The livelihoods of thousands of excellent musicians were wiped out by commercial gramophone recording. When people were able to buy Caruso, the local tenor lost his job. Even when he was almost as good. Maybe he was better but we still don’t get to know his name.
So it may be a hundred and thirty years later with advanced education. Writing was on the wall years before yesterday’s warning from Sir Michael Barber, Education adviser to Pearson 'the world's leading learning company'. Sir Michael warns of ‘an avalanche of change’ coming to sweep away much of what universities are doing today. MOOCs, massive open online courses will deliver star teaching performers at a tiny fraction of the cost of higher education today.
Previously Michael Barber was an adviser to Tony Blair’s government, an administration founded on ‘Education, Education, Education'.
Many of us in the further flung parts of the UK understood at the time that universities were very much part of a regeneration strategy, as well as an educational one. Cities that had lost their heavy industries would revive themselves with campus developments replacing the moribund with the new world of education – a whole new industry and thousands of service jobs. Architecture, construction, property values would all be winners. In my own home town a huge site that had built ships for hundreds of years became a gentle riverside campus.
The cycle of industry this time may have been much shorter. And many cities will have to reinvent themselves again – rather more quickly than they were expecting. The move online always has the same effect. It increases the relative value of the real world – the value of presence. Institutions that have been around for centuries may mostly soon adjust, selling the expensive premium product that is presence, specialising in costly niches and intense face to face tuition and networking.
The rest of the pack – they had better start learning very fast indeed. Let's hope they are up to it.