On education racing the machines

Pew Internet logoHow is education responding to new technologies of automation?  I’m quoted on this in a new Pew Internet report.

“The education system is not well positioned to transform itself to help shape graduates who can ‘race against the machines.’ Not in time, and not at scale. Autodidacts will do well, as they always have done, but the broad masses of people are being prepared for the wrong economy.”

Let me unpack that a little.

If we want to consider the intersection between future automation and education, we need to choose a model of how that kind of technology will shape society.

automated factoryPerhaps automation will have a moderate impact on American (and global*) life, with some types jobs being replaced, leaving the rest unwarped.  In that case schools at all levels need to respond.  That probably means, first,  de-emphasizing curricula aimed at those replaced jobs and expanding technology programs.  Second, schools will have to look carefully for emerging needs made possible by automation: new types of employment, new ways of living and thinking.

Or maybe automation will have a deeper impact.  Imagine a larger number of jobs being replaced, including blue- and white-collar ones.  In this situation schools have to rethink most of what they do, as they prepare students for a very different world.  Said world could be a sweet one where many people have lots of time for leisure and self-actualization.  Or that world could be awful, with mass unemployment wrecking family income and self-worth.

Perhaps this means a labor market dominated by classically “feminine” skills, including relationship development, careful communication, and emotional work.  Or jobs will rapidly appear, development, then disappear, requiring continuous retraining and deep, lifelong learning.  Or schools will have to prepare graduates for a life of little work, much reflection, and self-revision.

Utopia or dystopia, it wouldn’t make sense for K-12 and higher education to teach for the 1990s (which is, at best, our current target). (Here are several related scenarios)

But at present American education is only slowly, slowly turning to regard these possible futures.  Powerful forces keep us anchored in the present (if that): commitment to public standards, formulated years ago; generational bias from older faculty and administrators; a lack of foresight capacity.  We can’t figure out how to win girls and young women to technology-related classes.  We don’t teach a lot of computer science in K-12. We need to rethink our future, and soon.

*I wrote “American” because most discussions of U.S. education remain very US-centric.  We need to stop this, but that’s for another post.

(automated factory photo by Steve Jurvetson)

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Technology from disruptive to darling

Here’s a nice graph of how our views of a technology (or product) change over time:
How our view of a product changes over time

It’s from the forthcoming TBD Catalog, which looks fascinating.

(via Bruce Sterling’s Flickr)

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One future of education: Health Care Nation

What would education look like if the medical sector becomes the largest part of American society and economics?  I call this scenario: Health Care Nation.*

In this future, the medical sector has become the leading U.S. industry, eclipsing all others.  By 2021-2025 health care generates 30 percent or more of gross domestic product, employing huge numbers of workers. Medicine occupies a greater presence in society than historically, with towns and cities having more clinics, hospitals, drugstores, medical supply stores, and labs than in the past.  The roots of this transformation were already visible by 2004-2014.

Map of largest employer per state

This is as of 2013. Extrapolate it forward a decade. And be sure to click for the elegant visualization.

How did this occur?

  1. The proportion of the population over 65 years old is the largest ever. Statistically, this age group consumes more health care than others.
  2. The complex, even Byzantine funding structure of health care involved ever-increasing amounts of bureaucracy, staffing, and financing (both public and private). As explained by Bowen and Baumol’s cost disease economic model, the efficiency of automation is limited in some professions, and applies here, as much of health care requires the extensive time of sometimes expensive professionals.
  3. Medical treatment improvements have extended lifespans, leading to a still larger senior population, along with the appearance of new ailments requiring more care.

Campuses in Health Care Nation have many academic programs and many people devoted to medicine. Continue reading

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Queen sacrifice in New Hampshire

NHTIAnother American campus is laying off full-time faculty.   The New Hampshire Technical Institute, Concord’s Community College (NHTI), is ending fourteen “teaching positions“.

This fits into my queen sacrifice model pretty well, whereby an institution cuts core personnel (faculty) and reduces certain programs.  The institution cites rising costs and drops in the number of students.  “The cuts are based largely on increases in payroll and health insurance costs, and declining enrollment, according to NHTI”.  More: “NHTI enrollment since 2010 has been declining by 2 percent a year while enrollment grows across the entire system. Total student enrollment for fall 2013 was 5,079, down almost 5 percent from 2010.”

In addition, there are faculty complaints of excessive administrative growth.
“Members of the faculty group have major concerns. They say the limited money is being spent to support administrative positions and activity, not academic programs.”

However, I cannot find detailed information about the nature of the cuts, namely, which departments are facing the ax.  Not can I discover news about any programs being expanded or added, in order to meet rising student demand.

