Two thoughtful visualizations about technology, media, and ourselves

I’m traveling this week, so blogging is lighter, but I wanted to share two powerful visualizations for your consideration.  Both are about media and our relationship to it in 2018, albeit concerning two different topics.

First, here’s a sharp depiction of how Americans think we are most likely to die, versus how we actually do.  It’s an animated gif, so watch closely how it swaps between three different representations:

what kills Americans and what we think does

This animation shows the percentage share of top causes averaged from the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (1999-2016), Google search trends (2004-2016), and headlines from the Guardian and New York Times (2004-2016).

If that moves too quickly, or you just want to study the separate charts, there’s a triptych version, with handy comparison lines:

how Americans die 3 panels

Click to get full size version.

Clearly the way we imagine death differs in some deep ways from how we actually die.  It’s fascinating to see how heart disease has so little attention, how massively we prefer to think about homicide and terrorism instead… and how cancer holds our attention in a way that’s not too far away from the truth.

I would quibble about the third column, since it picks media outliers.  I’d love to see stats for American tv “news,” as you readers might guess, but this is still useful.

At a presentation level, I admire much in this.  The gif is a fascinating means to share this data, but the team does other good things.  Note their clear naming and sharing of data sources, which is not a universal habit, especially for meme-maker.  Note, too, the power of social, as someone else created the second visualization, inspired by the first, and the post names and links to them.  Along those lines check out the discussion thread, which not only broadens one’s understanding, but led to changes (improvements) in the original post.  The creators also shared their data on Github.  Consider this an information or digital literacy lesson.

Speaking of literacy lessons, for our second visualization today, watch this video. It looks like a speech by former president Obama, but is actually a video fake produced by Jordan Peele.  Because Buzzfeed won’t allow an embed (why not?). all I can do is share this screengrab and commend you the URL:

Obama and Peele

“We’re entering an era in which our enemies can make it look like anyone is saying anything at any point in time — even if they would never say those things,” says “Obama,” his lips moving in perfect sync with his words as they become increasingly bizarre. “So, for instance, they could have me say things like, I don’t know, [Black Panther’s] Killmonger was right! Or Ben Carson is in the sunken place! Or, how ’bout this: Simply, President Trump is a total and complete dipshit.”

Which is both entertaining and breathtaking to watch and hear.

How was it done?

The fakery was built using Adobe After Effects, a readily available piece of video software, and FakeApp, an artificial intelligence program that made headlines in January when it was used to transplant actor Nicolas Cage’s face into several movies in which he hadn’t appeared.

Sosa first pasted Peele’s mouth over Obama’s, then replaced the former president’s jawline with one that moved with Peele’s mouth movements. He then used FakeApp to smooth over and refine the footage — a rendering that took more than 56 hours of automatic processing.

That is a lot of work, and involved a major media outlet… for now. And yes, a careful viewing shows awkwardness and small synch problems.  How many watch that carefully?

Deepfakes (the current term of art) could easily play a major role in changing the very important video landscape.  I first wrote about this here.

One final detail: “Obama” calls for careful video viewing.  He does not call for increased trust in authorities.  That’s an interesting example of the new digital literacy politics I’ve been talking about.

(Peele video link via MetaFilter)

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Walkaway: our book club reading schedule

On April 2nd I announced that our online book club‘s new reading will bve Cory Doctorow’s near future science fiction novel Walkaway (FTTE bookstore link). In this post I’ll outline the reading plan.

Walkaway coverHere’s how it’ll work.

Every week I’ll post a summary of that week’s reading, along with some reflections and discussion questions.  I’ll also add links, quotes, or summaries of readers’ responses, including resources related to the book and its topics. Each week’s reading is about one third of the novel.

People can read on that timeline, as their individual schedules permit.  There’s been some lead time since the announcement, plus a week until the first post, so folks might have some time to read ahead.  You can share your thoughts about the novel in the comment box attached to each blog post.

If you can’t match the reading schedule, don’t worry!  The blog posts and their comment boxes will remain for you to address when you get to them.

Historically, our book club readers have also used other technologies to share their thoughts, including posts on their own blogs, Twitter, and even making web pages and toys.  (For a good example, check out the creative engagement with this reading.) Let’s see how people respond this time.

Here’s the schedule:

April 30: chapter 1 (“Communist Party”) and 2 (“You All Meet in a Tavern”).

May 7: 3 (“Takeoff”), 4 (“Home Again, Home Again, Jiggety Jig”), 5 (“Transitional Phase”).

May 14: 6 (“The Next Days of a Better Nation”), 7 (“Prisoner’s Dilemma”), epilogue (“Even Better Nation”).

May 16: live Future Trends Forum conversation with Cory.

I’m tagging all blogposts Walkaway, including this one, so you can find them easily.

So it’s time to get your copies of the novel from local library or Amazon or local bookstore, and start reading!

Any questions or recommendations or observations?

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A major report on digital learning from Arizona State University

What are the best ways to support and structure digital learning?

Last week Lou Pugliese joined the Future Trends Forum to describe a forthcoming research project he’d just completed.  I’d heard about the research second-hand and was intrigued.  One text described it as looking into institutional return on investment (ROI) for digital learning. So I convinced Lou, Senior Innovation Fellow and Managing Director Technology Innovation Action Lab at Arizona State University, also co-creator of Blackboard, to appear on the Forum and give the community an advance look into the report’s findings, before they were published:

I’m grateful to Lou for his generous time.  (You see why the Forum is so cool?)

Today the report appeared.  I recommend reading “Making Digital Learning Work: Success Strategies From Six Leading Universities and Community Colleges,” because this is important stuff.  It is likely to be influential, even if you disagree with some of the results.

Let me pull out some highlights I found especially interesting for the future of education and technology.

tl;dr version: the report finds three benefits for colleges and universities that get online learning right.  They save money, expand access, and offer the same or better quality as face-to-face learning.

Testbed – the authors picked a very interesting mix of campuses to study.  They include Arizona State University, Georgia State University, Houston Community College, the Kentucky Community and Technical College System, Rio Salado Community College, and the University of Central Florida.  Note the absence of Ivies and liberal arts colleges.  Instead the focus is on higher ed sectors that reach the largest numbers of students: public universities and community colleges.

Organization – the report strongly urges centralization of services, curricula, and analysis.  It refers to a portfolio approach, as in “a portfolio of digital delivery models tailored to the particular needs of different student populations.”  “Strategic” is a term that resonates.

Enrollment – online learning grew the number of students at each campus or system.  This isn’t a surprise, but will probably aid institutional leaders seeking to expand distance learning offerings.

Student support – Pugliese insists that direct student support services make a huge difference.  In our conversation he described a range of services, including phone lines.  The report refers to “a network of remotely accessible support structures”.

Diversity – the report argues that high quality online learning can yield “increases in the proportion of specific populations including Pell Grant-eligible students, older students and female students.”

About quality: the report emphasizes learning design and learning science as domains institutions must draw upon.  It also recommends expanding data analytics.

