Academia between two storms: talking NERCOMP into the future

Yesterday I had the good fortune to address the NERCOMP 2014 conference in Providence, Rhode Island.  The conference was a sweet one, with its highest attendance ever, a fine buzz of conversation, and a general confidence in springtime’s imminent arrival.

NERCOMP conference photo by Scott Hamlin

Before and after my talk I had the opportunity to visit some sessions, which offered a good overview of education and technology issues currently in play.  Project management strategies, social media and legal liability, tools for multimedia design, getting faculty involved in a summer session for incoming first-year students, supporting mobile devices, reorganizing IT shop: these are some of the areas where northeastern US educational technology and IT is working now.

At the same time I enjoyed seeing so many friends from northeastern campuses.  Face-to-face conferences give you that expanded emotional bandwidth (compared to online) which lets you reconnect more deeply, of course.  How sweet to see people I’ve known for years advancing in their careers, reflecting on their experience, or playing in a brass band (oh yes).

High conference participant numbers were also in evidence as people shunned the snowy outdoors to cram into the ballroom where I waved my cane and shouted over a PowerPoint:

Bryan Alexander speaking to NERCOMP.

From the back of the hall.

I called my talk “Between Two Storms”, and the title was meant to ask the audience to do mental exercises.  First, to look back over how their institutions adapted to the past generation’s technological revolutions (Web, laptops, enterprise systems, etc); second, to turn around and peer into the future.  I stocked that future with trend summaries from my FTTE report, added a summary of the 2014 Horizon Report, then hurled forth four scenarios: “the Fall of the Silos, the Phantom University, a Creative Renaissance, and the Old Guard’s Revenge.” You can find the PowerPoint stack on Slideshare, or embedded right here:

Audience responses were excellent.  Not only did the clear majority indicate that they were science fiction fans – definitely a sign of high quality people – but they weren’t shy abut expressing their concerns.  Multitasking, the interaction of new data technologies and labor markets, the importance of just-purchases Oculus Rift, and the question of governance in the near future all came up.  From my scenarios, the group seemed most connected to Phantom University and Renaissance.

Afterwards NERCOMP staff hosted a Google Hangout with me to discuss issues from the talk.  Dainus Kaulenas hosted and supported, while Carrie Saarinen asked excellent questions; both staffers fought bandwidth limitations with splendid aplomb. You can see the recording here or watch it below:

I’d like to emphasize one point from my brooding, or rather five points in answer to a question.  “What can we do?” often comes up, an expression of bewilderment or strategic openness before the unfolding future.  So I recommend these five practices:

  1. Use social media.  People should watch, and add to, whichever platform works best for them.  This is a great way to learn, to get feedback, to think out loud and improve one’s research.
  2. Pay attention to the generations.  It’s easy to overdo the net.gen meme, but also foolish to ignore the different technology behaviors of varied ages.  Look to each cohort and see what they do with hardware, software, and people.
  3. Be open.  Use open resources, and share your thoughts.
  4. Use futures thinking.  Run an environmental scan.  Set up a Delphi process for your team.  Make and work through scenarios.  These are habits – disciplines, rather – that are easy to start, sometimes fun to do, and pay off many dividends: better learning, team interaction, and thinking about the emergent future.
  5. Collaborate.  Reach out to others to help grapple with the future.

Final point: this conference had a full digital presence, ranging from a buzzing Twitter backchannel to the aforementioned G+ Hangout.  This is the kind of dual track nature we should increasingly expect of all physical events.

(thanks to Dave Gannon for the crowd photo and Scott Hamlin for the conference banner shot; thank you to Symantec for sponsoring the speech)

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One Response to Academia between two storms: talking NERCOMP into the future

  1. clsaarinen says:

    Bryan, thank you for doing the Hangout with us! It was a lot of fun and a great experience.
    I agree with your closing thought here – that we can do more with social media and technology at live events to enhance and augment the experience for participants as well as anyone who might be observing. I have been working with Bay Path College on a MOOC that extends their annual Women’s Conference, allowing participants to continue to explore the conference theme after it ends, and to do so with an expanded public audience. It’s a cool idea and I hope to see similar experiments.
    The MOOC acronym is preventing experimentation in online and open learning. The “C” word “course” has made open online learning attractive to more institutions but has delayed real innovation in online education. The opportunity presented is stifled under a blanket of video lectures and recall assessments boxed into model too similar to the credit-hour online course. PLN/OLE never got attention on a massive scale because the concept is too abstract; there are no boundaries. But label self-selected, self-directed, publicly accessible non-credit bearing online learning a “course” and slap a start date and an end date on it then all of sudden it makes sense to administrators and academics. Paving cow paths. /rant

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