The shock of the old: still living in the 20th century

Yesterday I wrote about a day in the life of a futurist like me.  At the post’s end I wonder about the most futuristic parts of the day, and the least.

As I worked on that post, off and on during the day, I couldn’t shake the feeling that I was missing something.  This morning I wanted to pick that intuition up.  Namely, it’s the way daily life in 2017 is still a very 20th-century endeavor, at least seen during that same day in the life.

"The Shock of the Old"I’m fond of David Edgerston’s phrase “the shock of the old.”  That’s from his 2007 book, where he gleefully points out the persistent of older, legacy tech during times we assume are more advanced.  One good example is the widespread use of horses and donkeys for transport during WWII, a conflict universally described as one driven by machines.

Edgerton came to mind yesterday as I drove an automobile largely unchanged since the 1980s over mid-20th-century roads (and in medieval traffic, i.e., Boston).  Intermittent cell phone service knocked me out of the 21st century repeatedly, both outside (Vermont, New Hampshire) and in certain locations within buildings.  I ate trail mix and chips recognizable from the Cold War era.  Dashboard radio crackled news and music much like it did when I was a child (born 1967).

I checked out a physical book from a century-old library, then deposited a physical check to a bank with human tellers.

The two airports I used, Boston Logan and Reagan National, acted in most ways as though it were 1985.  Cockpits largely invisible to mere passengers are more automated, yes, and service is worse.  But we’re still flying jets (mostly) along familiar flight paths, taking off from and landing on well laid runways.  TVs blared their form of mock-journalism – now that content has changed, by declining, and the format has mutated, by being more crowded, but the presentation technology remains.  People still stared at the mounted, public screens.

elevator_National Press Club

A lovely example of an industrial-age invention still in use.

This morning I walked across downtown DC to a meeting, and thought a time traveler from 1980 would largely feel at home.  There are new models of cars, but they’re mostly tweaks on Detroit’s old patterns (very few Teslas visible), and they still halt and fume through the old streets. People still walk, or push strollers.  Helicopters and airplanes occasionally move overhead.  There aren’t any jetpacks, slidewalks, personal helicopters, teleportation booths, suicide booths, or flying cars.  No Segues appeared. Smartphones are the major difference, and they are actually not too visible.

In today’s meeting an audience sits on chairs in rows, listening to speakers speaking from a podium.

And so on.  You get the idea.  It is vital for futurists – i.e., anyone thinking of what’s to come – to always bear in mind the past’s firm grip.  While we rightly identify possible changes and new arrivals, we can’t lose sight of what persists.

(previous old-shock posts: on tv ads, on election news; on the new Star Wars movie’s fiercely retro nature)

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A day in the life of a futurist

People often ask what I do as an educational futurist.  As one answer I thought I’d share a kind of diary, to give a sense of the practical work and life.

6:30 am – rise later than usual, due to a cold and the insistence of two cats.  Check the weather outside by walking around a bit and consulting Wunderground (around 40 F; cloudy).  One of the cats charges outside for morning patrol.  Then I head back inside to start my morning news routine.

That means working through Google News, HackerNews, Inside Higher Ed, Twitter, Facebook, plus a quick scan of overnight emails for newsletters and stories forwarded by loyal readers.  I save several tabs for later rereading and possible actions.  I also note some potential details for trends: Microsoft might be aiming a light, cloud-based laptop for the K-12 market (mobile; web office; cloud computing); controversy over a sociologist visiting a liberal arts college (campus race politics; student activism); critical article about Blackboard’s strategy and reputation (LMS changes);

7:45 – 8:30 am – make coffee for Ceredwyn and bring it to her.  Make myself breakfast and eat while reading RSS feeds.

8:30 – 9:00 am – revise some presentation materials for this week.  Note some arguments among friends on Facebook.

9:00 – 9:30 am – pack for this week’s trips.  My wife talks with me about her very cool new novel project.  Our son staggers awake (he’s on vacation), and I keep one eye on him as he successfully makes himself breakfast.

9:30 – 9:45 am – share one interesting and potentially future-oriented news story across social media:

My goal in doing this is to elicit feedback; that use of social media is something I’ve been doing for years.  This morning, my own assessment of this particular project is too tentative.

9:45 – 10:00 am – Ceredwyn and I invoice two clients for this week’s operations, and discuss other financial issues.

10:00 – 10:30 – drive to nearby town in search of decent bandwidth.  No, business class Fairpoint service is neither fast nor reliable enough for me to run a webinar with assurance.

10:30 – 11:00 – set up for webinar in local public library.  Check in with organizers and make sure the tech is running. Answer emails from people concerning presentations tomorrow and Thursday.  Reply to interview query.  Discuss one professional futurists’ organization by email.

