Getting ready for my fall seminar on the future of higher education

Next week I will start teaching two graduate seminars in Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology program.  I’d like to share my plans with you all as part of my commitment to transparency in practice.

Last week I introduced the technology and innovation seminar.  Today I’ll describe the other classes, Studies in Higher Education: the future of higher education (LDES 703 – 01).

Now, it’s not the first time I’ve taught this topic.  Last fall I taught the first version. This year’s version builds on that one, based on student feedback and what I’ve learned by teaching other classes in the LDT program.

Here’s the introduction from my syllabus:

What is the future of higher education?

In this seminar we explore that deep question through a range of approaches.  To begin with, the class introduces futures thinking in multiple forms: environmental scanning, scenario design, and the Delphi process.  We also draw on a variety of academic disciplines to explore the full range of academia’s possibilities, including design thinking, critical higher education studies, demographics, sociology, technology studies, and imaginative literature.

The class will explore the varied and complex forces reshaping higher education. We start with change drivers outside of academia, including demographic, macroeconomic, and policy trends. We then address forces within higher education, such as new credentials, enrollment changes, the role of the library, tuition, and access. Next we dig into digital technologies and their impact on colleges and universities. For final projects students will produce scenarios for possible future campuses.

Our goals:

-To introduce futures thinking and methods

-To develop a range of possibilities for postsecondary learning

-To expand your interdisciplinary knowledge

What work will students conduct?

  • Seminar discussion. The focus of each class period is thoughtful reflection and conversation about that week’s topic and materials.  We expect each student to contribute to the discussion, participating in a way that advances our collective understanding.
  • Horizon scanning. We will scan for relevant, future-oriented stories and signals throughout the semester.  Each week you should look both for general items, as well as for content germane to that class topic.
  • Online discussion. Each week students will respond to our topic and materials through an asynchronous technology, such as Georgetown University’s learning management system or through class blogs.  (We will decide which technology during our first class session, and may well adjust things during the term.)
  • Selecting several readings and a topic.
  • Mid-term project: this is analysis of two future trends. You can draw them from any domain, but the two should not be closely related (i.e., don’t pick open education resources and open access in scholarly publication).  Length: aim for 700-1000 words.  You may compose this as an essay, or in another medium, such as a video, an audio file, or an augmented reality document.
  • Mid-term project: here you write a strategy recommendation to a college or university of your creation. Consider and address your audience carefully.  Length: aim for 700-1000 words. You may compose this as an essay, or in another medium, such as a video, an audio file, or an augmented reality document.
  • Final project: based on your class work, model a future university or college. Please be creative with your choice of presentational platform – i.e., consider creating a game, video, audio file, etc. At the same time this must be academically rigorous.  You can use several objects to combine these goals, such as publishing a website for a hypothetical campus, in addition to a pdf reflection.

Here’s the schedule for the semester:

August 29

Topic: Introductions: you, class

Designing the class: technology, community

September 5

Topic: higher education and the future


  1. Tressie McMillan Cottom, “The Education Gospel” (introduction to Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy)
  2. Alexander, “Apprehending the Future: Emerging Technologies, from Science Fiction to Campus Reality” (–from-science-fiction-to-campus-reality)
  3. AAC&U, “Misconceptions about Today’s College Students” (
  4. “Horizon Report: 2018 Higher Education Edition” (

Forecasting method: Delphi

September 12

Topic: how colleges and universities work


  1. Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King, How to Run a College A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers, Introduction, chapters 1-6
  2. The past week from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and selected blogs and Twitter feeds

Forecasting method: horizon scanning

September 19

Topic: signals on higher ed’s horizon


  1. Brian C. Mitchell and W. Joseph King, How to Run a College A Practical Guide for Trustees, Faculty, Administrators, and Policymakers, chapters 7-9
  2. horizon scanning: the past week from Inside Higher Ed, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and selected blogs and Twitter feeds
  3. Vernor Vinge, “Fast Times at Fairmont High”

September 26

Topic: narrating the future


  1. Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, “Scenarios for the Future of Schooling” (
  2. World Economic Forum, “Eight Futures of Work Scenarios and their Implications”
  3. Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, chapters 1-3
  4. horizon scanning

Forecasting method: scenarios

October 3

Topic: demographics and education


  1. Nathan D. Grawe, Demographics and the Demand for Higher Education, chapters 4-11
  2. horizon scanning

October 4

MID-TERM PROJECT DUE: Trends analysis, 700-1000 words

October 10

Topic: education and technology, 1


  1. Isaac Asimov, “The Fun They Had”
  2. Maria Sachiko Cecire, “Massively Open”
  3. Martin Weller, 25 Years of EdTech (
  4. World Economic Forum, “The Future of Jobs Report 2018” (
  5. horizon scanning

October 17

Topic: education and technology, 2


  1. Karl Schroeder, “Noon in the Antilibrary” (
  2. Student-selected readings
  3. horizon scanning

October 24

Topic: race, gender, and profit in higher education


  1. Tressie McMillan Cottom, the rest of Lower Ed: The Troubling Rise of For-Profit Colleges in the New Economy
  2. horizon scanning

October 31

Topic: the uses of imagination


  1. Hernan Ortiz, “The Punishment Room” (
  2. Padgett, “Mimsy Were The Borogoves.”
  3. Suzette Haden Elgin, “For The Sake Of Grace”
  4. Saxey, “Not Smart, Not Clever” (
  5. Stanford 2025 (; scroll down)
  6. horizon scanning

November 7

Topic: the uses of imagination

Readings: student selected readings and other media

November 8

MID-TERM PROJECT DUE: A strategy recommendation to a college or university of your creation, 700-1000 words

November 14

Topic: AI


  1. Charles Fadel, Wayne Holmes, Maya Bialik, Artificial Intelligence In Education: Promises and Implications for Teaching and Learning
  2. AI-related horizon scanning

November 21

Topic: determined by the class

Readings: “ “ “ “


December 5

Presentations and feedback for final projects

December X


It’s an ambitious, hard-charging class.  I’m really looking forward to it.

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Teaching a graduate seminar on technology and innovation

In a couple of weeks I’ll start teaching two graduate seminars in Georgetown University’s Learning, Design, and Technology program.  I’d like to share my plans with you all as part of my commitment to transparency in practice.

Today I’ll describe one of the classes, Technology and Innovation in Higher Education  (LDES 502 – 01).

This one is a deep dive into, well, technology and innovation.  We’ll approach the topic from multiple views and disciplinary frameworks, including history, social justice, economics, medicine, sociology, critical theory, and science fiction.  Obviously the field is enormous, so I’ve had to focus on what could fit in a single semester.  I’m also relying on what students will be learning in other LDT classwork and experience.  I wanted to pick readings they were unlikely to have already encountered.

As per my usual practice, this is a very student-centered class.  Students get to shape some class content and policies, democratically: several readings; which technology we use for asynchronous communication (Canvas or WordPress or Discourse or Hypothesis); how we should best interact with each other online.  Student writing, thinking, and creativity is crucial.

One key aspect of that student democracy is that they will decide how open the class will be.  Will they choose, for example, to publish their reflections on the open web (through a central class WordPress instance, or an open Discourse, their own blogs on their own domains, etc) or not?  Will the students appreciate my blogging about the class?  Such decisions occur on the first day (see below) and will probably be tweaked in subsequent weeeks.

Readings include:

  • Brian Arthur, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves.
  • Ruha Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code.
  • Jon Gernter, The Idea Factory: Bell Labs and the Great Age of American Innovation.
  • Everett M. Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, 5th Edition.
  • David Staley, Alternative Universities: Speculative Design for Innovation in Higher Education.

