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.


    Information is not knowledge, Knowledge is not wisdom, Wisdom is not truth, Truth is not beauty, Beauty is not love, Love is not music, and Music is the best. Wisdom is the domain of Wis (which is extinct)

    Frank Zappa – Packard Goose from Joe’s Garage: Act II and III (Tower Records, 1979)

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 ( 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.

    “The most remarkable predictions concerns the transformation of educational methods … Knowledge (according to the Futurists) will be accumulated in “electronic banks” and transmitted directly to the human nervous system by mean of coded electronic messages. There will no longer be any need of reading or learning mountains of useless information; everything will be received and registered according to the needs of the moment.” Ellul shares his skeptical view that “What is needed will pass directly from the machine to the brain without going through consciousness.”

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:

    My view is that in the open-access movement, we are seeing the early emergence of a meta-university — a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced. The Internet and the Web will provide the communication infrastructure, and the open-access movement and its derivatives will provide much of the knowledge and information infrastructure.1

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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January 06, 2010

2010: The Year Ahead for IT in Higher Education

What a difference a year makes. Most CIOs in higher education are turning their 2009 holiday stockings inside out looking for any extra crumbs that Kris Kringle might have left behind. For many technology leaders, the general fiscal crunch facing higher education – and the double digit percentage cuts to IT budgets it has compelled -- may have made playing the holiday Scrooge a piece of cake compared to the negative consequences to core IT services and offerings likely in the year ahead.

To those living with the hopeful yet delusional strategy of an early return to the status quo ante, my suggestion is to get use to the so-called “new normal”. The reality of our 2010 technology services portfolio on the campus is likely to make CIO leadership seem more like ‘high siding’, the art of leading a white water river raft down a Class 6 set of rapids, than the image of the captain of the enterprise ocean liner that many associate with the slow moving, reliable, robust, legacy organization on campus. High siding is the deliberate act of leaning the weight of the entire raft and its riders towards the obstacles ahead, rather than approaching the obstacles sideways following the current.

The new normal carries the contradictions of both a fragile macro-economic recovery and a countervailing trend of only modest increases in enrollment and new federal research investments predicted for the fall of 2010 (with the important exception of the community college environment). The new normal is less financial leverage and smaller investments in core infrastructure, including IT on campus, even though the price of borrowing money has never been lower. The new normal is more and faster disruption to the consumer technology eco-system at the same time that levels of investment in our aging IT enterprise infrastructure decline in both real and relative terms.

Finally, the new normal is reflected in the contrarian wisdom of the need to be more, not less, innovative, more creative, not more conventional. During a downturn, at the very moment when the real fiscal pressures leads to squeezing out almost all of our abilities to provide strategic capacity, this is the very time our universities need it most.

The portfolio of managing requirements for operational excellence, customer service, and even more selective innovation (r&d) activity has never been more challenging. Taken together, the prospects of multiple years of negative budget growth in IT on campus, end-user expectations for near real time, free, and fully integrated services to their consumer world (choose your favorite mobile platform as an example), and a series of real Tylenol 3 headaches around security and personal information breaches -- both in the enterprise domain and across the distributed parts of the campus -- portend for a wild river ride ahead in 2010.

With dueling banjos strumming in the background, if you’re old enough to remember the movie “Deliverance,” here are my top 10 trends for higher education for the year ahead, 2010.

(1)Public Cloud Services Go Private. Cloud services are a wide range of hosted services and solutions that migrate from the data center on campus to hosting environments somewhere on the Internet. The “somewhere” is known as the Cloud. First came e-mail, then calendaring. What were once critical on-campus services are now living a normal and nomadic lifestyle. The overall outcome for the campus has been positive. But it doesn’t stop there. Hundreds of campuses have migrated their video platforms off campus to iTunes and YouTube. Millions of hours of branded academic and academic-related content including lectures, performances, panels, colloquia, and student content are now reliably served up in the Cloud. New cloud services roll out weekly. In 2010 we will likely see the next frontier of these tools, and even turnkey solutions. Expect new “private cloud” services that allow the same economies of scale associated with public cloud services, yet are “protected” with a layer of privacy and regulatory ability. These new private cloud services will afford additional certainty that data are residing on geographically knowable infrastructure, or in a way that assures compliance with export licensing, or honors certain service level agreements regarding privacy or a no co-mingling requirement for certain data. More pragmatically, starting in 2010, universities will want to embrace a hybrid architecture for storage and computing that combines on-campus resources, private cloud services for others, and open public cloud resources for other kinds of applications. The emerging typology will go a long way to define taxonomies for our services portfolio for 2010 and beyond. Hard resistance to this mega-trend remains futile; the value proposition only grows in its attractiveness. Confronting cloud services on campus is a proxy for an always important dialog on what constitutes today’s ‘core’ services for IT and what can be considered ‘context’ around which others have developed core competencies.

