Lessons in Education and Technology*
By Martha Lagace, Senior Editor, HBS Working Knowledge
Through a world formerly ruled by blackboards and chalk, technology has cut a path like your last no-nonsense teacher.
According to panelists at a session at Cyberposium 2004, technology is making inroads at all levels of teaching and learning-from diploma-granting online universities to suppliers of back-office software to corporate trainers. It is rattling some old fiefdoms and forging new markets.
"What's beginning to happen is that technology is the catalyst for change, for a greater level of competitiveness, and a higher level of service," said Sean Gallagher, a panelist at Cyberposium and a senior analyst at Eduventures, a Boston-based research firm that looks at the education industry.
The panelists' experience spanned the education industry in the session "The Impact of Technology on Education," moderated by HBS professor Myra M. Hart.
One company spawned from a smart idea is Blackboard, a course management outfit. Launched several years ago to help faculty at Cornell. Blackboard has evolved beyond course management to also provide services and applications for campus life, such as a customizable community portal, technical consulting, and transaction processing systems similar to Harvard's Crimson Cash debit card program. The 24/7 nature of the Internet, databases, and broadband, Chi added, let campuses bridge their academic and administration systems, help them measure quality and effectiveness, and create a myriad of conveniences such as virtual office hours.
Clearly, the market is still in its infancy, panelists agreed, and early predictions have not necessarily panned out. In the late 1990s, it looked like e-textbooks, for example, would be the wave of the future. Wrong. Another popular misconception was that content would be king. There was competition for the best professors and the best courses, said Karen Baldeschwieler (HBS MBA '00), VP of Strategy for Kaplan Higher Education Online. But as everyone in the industry has discovered to their surprise, the content of e-learning can be fairly standardized.
"Branding is certainly still important," she said. "What we are learning is that that early prejudice is not as true as we thought it was. [At Kaplan] we are in the career-driven space dealing with adults who don't have degrees ... We find that the content is fairly commoditized. That is offensive to the academic community, who discover that accounting is accounting and that it's purchasable."
The real value in e-learning is the relationships that can be forged between professors and students, she observed.
Another common misconception was that the technical deployment of e-learning into homes and offices would be a cinch. The technology has actually given everyone-both students and proprietors-more headaches than anticipated, though that is improving, panelists said.
The industry may be young, but so far the arithmetic is impressive. According to Eduventures' Gallagher, the market last year for for-profit products and services that were sold to colleges and universities was $30 billion. Of that sum, about 50 percent went for technology: expenditures on ERP systems, course management systems, and so on.
"If you look at online education, which is a different category on its own-it's more a business line extension of the core education business-it is about a $5 billion market; and revenues are growing at about 40 percent annually," he said. There are opportunities for for-profits and nonprofits at all levels, from kindergarten through twelfth grade (known as K-12), higher education, and at corporations.
One of the lessons some online educators are learning is that the programs need to accommodate a variety of different students' "learning styles." Some students enjoy following a course on their computer while others need a good deal of face-to-face contact in order to learn. For some individuals, observed one expert, online education is not a concept that will ever fit.
The intersection of education and technology, however, continues to educate both students and companies. Until nine years ago, Harvard Business School Publishing, a wholly owned subsidiary of HBS, was a traditional publishing company that prepared business cases as well as the magazine Harvard Business Review. Then HBSP decided to try leveraging technology to deliver some of its content, said Jean-François Goldstyn, who is in charge of the implementation services team of the HBSP e-learning division. Now the company offers a full spectrum of leadership and management development courses that are a blend of e-learning and traditional face-to-face components of teaching, targeted at first- and second-level managers-potential leaders.
* By permission of HBS Working Knowledge: http://hbswk.hbs.edu