Spent a few hours this week in the San Diego airport waiting for my red-eye flight back East. Had a backpack full of articles and reports that need to get read. A bunch of writing that needed to get written. Yet ... I found myself whiling away the hours happily watching "Glee" on Hulu. Do you have any idea how difficult it is to not break into song while watching that show? (I'm sure the TSA frowns on terminal singing).
We used to live in a world with fewer choices. Watching video (the kind of stimulation that our brains love) required conforming to a network schedule and access to a TV. Movies meant going to a theater. Now we can watch what we want, where we want, when we want, on the device we want. In the past, long waits in airports offered little choice for entertainment, so getting some work done was appealing. Nowadays, can even the best educational technology article compete with "Glee"?
Our curriculum, and the way we deliver it, has changed little. But the world has changed lots. We are in a new reality in the struggle for our students attention. Our students constantly and ubiquitously have great options for entertaining their brains. Is it any wonder that students will complete the minimally assigned curricular readings (or attend the minimal number of lectures) in order to receive the minimum grade that they desire? Competing against the course reading and lecture is the entertainment industrial complex. This includes everything from TV to movies to games to social networking. And all this entertainment goodness is available on their laptops (and increasingly their mobile devices), which means that it is all available to them wherever they go and whenever they want it.
Entertainment, once scarce, is now abundant.
What is to be done? In a world of Hulu, YouTube, iTunes, etc. etc. etc. I see have two basic choices in higher education:
A) Don't Compete: Don't even try to compete with the quality anytime/anywhere/anyplace media world. We are learning. They are entertainment. We are not them and they are not us. We can set clear learning outcomes and develop measurable competencies. We can give our tests and assign our papers. We can stop worrying about how students go about preparing to demonstrate the competencies we require. We can focus on outcomes, and let out students determine their own processes. Just as some companies have moved to performance based management we can work towards performance based learning. For some students this may mean that they don't read everything we assign, attend every lecture, or participate in every discussion. But students are an inventive group. They will utilize the information abundance that they live amongst to get the materials that they need. Under this model we give up the idea that learning will ever be as captivating as entertainment, freeing us up to demand high levels of measured competencies.
Learning technology can help us move to competency based learning models. The formative and summative assessment tools built into the LMS make the process of measuring learning immeasurably easier to scale. Simulations, learning objects, and academic databases radically increase the easy and quality of learning content and tools our students can access to prepare for the assessments we provide. Captured presentations and lectures can be shifted and viewed where, when and how our students most need these materials. By leveraging available technologies and networks, and focussing on clear learning objectives and measurable learning outcomes, we provide relevant, scaleable, affordable, and flexible educational experiences for our students.
B) Create Creators: We decide that while consuming learning can never compete with consuming entertainment that creating learning is far superior. Creating always trumps consuming. So we make our students creators. They create learning modules to explain the curricular concepts in our courses. Students can create media projects that require fluency in the main concepts, methods, and facts covered in the course. We make our students into the authors. We allow our students to find opportunities to participate in the larger discussions and debates in our disciplines, jumping in at the points that resonate with their own lives and interests. Under this model the outcome is less important then the process. Becoming an expert in anything takes 10,000 hours - we are using our courses to start our students down that road. We don't expect that they will teach our disciplines as well as us (we have our 10,000 hours), but we realize the only way we ever really learning anything is to teach it.
Learning technologies can help us move towards a creator based model of education. Students can create original curricular mashups around the course content, and post their work on public platforms such as YouTube/EDU.  Wikis and blogs, both in the course management and in public spaces, can become stages for students to collaborate, share ideas, and publish their ideas. Students can utilize out-of-classroom time to watch our lectures, reserving precious in-class hours to work on team creative projects with the guidance of faculty. The learning management system can become a hub for collaboration, a destination to collect and share student work, and a guide to assist students in navigating the material they need to become effective creators.
Which vision makes more sense? I'm not sure, and I'm not sure if these two models are really in opposition. We could probably do both. But one thing we can't do is to keep operating, keep educating, as if the world around us has not changed.