of Rome podcast. Build in assessment for the 80 or so hours of “lecture” already there, tie it to some means of certification, and you could have a nice four-credit course. A higher ed equivalent of the kindergarten teacher’s online lesson plan, not necessarily tied to existing institutions, does not seem terribly far away.

With the costs of higher ed rising much more quickly than our purchasing power, and the pressure (both social and political) to increase enrollment in higher education, it’s not hard to understand why MOOC-like “solutions” seem attractive. However, administrators and other interested people are still working out how to pay for these types of systems, which institutions would eventually provide the content, how students would earn credits, how to certify the credits for these courses, and most importantly what this would mean for the future viability of many (most?) institutions of higher education… all very big unresolved questions indeed.

The number of directions we could be headed towards are truly mind-boggling at this point, and while I certainly have no crystal ball to see into the future, it seems that we in higher education are just now feeling the first real shockwaves of the Internet’s impact, and that adaptation and transformation are far safer strategies for our long term prospects than clinging to the status quo. But keep in mind that the Internet will probably only not change the playing field but also the time scale. When the Internet era finally “comes to town” things always seem to  initially move very, very quickly, and “long term” just ain’t what it used to be.

About Pablo Yáñez

Pablo Yáñez is the Academic Technologist for the Sciences. He studied Geology at the University of Maryland (BS) and University of Arizona (MS), where he specialized in Geochemistry. He joined Information Technology at William and Mary in 2000, and has since worked with nearly all of the academic departments on campus in some capacity or another. Beyond his "normal" Academic Technologist duties, during these years he has been involved in several projects/initiatives including: the use of the College's Public Access Labs; the creation of the Center for Geospatial Analysis, the Swem Media Center, and many technology-enhanced classrooms; and in the review and planning of campus-wide software procurement.