11:00 – 12:00 noon – conduct webinar for one new client.  Internet connection is solid.

Noon – 12:30 pm – grab this book from the library’s ILL service, then head off to our bank for a deposit, and then to the post office up the mountain.

12:30 pm – 5:00 pm – drive from Vermont to Boston.  At best this can take less than four hours, but I get clobbered by the city’s traffic, as ever:

Boston traffic arg

90 minutes to cross 2/3rds of this cursed town.

Along the way I listen to a variety of podcasts.  Once, in New Hampshire, I stop for a phone interview.  Several times I stop to check email and social media.  Throughout the drive I meditate on virtual reality for education, the subject of Thursday’s workshop.

5:00 – 6:30 pm – check in at Logan, then get online to do some work, including this blog post.

7:00 – 9:00 pm – I’m scheduled to fly from Boston to Washington, DC.  Hopefully I’ll have room to do some writing.  If not, I’ll read about American populism and higher education.

Once in DC I’ll Metro to the hotel for tomorrow’s conference, get some work done, then fall asleep.

The most futuristic bit of today: weaving several ideas about the future of education and technology across multiple technologies, time zones, media, and nations.

The least futuristic bit: moving some pieces of wood onto another stack.  Or maybe it was holding Hunter, our biggest and fluffiest cat, very close before I left.  He hates when I leave.

Posted in personal, Uncategorized | 8 Comments

Improving a campus without growth: Matt Reed’s excellent and difficult challenge

What if your college or university isn’t going to grow, and you can’t cut your way to sustainability?  What do you do then?  Community college dean and Inside Higher Ed commentator Matt Reed posed this hard challenge in a couple of columns last week (1, 2).  It’s a terrific prompt for anyone thinking about the future of education.

Let’s start by establishing Reed’s parameters.  He begins by describing the way institutional cuts ultimately become self-defeating:

[C]uts do damage that starts to show up in enrollments. Too many classes cancelled or calls unreturned lead to attrition, which leads to calls for still more cuts. Cut an off-campus location to save money, and whoops, you lose its enrollments, leading to a need for more cutting. Add an inexorably rising underlying cost — say, just hypothetically, health insurance — and you have the makings of a death spiral.

Then he reminds us that the old growth pattern isn’t working out in most cases.  Recall that American higher ed grew enormously from around 1985 through 2011:

Historically, the path to growth was through, well, growth. Build buildings, add programs, hire people, and students would come.

That’s not true anymore, and in fact, trying it can be destructive; it can saddle a college with debt that declining enrollments won’t let it pay.

Given those two boundaries – no growth, no cuts – the overwhelming majority of American higher education institutions is now caught in this position:

When the message on one side is to keep cutting until the bleeding stops, and on the other side is to hold your breath until the good times magically return, the only way for something good to happen is to change the narrative.

So what do we do now?  Reed offers a four-fold test for solutions, then proposes some interesting low-cost approaches, like a semester redesign, which I recommend exploring.

From American higher ed, I’m seeing a few strategies in play.  Remember, these shouldn’t rely on new funding or brutal cuts:

Grow international If America isn’t growing its number of undergrad and grad students any longer, one solution is to head abroad.  Colleges and universities of all kinds are recruiting extensively from the rest of the world, especially central and east Asia.

Expand online This is another way to boost student numbers, by recruiting adult students from around the world, especially learners who aren’t physically co-located.  This isn’t cheap to do, but a good number of institutions already have some or all of the mechanisms in place.

Focus on student success A campus grows resources aimed at boosting student degree completion.  This can include expanding advising, changing curricula, creating new paths to degree, etc.  It could also involve applying new research from learning science to faculty teaching through professional development.

Embrace open Cutting student textbook and material costs can make a big difference for poor and working-class students.  Giving students more access to scholarly research through open access publishing expands their learning as well.

Partner with local high schools The main capital here is administrative time, and there may well be political incentives to expend it.  The other incentive is the chance to grow student numbers by having high school students taking higher ed classes and by encouraging them to attend full time later on.

Share classes with other campuses A college or university can open up a class to students from another institution.  We’ve already seen this done in multiple projects.  For a little administrative overhead (which declines rapidly with practice) a school can expand its curriculum.

Boost study abroad If an institution already has study abroad support in place, including local staff and programs, plus relationships with host universities, this can heighten a campus’ appeal.  Wealthier students are especially well placed to take advantage of this.

Entrench Stick to what a campus does well.  Reaffirm existing relationships.  This may include not filling positions as they open and letting offerings go dark as staff can’t fill them.

Consolidate and merge Combining operations internally (between units) or externally (between institutions) can save resources.