Access – increasing popular access to higher education is a major theme in the report.  Appropriately there’s no discussion of institutional rankings.

One detail about access: students taking online classes often had faster time to degree.

Cost savings – wholly online learning is cheaper to offer than hybrid or face to face classes, especially when factoring in larger class sizes.  “[W]e found that the savings for online courses ranged from $12 to $66 per credit hour, a difference of from 3% to 50% of the average credit hour costs.”  Done right, a campus can

grow… revenue while reducing operating costs – a particularly important outcome in an era of declining enrollment and dwindling public subsidies for postsecondary education

Cost savings of online teaching

One note about this: the report praises the “emporium model” (based on Virginia Tech’s Math Emporium) as very likely to yield cost savings (13).

Adjunctification – the report openly states what higher ed has quietly known and achieved for a generation.  Reducing tenure lines and growing part-time faculty saves money.  At the same time the report wants faculty engagement and some degree of governance.  I’m not sure how that works, unless it refers to working with a minority of tenured faculty who work part-time to manage and support adjuncts.

Third parties – there’s a cautious endorsement for institutions to draw on external for-profits at times, largely to reduce costs of building everything in-house.

Adaptive learning and open education resources – the report approves of them in principle, but finds sample sizes too small at the present.

A few additional reflections:

  • I wonder how the selection of test bed schools will shape the report’s influence.
  • (EDITED) The definition of diversity is interesting, as it picks out gender, age, and economic class, but not race so much.  This may be because nonwhite learners are less likely to take online classes than white ones:

ASU study: diversity graph

I don’t know how the report defined “nonwhite”.  The term only shows up once in the report, on this chart.  However, elsewhere the report finds one specific form of online learning to have an advantage for “minorities” (also undefined:

Adaptive courseware helped close achievement gaps. The use of adaptive courseware may have contributed to an observed reduction in achievement gaps for Pell Grant– eligible and minority students at Georgia State University. Minority students and Pell Grant–eligible students bene ted more from successful adaptive courseware pilots than minority and Pell Grant–eligible students enrolled in nonadaptive sections of the same courses did from their classes.

I’d really like to know more about the authors’ thinking on race and access.

If you’re interested in how they define and model ROI, head to the report’s page 15.

The Boston Consulting Group helped conduct the research. The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation helped fund it.  An advisory board included campus leaders, consultants, business executives, and association representatives. Besides Pugliese there were several other co-authors: Allison Bailey, Tyce Henry, Renee Laverdiere, Nithya Vaduganathan.

(thanks to Scott Robison for eagle-eyed reading)


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Post 1,000

Today’s post is number 1,000.

That’s one thousand individual blog posts over the past seven+ years.

What does this milestone number mean?

1000, by Cogdog

We can look at it through stats.

One thousand posts consist of 620,334 words, according to the WP Word Count plugin.  That number really surprises me.  It’s like an armful of books.  I didn’t think I’d written so much.

In fact, some of my posts are article length.  The longest one, a long keynote speech transcription, tops out at 4,445 words.   The others include a long political-historical rumination, one really extended book review, and another interminable book brooding.  So my thinking about books or talking about the future of education really triggers an epic word count.

These posts aren’t as frequent as I like.  1,000 items over a little more than seven years amounts to about .4 posts/day.  Lately I’ve been aiming for one post per business day, or five per week.

Looked at in terms of popularity, here are my top ten posts of all time, based on how many of you clicked on them:

Title Views
Higher education enrollment declined in 2017. Again. 1,418
A year without caffeine, part 2 1,371
Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 1 1,217
The most important book about American higher education in 2018 1,076
The Future Trends Forum 844
EDUCAUSE offers to buy the New Media Consortium’s assets 837
Future Trends in Technology and Education 806
Reading Robert Putnam, _Our Kids_, chapter 4, “Schooling” 775
A year without caffeine, part 1 741
Beyond the Horizon Report: a plan and a call for participation 721


That’s a weird and illuminating glimpse into what you all like.  Demographics, sociology, personal health, professional development (the NMC and FOECast), and the Future Trends Forum – my peak education idea looms large behind some of these, as do some of my grimmer futures thoughts.  Actually, the Forum link isn’t to a blog post, but an information page, in WordPressspeak, so if I set that one aside, the 10th most popular post of all time here is my call to kill bad webinars.

Tech doesn’t loom large at the top, despite my professional focus on technology.  Instead it’s social trends people really hunt for when they click here.

Comments: as of this morning you fine people have written 6,223 responses in posts’ comment boxes.  That’s about 6+ per post on average, although the reality ranges quite a bit.  Non-statistically, your comments delight me.  I learn so much, and am grateful to your expressions of support and humor.  They – and you – mean a lot to me.

How do people find this blog?  Some readers and respondents arrive here through other platforms.  The Jetpack plugin tells me this:

Search Engines 14,983

Twitter 2,386

Facebook 1,794 829

After that, numbers trail off rapidly.  So search engines (i.e., Google, responsible for 14,096 of that 14,983 total, about 94%) are by far the key way in.  People hunt for keywords and topics, as ever.  Since I’m writing on the open web, Google indexes this content, and thus connections are made.  Social media isn’t the main way people discover this social media instance.

Twitter is a distant second on this list, a bit lower than I expected, given my frequent activity there.  It might be that people are less likely to follow links, fearing bots.  Or it could be that a good number of my Twitter followers also read this blog directly.  Facebook is, in contrast, a little higher than I would have guessed.  FB tends to hide posts with links, so my new hack around that seems to be working*.  LinkedIn is a very distant fourth; I’m not sure who finds my blog through there.

Speaking of which, we can view this blog as a node intersecting with the rest of the digital world.  That’s how I see it, not in isolation, but as one part of a broader digital network, including open, semi-open, and closed domains.

Here’s what the splendid Vanessa Vaile wrote on Facebook a few days back:



I often post idea fragments or questions on other sites, including Facebook, Twitter, G+, and LinkedIn.  Sometimes people respond, and that helps me hone my thinking, which then finds its way into blog posts.  It’s like walking down an office corridor, stopping to chat with friends and colleagues about a brainstorm, shaping and reshaping ideas, before I stride to my own office to write.

Richer media plays a smaller role.  I listen to a lot of podcasts, but they tend to play out in the background of my thinking.  Since most podcasts aren’t interactive – i.e., their web presence doesn’t allow comments, or they are stuck in anti-social tombs like iTunes or Stitcher – I don’t actually watch a lot of blog-related content on YouTube – when I do, I link and embed it here.  I don’t comment much on YouTube.

In fact, sometimes the inter-site networking doesn’t do much.  My Future Trends Forum posts here rarely elicit comments or links; instead, our email distribution list is where people prefer to get information, plus some Twitter activity.

Linking to other people’s blogs used to form conversations, back in the day, especially with pingbacks.  I find this to be happening less often now.  I still comment on other blogs.

So: this blog is a node among a bigger network, with various and uneven information and discussion flows.  In terms of my making or writing stuff, the blog is node central.

node photo, taken by Cogdog

One of the reasons this blog works is because it’s on or in the open web.  People can find all of its contents, including comments from other people, via search or links.  No plugins are needed.  No fees bar the door.

