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March 21, 2010

Universities and The National Broadband Plan

Today's lead editorial in the New York Times, along with an OpEd piece by Harvard law professor Yochai Benkler make the case for leveraging the FCC's "Connecting America" National Broadband Plan to create a competitive and open access broadband future to enable a 21st century, globally competitive America. America's higher education community can and should play a major role in leading the nation's long overdue first national broadband plan. Our role can include an assurance that there is an open access option in support of broad public policy goals.

The six leading goals of the Plan include a baseline commitment for affordable access to broadband, leading edge commitments to ultra broadband connectivity for a significant number of households, public anchor tenants in every community with robust capacity to support next generation applications and services, a focus on safety and energy services, and an acknowledgement that mobility is one of the most compelling experiences associated with broadband. America's leading research and education networks have applauded the National Broadband Plan. The Plan's recommendation for One Gbps Connectivity Goal For Community Anchor Institutions positions our regional and national research and education networks, one of our genuine national strengths, for extending the connectivity by provisioning services to schools, libraries, colleges, museums and other community education assets that are still isolated and or not well served. Working with the FCC, our community's broadband leaders have collaborated with a broad coalition of public network champions to develop a comprehensive "Unified Community Anchor Network" (UCAN) touching perhaps 200,000 community anchor institutions envisioned by the FCC.

Building out UCAN is a multi-billion dollar undertaking. Leveraging the more than 60,000 institutions already connected to our regional and national research and education networks provides an undeniable and critically important jump start in completing this hugely important foundational highway building project. If someone asked me, I think funding a multi-phased UCAN is an undertaking of herculean proportion and should be a national priority. UCAN should be a clarion call for inter-agency collaboration at both the federal, state, and coordinated regional level. A deliberate choreography among transportation, education, economic development, general services administration, research, labor and job training, health, energy, and bevy of regulatory agencies is vital. Not unlike the imperative for national security coordinated activity, UCAN calls for nothing less than a national and integrated approach to building out this unified network. The stakes are too high to let the network design, funding, and operation unfold in a business as usual fashion.

UCAN is the beginning but hardly the end of what we in Higher Education should and can contribute to the national broadband plan. Let's recall, there are over 60,000 institutions and community pubic anchor "middle mile" assets already connected to the research and education community networks. In parallel to the highway building project, network R&D activity over the past 40 years has driven innovation and productivity gains, which has aided economic growth and community development. The five goals of the National Broadband Plan, beyond the highway building activity presents an historic opportunity for universities. Next generation research on wireless networks and new protocols for transporting voice and data services are made possible only because we have R&E networks. New sensors and technologies for energy grid and energy management activities can move from computerized simulations from our labs to testbed projects around our universities as part of the broadly endorsed President's Climate Commitment. Many of our great universities are physically located in inner-city settings. We all have responsibilities for public safety. Next generation integrated public safety services over IP using our networks and college neighborhoods for testbed facilities are all ready to come out of the lab and get road tested.

At the heart of America's Universities 21st mission is our capacity to introduce a whole new range of network enabled health and wellness services and advanced education experimental and research activities. Universities and colleges across the nation should align university-based strategic work with what will likely be a century of national investments and national policy goals associated with our national broadband plans. An active commitment to engage in a comprehensive manner with the 6 goals of the national broadband plan will advance a bold 21st century research and education agenda. In addition to supporting research and education we are positioned to contribute significantly to open access and support the conditions for a more competitive and generative network ecosystem. The future of our great universities is intimately and inextricably connected to the health and well being of the cities and neighborhoods within which we live, work, and study. Our network research program can and should reach out beyond the confines of the geographic boundaries of our universities. The social, economic, health, and educational challenges facing the nation are not limited to our research labs and our institutional boundaries. To the extent that we are committed to addressing the great and nasty challenges of our age we need to be deliberate in developing a research agenda and an infrastructure capacity that allows us to contribute to the major policy issues of our day. As we design and build our research platforms that take us to the neighborhoods and communities around our universities our network architecture should be informed by a commitment to open access. This means that we should develop business models and models of network operations that support our research and education program and, at the same time, allows for competitive commercial and non-profits services and offerings to be run over that same network capacity. As we see all around the world, this approach leads to a messy vitality of competitively-priced products and services being offered in the marketplace. Universities have an opportunity to pilot and test this approach. Here in Cleveland, at Case Western Reserve University, we have begun a small set of such research programs.

