The Disruption That Never Will Be in Education

Don’t get me wrong – change is coming to education, and disruption will be part of it. But all of the comparisons to the music industry are off base, because much of the “disruption caused by mp3s” narrative is a smokescreen from the music industry intended to distract from other questionable activities they are participating in. And also to quote Jim Groom: “Why are we so hell bent on disrupting everything right now?

But let’s start with a historical look at the music industry. If you are old enough, you probably remember seeing this sticker quite often:


When the cassette tape came out, it quickly became a cheap means for creating your own tapes at home. While people like to act like the mp3 created the “unbundling/rebundling” phenomenon, the truth is that it was the mixtape that started it. Many people like to act like all they did was make a personal favorites list from their own collection, but the truth is that most of us used the mixtape to get a bunch of songs we liked from friends so that we wouldn’t have to buy a whole album for one song. Some of us even coordinated music buying with friends and family so that we could get all the songs we wanted for the least amount of money. This led to the rise of the home taping movement along with the music industry creating several PSAs about how this movement was killing their business.

Which, of course, it obviously did not.

So the ability to unbundle and rebundle music is nothing new. Neither is the ability to get free music. The same holds true in other forms of entertainment: people that didn’t want to buy newspapers knew what coffee shops to hit at what time to get a free copy. People set up elaborate systems for trading VHS and Betamax tapes. Or they learned how to tape movies off of broadcast TV once you were allowed to pause recording during commercials. The digital revolution sped this process up and anonymized it considerably, but there were actually other factors that contributed more to the disruption that occurred in the music business. Of course, you rarely hear about these because it exposes a more questionable side to the music business. Not to mention that “home burning” is probably bigger than online piracy:

“It seems the ripping of CDs borrowed from friends and family accounts for almost as much music piracy as online file sharing anyway, which is an interesting discovery. This is something that has been rife since before online piracy music became a mainstream activity.”

Remember what happened when the music industry introduced new physical formats (vinyl to 8-track to cassettes to CD)? Everyone had to spend a ton of money upgrading to the new format, because the new format was in no way compatible to the old one. Most of us had to sit around figuring out which albums we liked the most because we could only upgrade a few. Even after the CD, the industry tried to introduce new formats like Super Audio CDs and MiniDiscs, but none of those caught on. People were still trying to upgrade to CDs and just didn’t bite. But also many people noticed that the early CDs sounded horrible when compared to the new albums recorded for CDs. Remember those first Led Zeppelin CDs? It was obvious they were just dumping old music on the new format without trying to upgrade the sound quality. They weren’t expecting this CD thing to last.

Additionally, think about how flimsy all of those physical formats were. They could break, warp, scratch, crack, stretch, and wear out easily. In addition to the massive amounts of money they made off of making consumers upgrade every few years, they also made a lot of money off of people replacing broken or worn media (even CDs wear out if you play them too much).

Mp3s and cloud storage changed this. Once you get your music digitally apart from the physical media, it can always be compatible with newer formats. Look at how many formats iTunes plays. Some new format comes out? Download the update and keep going. Mp3 player breaks? Just re-download the songs.

There was one area that the digital revolution did obviously disrupt. The one thing that home taping couldn’t deal with was the need to still buy an entire album to just get the songs you wanted. Sure, there were 45s and cassingles and even CD singles, but those just had the one hit song (and a throw away song if that). Usually three of those would equal the cost of a full album, and most hit bands would have at least three hit singles. So most of us just got the album and skipped the process of waiting for singles. MP3s did change that radically, in that you could just buy the songs you like at $1 a pop and skip the rest of the filler. Because, let’s face it, most hit albums are a few good songs that are obvious singles and a bunch of boring filler. But no record company is going to point out how little effort they put into the whole album. So yes, the mp3 did disrupt the business of tricking people into buying a full album of filler in order to get the 2-4 songs that the record company spent actual time and money on developing into hit songs.

This all points to the real disruption in the music business that the industry will never mention. Some of their more lucrative side-effect revenue streams were cut off over night (upgrading old media, replacing damaged media, and buying the full media to just enjoy a small part). These disruptions will not transfer to the education sector until someone invents a way to improve the human brain. Once we “download” education, its not permanent. We will need refreshers. We will need updates. For now at least, we can’t download the new information directly to our brains once the old goes out of date. We will need to constantly learn new information and enforce existing information, so education is still needed in some form and free online content will not change that.

So, in addition to the real music-industry disruption being something that most aren’t focusing on, we also have the issue that those at the top (record companies) are still doing well despite what they are saying. The music industry still made $16.5 billion dollars in 2013. That may be half of what they made 10 years ago, but a lot of that loss can be accounted for through the loss of the “lucrative side-effect revenue streams” I mentioned. And o you really think they laid off any corporate head honchos because of those losses? Doubtful. We do know there are less artists getting signed, less music being produced by older artists, and less newer artists clogging up the airwaves. The people at the top are still making money by squeezing more out of the people at the bottom. Look at all of the hit songs that are “featuring” guest appearances from other artists. How do you increase the sales of a hit song? Get another famous person to guest on that song and all of their fans will also buy the song. Instance 2-for-1 sales bump! Sound familiar?

Of course, this is not isolated to a few colleges. Faculty around the world are reporting being required to do more with less resources and support while upper level administration seems to continue to increase.

Something else to think about. Recent research is showing that people that download the most free content illegally are also the ones that buy the most legal content. Those that already have the service being offered are the main ones that are consuming the free version of it. Sound familiar? Like how most people that take MOOCs already have a college degree?

What this points to is that any disruption that the education industry would go through in common with the music industry has already happened.

So we have a few reality check factors to consider:

  • Unbundling and rebundling is nothing new and existed well before the digital revolution
  • Access to free content also existed well before the digital revolution
  • A lot of the “disruption” that occurred in the music industry is a smoke screen from the music industry itself designed to garner support for current questionable actions as well as hide questionable practices in the past.
  • Much of the actual disruption that happened due to mp3s and digital content can’t really transfer to the education industry due to the education sector being much more complex.
  • The disruptions that can transfer from the music/entertainment industry to the education industry have already happened.

All of this to say that music metaphors need to stop. Changes and disruptions are going to happen (and have been happening for a long time), but it seems we seldom see the people that have a more realistic grasp on the changes that are coming speaking at big educational conferences. This post was originally meant to be a two or three paragraph intro to a blog post called “Ask Not What Disruption Will Do To You, But What You Can Do For the Coming Disruption” – but that will have to wait until next time. We need to stop this focus on disrupting everything now based on a busted music industry model and instead ask how we can guide the changes that are coming to be beneficial for learners and faculty and not the big dogs at the top.

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