All of my experience suggests that open is good for the blog.  Audiences often scan the blog to get a sense of who I am and what I do.  Friends chime in, and some respondents become friends. Conversations blossom.  Indeed, one blog post led to an Inside Higher Ed article which led to a book contract.

This experience is increasingly estranged from other parts of the web in 2018.  Facebook is almost completely the opposite.  It buries external links and makes internal URLs hard to find.  The front page feed algorithm makes a mess of other people’s posts.  At its best it’s like a chat room.

LinkedIn is a little better, but not much.  The front page feed doesn’t work for me, and I rarely consult it.  Pages display weirdly, crammed with tons of microcontent.  Conversations are few in incidence and number of comments, but when they do happen, quality tends to be high.

My experience of Twitter is a better still.  So far I rarely get hit by spam or bots, and have largely escaped abuse.  Individual tweets’ URLs are stable and accessible, unless someone deletes a post.  I read through Tweetdeck, which includes a Moria’s worth of columns based on curated lists and several searches.

Google+ now acts like a blog platform with a discussion forum attached.  For the latter I follow and contribute to several groups productively.  Unfortunately, there just isn’t much traffic, despite G+ paladin George Station’s heroic efforts.

Meanwhile, I continue to read RSS feeds, which are clear, nicely laid out, and readily save me time.  Brian Barret called for us all to return to RSS and I agree.   I’ve been reading more blogs and spending more time engaging with them.

In short, 1000 blog posts tells me I’ve been writing a ton of stuff about the future of education.  That writing elicits social responses, and I weave the blog into the larger digital world.  Open is key.

Thank you all for reading and writing along.  Here’s to the next 1,000 posts!
1000, by jys07

*That Facebook link hack: I post a leading question or provocative statement for a thread, then share a link on the first comment.  It’s a bit messy, as some readers clearly don’t click the link.  But it gets the stuff before more eyeballs.

(thanks to Rob Henderson; to Jim Groom for lightning-fast tech help; 1000 rock photo by Alan Levine; 1000 Lego photo by Javier Belloso Martinez; node photo by Alan Levine)

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Two small college futures: woe in Massachusetts, promise in Michigan

American higher education sector includes a large number of small colleges.  It’s not clear how they will fare under today’s stresses, or how many will survive peak higher education.

Mount Ida College logoCase in point: Mount Ida College in Boston will cease to exist.  Through a deal announced this weekend the University of Massachusetts system will buy out Mount Ida’s debt and campus.   As one local journal puts it, “[t]he newly acquired campus will be known as the Mount Ida Campus of UMass Amherst and will operate as an extension of the Amherst campus.”

Why is this happening?  Readers may recall my February post about Mount Ida, where I described that college’s attempt to merge with neighboring small campus Lasell.  The reason given for this radical step was a drive to cut costs and make both schools more affordable.  As the Boston Globe observed then, “tuition is about $35,000 per year, plus about $14,000 for room and board.”  The direct plan was to reduce costs by realizing staff efficiencies – i.e., combining services and laying off “administrators.”

Mount Ida’s trustees issued a statement which offered a different rationale, familiar to my readers.  They cited “clear long-term resource concerns”, and situated their specific problems in the broader context, wherein  “the long-term viability of small, tuition-dependent colleges remains a significant challenge.”  Mount Ida’s president explained things in terms of “our limited resources”, noting that “the financial pressure on small colleges has never been greater”.

Recall that Massachusetts demographics see a decreasing high school population.

The entire Mount Ida faculty and staff populations will be unemployed.  From Masslive: “[t]he 280 faculty and staff, part-time and full-time, will be laid off. They are expected to receive severance packages, a Mount Ida spokeswoman said.”

What will happen to Mount Ida students?  According to the Boston Globe, “[t]he agreement will allow students at Mount Ida to complete their degrees at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth.”  Seniors can graduate this year.  Many are outraged.

Interestingly, there was no mention of UMass Boston.  That campus is already in the city; is UMass Amherst tapping it for internships?  Critics have noted that the UMass system has been critical of the Boston campus’ debt, yet the system (or the Amherst instance) will now take on even more (I’ve seen numbers circling around $50 to 70 million).  Question: what motivated UMass leadership to take this particular and large step?

Lost in the Mount Ida story are the troubles of its neighbor.  In February I noted that Mount Ida and Lasell College were pursuing a merger.  That deal fell apart, and while Mount Ida’s fate has apparently been settled (the state has to approve the institutional and debt acquisition), Lasell remains unmerged and still confronting its problems.

Mount Ida and Lasalle are not first-ranked colleges.  Their woes suggest that while the top-ranked small colleges may survive peak higher ed, those further down the rankings may not.  As Scott Jaschik observes that “The speed with which Mount Ida went from seeking a partner for a merger to seeking one to take over its campus and the education of its students illustrates the fragility of many colleges.”

For contrast, consider a Michigan project as described by Alma College’s president.  Instead of mergers, Alma, Albion, and Calvin Colleges created up inter-campus classes:

After months of work, we began a pilot in January in which Albion, Alma and Calvin each offer a course open to students on all three campuses. The pilot courses are “Earth, Art and the Environment” at Albion, “Visual Sociology” at Calvin, and “Media Theory and Culture” at Alma. On the “home” campus, a faculty member and students are joined by students from the other two campuses via monitors. Google’s technology enables largely seamless interaction across the three campuses.

Inter-campus classes are one of the great and woefully underappreciated wins for technology and higher education.  They can expand participating campus’ curricula, boost opportunities for students, grow specialized classes that might be too small to survive at small institutions, and set up new avenues for professional development.

In terms of technology and pedagogy, synchronous video seems to play a key role in how these classes work.  In addition, president Abernathy emphasizes not lectures, but discussions and small group work.  In other words, they’re doing something like my Type II webinar model.

I’ve written about inter-campus teaching and learning previously, citing examples from the Council for Independent Colleges and LACOL.  In fact, I helped design and offer such a class in 1999 and 2001.

Mergers and closures, or collaborative teaching through technology: these are two paths forward for American small colleges in 2018.  Are you seeing colleges near you taking either of these directions?

(thanks to Pumpkin Yang)

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The new way of death: one possible future

How will death and dying change?

Perhaps we are living through the beginning in a revolution concerning how we die.  It’s a potential development that might seem dark for some readers, fraught for others, and dangerously complex for all, so please bear with me.  Remember, the future always presents to us not one future, but a range of possibilities.

Here’s the potential change: we will generally accept different forms of suicide and euthanasia, culturally, politically, and practically.*

Currently many human societies have strong norms and laws against taking one’s life or ending another’s.  These often draw on religious and cultural traditions, remain supported by their representatives and adherents, and persist as well in part through inertia and a general sense of the value of human life.

