How is higher education like the travel business?

by Grace

Is higher education going the way of travel agents?  This question arises from an Inside Higher Ed post by Joshua Kim, Dartmouth Director of Digital Learning Initiatives. 

The Web has put lots of travel agents out of business.

The Web has made lots of things about traveling easier, and probably cheaper.

But in displacing all those travel agents we may have lost something important.  We may have traded convenience and costs for quality.  

The cautionary lesson for higher ed may be that we should always be weary of any technologies that replace people.  We are a people driven business.  A relationship drive enterprise.  Relationships are things that technology does very poorly.

My guess is that the travel agents that are still thriving are the specialists.  The professionals that can combine their knowledge and experience with available technologies to create new opportunities to find and plan great trips.

I see his point, although there are many areas where replacing people makes good sense.

While personal relationships are still valued among the few travel agencies catering to elite travel, for most of us Google has replaced the human touch in planning trips.  In some ways this parallels the path that higher education has taken.  The most selective colleges offer the highest level of  personalized attention, ushering students through a learning experience that rewards them with impressive credentials at the end of four years.  Most other schools provide less, ranging from personalized attention with questionable learning at a high price to online learning that is a scaled-down version of a typical classroom setting.

I believe that we will leverage technology to tackle challenges around costs, access,and quality.

Most people probably agree with Kim that technology has the potential to improve higher education, as it has improved many other aspects of modern life.  But it seems that technology is often viewed as a blanket solution to many problems, including the very serious issue of skyrocketing costs.  In taking this approach, colleges are trading costs for a much diminished level of quality in higher education.

Related:  More on the ‘bifurcation’ of higher education (Cost of College)

9 Comments to “How is higher education like the travel business?”

  1. No, travel agents were essentially middlemen selling someone else’s product. Education, both higher and K12, is more like the healthcare industry. Hospitals, schools, and universities are people intensive service industries.


  2. I appreciate the distinction you make, but I still see a similarity. From a consumer/student standpoint, I might argue that it’s a distinction without a difference.


  3. I do think there is a big distinction. Travel agents were commissioned salespeople. Most of the work they did was very routine and did not involve much interaction with customers. It was easy to replace that work (the selling of routine products like airline tickets) with automated solutions. In fact, the only aspect of travel agent work to survive is the part that was NOT based on selling products – the high touch work of consulting with customers. That aspect has survived, and is now fee-for-service. There is a lot of skill involved, as well as a lot of interaction with the client, which can’t be automated – so it survived. The travel agents that are still around are typically very specialized service providers, not the salespeople of 20 years ago.

    Medicine and education are similarly high touch endeavors that involve a lot of skill and human interaction. The kinds of skills needed to design a course of treatment for a cancer patient, to counsel a depressed patient, to lead a small graduate economics seminar, or to work with freshmen struggling with writing skills are not simple to automate. Some aspects of these tasks can be automated, as with electronic medical records, order entry systems, or online skills building games – but automation never seems to save labor. In fact, some research indicates that in medicine, automation actually increases the need for labor. Both sectors are really struggling with exploding costs, without a clear way to limit those costs. Having worked in both sectors, I see profound similarities.


  4. I don’t dispute the similarities between medicine and education, that’s for sure.

    “The travel agents that are still around are typically very specialized service providers, not the salespeople of 20 years ago.”

    Similar to the most selective colleges, IMO.


  5. No, the difference between ultra-selective and less-selective colleges is more like the difference between the Mayo Clinic, which caters to the rich and well-connected, and an institution like Montefiore in the Bronx, which largely caters to the poor. Montefiore isn’t going anywhere, in fact it is now the largest employer in the Bronx.


  6. And teaching the kind of kids who are at less selective schools is not as routine and automatable as you might think. In fact, the experience so far with online and MOOC style courses seems to indicate that it is much easier to automate instruction for the brightest and best.


  7. I won’t argue about degrees of similarity, but I guess I still stick by my original comparison.


  8. “teaching the kind of kids who are at less selective schools is not as routine and automatable as you might think”

    Absolutely. I always read that most teachers prefer “smart”, motivated students. Makes sense to me.


  9. CSProfMom said:

    “teaching the kind of kids who are at less selective schools is not as routine and automatable as you might think”

    Sure it is–if you don’t care about the results.


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