(2) The President’s Climate Commitment Meets the Campus Data Center. Nearly 700 college and university presidents have signed up to go green. Plans follow and each one contains a commitment to be scored. IT infrastructure on campus produces perhaps as much as 20 percent of the total carbon footprint of the campus. According to the Climate Group, 37 percent of the carbon footprint comes from network electronics, 14 percent from the data center, and 49 percent from PCs and peripherals. Going green is important to University Presidents, our Boards, our students, and hopefully to the IT community. One trend for reducing campus carbon footprints is the move to the Cloud. Cap and trade, and/or some kind of carbon regime, is emerging on the fast track. There’s a lot of work to be done by the IT community both on campus and in the corporate vendor community to get on board. In 2010 we’ll see several major offerings to contribute to reducing campus carbon footprints by investing scarce resources to virtualize more of our data center infrastructure, monitor our infrastructure on an even more granular scale, and embrace campus-wide commitment to go both smart and green through our purchasing offices. Pro-active engagement by IT on the Climate Commitment and our own infrastructure affords us an important opportunity to work with the facilities and planning communities on adopting a smart and green plan across the campus. More introspectively, embracing the commitment also positions IT leaders to begin an overdue internal discussion on organizing a single, unified, and intergraded network engineering team for data, voice, video, and now data center services.

(3)Big Science meets Next Generation CyberInfrastructure. In the past 12 months more than $100 billion in federal “stimulus” funds have found their way to universities and research labs across the country. Coordination of the big science projects across the federal agencies has been constrained by one time gold rush fever, combined with bureaucratic imperatives and exacerbated by the directive to get dollars out the door quickly. Obviously not all big science is computationally based. That being said, university-based big science teams together with their computational research infrastructure colleagues on campus and across the country have an opportunity in 2010 to map out how to leverage this unprecedented one-time set of investments into a set of sustainable, network-enabled and network-based mega science endeavors. It’s been more than seven years since the NSF blue-ribbon committee in 2002/2003 posed the question “how can we remove existing barriers to the rapid evolution of high performance computing, making it truly usable by all the nation's scientists, engineers, scholars, and citizens?” While the challenge of breakthrough science remains as compelling and important as ever, the absence of an integrated national cyberinfrastructure planning framework and action plan serves as a major rate-limiting dead weight on the nation’s future. 2010 would be a great time to join the President’s Climate Commitments on campus and turn them and a handful of other big science challenges into a national call and strategy for scientific renewal and advancement, leveraging next generation cyberinfrastructure.

(4)Time to Declare the PC Dead and Embrace the Mobile Platform. In 2010, it will become more obvious than ever that the PC as we have known it for the past quarter of a century is obsolete. For the foreseeable future there will be three kinds of emergent learning hardware platforms. One will be a fixed and tethered brick (or something) product designers can make look more interesting than the only semi-intelligent thin-client representing the legacy of the PC. The second hardware platform will be personalized-pizza-box-sized “laptop” computers. Now the dominant hardware platform on campus, laptops, netbooks, and tablets are all descendants of the PC, featuring similar interfaces enhanced by mobility. The third and clearly emergent hardware platform for learning is the mobile smart pad, including smartphones, e-book readers, next generation iPods, and what will likely be a bevy of smart pad entrants in the market in the year ahead. The major difference of this third generation of hardware is that we have all but left the old computer interface behind us. For those interested in disruptive innovation, the broad availability of the underlying platform infrastructure, devices, and generative application environment for smart pads is where the action should be. Look for innovative applications relevant to the campus associated with geo-tagging, location-based services, and a whole new generation of intelligent search tools related to our work, study, and play on campus. It is time to break with the 25-year run of PC culture on campus centered on hardware break fix. With new platform technologies and application development tools, the next 25 years of personal computing support should move to developing and providing services and experiences that contribute to innovation, workflow, and discovery.

(5) The E-Book Reader Grows up and Goes to Campus. 2009 marked the birth of the e-book reader in the university market place. The first set of entrants put the already nervous higher education (text)book market on notice. New business models, publishing models, revenue sharing strategies, and new models around intellectual property and the assigned ‘text’ for a course proliferated and served to dislodge the staid legacy economy for many universities. If buying second hand books online was not enough, the new e-book readers were perceived by some to disintermediate traditional providers of services and economic benefit in the college supply chain. In 2010 a whole new generation of E-Book Readers will emerge as the life cycle of innovation really takes off for this class of mobile smart pads. Dedicated, single purpose readers will be eclipsed this year by new, integrated platforms supporting new functionality, Web services, rich media, open application development environments, and a wide range of new experimental interface approaches. Publishers, bookstores, technology, and entertainment giants will all clamor to the market marking a significant if not final shift from the traditional bound book toward fully repurposable content for learning, including traditional texts.

