I have been teaching online college-level courses for five or six years. As the process of teaching these courses — and in particular the technological advances that allow students to access classes online from, literally, all over the planet — has evolved, it has become increasingly obvious that technology is having a massive transformative impact on the global economy. This impact is not simply economic, but is cultural as well. Technology is changing the very fabric of society, and will continue to do so at an increasing rate in the future.
The ability to offer classes over the Internet has completely transformed the process of earning a degree. More important, it has provided opportunities for students who otherwise would not be able to pursue their education. Working parents, our military, those who travel frequently for work, and anyone else who doesn’t have the ability to attend structured in-person classes, can get a degree, learn new skills and enhance their knowledge base, improving their earnings potential.
Increasingly, as the technology behind online education evolves and improves, more and more colleges and universities are incorporating online education into their curriculums. Eventually, I believe we will see all education, at all levels, offered online. Someday we may see traditional educational models disappear, as many retailers have, as the online educational model becomes the norm.
Beyond the huge increase in flexibility that the online format offers, there is a sizable improvement in time investment — students are not required to drive to school, find a parking space, walk across campus to their classroom, etc. There are obvious potential cost advantages and environmental benefits to the online format — wear and tear on vehicles is reduced, less fuel burned, etc.
As the online format gains in popularity, the costs associated with it will come down as well. (One of the most common complaints about online education today is the cost.) Another powerful benefit is that students can gain access to instructors from all over the world, rather than a college only offering a few or possibly only one teacher for a given course. This aspect of the online educational model is a sizable advantage compared with a college located in an expensive market, such as Santa Barbara, where it may be difficult to attract quality instructors due to the cost of living. As the educational industry evolves, it will be increasingly difficult for colleges and universities to compete effectively without offering online degree programs. As a result, we are already seeing traditional colleges and universities begin to offer online options.
When gasoline prices spiked a few years ago above $5 per gallon, many people, including me, were advocating a more flexible work schedule — reducing the work week to four days from five, with 10 hours worked per day instead of eight. The benefits are obvious — four round trips instead of five, less traffic, less fuel, less pollution, less dry cleaning costs, fewer lunches out, etc. Offering a more flexible work schedule could also provide workers with more workplace satisfaction, allowing more time spent with family, more time to attend children’s activities, more time to run errands, etc. Happier employees would likely result in more productive employees, benefiting employers and the economy.
Along with a more flexible work schedule, technology can be used to allow employees to work from home, and remotely from virtually anywhere. The ability to interact digitally with coworkers, management, customers and clients reduces the need for in-person contact, further reducing travel costs, pollution, fuel consumption, etc. Less travel time also frees up more of the employee’s time to invest in completing work, which translates to more productivity. Online collaboration allows for more effective teamwork, which can result in greater creativity, responsiveness to customer/client needs, and ultimately a better end result.
The Way We Live Our Lives
As we look ahead, and understand how these changes in education, the workplace and our economy affect the way we live our lives, we must understand that these changes will transform our culture. As technology transforms our lives, we will spend much less time at work, and much more time at home. We will spend less time (if any) at school. We will spend less time (if any) shopping.
We will spend increasingly less time interacting with people outside of our immediate family members and close friends. We see this happening today with children. Kids today don’t need to drive to the mall, go to their friend’s houses, go to arcades, or to do many of the things previous generations did for entertainment. Today they access entertainment through their phones, game consoles and computers.
Some of these changes will take decades to be fully integrated into society, while others are well under way today. These changes have broad-reaching implications for energy consumption, the allocation of resources, government policies, geopolitics, industry growth, investments, entertainment, personal interactions and much, much more.
Our daily decisions will need to incorporate the changing landscape of technological advances increasingly, as we move into the future. Some of these changes will be welcomed, while others will be cursed, but the changes will come, whether we want them to or not. As the saying goes, the only constant is change, but that change will come — increasingly in the context of advancing technology.