Education dystopia #3: the new gilded age

What are some bad futures for teaching, learning, and campuses? With this post I’m continuing my series of educational dystopias.

3. Gilded Age 2.0

This dystopia is a world of extreme inequality.  After the mid-twentieth century’s reduced imbalance of wealth, the new Gilded Age is a new age of inequality, led by the 1% and especially their own 1%, as described and foreseen by Thomas Piketty.  The name echoes that of an earlier age of American economic oligarchy.

žUnlike the cyberpunk dystopia, which also has high inequality, Gilded Age 2.0 offers solid political stability.  States help maintain social order through a variety of tools and services, ranging from powerful bureaucracies, a guaranteed national minimum income, and surveillance.

Income inequality 1910-2010

The 1% žmake a show of conspicuous consumption,  made especially conspicuous by digital media.  Social order also depends on a degree of gerontocracy, most notably in practical politics and culture, due to demographic trends (decreased 1-18 population, increased seniors).  Capital tends to accumulate with age, and family holdings tend to grow in size and influence; in Piketty’s neat formula, “The past devours the future.” (Capital, 571)

The world of work has shifted to emphasize service industries, as manufacturing declines and the information economy employs relative few people.  On-demand computer-mediated human service enterprises loom large, such as Club Alfred.  Automation is widespread, leading for the first time to widespread under- and unemployedment.  Those out of work are politically pacified by public funds and media consumption. The latter teaches messages of stability and knowing one’s place.

Downton Abbey

Continue reading

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Education dystopia #2: cyberpunk world

What are some bad futures for teaching, learning, and campuses? With this post I’m continuing my series of educational dystopias.

2: Cyberpunk world

This is close to the future imagined by cyberpunk science fiction writers back in the 1980s and 1990s.  Looked at creatively and from the perspective of 2014, these stories don’t look too fantastic.  They described a world saturated by technology, hyper-globalized, economically split between the super-wealthy and the poor, and politically chaotic.  Distributed, often networked technology is ubiquitous.  Surveillance is the norm, both corporate and governmental.

Animated eye from Blade Runner
Let’s take this a little further.  In such a dystopia nation-states are relatively destabilized, their powers sapped by corporations and other non-state actors.  Companies have achieved a great deal of regulatory capture, wielding extensive influence on public policy.  Political resistance is rare, so we see more dissent, rebellion, and subversion expressed through technological means.

This world experiences more rapid technological and cultural development than we’re accustomed to in 2014, leading to a condition resembling continuous future shock.  Workers experience a chaotic, disorganized, non-unionized labor market, including conditions approaching forced labor.  Unemployment is higher than historical norms, due to the growth of automation.

Colleges and universities exist in this cyberpunk dystopia, but with some changes.  Tuition is entirely privatized, as state funding is a relic of the 20th century.  Many institutions seek private support for campus functions, with companies and wealthy donors quite visibly funding academic departments, residence halls, and lab space.  Among academic programs these win the greatest amount of students, staffing, and funding, based on external support and student interest: business, most STEM fields, political science, and Homeland Security.

Campuses rely on micropayments for many transactions, from checking out ebooks to signing into a course management system.  Campuses also use business metrics for a great deal of administration, such as rating departmental success by the estimated lifetime earnings of its majors.  Colleges and universities see a greater military presence on site, including significant numbers of veterans on campus and expanded military science programs.

Information literacy is vital to education in this world, since the information world is as unsettled as the political one.  It’s axiomatic to distrust content. Continue reading

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Education dystopia #1: triumph of the silos

What are some bad futures for teaching, learning, and campuses? With this post I’m starting up my series of educational dystopias.

A silo.

1: Silos stand tall

In this world silos have become the dominant life form in information architecture.  Closed and proprietary systems have triumphed, and open is on the run.  This has occurred across a variety of areas, including content (movies, books, etc) and software.  Google, Apple, Microsoft, Amazon each maintain tall, deep, well-curated and -defended walled gardens.

As a result global conversations are fragmented by provider.  Searches occur in individual filter bubbles.

Some good things occur, at least for certain purposes.  Major content industries survive threats from open content: movies, music, publishers, software makers.  Their content is often at a high quality (compare Napster with iTunes).  Some technologies that didn’t do well in open source now flourish (think videoconferencing).  And there is less malware.

