Blockchain for higher education: Phil Long leads an energetic discussion on the Future Trends Forum

How can higher education make use of blockchain technology?

In May Phil Long (University of Texas-Austin) explored this question with the Future Trends Forum.  Below are the video recording of the session and my notes.  The field has advanced since, but these questions and answers are vital, especially as education is still wrestling with the technology at a very introductory level.

Questions came thick and fast within the Shindig environment, as you’ll read or see below.  We also had a very active Twitter discussion during the session, which is archived on Storify.

Phil Long discussion

Up top a questioner engages with Phil. On the bottom right, chat discussion. Bottom left, Forum participants listening and thinking.

The video recording runs about 50 minutes, and you can either follow this link to the YouTube location, or watch the embed below:

My running notes from the session:

Phil Long began by defining blockchain technology.  It’s a database, yes, but also a distributed ledger.

So how can it be used in higher ed?

Credentialing is one key way.  That’s perhaps the unique social value of a university (although Phile noted it was getting undervalued by the business world, as transcript demands decline).  Blockchain can’t be hacked (NB: as of that session), allows different levels of privacy, and can also reaffirm learner’s ownership over their record, which makes sense for lifelong, multi-institutional learning.

Questions arose: would national or state governments use blockchain?

Answer: Estonia is using it for voting.  The British government is interested.

Question from Ted Newcomb: “Will [blockchain] incorporate MOOCS, and all the alternative ways to learn and be ‘credentialed’ outside the brick and mortar institutions?” Continue reading

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Into _The Water Knife_

Bacigalupi_The Water KnifeI’m 52% of the way into Bacigalupi’s near-future science fiction novel The Water Knife, and wanted to share some notes for our online reading/book club. (Relevant posts on this blog are tagged waterknife)

First, quick and general reactions with an eye on futurism.  Second, notes from a lit crit perspective.  Third, onward.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers.

I: General reactions

Quick summary: Water Knife takes place in the American southwest, principally the Las Vegas-Phoenix area, in a near future devastated by drought.  We follow three main characters: Angel, the titular water knife, a former thug and current fixer for a Las Vegas water baroness; Lucy, a journalist covering water and crime; Maria, a Texan climate refugee.

It’s a detailed and grim world.  “Big Daddy Drought” (8) has knocked America down from its superpower perch, as social collapse to varying degrees gnaws at major states and cities and China looms ever-larger as an advanced and philanthropic power.  Violence, disease (60, 178), inequality, and corruption are rife as American lurches towards becoming a narcostate (104).  Militias (79) and crooked cops ride herd over climate refugees, including faith-based Merry Perrys (a reference to former Texas governor Perry, I bet).

Some is based solidly on today’s world, like the Central Arizona Project (CAP) and the “third straw” to Las Vegas (thanks to Alan Levine).

The world continues to provide advanced technologies.  On the digital front we see phones with multiple and hidden operating systems (100), cryptocurrency (68, 113), augmented reality (“military glass”, 51), and social media that seems to have swallowed up journalism.  Other technologies appear, including just-in-time building construction, effective solar power (69), and a cheap plastic bag for recycling urine into drinkable water, the ClearSac (73).

Bacigalupi knits those characters and the world to hit several major themes.  Ecosystems, unsurprisingly, appear everywhere, from detailed descriptions of water systems (183, for example) to the human predator-prey arrangement. Belief is a big one, between the worship of La Santa Muerte and faith-based climate denialism.  Gender and sexuality appear, but in a retrograde fashion for 2016 readers, with men largely brutes and women all too often either victims or prostitutes.  History looms large for a book about the future, as characters remind us that people could have avoided this situation (Cadillac Desert appears twice so far), or compare the plot’s present to their past – i.e., our present. Continue reading

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Several visions of the future of higher education

What might higher education become in the next decade?

I shared several scenarios with NACUBO, the excellent American higher ed business officers’ group.  They are based on the following possibilities:

  • The development of decent software-based tutors
  • Continued growth of the health care sector
  • High ed not changing seriously
  • Student enrollment peaking circa 2012

Thanks to NACUBO for supporting this work!

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Powerwall progress

I’d like to update you on our Powerwall experiment, and there’s a special reason I’m doing so at this moment.