According to the Plan, "America’s top research universities continue this R&D effort today in their efforts to experiment with very fast 1 Gbps networks (gigabit networks). For example, Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, with 40 institutional partners, vendors and community organizations, is planning a University Circle Innovation Zone in the economically impoverished area around the university to provide households, schools, libraries and museums with gigabit fiber optic connections. Case Western expects this network to create jobs in the community and spawn software and service development for Smart Grid, health, science and other applications, as well as foster technology, engineering and mathematics education services."

Later this week (March 25th) we will be providing a demonstration of the early fruit of the Case Connection Zone at our Gigabit Breakfast Club. As noted in the Wall Street Journal and Business Week, the morning will focus on alpha demonstrations of big broadband offerings in health and wellness, STEM education, household energy management, and neighborhood safety. The end point in these demonstrations is our newly opened Alpha House, a public briefing center. The Alpha House is part of our first 104 home Beta Block research program. A second Beta Block and Alpha House are now in the early design stages.

If you are interested in more details, or a visit to the Alpha House, feel free to drop me a line. Circle May 6th for another update on the Beta Block here at Case Western Reserve during our Community CollabTech and then a series of public demonstrations as part of the annual Hessler Street Fair.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
March 21, 2010

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March 04, 2010

The Future of Higher Education

Educause Quarterly has just released an entire issue on the Future of Higher Education. I was honored to be asked by Nancy Hays, the EQ editor, to kick off a four part series on the Future of Education with this dedicated issue. The published piece can be found here.

Below is the original, unabridged version. As always, thank you in advance for your comments and feedback.


I want to refract on futures. What will the enterprise we call post-secondary education portend for over the next 25 years, the next chapter of the interaction between challenge, discovery, scholarship, learning, teaching, and technology? The four parts of the prism I will exam through this column are student experiences, staff contributions, the role of faculty, and finally the emergence of learning communities.

Ours is an era of abundance. History, until the mid-20th century, has largely been told as a series of philosophies about the human condition in which everything from the mundane to the metaphysical has been constrained by a world and a worldview informed by scarcity. The explosion of data and information catalyzed by Metcalfe’s Law (http://vcmike.wordpress.com/2006/08/18/metcalfe-social-networks/) positions intelligent search, network affinities, and the prospects for a personalized, customizable semantic web as the conduit for knowledge development and sharing wisdom.

To provide some perspective, writing in the early 1960s, French philosopher, theologian and technology skeptic, Jacques Ellul notes with some evident disdain (The Technological Society, Vintage Books, NY, 1964: pg. 432] the fanciful predictions of American and Russian futurists published in the Paris weekly, L’express regarding science, technology, and society in the year 2000.

Autonomous thinking machines are no longer purely rhetorical vehicles for futurists. And while one can debate the prescient insights of the collection cited by Ellul, his framing of the challenge facing students foreshadows the single most important issue for the next generation of learners. The learning enterprise for students is changing, most likely forever. A long historical epoch of scarce knowledge and the pursuit of mastery of relevant domains is nearing its final dusk. Competency is less about comprehensive recall, a function that machines and search engines do pretty well. The emerging learning enterprise is about designing and creating experiences that provide opportunities to discover and gain 21st century competencies based on assembly, synthesis, perspective, critique, and inter-connected systems thinking. The mechanisms for certifying competency, along with what I will refer to as emergent learning communities, are the value and brand of traditional universities in the 21st century. Once a near monopoly producer of a certain set of valued and relevant skills in the post-war era, the traditional university’s market role has given way to a growing number of providers of valued and relevant skills and education in the maturing connected learning era.

Four broad categories of student learners and learning approaches occupy the remainder of this column. They face new challenges and opportunities as they embark on their journey of discovery, securing relevant competencies and experiences for the connected learning era.

1. Open Learning

“Open education” refers to the emergence of a growing repository of nonproprietary, structured learning materials and experiences. Most of these open educational resources originate online, but over time student use of this content will blend both synchronous and asynchronous online use along with self-directed learning and a multiplicity of face-to-face learning environments. Today tens of millions of students are experimenting with first-generation open content. Within a relatively short time more than 100 million open educational learners will find compelling motives to access the single largest, dynamic body of student-centered learning materials available. Lest anyone dismiss this renaissance of learning as having down-market value only, MIT President Emeritus Charles Vest noted just four years ago:

2. Global Learning

The Internet enabled a worldwide connected infrastructure that supported acceleration of the global economy and a variously described flat or flat-with-some-bumps world. Scholars from peripheral outposts, far from pre-Internet knowledge clusters, gained equal access to scholarly research materials and near real-time interaction with colleagues at the most prestigious institutions. This dramatic reframing of scholarship has not been accompanied by a parallel transformation in the student experience, represented by scalable, cross-national collaborations between students of diverse backgrounds. Even though a mountain of data extending back to the Peace Corps era suggests the significant impact of cross-cultural exchanges, relatively few global initiatives support sustained student learning about the world around them.