Remix programs Offer more classes and programs in high demand areas, while shifting away from low-demand ones.  The idea is that rising student numbers will pay for these initiatives. Yes, this can be a queen sacrifice strategy, but doesn’t have to.

What other answers are you seeing to Matt Reed’s carefully bounded question?


Posted in future of education, Uncategorized | 4 Comments

My next Devil’s Dictionary: a call for nominations

In 2016 we satirized educational technology keywords through a Devil’s Dictionary (part 1, part 2).  Now I’d like to tackle the words of education beyond ed tech.  Which vocabulary would you like to see skewered?

I have assembled a first list, to whet your appetite:

Faculty governance
Graduate school
Legislature (state)
Private (as in institution)
Professional development
Public (as in institution)
Publish or perish
Residence halls
Social sciences
Student life
Traditional student

What else deserves a good Biercing?

Posted in research topics | 16 Comments

Talking about a new higher education startup

Last week I was on a podcast discussion about a new higher ed startup.  MissionU offers an interesting mix of apprenticeship, funding, timeline, and ethos.  Jeff Young wrote it up earlier this month, interviewing both myself and my friend Gardner Campbell.

Jeff then invited a crowd to talk about MissionU on the EdSurge podcast.  Gardner and I came in, along with MissionU’s founder, Adam Braun, and Marie Cini, provost and senior vice president for academic affairs at the University of Maryland University College.  For an hour we bashed around views and challenges:

The results are pretty complex and interesting.  It’s clear that MissionU strikes a bunch of post-secondary education nerves, from finance (debt, affordability) to politics (the role of for-profits) to the meaning of education.  In other words, talking about this startup triggered conversations going beyond MissionU itself.

At the same time, what Adam is doing is fascinating and ambitious.  So I’m looking forward to having him as a Futures Trends Forum guest next month.

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Rogue approaches to scholarly communication

OSI2016_Martin KalfatovichThis week I’m participating in the Open Scholarship Initiative (OSI) conference in the Washington, DC area.   I was active in the first OSI meeting last year, and am looking forward to this one.  Hopefully I’ll tweet events and reflections (#OSI2017).  For today I’d like to share thoughts on one particular issue, and its implications for the future of education.

OSI meetings are based on topical workgroups, each of which addresses a specific aspect of scholarly communication.  Last year I was part of one focused on information overload (and scarcity, or underload); here’s our report.  This year I’m in a new group, one splendidly dedicated to… rogue solutions.

Let me quote from our charge:

What are the impacts of Sci-Hub and other rogue solutions on open access and what is the future of this approach, which may be gaining new mainstream support (noting for instance Wellcome’s recent funding of ResearchGate). What new resources should the scholarly community develop (and how) that would be useful and legal additions to our progress toward open (a new blacklist for instance, or new repositories)? This group will also integrate (to the extent possible) ideas raised by the information overload workgroup from OSI2016.

What are some of these rogue approaches?

Sci-Hub (Wikipedia) is a search engine that hunts for open versions of articles.  Created by Kazakh grad student Alexandra Elbakyan.  Frequently sued, the site changes locations and is multiply mirrored.

LibGen (“Library Genesis) (Wikipedia) is a searchable database for articles.  Also comics, magazines, and paintings, somehow.  Like Sci-Hub it frequently moves and appears in mirrors.

r/Scholar on Reddit is a forum where users post requests for articles and books.

#ICanHazPDF is a Twitter hashtag where users plea for open pdfs of named articles. (I’ve had success w/”ICanHasPDF”, too; old English prof habits die hard.)

Unpaywall is a Google Chrome browser extension that, when pressed, tries to find open versions of articles linked or displayed on a current webpage. Impactstory created it, in part by building a big database of articles from legit sources, available through the oaDOI API. (Nature article)

CanaryHaz is another open access searching Chrome extension.  It requires users to register with the site, which then sets up individual lockers to stash copies.

CanaryHaz and Unpaywall both in use

CanaryHaz appears as the green bar up top. Unpaywall is the green lock icon on the right edge.

The Open Access button is another browser extension, which, when pressed, triggers a search for OA pdfs.

Social media in generalCharlie Rapple shared some fine research at the Scholarly Kitchen concerning how scholars use Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. to find and share readings.  I’m fascinated by the way a majority of scholars believe in respecting copyright… and also trade papers.

So why does this matter?

Because the proliferation of rogue solutions points to rising frustration with the scholarly publication and communication ecosystem.  Open access has won over some journals, elicited the creation of others, and inspired new practices from publishers, while traditional (“closed access”, if you like) publishing practices continue.  We’re in a state of massive conflict, and the future of scholarship is in the balance.

