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Our On-Demand World

How many of you have made a mixtape? Back in the day, making someone a mixtape was a well-known sign of affection. For those of you who are too young or too old to understand the significance of the mixtape, they were significant because of the time and effort it took to make one. Filling a 90-minute cassette tape with music meant cueing up a record 20 times or so (unless you included In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida, which cut down the number considerably). This was after you decided on the songs, rounded up the records, and figured out the order. Making a mixtape was a major effort. Today, you still have to choose songs and decide on the order, but making a playlist is trivial compared to the effort that went into a mixtape.

The mixtape was my generation’s way of music on demand. Otherwise, we were captive to the disk jockey and record producer. They selected and ordered songs, we mere mortals had no say. It was a similar situation with television and movies. Someone else decided what was on at what time, what films were shown and when. Once again, consumers had little say. (How many of you dreaded detention because you’d miss your favorite TV show?)

Today, the world is different. No longer are we slaves to disk jockeys, record producers and theater managers. We are in control! (Mostly.) Today, we have iTunes, Spotify, Netflix and Amazon Prime. In the mood for Casablanca? No problem. Want to listen to Van Morrison? Listen to Van the Man all you’d like. Have to work late and don’t want to miss Modern Family? Just DVR it. It’s really quite remarkable. We can get entertainment virtually any time and any place we desire. Our phones travel with us, we don’t have to wait for taxis, and we carry a cornucopia of music on the same device on which we text and talk.

I first started thinking about our growing on-demand culture when the iPod and other MP3 players came on the scene. TiVo became popular at about the same time. Knowing that technology rarely moves backwards, I started thinking about how the behaviors and attitudes reflected and encouraged by on-demand devices would influence higher education. We’ve already seen early efforts that reflect on-demand thinking. Khan Academy has thousands of video tutorials on topics as diverse as first-grade math and organic chemistry. MOOCs (massively online open courses) were over-hyped, but there are still dozens of free or nearly free courses from top universities, many of which are available on-demand. While there was justified criticism of these early efforts, they are just that, early efforts. I can easily foresee a time when college students do the bulk of their learning at a time and place of their choosing. The 15-week, three credit hour course is, in many ways, an anachronism. While millions of students learned well under our present system, it would be a mistake to think that what is will always be. The trick for universities will be separating the wheat from the chaff, and experimenting with the wheat while not dismissing, but rather learning from, early failures.

Numerous institutional, cultural and technical barriers stand in the way of on-demand learning, just as there were institutional, cultural and technical barriers to electronic commerce. Just as many early e-commerce efforts were spectacular failures that paved the way for today’s robust landscape, so will early on-demand learning efforts chart a path for later, more successful efforts. What does the future hold? I don’t really know. If I could predict the future I wouldn’t have turned off the Super Bowl early in the fourth quarter. This, however, I do know. The higher education of tomorrow won’t be the higher education of today. The on-demand lifestyles of today’s youth will demand that we change; failing to adapt will come at our peril. However, I firmly believe that we can use the principles, mindsets and technologies that enable on-demand entertainment to make higher education even more effective and more life-changing than it is today. This may not happen during my career, but mark my words, it will happen. FBN

By Craig Van Slyke, Ph.D.


I am grateful to serve as dean at Northern Arizona University’s W.A. Franke College of Business, home to over 3,500 students, and faculty and staff who are dedicated to the success of those students and the economic development of Northern Arizona. For more information on The W.A. Franke College of Business, please see: http://www.franke.nau.edu/. I welcome comments and feedback on these columns. Email your comments to: craig.vanslyke@nau.edu, or follow me on Twitter @cvanslyke.


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