Developed nations also have highly advanced medical care, which offers ways of maintaining human life beyond the points where it would have ended scant decades ago, even while access to such care is wildly uneven in America.  This has led to several generations of increasing life spans.  Now there is a strong drive to extend human lifespans beyond 100.  Some medical researchers argue that we haven’t hit a limit to that lifespan, and we should expect it to rise to 125 before the century is out.  The medical profession enjoys enormous cultural respect, along with massive economic clout, which gives it a lot of say in how we die.

In the face of such strong forces, how might our attitudes towards death change?  What could drive such a powerful cultural transformation?

To begin with, humans are living longer than ever in developed nations, which suggests the opposite of, say, suicidal ideation.  Yet as a result we are falling prey in growing numbers to disorders and diseases that used to be rare, and that terrify many people: memory loss, cognition decline, and myriad ways for the body to malfunction, turn on itself, and become a prison-house of humiliation and agony.

Being Mortal coverMoreover, there is growing awareness that while medical professionals perform heroic care to preserve life in extremity, they generally refuse such care for themselves.  (The contradiction between these two attitudes is really extraordinary.)

At the same time more people choose to die outside of hospitals, either at home (as we used to do) or through hospice care, which emphasizes not life extension but comfort through the process of dying.  Atul Gawande’s Being Mortal (2014) offers a moving yet sad plea for us to choose – and support – that kind of death (my review).

There are already signs of a quietly rising interest in allowing and enabling people to choose the manner of their death.  In public policy several American states, most recently Hawaii, have recently passed laws allowing medical staff to prescribe treatment that ends life.  Several institutions and organizations help drive such laws, with one referring to a “death with dignity movement”. Several other nations, notably Belgium, Canada, Colombia, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Switzerland, have passed related laws, also supported by their local organizations (for example).  Indeed, Dutch law explicitly allows that “under certain conditions is euthanasia not considered an offence.”

There may also be a rising incidence of suicide.  The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reports that

[f]rom 1999 through 2014, the age-adjusted suicide rate in the United States increased 24%, from 10.5 to 13.0 per 100,000 population, with the pace of increase greater after 2006.

Suicide rates increased from 1999 through 2014 for both males and females and for all ages 10–74.

This suggests a growing practical interest in controlling one’s death, even in the face of legal and cultural opposition.  And those numbers might be low.  One article questions if a number of opiate overdose deaths weren’t, in fact, suicides:

“[Based on the literature that’s available], it looks like it’s anywhere between 25 and 45 percent of deaths by overdose that may be actual suicides,” said Dr. Maria Oquendo, immediate past president of the American Psychiatric Association.

Some proportion of deaths may be suicides, yet described in other ways for reasons of insurance, religion, family desires, or reputation.  How many deaths by car accident were intentional?  How often does someone die of exposure deliberately?  How many people have helped a loved one die, then successfully made it look like something else?

Speaking of religion, we may see shifts in belief which could drive new attitudes towards death.  As I mentioned last year, recent research has found rising numbers of religiously unaffiliated Americans, especially young people:

religiously unaffiliated 1976-20167

That cultural shift could augur a decline in the power of religious objections to assisted death and/or euthanasia.

Some distinct features of the American experience can add other reasons for people to want to control the manner of their demise.  Earlier I mentioned our unusual method of financing health care, and that it shaped very uneven access to treatment.  Rising income inequality surely exacerbates this.  We now know that large numbers of Americans refuse medical treatment of all sorts due to financial anxiety.

Americans avoiding health care_ West Health

How many of us will turn, or have already turned, to some form of killing ourselves in order to spare families massive economic burdens?  More directly put, how many Americans will choose death because continuing to live is too expensive?

(I am speaking here of contemporary and recent developments.  There are, of course, antecedents, like this British organization founded in 1935, or the famous/notorious American Jack Kevorkian, active in the 1980s.  Obviously various forms of suicide and euthanasia have been practiced and debated for millennia.  I don’t have time to dive into the history fully in this post, but do wish to note that if the change I’m forecasting does occur, those antecedents will be re-viewed in that light.)

My analysis of present day factors could well be wrong, and I leave open the comment box below for your thoughts, as ever.  But if this is close to accurate, and if we admit my forecast for at least the sake of argument, let’s think about that future.  What could this change in death and dying look like?  Let’s set aside some wild cards and black swans for the moment, like the onset of a new plague, or the invention of a medical treatment that radically extends lifespans.

For starters, the medical system will need to change, and this will take a lot of work.  Not only would the ethics and practice of many, many health care providers have to alter, but so would hospital administration and medical schooling.  That’s a big sea change for a huge industry.  It would require a great deal of soul-searching, conversations, reflection, arguments, and professional development.  Perhaps a new subfield will emerge. Again, see Gawande for more.

A key part of the American medical system is our unusual financial model, based on private health insurance.  Insurance companies would have to support people choosing death.  During a heartbreaking talk Elaine Fong mentioned an insurance company paying far more for a potentially painful death pill than for a painless one.  Actually, you should all watch her story:

Changing insurance also means altering state and federal policies – by no means an easy thing to accomplish, as we’ve seen in the struggle over the Affordable Care Act.

Perhaps a new death culture would trigger another round in various culture wars.  In the United States blue (liberal or reliably Democratic) states have led the way in passing such laws:California, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Vermont, Washington (state) and Washington (the District of Columbia).  We could see red (conservative or reliably Republican) states oppose this change for a variety of reasons: religious affiliation, partisan politics, etc.  Imagine the United States divided in two by its attitudes towards and practice of death; indeed, one could say we already are, given the sharp divide in attitudes and practice of capital punishment.  Alternatively, red states might follow suit, but through different ways: a religious transformation, or de facto acceptance while de jure prohibitions persist, with authorities looking the other way.

I’ve emphasized how complex such a change would be, and need to add another level of complexity.  So far I’ve spoken of people in physical agony choosing to die, but how do we determine a threshold for the right to make that choice?  What level of pain, which prognoses justify self-controlled death, and which do not?  What forms of mental illness will we admit to this decision, and which will we bar?  Is there an age before which we ban assisted suicide, and, if so, what would it be?  Should we allow people deemed healthy in most ways to end their lives, as Jacob Appel argues? Those are fantastically difficult questions for complex societies to answer, especially ones riven by political strife.

Let’s go further into the future with this idea.  Imagine America and other nations complete such a transformation, and some form(s) of death with dignity is (are) the norm, supported by policy, professions, and mores.  What happens net?

We could process the change like the United States did Prohibition’s end in the 1930s, looking back at the past with regret and mockery, with a touch of pushing the embarrassment under the rug.  Maybe “prohibition” or a similar term will characterize the part.  Yet what if many people feel outrage against those who fought to deny the right to death?  Religious leaders, insurance administrators, hospital directors, politicians, and more could become subjected to popular dismay or wrath.  Family members could sue these people for causing unnecessary distress to loved ones.  Perhaps we could set up something like truth and reconciliation commissions to air out grievances, seek redress, and move forward.

Our sense of medical progress has been very strong for a century, and the belief in overall progress is still a global article, if unevenly held.  How will we culturally process an end to that rising curve, if enough “earlier” deaths occur?  What will it mean to live through the advent of peak lifespan?  How will that change us?