Other readings are available online, either through the open web or ereserves.  There are also a handful of recommended texts:

  • James Bridle, New Dark Age: Technology and the End of the Future.
  • Charles Fadel, Wayne Holmes, Maya Bialik, Artificial Intelligence In Education: Promises and Implications for Teaching and Learning.
  • Shoshana Zuboff, Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight for a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power.  (We read and discussed this one in our book club)


September 3

Topic: Introductions: you, the class
Designing the class: technology, community
Reading: Staley, Alternative Universities*

September 10

Topic: The process of innovation, 1
Reading: Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, selections  

September 17

Topic: The process of innovation, 2
Reading: Rogers, Diffusion of Innovations, selections  

September 24

Topic: Disruptive innovation
-Christensen, Raynor, McDonald, “What Is Disruptive Innovation?”
-Lepore, “The Disruption Machine”

October 1

Topic: Theorizing technology, 1
-Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”

-Arthur, The Nature of Technology, selections

October 8

Topic: Imagining innovation
-Forster, “The Machine Stops” 
-Haraway, TBA
-Bush, “As We May Think”
-Schroeder, “Noon in the Antilibrary”

October 11      MIDTERM PROJECT #1 DUE

October 15

Topic: Theorizing technology, 2
-Heidegger, “The Question Concerning Technology”
The Nature of Technology, selections

October 22

Topic: The innovation of innovation
-Gawande, “Slow Ideas”
-Rosen, prelude and first chapter of
The Most Powerful Idea in the World
-Student selections

October 29

Topic: Justice and innovation, 1
Reading: Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, selections.

November 5

Topic: Justice and innovation, 2
Reading: Benjamin, Race After Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code, selections.


November 12

Topic: Case studies, 1
The Idea Factory, selections.
-Student examples

November 19

Topic: Case studies, 2
The Idea Factory, selections.
-Student examples

November 26

Topic: student work
Readings: determined by students

December 3

Presentations and feedback on final projects




…Pedagogically this class combines project-based learning, discussion, constructivism, and educational technology.  You will each play a key role in creating and sharing meaning – collaboratively – as we explore this subject together.  The class is yours, and so you have a say in how it goes and is shaped.

There is also a strong meta- level to this class, since we are using technologies to learn as we think about the same.  You are all encouraged to reflect on this dynamic.

Our goals:

  • to advance your thinking about innovation and technology
  • encouraging your creative practice
  • expanding your interdisciplinary knowledge


Students will engage with the class through several ways:

  • Seminar discussion. The focus of each class period is thoughtful reflection and conversation about that week’s topic and materials.  We expect each student to contribute to the discussion, participating in a way that advances our collective understanding.
  • Online discussion. Each week students will respond to our topic and materials through an asynchronous technology, such as Georgetown University’s learning management system or through class blogs.  (We will decide which technology during our first class session, and may well adjust things during the term.)
  • Selecting several readings and a topic. This includes preparing to facilitate class discussion – i.e., raising good questions, identifying key points.
  • Mid-term project, 1: a short (900 word) analysis of a currently emerging technology or other innovation, in light of class readings and discussion so far.
  • Mid-term project, 2: this is an annotated bibliography aimed at a final project. Each student will assemble and analyze a series of scholarly materials for their project, including readings that address the subject, as well as those that describe its technological medium.  Materials should focus on scholarly articles and books, as well as items in other media (video, audio, web pages, etc.). Aim for twenty (20) items.
  • Final project: an analysis of one technological innovation, either current (emerging) or historical, with an emphasis on its educational implications. Please be creative with your choice of presentational platform – i.e., consider creating a game, video, audio file, etc. – although I would prefer something asynchronously experienced. At the same time this must be academically rigorous – i.e., making an argument with a thesis, supporting it with evidence, engaging with current discussions on the topic, addressing counterarguments.  You will present on your project in process to the class on the seminar’s last day, and we’ll discuss it informally before then.

…and that’s the plan.  Next up I’ll share stuff about my other class, the seminar on higher education’s future.

PS: Classes sometimes appear as grand designs emanating from a single faculty member’s mind, as per copyright theory or the Romantic idea of creativity, but that’s not the case here.  I’m teaching a class that LDT program faculty members invented and developed.  A wide range of students offered their thoughts about the seminar.  Many friends and social media contacts suggested a range of practices and materials.  I owe them all a debt of gratitude.

*It might seem weird to expect students to read Staley’s entire (and excellent) book for the first day, but they already had to read it for a pre-semester mini-class.

Posted in teaching | 4 Comments

How far will digital video go?

In 2019 the growth of digital video looks like one enormous and steady trend.  We see video appear wherever we can wrangle a screen, from smartphones to large screen tvs to the backs of passenger airplane seats and the fronts of gas station pumps.  Video is also taking a growing variety of forms: streaming tv, live-streaming gaming, person-to-person video, large webinars, cutscenes within video games, animated gifs, and more.

video camera_Tom WoodwardSo how far will digital video go?

Let’s look ahead and stretch our imagination.

First, what would a world of total video look like? Second, what would pause or reverse the growth of digital video?

See what you imagine.

Total video

Let’s envision video as our default setting in life.  In this future we prefer to communicate through video, as opposed to all other mechanisms, so during a given day we participate in videoconferences as often as we check emails or text one another today.  We consume content primarily through video – i.e., we’re watching stuff pretty frequently.  We also make video, either by passive recording (having systems record our lives) or actively creating video content (recording, remixing, editing, sharing).

This has entailed an increase in the amount and variety of video hardware in our lives.  More screens, for starters: on the sides of toys and of buildings, on sidewalks, projected against clouds.  Building interiors – walls, ceilings, floors – display video (ads, information, news, entertainment).  More recording devices appear in our personal environments: cameras, phones, and laptops, yes, but also glasses, drones, watches, jewelry, clothing, cars, bikes.  Closets displays clothing options, based on your habits and its recommendation engine, each item rotating in space (both on you and not) so you can see their look from different directions.  Mirrors in public or private spaces reflects your sleepy self alongside news or entertainment clips (for example).

Thinner, lighter, flexible screens are increasingly reliable, affordable, and present.  Screen size ranges from tiny (the side of a pen) to immense (wall-sized videoconferecing, or city block scale projection).

Screens appear by themselves or as parts of other devices.  Some are static, while others move, such as those attached to telepresence robots.

Naturally, there is an order of magnitude more software and network storage in play.  Just as naturally there is all kinds of friction thanks to competing video standards, players, formats, etc.  It’s not uncommon to see screens displaying error messages or the wrong content.  Hacking is widespread, as per the poor security of the Internet of Things.

Other media have become video-ized.  Static images, from signs to maps to photos, cards to clocks, become animations or short videos.  Audio files increasingly take up video forms, such as images and animations added to podcasts, or art affixed to music tracks.  Computer games are drenched in video, from animations through cutscenes.  Making video by capturing game content – machinima – is widespread.  PowerPoints are mostly a series of video clips.

Other media have also declined in use.  First, they drop off as a proportion of human activity with all media, as measured by minutes spent each day.  Second, they fade in absolute numbers. They don’t disappear, just shuffle to the margin.  Think of the fate of radio as it fell from ruling the media roost in the early 20th century to its present status.

Tangible video is widespread.  These are video interfaces that we can manipulate with our hands.  Think of shared or public touchscreens, for example.  Visit a store in this future and the choices are all displayed by video, with clips representing food, clothing, etc.; you touch them to get more information, to compare offerings, and to order.  Imagine, too, videowalls in public and private spaces, which passersby adjust through casual gestures, flipping through different channels, pausing, or reshaping.  The Corning “World Made of Glass” video already anticipated this back in 2012, with animations and full on video attending every gesture.

