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Educom Speaker's Remarks Reprinted - 'Slicing the Learning Pie'

By Stan Davis

Spectrum Volume 19 Issue 11 - November 7, 1996

Reprinted with Permission from Educom Review Sept./Oct. 1996

(An introductory note from David Conn: Stan Davis was the keynote speaker at this year's annual meeting of Educom, a nonprofit consortium of colleges, universities, and other organizations dedicated to the transformation of higher education through the application of information technologies. His latest book, The Monster Under the Bed [co-written with Jim Botkin], has generated a great deal of interest and controversy. Without endorsing the views of Davis [or any other individual], Spectrum is reprinting the following interview for the purpose of stimulating discussion and debate. Davis' book is on reserve at the Newman Library. Davis is also the author of Future Perfect.)

Educom Review: Tell us the basic idea behind your popular book, The Monster Under the Bed.

Davis: The basic idea is that every time the infrastructure rumbles or changes, so does everything else in the economy and the society. For example, when we had an agrarian infrastructure, the church and the family were the major educating institutions. As we switched to an industrial infrastructure, over a period of 100 years, we saw a slow, gradual shift in education from church to state, with government emerging as the major educating institution, and continuing so even today. Yet we are no longer an educational system for an economy and a society that no longer exist. It's small wonder that our educational system is in trouble.

My prediction is that once again the mantle of responsibility for articulating and dominating the new way of learning is going to pass to yet another institution.

ER: And that new institution would be...

Davis: Business. This shift is so major that it will not be all for the better or all for the worse-there will be both good things about it and bad things. Here's how I think it is going to unfold.

Business is not going to take over the school system. That's not what's going to happen! During agrarian times, the educational period, the model was basically kindergarten through college. Today we continue expanding the number of years it takes to get educated. But this time it is lifelong learning, K-80.

The reason is that the half-life of what a person learns is getting shorter and shorter. Today, half of what an engineer learns as a freshman is effectively obsolete by the time he or she graduates from college and enters the labor force. When you have that speed of change you must upgrade your education throughout your life cycle.

For the first two decades of a person's life, that means upgrading the school system, but for the next four decades that means upgrading the person's education as an employee in the workplace and as a customer in the marketplace.

When we speak about the market segments of the educational pie, the old way was to segment it into K-8, high school, college, etc. Now, students are going to become the tertiary learning segment, not even the secondary segment in terms of size! The second-largest learning segment is employee learning. Employee learning is in its growth phase now. More precisely, when this transformation is complete, employee learning will have become the second-largest segment.

Consumer learning, which is still in gestation and not yet experiencing significant growth, will have become the largest of all. It is the least developed as yet.

Business will emerge as the major educating institution because the overall educational pie is growing, employee learning is becoming very big, and consumer learning will become very big later on. The student segment, instead of being 100 percent of the whole, will be a much smaller percentage of a much bigger whole as we shift to a lifetime learning model.

ER: Apart from percentages, will it shrink absolutely?

Davis: The student segment? That has a lot more to do with demographics and with the increased cost of a higher education than with anything else. Externalities like these are driving the student segment of the market. You also have to consider internalities, like the dropout rate, to determine whether the traditional student segment of the education market grows or shrinks in absolute numbers. (That's not my bailiwick. There are lots of people who spend their lives looking at it and commenting on it.)

ER: But you don't see the decline being an absolute decline like the death of something?

Davis: No, never. We don't even have the death of church-based education. Fourth-quarter entities usually don't disappear, they just do not dominate in the subsequent life cycle. The dominant players in the fourth quarter rarely are able to bootstrap themselves into being the dominant players in the next life cycle. Because they have established ways of doing things, they do not embrace the new technologies and do not comprehend the new definition of what the need is out there that they are serving. So they lose market share, which is exactly what is happening to the education system as people are abandoning it.

Because the old system is usually incapable of turning itself around, the new approach begins to gain marker share. In the following era, after a lot of agony, when the older institutions finally do turn themselves around, they become specialized niche players. Church-based education no longer dominates in the industrial era. It became a very focused, specialized niche player and has done a very fine job.

That's a possible, valid hypothesis for the public school system. I think it will take one generation to clear out the pipeline, and then it might well become a successful specialized niche player.

Right now you've got kids who were born and brought up in the computer era and it's just a natural way of behaving. We will have to wait a generation, until these kids become the teachers and school administrators of tomorrow before the public schools truly accept and embrace the information infrastructure.

I'm not saying, in any sense, that people in education have to sit on their thumbs and wait a generation. I'm just saying you are not going to see this thing reach its complete transformation for two decades.

ER: What about schools in their role as providers of certification? The schools have always given diplomas and such.

Davis: When you certify something worthwhile, then it has meaning. If what you are offering has less and less meaning-in other words, if you graduate people who are not literate and who are not numerate and their employers will have to train them with basic literacy and numeracy when they enter the labor force-then certification doesn't mean much.

ER: And do you think that's largely descriptive of the current situation?

Davis: Yes, of course. I do indeed think that.

ER: Let me go back to something you said at the beginning. You said it's not a matter of good or bad, because there are good parts and bad parts.

Davis: The way to understand it is to realize that it's not a question of good or bad, it's a question of good and bad.

ER: What's good and what's bad?

Davis: Let me give you a few different examples. In the business world, it's always better to keep a customer, than to have to find a replacement. Keep the old one and welcome new ones as well. Yet in the educational model we have today, after the graduation ceremony you tell your customers-called "students"-good-bye. Then you replace them with other students/customers. We want to hold on to them and make then learning customers for life.

Here's another example. In the business world, you have to grow or die. Contrast that to the educational world, say at the college level. There an institution might admit one out of every three applicants. Well, if the institution got really, really good, then it could admit only one out of every 10 people. That means you can turn away nine people instead of turning away only two. That's a crazy model. In the private sector the model is: let them all come; make them all customers. It's a very different mindset.

Applying those orientations to learning in the future, when you have to learn throughout your life, and business is going to emerge as a major educating business. It's going to be educating both employees and customers.

ER: And do you think educators will become more businesslike?

Davis: Well, let's wait and find out. Not very quickly. Not in the short term, and that is why they are losing the market share. I'm not saying this pejoratively. I wish it weren't true. But, the historical record says almost nobody in the fourth quarter of the life cycle is good at reinventing themselves, whether it's a hospital or a school, a government or a business.

ER: What is your own background?

Davis: I used to be a professor in the business schools at Harvard, Columbia and Boston Universities. My degrees are in the social sciences, not in business. I switched from the social sciences into business to stay intellectually alive. And then I had to get out of academics altogether to stay intellectually alive. Academics for me had become learning more and more about less and less. Today, of course, I am still an educator even though I'm outside the academy. When I'm writing books or speaking to a couple of thousand conference attendees, I'm an educator. And I love it.