Perhaps a new culture war will ignite, as people like Aubrey de Grey and Ray Kurzweil keep fighting for longer lifespans and even immortality while others call for and practice death with dignity.  This could break down along lines of different ways of responding to science, or in attitudes towards what it means to be human. Is a Hegelian synthesis of these views possible?  Or will such high-tech projects move to red states to continue their work, leading to a new cultural-political alliance combining science and religion: pro-life, pro-life-extension?  That would make the red versus blue dichotomy more interesting.

Several times in this post I’ve referenced unevenness and inequality, and want to return to that theme.  How will assisted suicide and euthanasia play out in practice?  That is, who will successfully choose such deaths, and who will not?  How will the choice divide by economic class, by gender, by race, by region, or religion?   Will we acculturate death in new ways, so that choosing one’s death is marked by (say) irreligion or profession?

If we accomplish this change, we would revisit the past accordingly.  Writers and activists like Arthur Koestler would be thought of as cultural heroes ahead of their times.  We might consider this line from Robert Chambers’ The King in Yellow (1895) to be prescient in the way speculative fiction sometimes is, if wrong on the date:

In the following winter began that agitation for the repeal of the laws prohibiting suicide which bore its final fruit in the month of April, 1920, when the first Government Lethal Chamber was opened on Washington Square.

Oregon, the first American state to legalize a form of suicide, would be lauded as a trailblazer.  Which date will become celebrated as a recognition of the new death?  How will we think of the many, many people who chose death in the face of illegality and censure: as heroes, even martyrs?  What kind of culture will grow up specific to an achieved right to die?  What words will we use or invent to name actions and practices?  Will we create new rituals around death?

Look further ahead still.  Could all of the world’s nations embrace the right to die?  That would be an epochal transformation, a major “before and after” for human civilization.  Or might that change become a sign of national progress, something for developing nations and regions to aim for in their developmental arc… or a dangerous cultural practice to avoid?  Perhaps the globe will divide by this new way of death.

I began writing this post in response to a news story about a new law.  This is a lot to build upon such a narrow base.  What do you think?  How likely is this future?  What am I missing?  What alternatives are likely?

PS: I have written this post as impersonally as possible, trying to leave myself out of it as best I can to aim for objectivity.  The post is already too long for me to intrude.  Perhaps with another post, down the road.

*Terms here are tricky, and each are loaded.  For now I’m using suicide, assisted suicide, choosing death, voluntary euthanasia, death with dignity more or less interchangeably, in part because there seems to be no clear consensus over which is best.  I’m open to suggestions and pointers to resources on this score.

(many thanks to my very patient and knowledgeable wife as well as thoughtful and brave commentators on Facebook for helping me prepare this post, like Anna Chatelain Bruce, Valerie Bock, Garthster Lucerne, and Tom Elliot)

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The webinar must die: a friendly proposal

When was the last time you really enjoyed a webinar?  How often do we expect a webinar to actually teach us something, or to provide a social or emotional connection with other human beings?

After years of evolution, there are now two distinct types of webinar.  One of them must die and be replaced.

Type I is essentially a live PowerPoint presentation.  It uses technologies like Adobe Connect, Webex, or BlackBoard Collaborate.  The basic features are a PowerPoint slideshow, which occupies a portion of the display, and a voiceover.  Alongside that feature, typically a window or pod within a broader interface, we often see a text field of some kind, either a chat box for all involved to type into and read from, or a Q+A box, wherein audience members can enter questions for presenters and their support staff.

Sometimes, rarely, a presenter appears in a video pod.  Other chunks of screen real estate may be devoted to a list of audience logins, resources, or logos for the technology and/or presenters.  Too rarely there’s a shared whiteboard.

Man This Webinar is Dull - Alan Levine

“Man This Webinar is Dull” – Alan Levine

Type II is essentially multipoint live video.  It relies on different technologies, such as Google Hangout, Zoom, or Shindig.  There are also versions relying on large screens and purpose-specific hardware, such as Lifesize or Cisco’s various offerings. The basic features are multiple participant media feeds, either video or audio (the latter represented by a static image).  Text chat is usually present.  Screensharing or slideshow options can also be involved.

FOECast ideation Zoom day 2 b

A Zoom session for project FOECast.

People often refer to type I as a webinar, while dubbing type II a videoconference.  That distinction is often blurred in practice.

I have used all of these technologies as presenter and as audience member, repeatedly, over the past 20 years, so I can speak from some experience.  For example, over the past three months I have been an audience member and presenter in one Blackboard Collaborate session, two Connects, and one whose tech I couldn’t ascertain, but felt like Webex.  I have also led two Zoom sessions (for the first FOECast ideation week) and sixteen Shindigs (that’s my Future Trends Forum).  Along the way I’ve been in a half-dozen Skype sessions, but mostly those were audio-only.

Based on that experience I can assert that Type I is now a disaster.  It is an affront to how people actually learn and communicate.  It is an embarrassment for where we are, technologically, in 2018.  It must die.  People should exfiltrate themselves from that interface and either migrate to Type II or something new.

Why Type I is terrible

In a sense I don’t have to make this argument, because it seems to already be widely believed.  Listen to how people talk about Type I events.  At the very best their voices will drop as they confess, awkwardly, abashed, that they have to endure another webinar.  It’s the kind of anti-enthusiasm many users display when discussing Outlook or Blackboard or most other Microsoft products.  The tone and word choice communicate this sentiment: “Yeah, it’s boring/lame/uninteresting, but what can you do?”

Otherwise people will sneer or cheerfully mock.  Webinar, they’ll snarl.  “At least I can put my feet up/make and eat lunch/get some real work done in another tab.”  “Since there’s no video, I don’t have to dress up/take a shower.”  “It beats working.”

webinar while cooking Joyce Seitzinger

“In @openuniversity @openbadges webinar while cooking curry for #ukulele night. #multitaskingqueen”

Instead of excitement about a learning or social experience, I usually see people approach Type I webinars with a combination of dulled interest with numbed anticipation of frustration.  People sound like they’re going to the dentist or a bureaucratic outpost. I think the only enthusiasm I’ve seen expressed about joining a webinar has come – occasionally – from presenters, and that’s usually a mix of professional concern (“I hope they like what I have to say”, “I hope someone shows up”) and, often more strongly stated, technological concern (“Man, audio better work this time”, “I don’t know if my slides will display all right”).

These sentiments are damning.  They clearly point to what has become a sad and broken experience.

What is their source?  To begin with there is technological frustration.  In 2018 we still can’t get audio right; every webinar I’ve been in has commenced with a frantic ecstasy of speaker and mic fumbling, or shuttling between phone and computer audio (hello, Adobe Connect).  Users delete or can’t find certain interface bits.

Once the meeting begins, it’s barely a meeting at all.  That’s in part because the presenters have such a narrow channel with which to express themselves.  If they use video – and the video works for the present and for every participant, which is by no means a sure thing – then we might be able to see their faces and spaces, to watch their body language like an actual presentation.  However, video presentation is all too scarce in webinars.  Instead the audience typically beholds a slideshow and listens to a voiceover.  It is a low-level YouTube video, in short.  (And unlike a YouTube video we can’t control the presentation’s flow.)