EDITED TO ADD: update at the end of this post.

We’ve had the giant battery attached to our house since early May (posts here), and for a while progress was uneven.  Sometimes it worked, fueling selected devices during short outages and tests.  Other times it failed, either when needed (when the power went out) or on its own.

inverter interior

The guts of the inverter, which basically connects the house grid (off screen, on right) to the Powerwall (off to the left).

Ever since my glum May 29th post a team has been working energetically to get the Powerwall working.  People from Peck Electric (installation), Green Mountain Power (power grid, cat-herding), Tesla, (the battery), Solar Edge (the inverter), and some outside consultants (different issues) worked with us in person, on the phone, and via email.  They tried simulated outages, rewriting the firmware, redoing the fuse box, analyzing connected items, and easily a dozen more approaches I couldn’t follow.

What I was able to do was keep an eye on the setup when none of the specialists were on site, monitoring the cryptic system display board and watching for status changes.  I also fired up a Powerwall thread on the Tesla discussion forum, but it seems to have vanished.

So why am I writing about this now?

Because our town just got run over by a serious thunderstorm.

Ripton storm July 23 2016_Wunderground

Our town is Ripton, in the upper middle of this map.  The green and orange blobs have moved east after whomping us.

Storms knocked out power all over this part of the state:

power outages July 23 2016 5 pm

Ripton is east of Middlebury, just about the top of that “Green Mountain National Forest” label.

And yet I’m typing this, because the Powerwall worked.  Every device connected to it is thriving: water pump, refrigerator, several lights, both routers, and more.

How long will it last?  We don’t know, but we will find out.

As I write this the device has been working for about 90 minutes without interruption.

More later.

EDITED TO ADD: Green Mountain Power restored service around 8 am today.  The Powerwall ran throughout, meaning roughly sixteen (16) hours.  Which is impressive.

PS: Bonus pick of one determined electrician and the guts of the inverter plus another box: inverter and others being worked on


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One leading CIO looks at campus data and collaboration

Last week Brad Wheeler, Indiana University’s chief information officer, appeared on the Future Trends Forum to discuss what he saw happening in higher ed and technology.  Brad also spoke to the Unizin collaborative.

David Raths just wrote up an excellent account on the Campus Technology site.  He identifies key points, including Wheeler’s argument for a new approach to campus information and a mature approach to building inter-institutional collaboration, informed by recent history.

Brad Wheeler, Bryan Alexander on the Forum, by Curtis Bonk


“It is pretty exciting that we can go from faculty-authored content delivered through a platform owned by the academy to all the digital tracks coming off of it into repositories owned by the academy that are available for IRB-approved research,” he said. “We don’t have to ask for our data back. It is our data, and our students’ data. That is an important thing for the future. We are hoping to enable the means of improving digital education through the institutions being able to assert a much greater degree of control around content, learner interaction platforms and analytics.”

(screenshot by Curtis Bonk)

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What would you like to see in my consulting website? A shameless plea for advice

I’m in the midst of overhauling my consulting company’s very basic website, and now turn to you, dear readers, for your thoughts and suggestions.

BAC consulting site v 1The context: I launched the site three years ago as a basic thing, a quick WordPress semi-brochure to get the word out. It wasn’t too different from a blog. Ever since I’ve been meaning to revamp it, but, honestly, business has been good and kept me too busy.  I’ve been devoting time to higher priorities – i.e., meeting with clients, conducting research, publishing, etc.  Plus my blog and Twitter have done the lion’s share of communicating my thoughts and questions.

As it stands now, the site offers short texts introducing the business and its services (speaking, futuring).  For samplers of this work there are interviews with me and blurbs, along with links to FTTE and this very blog.  And there’s contact information.

The desired audience for the new site is potential clients.  That means higher education leaders and interested parties, not just in the United States, but worldwide: provosts, deans, presidents, CIOs, library heads, faculty, boards, politicians.  That also includes non-post-secondary cultural heritage institutions that I’ve worked with, namely libraries and museums, both public and academic.

The purpose of the site: to share information about my consulting work, with the aim of attracting new clients.