I wrote “tangible” but we should not restrict ourselves to hands and fingers.  Imagine video screens that respond to user voices, either by proximity (moving content across multiple displays towards where watchers actually are) or through content analysis.  Tough screens mounted along or even on sidewalks can display all kinds of content, from illumination to information; they can be triggered by walkers’ presence or gait analysis.

An update of closed circuit tv begins to spread.   In 2019 a good number of cars helpfully show their drivers a close-up view from the machine’s rear, a view normally obscured by the car’s bulk.  There’s interest in giving aircraft pilots a realtime view of what they can’t see from their cockpit (remember the Concorde’s nose?).  Workers in spaces lacking external windows can play videos of the outdoors (scroll down for one post-apocalyptic example here); they are, in turn, examined by managers through video feeds.  Some homeowners use Ring and other technologies to scan for threats to their property, much as hunters deploy game cameras. Let’s extent these practices into the future.  Athletes preparing for a match can watch the competitive space from their locker rooms.  Chefs can scan their customers.  Tractor drivers watch minute ground details through a screen, toggling to check other areas not visible to the eye.  Weather fans check into video feeds from tall building tops, from balloons, ships, or drones, looking for meteorological perspective. Increasing amounts of video screens, capture, and transmission mean a world of closed circuit tv 2.0.

These videos are displaced in space.  They can also be removed in time.  Think of a restaurant showing a video of food production: not live, but from the most dramatic moments.  Advertising could portray goods and services at other points in their life cycles, and sometimes already do: an auto showroom showing a car being manufactured on an assembly line, a bank displaying borrowers paying of mortgages.  This could extend even further, with an elementary school showing high school or college graduation to inspire its population, a construction company displaying the origin of its materials (mining, forestry, etc).  A circular economy enterprise might use video to demonstrate items being repeatedly recycled, repaired, and upgraded, rather than being replaced.

Thanks to Chris Gilliard for talking through this point with me.

Privacy has eroded, as many people live-stream, archive, and asynchronously record their immediate environment.  Companies continuing in the surveillance capitalism mode use video interactions to gather more data about user behavior, from clicks on menu kiosks to facial recognition of those watching a giant plasma screen.  The more attention we pay to more video interactions, the greater the amount of data we generate.

There will probably be many different responses in play.  Governments should offer regulatory solutions of various kinds (think revenge porn, protecting children, intellectual property shielding), usually long after a given tech and practice are in play.  Businesses will likely sell privacy protection tools, from camouflage clothing and appliances (masks) to drone-blocking drones.  Some of these tools become illegal, and have to be sought in shadowy places.  Individual users try various approaches to share what they want of their lives, while cloaking the rest.

In this world education is a video-first enterprise. Students make videos for class projects, with elementary school kids learning video production as a basic literacy.  There is an awful lot of video content for formal learning.  Informal learning is primarily through videos.

Virtual/augmented/mixed reality is also video first.  We consume a lot of video this way, such as watching a movie scene play across our furniture, or conducting a videoconference via glasses in a moving car.  Video grammar changes to accommodate these technologies, as experiencing 360 video drives different user behavior than flat screens.  Some videos are truly 360 degree affairs, presenting rich surrounds of material, while others use various techniques to nudge our attention to a particular point.  We may also take in a lot of information through AR video: footage of a building’s interior, seen from outside; ads for businesses and real estate as we peer down a city street; agricultural information when we gaze at a field.

For a current example, look at this National Geographic AR demo.  It isn’t entirely video content, but mostly so, and it leads with video:

The AI revolution will boost video, starting by helping create more content, including deepfakes.  AI-driven deepfake detection is also in play.  Backgrounds, minor characters, then major characters appear, followed by plot spinoffs and entire features.  AI also helps users enhance and produce their own content.  Some telepresence robots are guided or driven by AIs. Meanwhile, AI curation could help us navigate this vast sea of stuff to watch.

We inhabit a world of video ecosystems, embedded in and interacting with multiple screens, consuming and creating video.  As a friend of mine once said, provocatively, “video is the new paper.”

What could reverse this?

It seems like the trend of expanding video is enormously powerful.  It’s actually hard to think of what could drag video growth down, but we can speculate.

Audio tracks within video can be a problem in social environments, as overlapping sound typically yields a painful experience.  Unless technological solutions are widely adopted, we might experience cacophony, which might in turn drive us back a bit.  Or we’ll get used to silent videos, like animated gifs.

Revulsion at deepfakes could sour us on video, giving us the sense that video isn’t to be trusted.  We could see the opposite of “pictures or it didn’t happen”; if it’s video, it didn’t happen.  Now, all other media as susceptible to such AI-driven faking, if not more so, but people might feel more confident in their ability to detect imposture in images, audio, and text.

Alternatively, we might react or recoil culturally.

Living with a torrent of images could trigger a modern-day version of iconoclasm.  Critics will likely charge us with living under the sway of video, even to the point of video fetishism.  Our immersion in images might dialectically elicit the desire to rid ourselves of them.  From the start we should expect no-video spaces, video breaks, and perhaps video detoxes, if that meme persists.

Such reaction may go further, arguing that video mediation removes us from immediate experience. Hakim Bey once argued for what he called “immediatism,” a cultural turn in favor of face-to-face experience over mediated communication.  Jerry Mander damned tv as too simple for a complex world, de-education and stupefying us. Some of us might find that way of thinking to be congenial, and start arguing against bathing in so much video. Such a retro belief could take hold through various social mechanisms: intergenerational conflict, for example, with younger folks disdaining the olds’ video obsession, or vice versa.  This could break out by geography (“those city folks and their videos!”), economic class, education level, religious affiliation, or gender.

It could also be driven by spectacle. There’s a fine Ray Bradbury short story, “The Murderer,” about a man who starts sabotaging media devices, starting with radio, in order to regain both silence and face-to-face conversation. We could see playful street art that covers video screens, such as stuck-on venetian blinds or drawn curtains.  Imagine a wave of public videowalls being more aggressively defaced or destroyed – by gunfire, in America.  This could inspire an iconoclastic copycat wave, with enraged activists shattering, painting, stabbing, or burning screens.  An arms race of video protection and demolition techniques would probably ensue.  American tv news will no doubt cover videoclasm with horror and glee.

Violent, specatular, and (naturally) widely shared by video videoclasm might also spark a reaction in the form of nonviolent critique of video (“I’m not one of those screen-smashers, but maybe they do have a point…”). People can adopt new habits to reduce or modify their video exposure, like having their AIs remind them to stop making and/or watching video, or altering their on camera appearance.

Bonus points if you recognize the source of this image.

Social protocols could arise regulating access to video.  It will be acceptable to record yourself at certain times and locations, but not at others.  For certain occasions/people/jobs people can reasonably be expected to appear on video on demand, like answering a phone call (back in the 20th century), while for others videoconference sessions have to be arranged in advance.

Otherwise, it seems at this point that we’re wading into a rising wave of total video.  How far do you think the screens and cameras will rise?

(video camera photo by Tom Woodward; Blade Runner 2049 image from this Vox article; iconoclasting image via Wikipedia); shadowy figures on video image from this Reddit board; all other photos from me)

Posted in technology, trends | 5 Comments

Today, a video-presentation-network experiment

Today we’re going to try something new.

We’re going to combine a keynote address with a Future Trends Forum video session.

How will this work?  Let me explain…

Starting at 2 pm Eastern Time I will launch our weekly Forum conversation.  This time we’ll begin by sharing observations and thoughts about the major trends reshaping education and technology.