(6)Social Networking Finds its Niche at College. The next killer app for social networking in support of the traditional curriculum on campus will be student tagged, rated, reused, and remixed learning content. The single most popular site among students at many universities is a tossup between Facebook and Google. Google is their library, Facebook is their hangout. Many students will spend more time per week on social networks, engaging, commenting, tagging, digging, and rating their experiences than they do watching traditional television, talking on the phone, in the physical library, and attending classes combined. Nearly a third of students report that they use existing social network platforms for studying and reviewing their courses. University technology strategists have spent five years trying to building alternative social networks. More recently a small cottage industry has flourished in building hooks from campus feeds to popular social networking platforms. The search for the Holy Grail continues. The most compelling content poised to undergo the social network effect is video content of everything in and around the learning environment on campus. Formal lectures, recitations, study groups, mini-documentaries, recordings at the nerd bar, reality tv for campus are all prime time candidates for a new part of the learning eco-system. Look for early experimentation and emergent business models for repurposable and reusable video content for learning in 2010. Publishers, campus media consortia, platform players, and faculty innovators are all poised to make a run at the rich media centric learning environment.

(7) Course Management Platform Alternatives Make Major Inroads. Promising a kinder and gentler attitude to the competition, the dominant course management platform is coming to terms with a new reality in the marketplace. Campuses are not prepared to accept a single dominant course management platform and have been voting with their feet. Course management services are emerging in publisher suites, platform players, new and maturing open source alternatives and dozens of atomized stand alone modules for popular services like grade books, and collaboration tools that readily ‘connect’ to other web services. In 2010 expect an active listening effort by both dominant and emergent players in the course management space. New innovation and offerings are all but certain in the year ahead. While there is a temptation to spend time reflecting through the rear view mirror about the missteps and judgment of some of the decisions made in the course management vertical, the more important issue for 2010 is to see whether Blackboard or any of the other players can effectively execute on a new generation of requirements for learning systems. The stakes are high. The year ahead will be the most interesting since 1995 when Murray Goldberg began innovating and developing what would become known as WebCT, one of the first early entries in what would be known as the course management industry.

(8) Serious Gaming Gets Serious. Gaming software is now both big business (bigger than the Hollywood economy) and a more readily accepted pedagogical tool for a wider cross section of disciplines including science, history, sociology, business, economics, communication studies, engineering, and a wide range of health sciences. Serious gaming, as the term has been coined, is now working its way through faculty curriculum committees, faculty senates, and up to deans and provosts. In 2010 we will see an important inflection point reached as new company entrants join campus-based serious gaming software (both in solitary mode and massive online player formats) to build and compete for robust gaming platforms dedicated to the serious college market. Changes in the textbook and course management markets make the serious gaming platform particularly compelling in the immediate future.

(9) Mobile Security Hits the College Campus. Information Security is an important and growing facet of the University IT landscape. Gone is our innocence. Our university networks and communities of users are prime targets for every conceivable denial of service attack cooked up by hackers from Azerbaijan to Zambia, all looking to earn their stripes. Campus information security leaders need to help the university get ahead of the curve on a range of emerging realities. Many CIOs have ignored or wished away the emergence of smart pad devices that integrate voice, video, and data services. After all, most use the public network and not our special campus networks. In 2010, expect to read research findings and security bulletins that report that the single fastest growing exposure and vulnerability facing the campus is mobile smart pad devices. While corporate enterprise CIOs have been gnashing their teeth for years on risk mitigation strategies for mobile security, 2010 holds high probability for that reality hitting the college campus. It’s not a matter of “if” mobile security headaches will bring down the wrath of audit committees and public exposures in the headlines of local and national media. It’s only a matter of ‘when’. My bet is 2010.

(10) Open Content meets the Open University and the Vision of the Metaversity. It’s hard not to reflect on the past decade as we say good bye (good riddance) to the first decade of the 21st century. University CIOs have contributed in important ways to the transformations underway in the university mission over the past decade. The arc and rate of activities on our campuses, as breathtaking as they may seem, are moving at a completely different slope and velocity to the genuine explosion of open education, research, and innovation enveloping the broader Net eco-system. On a global scale, on a population-wide vector, our institutions are generally ill-suited for addressing the needs and opportunities in 2010 and for the next generation. To be sure, universities are not heading for obsolescence. What continues to be worrisome is our collective ability to remain genuinely relevant to the Internet society in all its complexities and contradictions. While this country has a rather anemic tradition of Open Universities, these organizations all over the world are now engaged in regional and global dialogues on how the Open University platform can contribute to the Internet-scale challenges and opportunities. Former MIT President, Charles Vest (building on Kerr's 1963 thesis) suggested (as early as 2006) that a meta-university would be “a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced.” We’re quickly approaching the maturing of all the requisite elements in Vest’s analysis against ever sharper and growing emphatic need for collective response. In a year in which a movie called “Avatar” will likely be the odds on favorite for a golden boy or two, look for new sources of inspiration and experimentation in framing up the 21st century metaversity project(s).

A decade from now, those reflecting on the second decade of the 21st century will likely point to the new normal, in which learning follows the student/professor rather than student/professor coming to learning and the research agenda. Technology is already far more than ‘just’ an enabler of 21st century learning. Both informed by and helping to shape the next 10 years of the intersection of technology, learning, and university leadership is an agenda that should excite the academy. The year 2010 will prove prescient in our ability to think beyond the possible.

Lev Gonick
Case Western Reserve University
Cleveland, Ohio
January 2010

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