As we approach the 2014-2015 academic year, perhaps we should expect to see more queen sacrifices ahead, unless conditions change.

(thanks to George Station)

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On keynoting: how I create my talks

Bryan speaking to Northern Voice, 2010I have the privilege of being invited to address many academic, nonprofit, and business groups.  After doing this for a decade, and following some social media brooding on keynotes, I thought I’d put down some thoughts on how this works for me.

NB: for reasons of time I won’t cover the tactics of good speechmaking.  Maybe that’s for another post.

Refresh some content It’s vital to keep trying out new content in each presentation.  Some audiences will overlap across events, especially when talks occur in a related industry or the same geographical area.  Digital media also gives us access to speakers, so it’s increasingly likely that audiences will have seen your earlier work.    Avoid boredom by refreshing your material.

Keynoters are supposed to energize their people, to inspire and excite them.  Wearying your audience is a fatal crime for keynoters to commit.  Fatal for the audience, and lethal for the speaker.

It’s also intellectually sound to revise your stuff.  If the topic is current, things may have changed since you last took the podium.  Include that.  If the topic is historical, attitudes and reception might have shifted, so you can address those.

FTTEFor me, I connect my presentations to one of my research projects, Future Trends in Technology and Education (FTTE).  I conduct FTTE research just about every day of every month.  This yields all kinds of news stories, analyses, case studies, and other material which can find its way into my presentations.  I don’t recommend that everyone maintain a regular report like this, but do commend continual reflection and inquiry, especially through social media.

Keep other content the same On the other hand, keynoters have to rely on some material.  That’s partly because event organizers usually invite someone to speak because of a known quality, and expect to see that in play.  It’s also because you can test out a content chunk, honing it over time, and take advantage of that.  Representing familiar material can free a speaker up to improvise more, and to demonstrate confidence.

It can also save time, which matters a great deal. Continue reading

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Joining the New Media Consortium

NMCThis week I’m excited to report that I’ve joined the staff of the New Media Consortium (NMC) as their new senior researcher.

NMC and I go back a while.  I’ve been involved with NMC many times over the years.  Speaking at their conferences and online events, relying on their Second Life materials, contributing to and presenting on the Horizon Report: I’ve appreciated the opportunity to connect with the NMC network and their fine staff.  My current futures work owes much to NMC’s Horizon project.

So now I’m ramping up my NMC involvement.  Let’s have a FAQ:

Q: What will you be doing, Bryan?
A: As a researcher I’ll have two primary areas. From the announcement:

As a senior researcher, Bryan will be focused on expanding the work of the NMC Horizon Project to include country-specific reports that analyze the landscape and technology trends in geographic areas across the world. Additionally, he will be helping to grow a new series of business intelligence reports that are available to NMC strategic partners and Option 2 members.

Q: What happens to Bryan Alexander Consulting?
A: BAC is still going strong.  Think of NMC as one of my biggest clients.

Q: Will you have to move from Vermont?
A: No.  I do NMC work, like the rest of BAC work, from home and perhaps with some travel.

I’m very excited about this opportunity.

EDITED TO ADD: the torrent of social media responses to this announcement has been very sweet.  Thank you, friends!

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Higher ed could survive, just like the big banks did

Twitter too big to failHere’s one possible way for colleges and universities to survive the current crisis.  We could deem higher education too big to fail.

Background: the linked article refers to the recent brush with institutional death experienced by the City College of San Francisco (CCSF).  Its accreditor had repeatedly found CCSF to be deeply flawed on financial and administrative levels, and ultimately recommended the college be stripped of accredited status.   The evaluating body still thinks CCSF should lose it, but granted the large school a two-year grace period.

Kevin Carey thinks this outcome is like the one enjoyed by the largest American financial institutions after the 2008 crisis*.  The banking sector was too well connected and simply too deeply embedded in the global economy, and its destruction would have been too damaging to the world and to well-represented sectors.  Applying this analogy to that college,

The political backlash was fierce. The faculty union lodged a formal complaint with the Department of Education against the accreditor… Politicians including the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose district includes part of City College, issued public condemnations…

Because the consequences of closing these institutions are so severe, they have become, in effect, “too big to fail.”

Perhaps this is one near- and medium-term future for much of American higher education.  Not every institution faces this level of accreditation challenge, of course; some face equally serious threats from other sources.  No matter how many queen sacrifices campuses perform, or how many bad financial ratings schools receive, or how furious families are at the specter of debt, we won’t allow colleges and universities to shut down. Continue reading

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