Physically, I’ll be seated at a conference hall stage.  That’s because at around 2:30 I’m offering the closing keynote to the DT&L conference.

While I address the crowd I’ll speak to the Forum at the same time.  I expect questions and comments will surface.

At about 3:15 pm I’ll cease my peroration and turn to questions.  Those questions will flow from the Forum community, from Twitter, and from the conference live crowd.

That’s Robin DeRosa when she was a Forum guest. She opened the DT&L conference this year.

How will those populations interact?  Can we successfully combine a face-to-face speech with the videoconference format?  Will we melt down the internet and create the Singularity?

Join us and find out!  You can register ahead of time here or just jump in, live, starting at 2 pm ET.



Posted in Future Trends Forum | Leave a comment

Digital storytelling with Apollo 50

Last month Owain and I visited the Washington Monument to watch an extraordinary work of digital storytelling.  It was called Apollo 50.

Here I’d like to explain how it worked, why I was so impressed, and some practical lessons all digital storytellers can draw from it.

Apollo 50 took place on the east side of the Washington obelisk.  When Owain and I arrived we saw thousands of people milling or seated on the grass, staring up as the monument, upon which was projected a video clip of the Saturn V on its launch pad (see above).  Two large projection screens spread out on either side.  Near them were massive stands of speakers.

We arrived 45 minutes before the show was to start.  While the crowd grew and the Saturn V projection loomed, the two screens lit up and displayed a countdown in T-minus fashion.  Space music played, setting the mood, and an announcer stated the time at several points.

The show itself began without other preamble or introduction.  The Monument went blank and the PA started playing a 1962 John F. Kennedy speech I’d never heard before.  In it Kennedy describes the history of human invention, starting with animal skins print and racing ahead to print, steam power, and spaceflight.

It’s quite a speech.  The archival recording sounded across the Mall:

No man can fully grasp how far and how fast we have come, but condense, if you will, the 50,000 years of man1s recorded history in a time span of but a half a century. Stated in these terms, we know very little about the first 40 years, except at the end of them advanced man had learned to use the skins of animals to cover them. Then about 10 years ago, under this standard, man emerged from his caves to construct other kinds of shelter. Only five years ago man learned to write and use a cart with wheels. Christianity began less than two years ago. The printing press came this year, and then less than two months ago, during this whole 50-year span of human history, the steam engine provided a new source of power.

Visuals complemented the audio.  The two big display screens showed JFK.  The obelisk showed historical images: an electric light flickering, a steam-powered piston working. As the speech progressed the displays turned to other historical images.

Key point: every word was echoed in text scrolling clearly across the top of both projections.  I was able to read along very easily.

Then the audio shifted to another Kennedy speech, that most famous call for a lunar mission.* . Now the screens alternated between the president and the construction of Apollo, while the gigantic Saturn V loomed into view again upon the monument.

What followed was a quick summary of Apollo 11 from launch through the moon landing and back.  Videos flashed against the monument, emphasizing vertical scenes (the Command Module docked with the LEM) or giving us thin slices of other images.  The two big screens often echoed or mirrored each other.  At one point the big screens each showed a curve of Earth, as the Apollo arrowed between them.

Then the show continued.  We saw (and heard) a rapid sketch of spaceflight since 1969, right up to the space shuttle and ISS.  The conclusion pointed to the future.  A new narration (female voice) pointed out upcoming possibilities, like a lunar settlement and a Mars landing.  Visuals followed suit.

Here’s a video shot from the mall:

And another one, with different angles:


An awesome and inspiring evening.

“This is all very nice.  But what,” asks the digital storytelling practitioner, “does this have to do with me?  You’ve described a great event, but one at a vastly huger scale than the kind of personal projects we do.”

Good point.  But I think we can identify some useful practices:

  • Use archival materials.  There was a lot of magic in seeing 1969’s images and hearing JFK’s words.
  • Be accessible.  Those text scrolls were really useful.
  • Work with constraints.  Think about what a terrible visual space the Washington Monument is: ludicrously narrow and tall.  So the team focused visuals that fit those restrictions: pistons, rockets.  Then they contrasted those with the big screens.
  • Remember the power of the human voice.  Hearing a woman’s voice at the end was a wonderful reminder of cultural changes, after the presence of so many men on screen and on voiceover.
  • Prepare your audience beforehand.

None of these are shockingly new ideas, but Apollo 50 really drove them home.

*I think Kennedy repeated the historical text in the Rice speech as well.

(thanks to Owain and Elena)

Posted in digitalstorytelling | 4 Comments

Climate change and behavior modification: the uses and limits of shaming

One response to climate change involves trying to modify human behavior.  This can occur at the most macro levels, such as coaxing multiple nations into reducing their carbon output.  It can also occur through media and pop culture.  Since we’re in early days on this front, many approaches are available.

Interesting case in point: shaming people into greener behavior.

Rather than appealing to reason, or convincing folks that anti-carbon practices will empower or otherwise make their lives better, shame is all about negative self-worth.  It can tap into deep religious and psychological wellsprings, from sin and guilt to recrimination.  Shame is a profound motivator.

For example, this video encourages viewers to shun plastic water bottles:

(Yes, it’s a riff on a notorious Game of Thrones scene.)

Elsewhere, airlines are apparently shaming people into buying fewer tickets.  KLM, for example, gently reminds would-be fliers to consider other modes of transport:

Explore other travel options

In some cases, railway or other modes of transportation can be more sustainable than flying, especially for short distances such as within Europe. Do you know that flying from Amsterdam to Brussels takes longer than going by train?​

Added to that is a note about carrying too much stuff:

Notice the greenery off on the right.  Perhaps there’s some some anti-consumerism messaging here, too.

There is now a neologism specifically about this kind of tactic. “The Swedes even have a word for it: flygskam, which translates as ‘flight shame’.”  Or maybe “air shame.”  (Hashtag) The BBC adds another twist of the shame knife: “Too busy to take the train? Att smygflyga (‘flying in secret’) may result.” There’s more, too.  The flipside of flygskam is tågskryt, or “train bragging.”

The examples above can be thought of as targeting ordinary people.  At least one shame campaign has ramped up to target celebrities:

Swedish Instagram account dubbed “Aningslösa influencers” (meaning, literally, clueless influencers), “has been shaming social media profiles and influencers for promoting trips to far-flung destinations, racking up more than 60,000 followers.”

Obviously airlines shame themselves and their would-be customers from self-defense.  Owning anti-carbon language, powerfully expressed through shame, is a way of preempting protests and, possibly, new regulation.

What kind of impact with flygskam-ish rhetoric have?  How far will it go?

We could see more of it if policy and legal sanctions fail to alter human behavior.  Jennifer Jacquet argues that

[s]haming allows citizens to express criticism and social sanctions, attempting to change behavior through social pressure, often because the formal legal system is not holding transgressors accountable.

In other words, if enough of us find governments not doing enough on climate change, we might find shame a useful option.  At the very least feeling of carbon shame can provoke conversations and, thereby, maybe, change.

We can imagine shame campaigns ramping up.  I’m struck by the Aningslösa influencers move, and can envision all kinds of celebrities mocked for jet-setting, car idling, and even running heat, lights, and ac in their homes.  Democratically, we should expect more of the same leveled at everyone else.  In turn, people may signal their anti-carbon practices in order to ward off the possibility of shamewalking.

Carbon shame has its limits, including cultural ones.  Mercedes Hutton thinks China is likely to expand its air travel infrastructure, rather than contract it. A recent Washington Post column suggested that air-shaming is a European thing.  Americans will resist, because we don’t have sufficient rail, and we also love driving.  That sounds plausible to me, at least in the near term.

