One group looks at the future of higher education

Last month I had the privilege of attending the New York State CIO conference.  Attendees were the chief information officers of all kinds of higher education institutions, from community colleges to medical libraries to research universities.  Presentations were challenging and current; discussions were thoughtful.

At the end I was asked to sum up the conference, then lead the group in a futuring exercise.

NYSCIO2013_summary tag cloud

Tag cloud from my wrap-up notes.

This is a certain kind of group work which I really enjoy, and which I should name.  First, participants identify events from the past month which seem to tell us something about the future.  Usually I ask individuals (if a small crowd) or small groups (if larger) to pluck out a pair of stories, one from their professional life and one from their personal life.  The results are always fascinating and different, a multi-lensed snapshot of a time.

In a remarkably few minutes the NYSCIO group offered these future items:


photo by Sean Moriarty

  • Recent New York state statistics show a significant enrollment decline.
  • Adobe and Microsoft have released subscription download software.
  • Conference events suggested we’re redefining privacy.
  • A recent New York Times story about Coursera noted the importance of stuent indentity verification.
  • Stories of participants’ family life indicated a redefinition of personal proximity.
  • The launch of Google’s Loon balloon project pointed towards the eventual arrival of ubiquitous access.
  • A story about children accessing information very quickly led to thoughts about the loss of “slow learning”, and a balance between fast and slow education.
  • An account of teachers unions criticizing machine grading.
  • The increasing automation of intellectual jobs, from banking to lawyering.  (I mention the future-ific term “Watsonize”)
  • Story of a self-teaching student leads to the thought that the internet is best at enabling DIY learning, supporting autodictats.
  • The maturation of online collaboration may mean more writing.
  • Higher education seems to export some content to developing nations.

  • The amount of video content is growing.

As you can see, these stories or news items became trends.

Second, I asked the crowd to vote on which trends were likely to have the most unpredictable impact on their campuses.  The winners: fast/slow learning and automation of intellectual work.  I placed those on a matrix and asked the group to help me sketch out four scenarios based on the intersections of those two trends taken to extremes.

  1. Fast/slow learning: either a world of nonstop info-snacking, or the triumph of slow learning.
  2. Automation of intellectual work: either the emergence of transhuman artificial intelligence, or a rejection of automation.

Here’s the scenarios grid we cobbled together:

Four scenarios.

How do these different scenarios work?

Scary-fast world Computers have exceeded humanity’s intelligence level.  Humans survive by devouring information as quickly as possible.  Things have sped up immensely, including teaching and learning.

Wikipedia world We love our ability to rapidly snarf information, but we don’t want machines to do it for us.  Instead we crowdsource problems, from information needs to economic development.  

Reflection world Artificial intelligence helps us maintain the world, but we have developed an ethos of careful reflection.  We can draw on vast reserves of computation to solve problems, like simulating global warming, but deliberate at a careful pace.

Walden world We have rejected the automation of intellectual work, and also refused to learn at too fast a clip.  Indeed, this is something of a semi-Luddite world, an existence devoted to careful use of hands and brains.

Much conversation followed, even after the conference ended.  How does a campus change in each of these worlds?  How can we influence the appearance of one, or resist the rise of another?  And what other futures are possible?

I really enjoy leading this kind of futuring group work.  What should we call it, Trends to Scenarios?

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7 Responses to One group looks at the future of higher education

  1. How interesting! I am intrigued as much by your futuring exercise as by the material it yielded.
    Thank you!

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  2. Thanks for saying so, Sandy. It’s a fun and stimulating exercise. Try it with your group.

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  3. carol yeager says:

    The conference grouping and the futurist exercise with ensuing discussions seems like great fun. I am really into learning as fun; learning as play. Predicting the future is yet another learning journey for all … thanks so much for posting the results. I wonder, however, if the lines must always be so hard and fast on the grid? In what ways could they be made more maleable to accomodate a wider array of learning? … we do, after all, have a wider array of people and learning preferences/styles. How might we offer a method of collaboration among the different scenarios? And what might be all the results of such collaborations? Fascinating futuristic fun … perhaps already here, waiting to be tweaked and turned into more interesting futuristic games 🙂

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  4. Thank you for those thoughts and comments, Carol.
    Yes, those grid lines are flexible and permeable. Give the process enough time and somebody will blur the boundaries.
    Using these thoughts as a springboard to consider collaboration’s possibilities is *exactly* the kind of work futuring enables.

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  5. Pingback: Introducing the Future Trends Technology and Education Newsletter by Bryan Alexander

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