Meanwhile, audience members can barely connect with presenters or each other.  In an age of social media and widespread video, Type I videoconference affords only a minimum of participation.  A chat box is the main thing.  Now, I’m very comfortable here, personally, but know that it’s not for everyone, as some are slow typers and/or readers, and a large number of webinars downplay or don’t even mention the chat box.  In addition, presenters don’t always consult the chat box, at least not until after their show, in which case they have the choice of either burning time in reading a confusing torrent of words, or too quickly skimming and responding.  Worse, there isn’t a way to learn about other participants, as all the information we typically are allowed to share is an unlinked, un-pictured, profile-free, and possibly fictional handle.


An older one, but still gets the point across,

Q+A boxes can be even worse, as they exclude content from the audience.  They do have the nice function of streamlining questions to presenters, which can save time as compared with scanning an entire chat log.  But audience members can’t see what other people are asking, or that other people are asking anything at all, leading to a weird Q+A void stuck into the webinar experience.  Participants only know something has happened at all when presenters orally relate selected questions or a paraphrase thereof.

The Type I app provides another problem at the level of screen organization.  How much space is devoted to unusable content?  I recent took in a webinar where 25% of the screen was occupied by a logo, a blank color bar, and several unlinked (and therefore useless) icons from the hosting organization’s home page.  Meanwhile, a locked tool palette at the bottom of the screen not only chewed up more screen space, but also blotted out parts of  the slideshow, the Q+A box, and an information pod:

webinar screenshot detail

This example tells us quite clearly that branding is more important than interactivity and that webinar design isn’t about the audience.

We can compare Type I to YouTube on this score.  That platform’s layout obviously centers the video clip, but also clears plenty of room for comments – whatever you think about YouTube comments, the platform takes them seriously. Meanwhile, YouTube commentators can learn something about each other by clicking on a fellow commentator’s profile.  Not to mention the tags and recommended videos.

Overall, Type I webinars force us to downgrade our communication to an unusually low level, like a forced Chinese Room experiment or Turing test.  Yes, Type I webinars are bad enough to render our humanity questionable.  They are retrograde for 2018’s technological experience and capacity.

webinar_Wolf Law Library

Webinar as text chat and text Q+A. No wonder the participant sits in darkness.

Think of this pedagogically.  What does a Type I webinar express as a learning experience?  It is all about a chunk of content and its presenter, with learners disempowered, marginalized, and rendered fairly passive.  It’s classic top-down, sage on the stage, authoritarianism.  It’s like a giant lecture hall experience, all too often one of the worst pedagogies education can offer, except with less interactivity.  Type I is a pedagogical mistake.

In contrast, Type II can be a seminar.  It usually decenters a presenter in favor of bringing multiple people together on the same plane.  You can see and hear many participants. Conversation is the focus, not being presented at.

Three alternatives to Type I

So what can we do about this shambling disaster?

First, we can take some Type Is to Type II platforms.  Much as instructors can shift from lecture to seminar, some presenters can change their format to emphasize interacting with an audience as a group of expressive human beings.  They can add more discussion prompts and carve out more time to handle questions and comments.

This isn’t a universal solution.  Some presenters lack the skills necessary to handle a discussion.  Shaping good questions, for example, is an art that most people need to study.   And even people equipped with that art sometimes have visual information to share – charts, graphs, art, videos – and PPT is a decent way to proceed.  Some content areas simply take time to transmit a bunch of information in sequence.  Worse, some people lack the bandwidth and/or hardware and/or environment to beam audio and video back into a webinar.  On top of that, not all Type II software can handle truly large audiences – Hangout maxes out around 16 people now, and Zoom, what, 30?  Personally I’ve never hit Shindig’s upper limit, even with 185 participants.

This brings us to my more radical solution.  If your presentation consists of a slidestack and voiceover, consider making it a video and sharing it through YouTube.  If you don’t like that platform, consider Vimeo instead, or some other hosting solution.  This might sound perverse, but think of it.  You’ve successfully shared your content, which is, for many people, the point of the exercise.  And you can get audience responses.  YouTube and Vimeo have comments – asynchronous, yes, but they are there.  What they lack in being live they might make up for in being accessible to a much, much larger audience.  On top of that, people can embed your video (on blog posts) or link to it (from social media), further widening your reach and boosting the potential for feedback.  If you don’t want to expand your reach and feedback circle, make the video clips private.  Share them with people directly and solicit responses.

If you really want that live discussion aspect, you could set up a Twitter chat, seeded by linking to the video.  Or you could go further and, as Michael Kolowich recommends, flip the webinar.  Give the audience access to your video ahead of time, so they can work through it on their own, rewinding, replaying, etc., then schedule a live discussion using whichever technology you like: Type II webinar, Type I, Twitter chat, conference call, you name it.  That was you can maximize the affordances of asynchronous and synchronous media, like the flipped classroom.

There is a third option: creatively and constructively making use of Type I’s tools.  As with many non-simple technologies, we often fail to plumb the options available in webinars.  Earlier I mentioned shared white boards.  These are easy to use and fun ways for the audience to brainstorm, connect with each other, get creative, reflect, and even – gasp – have fun together.  Howard Rheingold and Nancy White are great at this.

If the technology allows breakout rooms in various forms (how many do? I’ve done this with Connect and Shindig), try that.  Assign groups to tackle a specific question or charge, then report back when the whole group reassembles.   That boosts interaction and can wake up a sleepy mob.  Presenters can check in on groups in process, too.

If the tool supports video streaming, maximize that.  Dress up for your presentation how you like: formal, informal, costumed, made up.  Pick and exploit a setting, be it your office or an interesting locale. Use props – I’m fond of bringing in a plastic skull or a puppet, personally, but also like to show people examples of what we’re discussing, like a book or piece of hardware.  Express your personality through your face and gestures.  For example, Curt Bonk loves to toss things in the air, because that’s Curt Bonk and it works.  Use the video feed to turn Type I into an expressive platform.

DS106 instructors have done great stuff on video, including improv and character creation.

How about simple ways of quickly checking in with the audience?  There are plenty of tools for polling and surveying, which presenters can use to take the temperature of the audience, to prod participation, to identify some concerns and ideas.

(Around 1998 the late, great Bernie DeKoven showed me a webinar tool whose name escapes me, and which probably doesn’t exist any longer, that offered an elegant little service.  Every participant had a small button to click (or switch to pull; I’m not sure) which indicated their status in the meeting.  Options were positive (I’m fine with this), neutral, or negative (I have a problem/I disagree).  What was neat was the display of these statuses: a small panel with individual pixels representing participants, and each one color coded.  At a glance we could see what we thought: a bunch of green lights meant things were going well, yellow indicating some caution or drop in interest, and red for opposition and problems.  Brilliant and easy.  Does anyone else remember this?  Do any platforms support this now?)