The single most important student-related experience leveraging the Internet in an international context has been keeping in touch with friends and family via e-mail, blogs, Flickr, or Skype. Many students, especially those from the United States, inherit parochial views of the world until and unless they become engaged in structured experiences to expand their horizons. Along with an imperative to give students a better understanding of their role in a highly interdependent, if still significantly uneven, world economy, there is also a tendency to view Internet-based exchanges as supporting a homogenization of learning and culture. As we gain a more nuanced understanding of cultures, politics, gender relations, and the different kinds of impact technology can have on the relationship between peoples and their governments, the time is ripe to develop a more integrated approach to the student experience and the world stage upon which they can and should play an active role. Deans for Global Experiences and the Internet could facilitate structured engagement among international affinity groups. The subject matter of the Global Experience and the Internet curriculum can itself be a long-tail program enabled through thoughtful design leveraging the global Internet. Ongoing, multi-institutional projects that include discovery, data gathering, cross-cultural training, cross-cultural exchanges, and project work represent a unique opportunity to link relevant challenges to the pervasive global resources of the Internet.

3. Lifelong Learning

The breadth and depth of change occasioned by the Internet and the global economy has been profound. Setting aside the question of whether academic disciplines have kept up with the new realities, the dislocation associated with these structural changes has significantly affected higher education. During economic downturns, universities call upon their offices for continuing and professional education to meet increased need with increased capacity in response to a whole new cohort of learners whose jobs, careers, and skills sets have been negatively impacted. The Obama administration places significant emphasis on building capacity to position community colleges to develop 21st century job skills among students. Likewise, education czars in state capitols across the nation realize that economic development and sustainable recovery are intimately connected to the performance of the postsecondary education sector.

Less obvious is how, if at all, the higher education sector is working with the federal and state higher education bureaucracies to leverage the networked economy in educating millions of workers seeking new, high-paying, clean jobs for the 21st century. A distinct risk exists that recovery will come on top of a service economy, with all the economic weaknesses entailed. The challenge is to create a robust, generative digital economy with a well-developed pipeline of talent and clear articulation of relevant skills.

We need a new master plan for educating today’s students, more than 15 percent of whom are single parents and 75 percent of whom are nontraditional students (nearly forty percent over the age of 25),2 that covers the millions of people seriously impacted by the structural collapse of the economy. The new market for university students is significant by its size, demographic profile, and disinclination to physically attend a traditional college, even if there were enough physically available. Nor should a new national plan for 21st century postsecondary education be built on the artificial segmentation imposed by traditional Carnegie classifications. We should also be wary of unfettered market responses that see opportunities to maximize profit with short-term fixes to structural challenges. We need an integrated approach that leverages the scalable platforms harnessing the Internet to create this generation’s 21st Century Higher Education Opportunity Act.

4. Informal Learning

Finally, while demographic trends are shifting away from the traditional, on-campus residential student, the needs of this important group of learners warrants examination. Choosing to live on campus as part of the collegiate experience represents the value placed on student life and informal learning. For many students, the informal learning moments before or after the formal class or lab remain their most vivid memories. In addition, the innovations generated by students in residence shed light on the value and quality of informal learning. Consider, for example, college startups from Facebook to Corkshare, or the dormcubator program called VeloCity at the University of Waterloo, which focuses on a wide range of initiatives from women and entrepreneurship to mobile and gaming startup ventures. Students apply to join the dormcubator to combine their academic studies with their interests and passions in software innovation.

Residential college experiences have often led on-campus learning innovation at the intersection of science and technology, as well. Experimentation with video, virtual worlds, massive online player games, iPhone apps development, and hundreds of other experiences make life in the dorms a beehive of activity. Within the interstices of a relatively slow-moving curriculum, the innovation associated with the Internet and information technology unfolding in the residence halls of college campuses bears witness to the data, information, knowledge, wisdom hierarchy (not to mention love and music).

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, OH
March 4, 2010

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