Perhaps one or more of these rogues will grow into a widely used service.  Rapple’s study shows that many faculty are keenly interested in sharing and accessing openly. #ICanHazPDF seems widely used, although I don’t have a sense of numbers. We could see one or more evolving into what Balázs Bodó callsshadow libraries” (thanks to commentator Ted). On the other hand, the fate of Sci-Hub and LibGen suggests another outcome, one where these services remain marginal and on the run, like bittorrent file-sharing.

There is also the looming gap between the global north and south, or the developed (rich) and developing (not rich) nations.  The former tend to have far more access to scholarship than the latter.  Addressing this imbalance is one cause for the pro-open movement.  Will global south/developing nations’ faculty, staff, and students start taking up these rogue tools?  Recall that Elbakyan, Sci-Hub’s creator, is from a non-wealthy central Asian state.

Are there other rogue approaches to scholarly communication that you find interesting and/or useful?  What do you make of this whole subfield?

And will I see you at OSI this week?

(OSI2016 photo by Martin Kalfatovich)

Posted in education and technology | Tagged | 20 Comments

Americans versus the future

IFTF logoFor a country that prides itself on invention and innovation, Americans actually don’t think very much about the future.  That’s the conclusion of a new survey (pdf) by the Institute for the Future (IFTF).

Let me pull out some key findings.

First, our future horizon tends to max out at a five year horizon.  One year or less is a more common framing:

53% of Americans say they rarely or never think about something that might happen, or something they personally might do, at least 30 years from the present. Only 10% think about the far future every day (5%) or several times a week (5%).

Looking 10 years ahead is somewhat less rare—36% rarely or never think about something that might happen at least 10 years in the future, while 17% say they think that far out every day (7%) or several times a week (10%).

Three years is a stretch, but done often enough:

IFTF study_3 years out

Which makes a lot of sense, for the general population, when we think about the variety of strong social and cultural time frames we work within: quarterly economic reports, a three- or four-year (putative) graduation plan.  We can also think of those whose conditions foreclose futures thinking: prisoners, or people in war, or the severely depressed.

Second, age makes a big difference, as younger people are more likely to consider the future than their elders:

In fact, the older people get, the less they think about the future—75% of seniors rarely or never think 30 years out, while 51% rarely or never think 10 years out.

One counterintuitive finding about that demographic: “Having children or grandchildren did not significantly increase future thinking”.

This observation about age and forward thinking is especially meaningful for organizations and fields often led by seniors, like academia.

Third, there seems to be a subset of Americans who actually like to consider things to come:

A minority of Americans are highly future-minded: 17% say they think about the world 30 years out at least once a week; 29% think about the 10-year future at least once a week, and 35% think about the 5-year future at least once a week.

I would love to see IFTF identify the contours and traits of this population.  How many are science fiction readers?  What are breakdowns by gender, race, education, religion?

Fourth, fear is a good motivator for stirring up futures thinking.  Specifically, fear of death:

Among those who reported a brush with mortality, there was a 21% increase in thinking about the 30-year future often, a 25% increase in thinking about the 10-year future often, and a 31% increase in thinking about the 5-year future often…

Analogically, I’ve seen this in my own work.  Generally speaking people who are spooked about their institution’s or organization’s fate tend to be more receptive to forecasting and scenarios.

Let me step back from the study results themselves.  The method suggests the findings are too optimistic (if you value futures thinking), as the survey as done online, and also explicitly identified itself as being about the future.  It’s possible that a broader survey would find Americans thinking even less frequently, and in shorter horizons, about what’s to come.

In isolation, the study evokes comparative questions.  Are Americans less future-oriented than they were before the Trump presidency, or in comparison with, say, the late 20th century?  How would other countries fare when subjected to the same test?  Given the age factor, I’d be curious to compare older and younger populations (say, Japan’s and Kenya’s).

Those are cultural questions.  As Jane McGonigal, one of the study’s leads, observes, there are also some fascinating biological aspects to the ways humans (not just Americans) look ahead.  We tend to think of the future as essentially separated from our present self.  McGonigal points to a study showing that, under fMRI scrutiny, “your brain acts as if your future self is someone you don’t know very well and, frankly, someone you don’t care about.”

She goes on to argue, and cite other researchers making the same point, that the disconnect drives our present day actions in ways that aren’t necessarily forward-looking.  “Why would you save money for your future self when, to your brain, it feels like you’re just handing away your money to a complete stranger?”  Hence our general unwillingness to engage with a century-long problem like climate change.

Hence future studies and forecasting methods.  We need heuristics and mental structures to prod us out of the present and short-term.

Do you see evidence of this kind of present-ism around you in your work or community?

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