Episode 5: Optical Illusions in Markets and Education

by Jan 29, 2020

Welcome to Education and Technology Futures, a videocast that highlights interesting trends and connections in the worlds of education, technology, and culture.

Perceptual illusions occur everywhere, including nature, art, and education. As humans, we are susceptible to them because we generally insist on mapping what we perceive to what we are most familiar with, what we are experiencing right now.

Full Transcript

Full Transcript

Everyone, kids and adults alike, loves a good optical illusion.

I still remember a room in my grandmother’s house that had a framed print of Charles Allan Gilbert’s “All Is Vanity” illustration. My first impression of the piece, as a small child, was that it depicted a frightening skull. Once I realized that, up close, it was actually an image of a woman sitting at her vanity, I became fascinated with the illusion.

As I grew older, I realized that perceptual illusions occur everywhere, including nature, art, and information. As humans, we’re susceptible to them for a variety of reasons. One reason is that we generally insist on mapping what we perceive to what we’re most familiar with, what we are experiencing right now. We also tend to be prejudiced by how we think things should be or appear rather than with how they actually are.

For example, I’ve operated under the assumption for the past several years that credit cards and other non-cash forms of payment have already replaced cash as the primary way that people in the U.S. conduct their day-to-day transactions.

Turns out that isn’t so. Cash actually remains the most popular form of payment for purchases by number. In this case, my misperception of reality is due to personal preference and experience.

Another example can be found in electric vehicles. Beyond Elon Musk’s aggressive promotion, we don’t see much evidence of electric cars and trucks in most places in the U.S. So, based on what we are experiencing right now, it’s hard to imagine a future where almost everyone is driving an electric car.

In reality, however, many car manufacturers and their major markets, such as China, India, and Europe, are projecting electric-vehicle models and sales to surpass their gasoline-powered counterparts in the coming decade.

Not surprisingly, we’re equally susceptible to these kinds of optical illusions or misperceptions in education. That’s because, quite often, we base our understanding of what is possible on the current reality or that which is most familiar to us. And this limited perspective can make it hard to see the real shape of things to come.

In 2007, when I was Vice President of Digital Solutions for Cengage, it was difficult for people to imagine that digital course materials would account for more sales revenue than print textbooks. It was even more impossible to envision a future where open educational resources and textbooks would have a dramatic impact on publisher revenues or become something publishers had to embrace as part of their product lines.

Such possible futures flew in the face of what people in the industry had always known. But, in hindsight, the future we envisioned as an illusion based on our limited perception.

With that in mind, here are a few of the outcomes I think are likely for education in the coming decade, outcomes that may be hard for others to see based on their current perspective.

  1. 75% of high school students will take at least one college course before they graduate
  2. Advanced Placement courses will be replaced at many schools by programs that allow students to complete a full associates degree by the time they graduate from high school
  3. The number of courses taken online at colleges and universities will be equal to or be greater than the number of courses taken in a traditional face-to-face setting
  4. More than ⅓ of all higher ed institutions will abolish the current tenure system in favor of long-term contracts

Remember, this isn’t about what we want to happen, nor is it limited by what we are currently seeing and experiencing. The trends are already in place, market forces have been at work for many years, and consumer demand has already shifted.

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