What’s already on deck to add to a new site: I have assembled materials for a clients page, with links, permissions, and logos.  I’ve started two case studies.  There are also new and archived media items, including a good number of photos and videos.  These materials came about because Facebook friends offered me design suggestions last year, which drove the creation and selection of these items (thank you, friends!).  I haven’t picked a WordPress theme, or considered another CMS, or made a “welcome to the site” video, or run a focus group, or figured out the best color scheme representing my brand, nor consulted with a professional web designer.

I have looked at other websites for higher education consultants, and drawn some conclusions.

  • They rarely lead with images of their staff.  Instead they start with images of their real or ideal clients, featuring both people (students, staff) and physical sites (lovely campuses and buildings).
  • They often showcase a specific, named, and sometimes proprietary methodology or product (for example).
  • Client lists and case studies are available.
  • Publications are available, such as white papers and articles.
  • Specific services and topical foci are named right away.
  • Most pages are crammed with content, often in multiple columns, in sharp contrast with today’s post-mobile simplicity mode.  For example,
    Bain consulting screenshot

    Reduced greatly from its full-screen width.

    Here’s one exception.

  • “Contact us” info is prominently displayed, from social media widgets to phone numbers to login and “click here for X” buttons.
  • Some have a calendar of upcoming events.

While I was looking for inspiration from my peers, I also explored another set of colleagues.  Professional futuristswebsites are a bit different.  They are much more personal, with futurists’ names and faces foregrounded.  Like non-futurist consultant sites, these feature information about clients and case studies.  Their overall design is more exciting, with a larger number of graphics, images, and animation, plus a general flair for energy.  Linguistically, some write in the first person, others in the third.

Interestingly, I don’t see too much in the way of future-oriented design in futures sites.  They feel like websites from circa 2000-2010.  There isn’t much in the way of (say) video, or animation, or infographics, 3d models, slideshows, “hero images”, carousels, hamburger menus, endless scrolls, material design, or cards.  They don’t feature giant slabs of images or video.  There aren’t many locations for interaction. None seem to be mobile-first designs.

My work sits in both domains, futurism and consulting, yet is different in some ways.  I foreground everything in social media, which is unusual for consultants, and not always done among futurists.  I also try to be as open about the consulting work as possible, which is rare. I point to Vermont in my work, not so much for professional reasons (only a few clients are here, and it’s not a very futures-oriented state, so far) but because my family’s homesteading is both interesting and a differentiator.  I rarely see anyone else celebrating their living in New Jersey, or wherever.  In short, while I learn web redesign from futurists and consultants, I’m not sure how to express those differences – parts of my brand – in this new site.

So I ask: what would you like to see? Should I imitate the consultants or the futurists?  How much media should I pile on?  Is there a color scheme and/or font inherent in what you know of my work?  Is the best site simple or content-packed?  Would you like an upcoming events or recent publications scroll?  Would a popup asking you to join FTTE drive you screaming from the site, or appear as logical marketing?

I’m grateful for any advice you can offer.


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Starting off our science fiction reading with The Water Knife

On Tuesday I floated the idea of reading a near-future science fiction novel.  The goal was twofold: to get ideas about the future, while having fun. Readers here and elsewhere (Twitter, Facebook, email) voted for their favorites and contributed more suggestions.

Bacigalupi_The Water KnifeAfter brooding over your comments, here’s my selection for first book: The Water Knife (2015) (publisher link; Amazon; Audible) by Paulo Bacigalupi.  It’s about climate change warping the American Southwest, and how society changes as a result.  It’s also a thriller, with a good heaping of technology and politics.

Here’s a Science Friday discussion with the author. (thanks to David Allard)

Schedule: let’s dive in and read this through mid-August.  I can issue a post a week, say one for each third of the novel, to keep you all on track.

After that, here’s the list of titles that received two or more votes:

Madeline Ashby, Company Town
Ernest Cline, Ready Player One
Malka Older, Informocracy
Ada Palmer, Too Like the Lightning
Neal Stephenson, The Diamond Age
Charlie Stross, Rule 34
Daniel Suarez, Daemon
Vernor Vinge, Rainbows End
Andy Weir, The Martian

Let’s think about which one to read after Water Knife.  I’m leaning towards Company Town.

In the meantime, I’ll reach out to the author on Twitter.  Let’s see if he tweets back.

And happy reading!  Already I’m making sure I have a water bottle to hand…

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