We Did Not Change the World

San Francisco, technology, and higher education: 1998 to 2018.

February 8, 2018

1998 was when I first came to San Francisco. The reason was a job. I was leaving academia to help start the higher education division of Britannica.com.

You remember 1998. Google got founded. The Industry Standard starts publishing. WebVan. Pets.com. The start of the first internet bubble.

This week, I’m back in San Francisco. This time to give a talk. My adventure outside of academia was short - by 2001 I was back on campus - but formative.

Walking around San Francisco has put me in a reflective mood. Hard to believe that twenty years has passed. It went by so quickly.

In 1998, we truly believed that technology - and specifically the internet - was going to change the world.

How education got swept up into the first tech bubble is a story that has not been adequately told.  Britannica.com Education certainly plays a small, if inglorious, role in this tale.

What we have learned over two decades between 1998 and 2018 is that technology will not solve our problems.  This may be particularly true in education.

For all the advances in edtech over the past 20 years, and there have been many, we have fundamentally failed to address the real challenges.

The costs of higher education have continued to rise.

Access and graduation rates track socioeconomic status more than talent.

Cutbacks in state funding have shifted costs from states to students.

For all that we believe that a college education is a creator of opportunity, we need to be honest with ourselves that our current system tends to deepen existing inequalities.

In many ways, San Francisco in 2018 feels like a replay of 1998.  It is common to hear in edtech circles that this time is different. That the shift from the computer to the phone, and the browser to the app, is changing everything.

That mobile education will finally democratize learning and credentialing.

When I hear claims that today’s (mobile) and tomorrow’s (virtual reality) technologies will revolutionize education, I’m reminded of similar pronouncements circa 1998. Then the game changing technologies were the network and the browser.  A few years earlier it was CD-ROMs.  Second Life was still 5 years away.  Netbooks were a decade off.

Perhaps we were just early in 1998.  Maybe we needed more than 2 decades for the technologies to mature, and then to be integrated into the operations of our higher education industry.

Could it be that online learning, both tradition and scaled, is set to fundamentally change higher education?

While in San Francisco I heard lots of talk about new technologies. Very little about public disinvestment.

The educational technology optimism that I first experienced back in 1998 seems to be in style once again.

Will the results of the next 20 years be different from the last?

Will 2038 come as quickly as 2018?

Where were you in 1998?


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