It might trigger cultural opposition.  There are signs of this in the US, with people proudly burning fuel in Hummers, or rolling coal (rigging vehicle exhaust to gout forth excessive smoke, indicating extra carbon burning).  Some may be actively opposed to climate change activism for various reasons; others could resist shame tactics because they react badly to them.  Back and forth: people could drive further down this road, leading to a tit for tat escalation.  Meanwhile, the religious support for shame might become less effective in secularizing societies; generally, it may be more effective with older people.

Moreover, these shame campaigns are about promoting companies and targeting individuals, which may be exactly backwards.  Even in the aggregate, individual choices may have a tiny impact on global climate change.  In this view shaming people for flying instead of training, buying plastic bottled water instead of refilling a container is not only a bad tactic, but ineffectual.  Could we turn the finger around, and see mass movements shaming the large enterprises that burn carbon at scale?

(thanks to Jim Burke for conversation and links)

*Note: this post is only about one sliver of one aspect of climate change.  I’m struggling now to work through climate change literature in order to frame out its possible impact on higher education and technology.  That’s an enormously deep and complex topic.  More to come.


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How to merge a college with a university

Two more American campuses announced a mergerMarlboro College in Vermont will merge with the University of Bridgeport in Connecticut.

For years I’ve been tracking ideas and practices around academic mergers, closures, cuts, and queen sacrifices, as responses to the growing pressures exerted upon American higher education.  This story offers another useful example.

Here I’ll explore the reasons for the merger, along with how it might play out and what this means for education’s future.

Why merge?

To begin with, Marlboro is not doing well.  They state as much in their announcement, reporting that they face “significant revenue challenges resulting from a rapid and accelerating decline in the number of college-aged students in New England and beyond.”  (Familiar themes for my readers.)  According to CTPost, the college’s “enrollment had dropped 34 percent since 2010 and its tuition revenue by 50 percent.”  It ran a deficit last yearAccording to Marlboro’s last president,

“To our sorrow, we don’t have enough students. And those that come, we discount their tuition too much, so our financial models – they just aren’t sustainable,” said Marlboro College President Kevin Quigley.

Marlboro’s reputation may have also been hit by data like this, published by USA Today:

Median graduate earnings 10 yrs. after entry: $27,600

Avg. annual cost of attendance: $40,840

In fact, Marlboro has been seeking a partner for a while.  According to their official announcement,

In our search for a complementary institution, we sent out a Request for Partnership Vision to more than 70 colleges and universities and have had dozens of conversations with potential partners over the last several months.

In contrast, Bridgeport is doing much better.  However, it did experience a serious decline in international students. Marlboro’s students could help address that shortfall.  Otherwise, I’m not sure of the net benefits UB wins through this deal, unless they have a plan to really connect their population with Marlboro at scale.

There are some similarities between the institutions.  Both are private.  They are both in New England, about two hours apart.  Their endowments are nearly identical: $37.6 million for Marlboro, $34.1 million for UB. (Thanks to Emily Alling for raising this point)

How will this merger play out?

Formally, one name change will happen: “The University of Bridgeport will keep its name. Marlboro College will be become the Marlboro College of Arts and Sciences at the University of Bridgeport.”  That suggests UB absorbed Marlboro, rather than it being a marriage of equals.


[President Laura Skandera] Trombley said the merged university would maintain one Board of Trustees and that similar sized endowments at both institutions — about $35 million each — would be combined. Trombley also said she would become the president of both institutions.

There will be some curricular exchanges:

Marlboro College students would have the ability to complete advanced degrees at the University of Bridgeport.

UB this fall is also restarting a performing arts major and Trombley said Marlboro will play a big part in that. The Marlboro College campus annually hosts the Marlboro Music Festival…

Plans are also under consideration to have combined classes and other learning opportunities between the two campuses, such as a first-year seminar for University of Bridgeport students at the Vermont campus.

There should be cost savings, one of the biggest arguments for mergers.  As CTPost, observes, “Financially, the goal is to save money through efficiency… Much of the savings will come by integrating administration, merging computer systems and other operations.” My first thought was that while UB wouldn’t realize much (think of the relative scales), Marlboro could rely on the larger school’s infrastructure, which seems likely to mean ending some local services and laying off staff.

Yet as one interlocutor observed on Twitter, that might not amount to much:

My guess is that Marlboro will benefit from having more students.

What about faculty?  No changes are in the offing now, according to Vermont Digger: “School officials at both institutions say that Bridgeport has agreed to preserve most of the Vermont campus and honor all of Marlboro’s tenure agreements with faculty.”

“preserve most of the Vermont campus”?  I suspect that means selling off some of the properties.

One challenge is that these are very different institutions.  As Marlboro admits, “Marlboro [provides an] intimate, self-directed liberal arts education [while] Bridgeport [offers a] STEM focus and extensive professional studies programs.”   Perhaps the new entity will work like large state universities that offer small residential units within.

What does the merger suggest for the future of education?

It may well encourage other mergers nationwide, especially in regions and for sectors that are most demographically and financially challenges.  Think of the midwest and northeast, hardest hit by the “birth dearth.”  Think, too, of small colleges that can’t benefit from economies of scale, as well as rural locales (population of Marlboro town: 978).  While these are private institutions, publics could also be inspired.  Marlboro-UB might counteract the bad publicity following Hampshire College’s disastrous flailing for a merger.  So we should expect more mergers to come.

I’ve been writing “merger,” but the asymmetry of this story suggests “absorption” is a better word.  “White knight” is another term I’ve heard in such discussions.  UB isn’t that wealthy, but it does have resources of scale.  Scale may be one of the lessons here, as America’s unusual focus on developing tiny colleges wanes.

Finally, this is not good news for Vermont.  Remember that Vermont lost three (3!) colleges over the past year.  Note, too, that no Vermont universities stepped up to help Marlboro.  The state government apparently took no action, not even at a policy or public statement level (unlike Massachusetts).  This is the same state that also saw its bond rating cut down twice over the past year.  Losing colleges to closure and out-of-state merger is not going to help Vermont.

(thanks to interlocutors by email, Twitter, and Facebook; Marlboro College windows photo by liz west; thanks to Stephen Landry for first drawing the story to my attention)

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50 years after Apollo 11: what will we do in space for the next 50 years?

This week is the 50th anniversary of the first human landing on the moon.  My son and I visited Washington, DC’s National Mall to see some of the commemorations.

A brilliant team projected a video of the entire Saturn V rocket on one side of the Washington monument.  It was extraordinary to see, visible from great distances:

Other festivities including information about prospective lunar flights.  Which brings me to ask you all: what’s next for space?

Let’s look ahead 50 years this weekend, while we revisit the past.

As a futurist I always start with present trends.  We can identity a bunch of them:

  • Exploration of the solar system via robotic probes
  • Earth-orbit and lunar interest from multiple nations
  • Rising private space efforts
  • Calls for a Mars expedition
  • Hints of expanding the preexisting militarization of space (Trump and Macron each called for their nations to offer a space force, in addition to their respective air forces)
  • Commercial interest in asteroid mining

How are these likely to play out over the next 50 years?  Robotic exploration seems likely to continue, since missions are relatively low-cost or even cheap, as well as offering little risk.  There aren’t many countervailing forces; anti-science cultural developments aren’t hitting Jupiter missions.

Private space efforts: I’m not sure.  Bezos has a long-term vision for human space settlement, and Musk is hardly lacking in that department.  But assuming they won’t change their minds (and they could), these are two individuals with limited lifespans.  When they die or become incapacitated, will those efforts continue?  I can imagine boards and managers preferring to focus on more familiar operations.  Asteroid mining may be similarly restricted to a handful of wealthy individuals.  Unless a commercial sector opens up, this Heinleinian moment could be a historical blip.

