Editor's Note: This article is part of our Future of Business Technology series which focuses on what is happening to business today as a result of technology, and in turn, what's happening to the economy, the job market and IT careers.
If you work on a college campus, or if you've toured colleges recently in search of one for yourself or your children, you've probably been shown the "computer labs." My daughter's nearing college age, so I've seen more computer labs in the last few years than in the preceding twenty or so. I'll describe them all to you; it won't take long: There's at least one long picnic table with benches, all chock full of monitors and keyboards, all with gleaming "HP" or "Dell" brands, all very well-polished and neat, and all of them turned off. Because nobody's using them.
At one college I recently toured, I couldn't help noting the four people in the computer lab room were borrowing its power to charge their iPads.
The student is -- and always has been -- the modern computer user. If you ever want to know how to provision a cloud storage account, or make better use of Evernote, or find the best source to have a specific blend of tea shipped to you from overseas, just ask a student. If he doesn't know, he's within arm's reach -- or rather, one tweet -- of someone who does. There are entire corporate IT departments I would happily replace with about four students whom I could pick from a room at random while blindfolded. Students understand devices better than anyone on this planet.
For colleges and universities, and to a growing degree high schools as well, students are becoming their assets. Not only is their loyalty the greatest source of underutilized promotional leverage available to them, but their collective knowledge base is becoming a resource. Now that some of the more lucrative educational businesses completely lack physical campuses, the information and knowledge that students share with one another is fast becoming the embodiment, and perhaps even the foundation, of their institutions.
These assets will inevitably reflect positively on their schools' balance sheets. The notion that schools as businesses are exempt from the requirement to distinguish themselves through differentiated service value, is now obsolete. But schools are under pressure to find new ways of demonstrating differentiated value for prospective students -- their customers -- besides simply opening up their educational services for free and unrestricted sampling.
Andrew S. Rosen is chairman and CEO of one of America's most successful private educators, Kaplan Higher Education. Once simply a publisher of test preparation material, Kaplan has evolved into a recognized private university, with satellite campuses linked together through a modern, global information system. While Kaplan University gains accreditations as a learning institution, its leaders are under no illusions that it is a media publisher. Its parent company -- until August 2013 known as the Washington Post Company -- sold off its Washington Post newspaper to Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos, in what the company's financial reports would indicate to have been judged necessary in the wake of an economic downturn more directly impacting Kaplan, its more important and lucrative business.
In a 2010 speech before a meeting of public universities and their interests (PDF available here), Rosen introduced a new and revised form of his company's core product:
"We have taken broadcast-type content -- the kind that is typically given in a large lecture format in some places -- and moved it to digital media. This frees up classroom time to be focused on student-to-student and student-to-teacher interactions. Students spend their time outside of classrooms receiving content from our best instructors across the country, customizing and reviewing it as many times as they need, and preparing through guided games and exercises. When they come to campus -- and they can do that now, a bit less often -- they are there to actually try on their learning, to practice, and to receive live guidance."
Here we clearly see cloud dynamics remaking the education industry -- the pooling together of information and knowledge resources into a single system whose consumers provision themselves. Now, a business that built its reputation on the trust of subscribers over eight decades has uprooted that stake, and moved it to the realm of students. Higher education is now a more lucrative media business than news.
But the education industry is stopping short of redefining its core values. Public institutions are struggling to maintain the appearance of high value, in an atmosphere when the definition of value is being rewritten by private interests. So colleges are remodeling themselves (or, at least, the public-facing sides of themselves) into something more like resort hotels or rehab clinics -- an effort which Rosen mocks in his book, Change.edu: Rebooting for the New Talent Economy. In Chapter 2, he writes:
"The competitive environment is pushing these institutions to shift their focus from what has driven American innovation -- the education they offer -- to the college "experience," heavily sweetened with ancillary and ultimately unimportant offerings that impress students but don't ultimately improve them. In fact, these ancillary offerings may serve to make students more materialistic and entitled, while actually undermining the focus on learning."
The question Rosen leaves open is whether information technology, or certain forms of it, qualify as fundamental or ancillary. But there is no question that the "brick and mortar" of Kaplan University contains a high degree of fiber -- the fiber-optic variety -- and any effort to make access to computing seem as frivolous as Rosen characterizes access to NCAA-sanctioned sporting events, would sound quite hypocritical.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Scott M. Fulton, III has chronicled the history of computing as it happened, from the unveiling of the Apple III to the undoing of MS-DOS to the rise of the cloud. Scott was one of the original online managers of the Delphi network (you remember modems, don’t you?), part of the original editorial team of Computer Shopper (you remember paper, don’t you?), the Senior News Editor at Tom’s Hardware and the original TG Daily (you remember... never mind), and for four years served as managing editor of Betanews. He’s the author of 17 books and over 5,000 articles printed worldwide in multiple languages. Scott also appears as contributing technology analyst on NTN24’s Ciencia, Salud y Tecnología. So basically, he has at least one finger in just about every medium, in hopes that maybe one of them will take root and bear fruit. You never know, something could happen. His fingers are crossed. (Which could explain the typing problems.) While he’s waiting, Scott and his wife Jennifer, herself a best-selling author (where do you think he gets it?), run Ingenus, LLC, an editorial services provider for technology and higher education publishers. Right now, their daughter is probably on Tumblr telling her friends how Dad keeps finding something new to go wrong with his VCR. You can follow Scott on Twitter at @SMFulton3.
See here for all of Scott's Tom's IT Pro articles.