Forecasting the Internet’s impact on business is proving hard. Predicting impacts on education is even harder.

The Economist believes that “Forecasting the internet’s impact on business is proving hard.” "Prognosticators have a bad record when it comes to new technologies. Safety razors were supposed to produce a clean-shaven future. Cars were expected to take off and fly. Automation was meant to deliver a life of leisure. Yet beards flourish, cars remain earthbound and work yaps at our heels.

The internet is no exception. Anyone looking for mis-prognostications about it will find an embarrassment of riches. The internet was supposed to destroy big companies; now big companies rule the internet. It was supposed to give everyone a cloak of anonymity: “On the internet nobody knows you’re a dog.” Now Google and its like are surveillance machines that know not only that you’re a dog but whether you have fleas and which brand of meaty chunks you prefer. We can now add two more entries to the list of unreliable forecasts about the internet: that it would make location irrelevant and eliminate middlemen."

One can find similar failed predictions about the impacts of the Internet on education without too much effort. Indeed, it’s not so much the clearly failed predictions that are most misleading, but instead the accounts of small-scale successes that were assumed to be scalable and about to take over education but never did. Some (e.g. Second Life) seemed fanciful at the time and have had little measurable impact. Others (e.g. School of One and the extensive use of “playlists” of instructional materials) continue to exist and evolve, in some cases working well but rarely at the scale that the most optimistic advocates envisioned. (It’s important to note that these advocates have often been outside the schools and programs doing the work; internal educators have usually been more realistic about growth constraints.)

But changes are happening, and in some ways the evolution of the business and education worlds are similar.

“Companies are increasingly treating the physical and virtual worlds as complements rather than alternatives. The virtual world is better at some things—comparing prices, say, or giving consumers in the wilds of Kansas the same choice as ones in Manhattan. But the physical world is better at others.”

The same holds true for most schools and students. Relatively few students are choosing a fully online education—although for those who do and remain in the online school, it is often their best educational option. But most are adding an online course to a slate of courses at a physical school, or taking classes at that physical school that are combining online and face-to-face elements.

The role of real people continues to be important as well, in business and in education.

“Mukti Khaire of Harvard Business School argues that in many other areas middlemen are more important than ever: people are so confused by the overwhelming choice the internet brings, and the cacophony of user reviews, that the need for trustworthy guides and other sorts of intermediary is increasing.”

This point speaks to the views of people who believe that when students can find extensive instructional materials on the Internet, they won’t need teachers. But in fact teachers will remain in many roles, including the “trustworthy guides” for some students.

The column’s closing is especially applicable to education:

“The internet is now starting to transform education and health care. Given the technology’s capacity to cut costs and increase access, it would be wrong to give in to incumbents in those businesses who are dead set against reform. But it would also be unwise to trust in digital revolutionaries who insist those incumbents will inevitably be swept away by a wave of startups. There is a world of difference between disruption and destruction.”

The Economist’s views aren’t all directly applicable to K-12 education. In particular, the view that technology can cut costs has, so far at least, been limited. But it seems safe to say that traditional schools have not yet been “swept away” by completely new schools and classrooms. Change is happening, and although much of it is still measured and incremental, that doesn’t make it any less important.