Militarizing space is something that’s been happening since WWII.  Geopolitics aren’t showing signs of heading towards an era of perpetual peace, so we should expect something like this to persist (but see below).

A Mars expedition is very exciting, but interest is quite low.  Consider this recent Pew Research poll:

That’s actually consistent with the 1960s and 1970s, when the majority of Americans opposed lunar missions most of the time. Apollo succeeded in part due to the Cold War.  Without that framing, it would take some serious and sustained heavy lifting in the political sector to get NASA to Mars.  What conditions would have to be in place for that to occur?

So one quick scenario for 2069: humanity flings robots across the solar system, building our scientific knowledge, while a mix of public and private enterprises haul humans to Earth orbit and back.

Let’s develop this a little further, adding additional trends to the mix.

Politics To pick one leading space nation, American politics is deeply partisan.  Space could either become a party issue or a bipartisan/nonpartisan one.  I can’t shake my sense that the GOP, while capable of opposing some science (i.e., climate change and evolution) will remain space-happy.  Much of the space sector is based in deep red states, like Texas and Alabama, or reddish ones like Florida (just today a Florida senator and 2016 presidential candidate published a pro-Apollo, pro-NASA column).  Many recent Republican presidents have been keen on space, from Reagan (Star Wars) to the Bushes (Mars) and Trump (space force).  Republicans also admire private sector space efforts, of course.

I’m not sure the Democrats have the same level of interest, despite the heritage of Apollo, called into being by JFK.  I’ve seen few pro-space expressions from candidates.  Instead, many progressives are calling for domestic moonshot efforts, such as Medicare for all, reparations for slavery, and free college tuition.  It feels like the old anti-space line: “Why spend money in space, when we can use it to address Earthly problems?”  Gil-Scott Heron’s classic performance comes to mind, as does the tendency of space boosters to be white.

A gender breakdown might occur as well.  Some surveys find men somewhat more interested in human spaceflight then women.  For example, a 2015 Pew poll found that “[m]en are more likely than women to say human astronauts are essential for the future of the U.S. space program (66% vs. 52%, respectively).”

That was pre-Trump.  Since then both political parties have become more gender-focused, with women increasingly likely to vote Democratic and men Republican.

In short, it might make more sense for Democrats to focus their major program political capital on non-space issues.  As one writer wrote into the New York Times this week,

Through increased wildfires, storm damage, flooding, rising sea levels, increasing desertification contributing to the world’s refugee crisis and a thousand other cuts, climate change is already costing us lives and conflict and billions of dollars. We need a moonshot, all right — a moonshot effort to stop and reverse climate change. We cannot afford both [lunar missions and addressing climate change].

Especially if the GOP presses hard on space, which incentivizes progressives to push back.  So we could see space becoming a partisan issue over the next generation.

Alternatively, Democrats could articulate a competing space vision.  For example, if climate change becomes an organizing principle for that party, it would make sense to advocate for extensive orbital support for continued Earth science.  If Democrats turn more to the left, they might oppose private space efforts in favor of public ones.  We can see hints of this now in liberal critiques of Musk and Bezos for multiple business practices.  At the same time Democrats and Republicans could follow historical practice and align together in bipartisanship on the military use of space.

Technology The Space Race drove an extraordinary period in technological development.  As we currently experience non-space-related tech innovation, could some of that shape our future in space?

To pick some technologies in development, consider orbiting 3d printers to jumpstart the construction of vehicles and facilities in vacuum.  A sprawling series of space stations, asteroid mining operations, and a lunar town might become more feasible. Alternatively, think of the role of AI.  If AI continues to improve in quality – not a sudden Skynet breakthrough, just steady growth – we could witness a boom in autonomous spacecraft, extending robotic exploration.  As humans exit drivers seats in cars, we could decide that AI pilots are better than human ones and turn the universe over to bots.  Alternatively, if we pursue a cyborg future with humans working closely with AIs, human spaceflight may continue with software companions.

Other tech may make space exploration less difficult.  Sufficiently advanced quantum computing could lead to realtime communication with craft light minutes and hours away.  Improved medical care could mitigate some of the stresses spaceflight places on the human body.

The development of space-specific technologies may speed space exploration. In particular, getting out of Earth’s gravity well is a major roadblock to spaceflight. In 2018 we read Soonish, which offered this view of new tech that might help things:

reusable rockets, like the SpaceX Falcon 9; spaceplanes, like ramjets and scramjetssuperguns, including the wild and tragic Gerald Bull story (45ff); rocket sleds; the awesomely named Slingatron; firing lasers at rockets; the space elevator.

To these we could add the space catapult, space fountain, and the sky ramp.  Technological development and space exploration could feed each other in a reinforcing loop.  The classic NASA spinoff pattern could heat up to our general benefit.

Demographics (Yes, you knew I would go there.)  I’ve noted several works on population trends which contend that older populations are less likely to boldly go.  Paul Morland thinks such societies are less likely to take risks.  Bricker and Ibbotson concur.  Will aging nations then back away from space?  Moreover, if older societies are less prone to war (remember this phrase: geriatric peace), they might spend less on military space capacity.

Perhaps the next two generations of space travel will stem from nations still producing young people at scale.  Subsaharan Africa may become the home of the next Baikonur and Cape Kennedy.

Geopolitics We could take the planet in the direction of international peace.  I just mentioned aging societies’ tendencies away from war.  We could add general unease at war in a society demonstrably intertwined and fragile.  Nonlethal weapons may proliferate and tamp down our revenge cycles.  Nonviolent movements may grow.

On the other hand, there are many reasons we can expect a violent 50 years ahead.  Islamicist terror is still active on multiple continents.  Right-wing extremism is building up now, and that’s unlikely to establish a global Ghandian peace.  Various types of nationalism are heating up, which historically can add fuel to international tensions.  And so on.

This could drive another wave of space development.  Military use of space can expand as nations seek orbital and interplanetary advantages.  International rivalries can elicit resources to compete with astronomical achievements.  International cooperation could occur, but in the service of dueling power blocs.  Imagine a One Belt, One Road multinational crew aboard a Chinese Martian expedition.

Culture Forecasting cultural changes is very difficult, so I’ll start by turning back to history.  We know that fictional visions and future imaginations of spaceflight have inspired research, development, and exploration since the 19th century.  That pattern seems to still be going on now.  It could well persist in the near and medium term future, as sf creators offer us stories of aliens, new worlds, etc.

It’s possible that sf could pull back from this focus.  Some writers have spoken of the difficulty in imagining the future as our present becomes ever more chaotic and innovative.  There are many paths for sf writers to tread other than the short- or medium-term future: alternate history, fantasy, and the far-future.  The genre could mutate in this direction, but I don’t see it as all that likely.

Wild cards and black swans Most of the preceding is based on present-day realities and current trends.  I tried to stick to what seems most likely.  But what about the impact of very unlikely events?

An asteroid near miss could spur growth in space.  An actual strike could drive us into Cold War levels of outreach and investment.  New religious movements that gain actual cultural and political traction could push space in all kinds of directions (this is a science fiction staple, actually).  A sudden Singularity event: ditto.  Discovering life in an interesting way (beyond single-celled organisms or algae) could inspire a major effort.

Many awful and surprising things could shock humanity and injure us badly enough to retreat from the universe.  A massive pandemic – beyond the 1917 flu, more like the Black Death, but broader in impact – that overwhelms our public health systems could force us to retrench rather than reach out.  An international economic depression could easily have the same impact (“Why are we spending money on Lunar orbit when people are starving on Earth?”).