Colleges and universities have changes in the silo world.  Teaching doesn’t occur outside of campus-controlled software.  Syllabi, class materials, discussions live in locked-away systems.  Students conduct research on proprietary databases, supported by librarians.  Faculty conduct research in a terrain of sharply divided platforms, and publish in the same way.  These instructors have been trained to individual stacks, and have a finely-grained sense of their relative value.  Academic content is rarely available on what remains of the open Web, especially for users living in the developing world. Continue reading

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A week of educational dystopias

Bryan and a big slideThis past Friday I keynoted a Penn State World Campus conference.  While the event was very energetic and forward-looking, my talk was ultimately quite gloomy, because I focused on offering negative visions of higher education’s future.

That was a new approach for me.  Generally I prefer to offer a mix of scenarios optimistic, gloomy, and strange.  This time I wanted to scare the audience, goading them into rethinking higher education and its next phase.  I was hoping to get people out of the mindset that things will be all right, if we just hang on and keep going. To be fair, after the dystopian quartet I suggested a dozen ways we could act to avoid bad futures.

This seemed to succeed.  Most people told me the materials were impressive, once they got over their shock.  Only one person (out of hundreds) complained that it was too dark.  But you can judge for yourself.  First, here are the slides:

Second, I’ll blog each of those dystopias here over the next four or so days.  Here are links to each post:

  1. Triumph of the Silos
  2. Cyberpunk World
  3. The New Guilded Age
  4. The Bubble Bursts

(photo of myself and screen by PSUWCFacDev)

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Are campus mergers rising?

How can colleges and universities cope with today’s financial and enrollment challenges? Perhaps by merging.  Former university president Susan Resneck Pierce offers a sobering and thoughtful list of institutions currently exploring mergers.

Pierce also provides good advice for leaders thinking about linking up with other campuses.

I’d call this another datapoint for the peak higher education theory.  Note how many of the proposed merger schools face the same pressures: finance, enrollment, local demographics.  Combining institutions to realize efficiencies and/or complement each other’s strengths can be a wise move.

(via Roger Schonfeld)

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What does the internet of things mean for education?

IoT workshop kids _ steveonjavaI’ve been tracking the internet of things for a while, and am still trying to imagine how it fits into education.  I’m not sure if the IoT will hit academic with the wave force of the Web in the 1990s, or become a minor tangent.  What do schools have to do with Twittering refrigerators?

Here are a few possible intersections.

  1. Changing up the campus technology space.  IT departments will face supporting more technology strata in a more complex ecosystem.  Help desks and CIOs alike will have to consider supporting sensors, embedded chips, and new devices.  Standards, storage, privacy, and other policy issues will ramify.
  2. Mutating the campus.  We’ve already adjusted campus spaces by adding wireless coverage, enabling users and visitors to connect from nearly everywhere.  What happens when benches are chipped, skateboards sport sensors, books carry RFID, and all sorts of new, mobile devices dot the quad?  One British school offers an early example.
  3. New forms of teaching and learning.  Some of these take preexisting forms and amplify them, like tagging animals in the wild or collecting data about urban centers.  The IoT lets us gather more information more easily and perform more work upon it.  Then we could also see really new ways of learning, like having students explore an environment (built or natural) by using embedded sensors, QR codes, and live datastreams from items and locations.  Instructors can build treasure hunts through campuses, nature preserves, museums, or cities.  Or even more creative enterprises.
  4. New forms of research.  As with #3, but at a higher level.  Researchers can gather and process data using networked swarms of devices.  Plus academics studying and developing the IoT in computer science and other disciplines.
  5. An environmental transformation.  People will increasingly come to campus with experiences of a truly interactive, data-rich world.  They will expect a growing proportion of objects to be at least addressable, if not communicative.  This population will become students, instructors, and support staff.  They will have a different sense of the boundaries between physical and digital than we now have in 2014. Will this transformed community alter a school’s educational mission or operations?

Which of these seems likely?  What are we missing?

(photo by steveonjava)

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Three higher education futures

"Higher Education in 2024: Glimpsing the Future"Today Educause Review Online published my latest article, “Higher Education in 2024: Glimpsing the Future“.  In it are three scenarios for how academia could change over the next decade:

  • Two Cultures, a divide between entirely online teaching and a face-to-face (really hybrid) practice;
  • Renaissance, when we recognize that the past quarter-century has been one of extraordinary cultural creativity;
  • Health Care Nation, wherein the medical sector dominates America’s economy and education system (blogged here).

My main audience is campus IT professionals, and I’d like to hear from you guys.  I’m also interested in what other people think in other academic sectors, and beyond.

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