Written by:

Andrea Bosch, Lisa Hartenberger Toby, and Abdul Rahman Alkhomsi

This article looks closely at decisions about technology choices and suggests that many are driven by markets and perceptions, and not the problems that the technology might solve. The example of market manipulation related to the commercial light bulb in the early 20th century is used to demonstrate the powerful influence of global markets to technology choices and to the concept of obsolescence (Reich, 1992). As a result of these market dynamics, older technologies and distance education solutions may be discounted well before their time. Similarly, the assumptions that people make about technology obsolescence are often tainted with the myopic perspective that access to the Internet and cell technology is almost universal and most learners at a distance do so through the fastest and most synchronized method over the Internet (e.g., Allen & Seaman, 2013). But in the developing world this is not the case. Radio, telephone and other older technologies still provide valuable access to educational materials and educational opportunities to learners for all levels of education (Bosch, 2001). Distance learning technologies such as radio or telephone may also offer a bridge to newer or more robust technology systems. These bridges enable expanded participation despite poor technology infrastructure. An example in Indonesia is provided by the Higher Education Leadership and Management organization (HELM) where mobile and landline phones are used to call into webinars and other live Internet-based interactive learning sessions designed for higher education courses (HELM, 2014). A second example in Liberia demonstrates how radio technology is far from obsolete as a distance learning technology in Africa when schools are closed due to a crisis, such as the Ebola epidemic (Centers for Disease Control, 2015). In the end, the authors conclude that distance learning has benefited from innovators and educators trying to find new methods to deliver quality education and interaction to people at a distance. It is the problem solving nature of distance learning that has produced some of the most interesting use and effective systems and technologies.

When problem solving is the goal rather than the technology itself or market trends, the interpretations of technology lifespans and obsolescence change and technologies that might have otherwise appeared obsolete become relevant again.



Technology innovation and distance learning systems have greatly benefited from ingenuity, competition, and markets that drive the design and production of new technology solutions. The innovations of the past decade, particularly e-learning and mobile learning, have transformed and reinvented the field of distance education (Balch, 2014). The expansion of mobile technology, the introduction of cheaper, more powerful, and more nimble devices, the broad and far reaching infrastructure and networks that bring Internet and cellular signals to the far reaches of the globe, and the explosion of ways to introduce, package, and fuel content and knowledge creation means that learning at a distance is no longer just an alternative for those who were unable to complete education through the traditional routes (Simonson, Smaldino, & Zvacek, 2015). Indeed it is a standard and anticipated component of most learning environments. In richer connected countries, we now interact virtually to teach, learn, create, and deliver content, and flip classrooms from a distance. Analog technologies have ceded their everyday utility to digital ones, and the words filmand album evoke a sense of nostalgia as we remember a time when life moved more slowly and “distance” referred to places that were far away and hard to reach. But as we feel the draw of a tacit consensus that new technologies are inclined to be better and brighter and more appropriate to solve today’s problems, don’t forget about learning environments that rely on more traditional methods and technologies. And don’t forget about the light bulb.


Definitions of technology obsolescence are often driven by factors unrelated to whether the technology application is still useful (National Center for Families Learning, 2008). The light bulb is an interesting and iconic reference point; the power of the commercial light bulb is undisputable. Like the Internet or the radio or the printing press, there is little doubt that the invention of the commercial light bulb changed lives (cf. Krajewski, 2014). It not only brought light and productivity to the darkness, it also helped catalyze an age of electrification and a ripple of lifestyle changes that were irreversible. But technologies, like the light bulb, are born into complex worlds where decision-making and problem solving are part of large and competing agendas. There are at least two reasons why the introduction of the commercial light bulb helps us to understand technology lifespans and obsolescence in distance learning today: first, decisions about technology choices are driven as much by markets and perceptions as they are by the problems that the distance learning technology might solve (Pulizzi & Rosenblum, 2008). In other words, older technologies and distance education solutions may be discounted well before their time. Second, distant learning technologies that may at first appear to be obsolete may offer a bridge to newer or more robust technology systems or be useful in a different context. This is especially true in the contexts of the developing world today.

The conclusions that people draw about technology lifespans may be tainted by assumptions that access to the Internet and cell technology are almost universal and most learners at a distance can connect over the Internet, even if the connection may be slower or “clunkier.” But in much of the world much of the time this is still not the case. Radio, telephone, and other older technologies still provide valuable access to educational materials and interaction to learners around the world (Fortune, Chungong, & Kessinger, 2011).

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