Let me conclude with two scenarios.  They’re based on mashing up a bunch of the preceding, and tuning them to extremes.  I’m leaving off black swans for the moment.


Scenario I: Entrenched

In 2069 human civilization is under a great deal of stress.  Population growth has tapered off, but many nations grapple with how to manage this new state, either trying to support a large population of elders, or dealing with a mass exodus of young people.  Geopolitics are dicey, as tensions run high across numerous borders.  Short mid-century wars (India and Pakistan, Russia and Germany, China and the US) caused damage and human suffering, but also kept military forces well-supplied and on edge.  Climate change’s many impacts have started to be felt, as some coastal cities experience populations leaving (“dry flight”) while struggling to maintain sea defenses, and hyperstorms (coined by the old Weather Channel) clobber regions.  Food and water systems are under stress.  Their failures are well publicized.

Humanity’s space presence is divided.  On the one hand, AI-guided robots busily explore the solar system from the sun to the Oort Cloud, sending back scientific information and material samples.  Many automatic craft participate in Gaianet, the planetary warning system aimed primarily at tracking solar weather (some of which could injure Earthly infrastructure).  Robots draw on installations built upon the Earth’s moon, Martian moons, and several large asteroids.

On the other (fleshly) hand, human spaceflight focuses on Earth orbit.  Human crews inhabit multiple stations lofted by various nations.  They combine scientific research – again, often keyed into Gaianet – with fairly obvious military posturing.  Several nations, combines, and corporations maintain their own orbital ecosystems as a matter of power and prestige, each with its own mapping systems (GPS to personal implants), weather sats (the best ones), and multi-tiered communication infrastructure, along with extensive surveillance tools and strike capacity.  Earth launching systems are varied and gradually developed.

Every spacefaring nation and combine experiences fitful planning, as political waves come and go.  Military incidents and weather disasters spark more space investment, while their absence and various populisms compel reductions.  Corporations face a similar dynamic, as some leaders seek to realize lucrative space opportunities, while opponents cite the long history of these falling short.

In academia pro-space research and teaching can be controversial.  Some oppose it as too military or corporate.  Anti-space academics of all stripes have followings.  Gaianet work is quietly respected.

Scenario II: Expanding

In 2069 human civilization is deep in VUCA territory.  In most of the world national elites cling to power with a mix of desperation, surveillance, terror, and finely tuned marketing, trying to fend off restless populations.  Older nations seek to maintain their elaborate support mechanisms (immigrant labor and advanced automation) while younger ones seek global leadership.  Climate change gnaws at coastal regions and thwacks many areas with bad weather; food systems are transforming, but the process is fitful and costly.  Religious, cultural, and political movements sweep through populations more rapidly than ever.

In space automated craft extend throughout the solar area, as with scenario I.  Many participate in Gaianet, with its twin missions of defending humanity against solar weather and asteroid impacts.  Others work as parts of mining operations, extracting minerals, ice, and entire (small) asteroids for use around Earth.

Humans sometimes work with these automated deep space denizens.  While AI has progressed well since the 2030s winter, we like to have humans in the loop for extraordinary situations and, of course, insurance purposes.  Small teams wrangle probes from nearby in solar terms – i.e., from bases on Ceres or Luna, using quantum entanglement to monitor and manage bots from hundreds of millions of miles away.

Nations, combines, and businesses compete to send humans into space, aiming for new destinations and strategies.  Space Race 3.0 is followed unevenly, as humans sometimes get excited by firsts (the Indian Jovian moons mission!) and bored by others (how many Venus trans-atmospheric stations do we really need?).

Earthspace is where human space effort is grounded.  As with scenario I there are scientific and military missions in orbit, as well as around and on Luna, maintained by competing interests.  They also support deep space missions in various ways: communications, launches, capture.  The night sky is strung with bright dots of self-assembled platforms of all kinds.  Earth launching systems are varied, with startups trying out around the world, especially in Africa.  China is testing out a new sled launching facility in Pakistan, taking One Belt, One Road into space. Stations occupy Lagrange points, partly as way stations for asteroid work.

Space tourism is popular among oligarchs and celebrities.  Paparazzi-bots share AI-generated VR documentaries of fashion stars embarrassing themselves in Lunar gravity, while the business media follows CEOs closely when they meet in orbital stations.

Support for space expansion comes and goes.  There are cultural divides, as some back space for nationalistic or brand identity reasons, while others celebrate entrepreneurship.  Opposition occurs for similar reasons, urging a redirection of resources to Earthly needs.  Cultural movements also connect with space, from new forms of interplanetary mysticism to various styles of Earth worship (“we are the real Gaianet!”). Virtual relationships between space workers and terrestrial folk – truly long distance relationships – are the subject of humor and academic study.

In academia, space-related STEM fields grow steadily, if unevenly.  Space Humanities remains a controversial movement.

…and that’s a brisk tour through some trends and possibilities.  What do you think?

PS: I’ve written about this previously.

(photos by Goddard, and Goddard again, Marshall Space Center, and also Kordite)

Posted in technology, trends | 4 Comments

How to shrink a university and how to talk about it: one campus begins the process

For years I’ve told people about the possibility that American higher education is overbuilt.  After more than thirty years of steady growth, around 2012 we reached peak student enrollment, and have seen that population decline every year since.  A series of forces may further shrink this nation’s colleges and universities: demographics, domestic attitudes, international geopolitics, new or renewed competition, and so on.  My readers know all about this.

I’ve also published information about the ways American higher ed has responded in reality.  This has included positive steps, like innovation and collaboration.  It’s also involved negative developments, from colleges closing to campuses cutting staff, faculty, and programs.

Now comes the story of a university deciding to shrink its footprint.  George Washington University‘s president announced that they will deliberately reduce the size of its student body.  According to the Chronicle of Higher Education (paywall), “George Washington will cut its undergraduate student body by 20 percent over the next five years.”  It’s an unusual move to do this preemptively rather than reactively, as Nathan Grawe observes.

The Chronicle article doesn’t offer much detail on exactly how this would progress, beyond this datapoint: “Measured by total enrollment, the proposed drop would mean enrolling about 2,400 fewer undergraduates, or a decrease of 480 students per year.”  (Wikipedia says 11,244 undergrads enrolled in 2016) Apparently GWU leaders are either keeping plans to themselves or are still developing them.

We can learn something from the language LeBlanc uses to explain this move.

Better, not bigger.

Our intention is to continue to improve everything we do at GW by being even more focused on quality and less focused on quantity…

[W]e need to right-size the undergraduate student population…

Quality over quantity, right-sizing (from corporate America): key words for describing this strategy.

There is also a quiet thought that GWU is overbuilt, or overexerted itself in its growth phase:

During the past five years, we have grown our undergraduate student body significantly. We have stretched our facilities, our services, our staff and our faculty to accommodate that growth.

“stretched… to accommodate”: that’s not the language of pride but of difficulty and fatigue.  It points to a path now deemed mistaken.

In addition, president LeBlanc offers a certain curricular focus going forward:

[W]e cannot be a preeminent global research institution unless we expand our commitment to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM), building on and adding to our core strengths in politics, policy, law and international affairs. I want to be clear: I am talking about and, not or. Increasing the number of students studying STEM subjects will broaden the conversations in our classrooms, our labs and our residence halls. Increasing our capacity for teaching and research in STEM also will strengthen our students’ experience in non-STEM fields, preparing all GW graduates for an increasingly technological society.