Don't fear the webinar_Paul Downey

To sum up: Type I webinars are a mistake in 2018, and they need to die. We can leave them behind and take our presentations and conversations to other platforms, either Type II or by flipping the webinar. Or we can re-invent, re-use, and reboot Type I. In a time where discussions are more fraught and also more needed, we should do this now.

(dull dog photo by Alan Levine; Don’t Fear the Webinar by Paul Downey; dark person with webinar by Wolf Law Library); older webinar by OSSCube; webinar while cooking by catspyjamasnz)

Posted in technology | 26 Comments

A sanguine discussion about the fate of small colleges

What’s going to happen with America’s small colleges?

VPR logo

A radio conversation yesterday explored this very usefully.  Vermont Public Radio (VPR) interviewed several local higher education leaders, involving some listener questions, and I recommend listening to the discussion.  Yes, Vermont is an unusual state in many ways (tiny, rural, very liberal yet very pro-NRA), but the issues raised are familiar to anyone involved in post-secondary education nationwide.

Guests included: Tom Greene, founding president of the Vermont College of Fine Arts and a commissioner for the New England Association of Schools and CollegesVermont State Colleges System Chancellor Jeb Spaulding; Susan Stitely, president of the Association of Vermont Independent Colleges.  The host was Jane Lindholm (and she was excellent).

Let me draw out some points I found especially interesting.

The specter of institutions closing came up early on in the program, as Lindholm asked what people thought of a prediction that several hundred colleges and universities could close.  Interviewees did not disagree with this.  One interviewee celebrated a merger of two campuses, which led to saving money and other economies of scale.  As the host observed, “We’ve established that not everyone’s going to survive… It’s not sustainable…. This is the bursting of a higher education bubble.”

Demographics – the public sector representative (Spaulding) was the first to mention the demographic crisis, with Vermont’s K-12 population shrinking fast.  The private representatives hinted at shifting their focus to include more adult learners.  Lindholm noted that the demographic trends were foreseeable (yes!).

Much of the discussion turned on economics: the cost of education, the debt problem, the lifelong benefits of a degree.  One of the interviewees offered this cheerful note: “[t]he majority of our students are able to find work [after graduation]”, which wasn’t exactly selling the experience.

An admissions director, referenced in conversation, offered this telling anecdote on Twitter:

“Admission Reps: “We’re a small private liberal arts school…”

Students: “Do you have nursing / communications / criminal justice?””

There was an interesting argument about the value of the humanities or liberal arts.  One college president argued that English was more attractive to employers (at least on Wall Street) than an economics degree; the host was pretty skeptical.  Two leaders thought the humanities weren’t in trouble, so much as campuses needed to add STEM and professional degrees – i.e., higher ed isn’t cutting programs, but adding more.

Strategies for survival: one strategy discussed was changing colleges to universities, to be more attractive to students.  Another strategy was more aggressive outreach to and partnership with K-12, including dual credit relationships.  A third was focusing on a specific mission or niche; cited were campuses focusing on teaching students with learning disabilities.  A fourth: offering more “relevant” programs.

One challenge was phrased thusly: “[t]he most dangerous place to be in higher education is to a small, rural, residential, and not elite.”

State support – it was noted that Vermont has very, very low funding for its public institutions.

Institutional inequality – Green noted that rich institutions were getting richer, while non-rich ones were not.  Host Lindholm mentioned two of the former, Middlebury College and Dartmouth College (not technically in Vermont, but right on the border, and always looms large in this state).

Marketing and outreach – there were some interesting divides and observations.  While the private institution representatives celebrated the liberal arts experience, the public person called for more professional degrees, including certificates and associates degrees; one caller observed that many people still look down on the latter.  Digital storytelling: the admissions director offered this recommendation on Twitter: “digital storytelling is the future for recruitment.”

My congratulations to VPR for assembling this panel and hosting a frank, challenging conversation.


Posted in higher education | Leave a comment

Four+ stories about the future of education and technology

Here are some interesting stories which might bear on the future of education and technology.  They touch on virtual reality, web browsers, immigration, web-based classes, tenure, and fear.

ITEM: Firefox is working on a browser designed for VR.  Firefox Reality would let users interact with 2d browsers in a 3d environment.

It’s hard to comment about the tech itself, since I can’t use it yet.  But it’s interesting to think about how to translate a web browser into the VR space.  By extension, we can think about how a browser might change in mixed reality.  What gestures will work best for navigating web pages?  Will we enter text boxes via spoken word input?  At a larger level, is the web browser even a good idea for the VR/MR world?

ITEM: the number of visas America grants has declined over the past year, according to Politico’s analysis.  “By one measure, the U.S. granted 13 percent fewer visitor visas over the past 12 months when compared with fiscal year 2016, according to State Department data…”

visas to US 2018-2018 Politico

Note that while visas to residents of Muslim ban nations plummeted, so did visas to other countries, including China.  Re: China, remember that the Trump administration is ramping up a trade war with that nation; students may well become weapons.  As I’ve been saying, international students are more important than ever for American higher ed, and their supply seems to be dwindling.

ITEM: Microsoft made its online AI classes public.  These used to be in-house only, but are now open to anyone who signs in/completes a profile.  Microsoft partnered with edX to make this happen; it seems that edX runs the classes, while Redmond provided the content.  Classes include:  Data Science, Big Data, Front-End Web Development, Cloud Administration, DevOps, IT Support, and Entry Level Software Development.

What does this tell us?  For one, it reminds us that despite the much-vaunted death of MOOCs (in the United States) the idea and practice of putting classes on the web in some form of openness still appeals.  For another, certification of MOOC experience is still a going concern.  And STEM fields remain in the lead here.

I’m not sure of the pedagogy involved, because I haven’t taken one of these classes.  Does anyone have experience they can share?  Or can someone recommend one for me to take?

ITEM: several states are exploring ways to make it easier for public universities to remove tenured faculty.  They include Kentucky and Arkansas.  Policies offer “clarifications” on preexisting rules, as well as links to program termination.

Note that Kentucky’s plan also cuts public campuses’ budgets:

Overall, the budget cuts base appropriations to public colleges by 6.25 percent over the next two years. The cut at the University of Kentucky is projected to be as high as $16 million, according to a statement from the institution. At the University of Louisville it will be about $8.3 million, a spokeswoman says.

These moves fit into the larger, long term trend of American academia’s steady reduction in tenure, which we’ve seen most notably in the switch of the professoriate to a majority-adjunct workforce.  They also connect with the rising tide of program reductions, seen most dramatically in what I’ve been calling queen sacrifices.

At some point I suspect American colleges and universities will end this labor casualization process.  Individual sectors and campuses will find their equilibrium between tenured and non- positions, and the professoriate will stabilize.  I’m not sure how much longer it’ll take before we reach that point.

…and one final note for your consideration.  I’ve been scrambling to find time to write about shootings and gun culture, and failing, given the demands of my schedule.  But I was struck by a passage in a good, recent article about American gun culture:

I know the reasons my friends give for owning these weapons, and I know that their answers feel inadequate to me. I know that part of what they’re missing or refusing to acknowledge is how fear ushered in this shift in gun culture over the past two decades.

