April 1999 // Vision
The Future That is Already Here
by Phillip G. Clark
Note: This article was originally published in The Technology Source (http://ts.mivu.org/) as: Phillip G. Clark "The Future That is Already Here" The Technology Source, April 1999. Available online at http://ts.mivu.org/default.asp?show=article&id=1034. The article is reprinted here with permission of the publisher.

At several conferences I have attended lately, I have heard much debate about the expected changes facing higher education—changes in how the learning experience is delivered (e.g., distance learning), changes in who is delivering the learning experience (e.g., the growth of the corporate university), and changes in the role of the professional educator (e.g., tenure, ownership of intellectual property). Some speakers believe that these changes threaten the nature of the learning experience. Some believe that the changes will accelerate. I believe that the changes have already happened, and that we are now seeing the results.

Management guru Peter Drucker supports the same premise in a recent article entitled "The Future That Has Already Happened" (Drucker, 1998). Drucker writes about a future that is making itself known in the present via tremendous forces of change, forces that promote the inescapable outcome of past events. While Drucker is known for not making predictions, he does comment on some predictable events, such as the raising of the average retirement age to 75, the growth of the economy solely from the productivity of knowledge workers, and the absence of any single dominant world economic power (all of which will be the result of demographic changes in third world countries). Drucker's logic is compelling, and I encourage Technology Source readers to examine his article. While you may debate his arguments, the concept that the future has already happened is useful when considering the future of education.

Look at the list of factors that can act as catalysts of change in education:

  • The amount of information in the world is doubling every 18 months. At a recent World Future Society Conference (1995), it was reported that the present information technology revolution is growing more than a million times faster than the historical evolutionary rate of humans and their systems.

  • Within the next 25 years the population of the earth will increase by 33%. The global population was 2.8 billion in 1955 and is 5.8 billion now. It will increase by nearly 80 million people per year and reach approximately 8 billion by the year 2025 (World Health Organization, 1998).

  • The available data storage on a microchip doubles every year to 18 months. In 26 years, the number of transistors per chip has increased more than 3,200 times—from 2,300 on the 4004 in 1971 to 7.5 million on the current Pentium?ǬÆ II processor (Intel, 1998).

These three factors are in action, and the implications are highly significant for the education industry. We already can see changes in the demographics of learners: fewer than 25% now fall into the traditional 18–22-year-old group. The ever-increasing rate of change in knowledge drives this growth in lifelong learning; some studies report that more than 75 million people are participating in non-credit learning experiences. (Compare this to the US Department of Education projection that 15.4 million students will study in institutions of higher education in 1999. See NCES, 1995). The affordability of technology and telecommunications leads International Data Corporation to project that the number of Internet users will be 329 million by 2002—up from 82 million in 1997 (Gens, 1998).

What are the implications of these forces that are operating now? How will they affect higher education? What happens when demand for a good exceeds the ability of normal supply channels to meet it? We can expect new suppliers to come into the market and promote the growth of commercially based educational institutions and the demand for unlimited access to education. The level of demand, the ability of low-cost technologies to distribute learning through means other than traditional classrooms and institutions, and the willingness of competitors (e.g., the University of Phoenix, Western Governors University) to enter the learning market all lead to a de facto deregulation of the higher education market. This deregulation of higher education is not a prediction; it is a future that is already happening.

The field of education is poised for changes that will affect almost every institution and individual within it. New institutions will spring up; old ones will die away. New professions will spring up to serve new markets, while demand for old professions will shrink. The debate should no longer be about the possibility of change—the future of higher education is already in place. Instead, the debate should focus on how to harness, where possible, the driving forces behind this change.

Changes are coming not because the current "sage on the stage" instructional approach does not work—its effectiveness has been proven—but because it no longer meets demand. In all likelihood, the traditional means of teaching traditional students will continue; but we must find ways to use what we already know while also employing new technologies to meet new demands. Thus the questions become: How can we put the "sage" in touch with the learner using technology? How can we maintain the teacher-student relationship that has proven so valuable in the past?

The same strategy should be employed when looking at the ways in which traditional institutions manage themselves. Rather than opt for the total replacement of current operations, managers should ask how they can use new technologies to provide needed services to new markets. Corporations are establishing their own universities not because that is their line of business, but because they need training programs that address their core business objectives. Today's universities and colleges could draw on their own expertise in educational delivery and management to meet corporations' demands for specific educational and training objectives. By using new information technologies to better manage, deliver, and respond to the needs of the market, educational institutions could find huge new growth opportunities.

For educators and their institutions to respond innovatively to changes affecting higher education, these questions must be considered: What happens when the cost of education delivery tends towards zero? What should we value: traditional content or new thinking about new information? Is the quality of the relationship more important than the content (which could be purchased and resold)? Should senior management teams focus on the mass content market or on the narrow experience market? Is the quality of life experience more important than the content delivered at the institution? Perhaps administrators should consider the relative weight given student services in a competitive environment where customer service is the factor that determines where students buy their education. That would be a good starting point for responding to what cannot be ignored: the future that is already here.


Drucker, P. (1998, November). The future that has already happened. The Futurist 32(8), 16-18.

Gens, F. (1998). Anticipating IT's cyberspace odyssey: On the road to a billion users. International Data Corporation Information Industry & Technology Update 1998–99.

Intel Processor Hall of Fame. (1998). What is Moore's Law? Retrieved December 21, 1998 from the World Wide Web: http://www.intel.com/intel/museum/25anniv/hof/moore.htm.

National Center for Education Statistics (NCES). (1995). Projection of education statistics to 2005. U.S. DOE Publication No. NCES 95-169.

World Health Organization. (1998). Fifty facts from the world health report. Retrieved March 22, 1999 from the World Wide Web: http://www.who.org/whr/1998/factse.htm.

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