How many times does that paragraph repeat “STEM”?  And if GWU grows the number of STEM majors while reducing total enrollment, what happens to the numbers of majors in other fields?  Should we expect some humanities and social science queen sacrifices ahead, or will those become service departments?  “politics, policy, law and international affairs” seem to be protected.

The Chronicle piece also interviewed some consultants, and their thoughts are useful here.  For example, this argument that GWU aims to improve not just its institutional quality, but also the students it admits:

George Washington was hardly the kind of college to pursue high enrollments at any cost, said Lawrence R. Ladd, director of the higher-education practice at Grant Thornton, a consulting and accounting firm. “They could admit thousands more students if they wanted to.”

But doing so could harm the student experience and decrease the college’s selectivity, which has slipped in the past five years.

That’s another sense of quality over quantity.

Will those be students from wealthier families?  LeBlanc’s statement doesn’t mention this, and neither does the Chronicle.  But this lone sentence caught my eye, concerning GWU’s recent growth era: “the university offered financial aid to more students and added an office to manage enrollment and retention.”  Perhaps many of the larger number of students required a higher discount rate, and LeBlanc aims for a student body that’s not only smaller, but less costly.

To sum up: this is just the first signal of one university leadership’s new direction.  It can unfold in many different ways.  But it’s a useful datapoint about where American higher education can be heading.  It’s a strategic recognition that the boom years are over, and that a kind of correction is coming into view.

Watch for echoes and iterations of that language to appear elsewhere.

Posted in horizon scanning | 36 Comments

The changing geography of work: a new report

How will a changing economy redistribute jobs and economic growth in the United States?

McKinsey just published a new report, “The future of work in America: People and places, today and tomorrow” (summary; longer document), looking ahead to 2030 after new technologies have had some impact.  Its thesis is that we’ll probably see urban areas that are economically growing now continue to do well, while a large chunk of America will stagnate or fall behind.  The report isn’t happy with this, and asks us to make policy changes now.

I’m fascinated by this, and think the report offers a lot to chew on.  Let me identify what I see as the key bits for the future of higher education and technology.

To dive in, some recent historical context:

Twenty-five megacities and high-growth hubs, plus their peripheries, have generated the majority of job growth since the Great Recession. By contrast, 54 trailing cities and roughly 2,000 rural counties that are home to one-quarter of the US population have older and shrinking workforces, higher unemployment, and lower educational attainment. Automation technologies may widen these disparities at a time when workforce mobility is at historic lows.

Differences may be stark geographically.  Consider this map, projecting job growth and loss ahead 11 years:

Those black squares are McKinsey’s “megacities,” urban areas with the right mix of population and finance to take off.  The white and grey squares are the opposite, and aren’t there a lot of them?  We’ll return to that down below.

What about encouraging folks to move from white to black?  Not a good idea, it seems:

geographic mobility in the United States has eroded to historically low levels. While 6.1 percent of Americans moved between counties or states in 1990, only 3.6 percent did so in 2017. Furthermore, when people in rural segments and less vibrant cities do move, it is usually to places with a similar profile rather than to megacities or high-growth hubs…

Even as this may occur: “The 25 megacities and high-growth hubs, plus their peripheries, may account for about 60 percent of net job growth by 2030, although they have just 44 percent of the population. ”

Differences can also accelerate by education, race, and age:

The labor market could become even more polarized. Workers with a high school degree or less are four times as likely as those with a bachelor’s degree to be displaced by automation. Reflecting more limited access to education, Hispanic workers are most at risk of displacement, followed by African Americans. Jobs held by nearly 15 million workers ages 18–34 may be automated, so young people will need new career paths to gain an initial foothold in the working world. Roughly 11.5 million workers over age 50 could also be displaced and face the challenge of making late-career moves.

Let’s drill down into those age issues for a moment.  Surely young people will be in good shape because digital natives etc?  Not so fast:

Tens of millions of Americans can think back to their first jobs in retail or food service— roles that gave them valuable soft skills and experience that propelled them on their way. But these are the very roles that automation could phase out. Roughly 14.7 million workers under age 34 could be displaced by automation; almost half of them are in roles with high separation rates, so employers may not see a clear business case for retraining and redeploying them.

As for folks over 50:

On the opposite side of the generational divide, some 11.5 million US workers over the age of 50 could be displaced by automation. While some of these workers are close to retirement, others have years to go. One study looking at labor market recovery after recessions found that displaced workers ages 55 to 64 were 16 percentage points less likely to be re-employed at the time of follow-up surveys than workers ages 35 to 44.16 While some displaced older workers who have spent much of their career doing one thing may not be willing or able to make a drastic change, millions more might embrace the opportunity to train for different lines of work.

Plus employers don’t want to pay more for older folks when they can pay less for younger ones and robots.

Speaking of paying less, the gender breakdown over time is less clear, and varies by field, not to mention sexism:

Overall, women represent 47 percent of the displaced workers in our midpoint automation scenario, while men are 53 percent. Based on the current gender share of occupations, our modeling suggests that women could capture 58 percent of net job growth through 2030, although the gender balance in occupations can and does change over time. Much of this is due to women’s heavy representation in health professions and personal care work—and some of these roles are low-paying. Improving the representation of women in the tech sector is a priority; today they hold only 26 percent of computing jobs in the United States.

The longer report adds that gender diversity efforts seem to have stalled.

Differences also break out by profession:

What does all of this mean for education?

We can start with enrollment and fields of study.  Consider the job growth/decline chart above again.  My readers will be unsurprised to see STEM and business continuing to boom, which suggests even more students will enter those programs.  The drop in production work, machine operations, mechanical work, and office support suggests vocational tech schools and programs will not be so healthy.

We can also consider which colleges will be hit by their physical location.  Goldie Blumenstyk reflects:

I find myself imagining an overlay that shows the locations of colleges across the country. Many of the gray areas on the McKinsey map would be covered by dots, representing many of the same small, private and regional public institutions now facing enrollment and financial challenges. You get my drift here, right? The regions of the country likely to face the biggest economic challenges in the next decade because of automation are also the places filled with established educational organizations that may need a new agenda. Talk about an opportunity.

Here’s one such map, from NCES:

How many of those dots are in and around McKinsey’s megacities?  How many are located in those grey and white zones, and recruit students locally?  Think about how this vision will play into state legislatures as they consider merging or closing campuses, or how funders plan their investments, or how presidents consider their campus and its strategies.

Moreover, the digital divide – that perennially unpopular problem – can widen as a result of these changes.  As Tom Var put it on Twitter,

As I’ve said before, this is vital for higher ed to consider.  Do we invest scarce resources into helping our local communities improve their connections?  Do we shape our digital services to connect with students on the digital divide’s wrong side, reducing multimedia content?

At the same time McKinsey sees education correlated with economic growth.  The report mashes up educational attainment and spatial location like so:

On the one hand, this is great news for higher ed, as it argues for getting more people more college and university degrees.  On the other, it’s awful news for low education areas, especially given our low geographical mobility (noted above).

One more detail: McKinsey is pro-apprenticeship.  “It will be important to create a wider variety of pathways from high school to work, perhaps through apprenticeship.”  Let’s see if trustees and legislators follow this idea.

And let’s see what you think.  The comments box stands open.

PS: Let me also say that some of the report’s conclusions could well be wrong.  Americans could rediscover the old desire to up stakes and move cross-country.  Rural counties could become high tech hubs in a national drive to build up a post-carbon, modernized electrical power grid.  Some megacities could decline thanks to crime, disease, natural disaster, or terror attack.  As always, we think about the future in the plural, in terms of possibilities.

(via Goldie Blumenstyk)

Posted in economics, education and technology, futures | 16 Comments