Fear is the factor no one wants to address — fear of criminals, fear of terrorists, fear of the government’s turning tyrannical and, perhaps more than anything else, fear of one another. There’s no simple solution like pulling fear off the shelf. It’s an intangible thing…

Exploring the sources of that fear go way beyond my time and space with this post.  For now I’d like to place a marker here, and ask readers to think about that fear – not just its sources, but where it’s likely to go.  I hope I can return to this.

(thanks to Tim Prendry and Todd “Language Exchange” Bryant for links and thoughts)

Posted in future of education | Tagged | 1 Comment

Middle and high school students making history with 3d printing

As a futurist I’m always looking for stories and datapoints that suggest possible directions for education and technology.  Sometimes I’m actively involved in those stories.

Last Saturday I helped judge a Vermont 3d printing contest.  This is an annual event, whereby middle and high school students create 3d models of historical buildings.  (I’ve done this once before, in 2016). It points to some fascinating ways forward for education, and also inspires the heck out of me.

Let me explain the event, then draw some conclusions and hypotheses.

3d Vermont 2018

On team presenting to judges.

The contest took place in the town of Randolph, at Vermont Technical College, in a large gym/meeting space.  A giant map of Vermont was place in the space’s center, on the floor.  Teams placed some of their 3d printouts on the map, where the actual buildings are.

3d Vermont 2018 big map

Not necessarily to scale:

3d Vermont 2018 map: Saint Johnsbury

Around the map were around twenty stations, each crewed by a team from one or two schools.  We judges went around the room, taking in a presentation from each team, and asking questions.  There were actually two contests, one for middle schools, one for high schools; I was assigned to the middle school one.

Each team had the following assignment.  Identify a local building of historical interest, then model it.  Buildings included libraries, post offices, hotels, prisons, churches, schools, and homes.  Students had to research the site, which meant digging into primary source materials (period blueprints, journals, newspapers, letters), reading into secondary sources (books, articles, web documents), interviewing people (building owners, historians, architects), and exploring the site directly (an interesting number of students never got inside their objects).

That’s classic history pedagogy so far.  Then they had to build digital models of their buildings.  This began with taking measurements (one ambitious group got their math teacher to help them use some kind of sightings and trig for data when they couldn’t get on site), taking photos, and finding more images, feeding everything into a 3d authoring tool.  Sketchup seems to have been the main software for this year.

Then they had to take their digital models into the physical world via 3d printing.  Every school had a different brand of printer, it seemed, but all had similar experiences: printing overnight (times ranged from 6 to 18 hours), figuring out when to include supporting structures that could be knocked out afterwards, coping with inevitable errors.  Each team went through multiple print runs, iterating and improving over time.

Several teams showed multiple versions of a single building model, showing their development over time.  Others were brave enough to show mistakes and problems.

Multiple prints

Some teams brought the finished works unadorned and printed using one color:

2 buildings

Some combined multiple print colors and then painted the results by hand:

3d Vermont 2018 Castleton_cobbler hut

Still others added what I think were old fashioned decals.  This one also used a 3d pen to add very very tiny and delicate details on the top of a roof:

3d Vermont 2018_house detailed

The contest required end products to be 3d printouts, some multimedia presentation, and also the live presentation.  Bonus points were awarded for web content linked from QR codes stuck to the bottom of each building. Some teams created substantial digital content, including PowerPoint presentations and videos, shown on laptops or iPads.  The Castleton team, though, went far beyond, creating all of that, plus printed brochures, a hand-made diorama setting for one building, and 360 tours in VR (!):

3d Vermont 2018_Castleton team display

VR headsets are on the table, just below the two monitors.

Most of these projects were team-based, and I was fascinated to see how individual students worked out their roles.  Sometimes one person would just own a skill – say Sketchup or research – and others would defer to, and learn from, them.  At other times people would share a responsibility.  Each time relied on help from one or more teachers and professional staff.

There was plenty of room for individual interest.  They presented about team work, but under questions some students would reveal their delight in mastering a task, or their surprise at being caught up in a historical topic.  I found this to be especially delightful.

This being Vermont, where the youth population is declining, some teams were not based in single schools, but drawn from pairs of nearby schools.  One team of four students was actually based in three schools, two of which had just merged.  One mad genius of a student did her work without any peers, as far as I can tell, going from start to finish on her own (plus help from a teacher):

3d Vermont 2018 lone presenter

Judges came from a mixture of professions.  I talked with architectures, engineers, state government officials, and academic faculty (engineering, architecture).  Most were doing this for the first time, and so relied on the experience of we few hardy veterans.  We began with a two-page rubric, which we wrote up for each team, then met in a conference room to bash out who were thought should be the winners.

Also present were various officials and representatives.  Reps came from the offices of federal Senator Sanders and Representative Welch.  The state government was represented by Education Secretary Rebecca Holcombe, on the very last day of her tenure.

Bryan and Rebecca Holcombe

So what can we deduce from this half day’s experience?

  1. These were high school and middle school students.  That means Generation Z/Homelanders, aged roughly 11-18.  None of them suffered from future shock.  That’s not to say they didn’t experience frustration; many were open about problems they experienced in the course of their projects.  But the technology wasn’t an alien thing to them.  Think about how the middle school kids bring this experience to high school, and high schoolers take the project mentality to college.  Are these institutions ready to respond?
  2. About that lack of future shock: did 3d printing just get normalized?
  3. Pedagogies: project-based learning, obviously.  Inquiry-based learning, too.  Team-based.  Interdisciplinary: although the putative subject is history, student work clearly engaged other fields as well, from engineering and computer science to architecture and math.
  4. It’s another example of digital and non-digital pedagogy blending together.  Perhaps we’ll cease referring to these as separate categories in a few years.
  5. It’s also a type of open or public learning.  Student work was presented publically in person and online.  Their process was also open, at least in terms of preparing materials for the web and working openly with people (students, staff, teachers) at their schools and other institutions (historical societies, libraries, buildings themselves).
  6. This is Vermont, one of the least digital states in the union.  How widespread is this kind of experience, especially in more advanced regions?
  7. Also, at a local level, is Vermont prepared for these students, or will they see the state’s technological backwardness as a reason to leave?
  8. At no point in the entire contest did a single person mention, demonstrate, or describe using a learning management system (LMS).
  9. Digital presentations were a mix of PowerPoint and video.  No sign of Prezi or Keynote.

One last point: here’s what I said in 2016.

my futures work often leads me to dark places.  Seeing these young folks starting to set forth into a world that’s not in good shape and seems to be getting worse, run by elders who often mock and dismiss them, and nonetheless striding forth in a spirit of exploration and progress – that does a heart good.  That stokes my faith in education.

I had exactly the same experience and feeling at Vermont Tech.  Bravo to the organizers,  applause to the teachers, and thunderous applause to the students!

Here’s one local and brief reportHere’s a good blog post with plenty of photos and videos.

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