Future Trends Forum #9 with Gardner Campbell: full recording, notes, and Storify

Last week we had Gardner Campbell on the Future Trends Forum, and the discussion hurtled along. Gardner, participants, and I explored pedagogy, the power of the hyperlink, data, instructors, institutions, eportfolios, language, students, assessment, a great card deck, our personal histories, and a lot more.

Bryan Gardner laughing

Twitter activity started well, became excited, then spilled over past the event’s ending, which I Storified. A few days later Campus Technology wrote up a fine account.  We also have a full recording on YouTube, embedded below.  And my notes, plus selected screen captures, are below.

These notes are something less than a transcript, as I tried to force my fingers to keep up with Gardner’s and participants’ thoughts.  I’ve bolded out some key phrases.


We began by exploring what student success means in the new digital ecosystem.  For Gardner, sitting in front of a photo of Doug Engelbart, the latter is really a digital commons, marked by being open, connected, and participatory.  We all have a stake in it, since this ecosystem is something we all contribute to, and are nourished by.

So what does student success mean therein?  There’s a lowest common denominator sense: retention and graduation, institutional outputs.  For a learner, success means success in coursework, registered on institutional dashboard.  For a campus, this is a way of allocating institutional resources.  Gardner finds this model to be pernicious, as it subsumes the individual to institutional needs, leading to corrupted and misleading measures of success: grade inflation, new kinds of study hall, and even negative effects on our democracy.

Instead, Gardner would rather have us determine success by effective participation in the digital commons – and, indeed in civilization as a whole.

I raised a third version of student success, one which measures academic achievement by financial growth.  Gardner responded that this metric can trigger fierce political battles, especially between the humanities and STEM fields.  Campbell also noted that many institutions, not just educational ones, define success by survival, which leads to a chain of dependencies.  “We also mint our own currency” of academic metrics, from grades to diplomas.  In contrast, higher education has largely turned its back on the digital ecosystem, partly because we can’t mint our own currency in that medium.

In chat, Chris Lott observed acidly that “right now, success in most academic institutions is the worst kind of scrip in a declining company town.”  Gardner responded by explaining that currency is based on social faith.  He did argue that assessment is an important function in education; however, the environment necessary for that to work has changed. One reason is because we have scaling up our learning communities over the past century (i.e., growing the number of students by orders of magnitude). This leads to a  reduction of the faculty role, and the expert guiding the learner becomes more detached.  Assessment becomes impersonal.  External audiences (boards, state gov, etc) intrude, because we’ve lost some trust.

Kerr_Uses of the UniversityGardner offered another response to Lott’s comment by riffing on Clark Kerr* (Uses of the University, 1963).  Once massive STEM work boomed in higher education after Sputnik, thankfully in the nonprofit educational space, we saw the Two Cultures divide open up, more by funding than by ideology.  After that point the university ceases to be a university, as other divides open up, such as between research- and teaching-focused faculty (and the latter declines in importance, becoming in effect “a secondary caste”).  Also, the scaling up high ed experienced reduced opportunities for conversation.

I asked about the scaling issue, quickly referencing the past 150 years of growth.  Gardner responded, intriguingly, by mentioning the college premium and the huge development of automation.  Honorable manual jobs are declining.  Gardner turned personal, mentioning his father’s career as a laborer.  College now is about driving students away from that economic stratum, and quantifying learning in a way that devalues the experience of learning.  This harms the traditional nature of education which allows a space for being somewhat withdrawn from society.

In contrast, the internet – in particular, the web – scales much better than does academic.  Decentralization, common protocols, innovation from the edges, some influence by experts has worked.  But academia (which echoes these elements, as I commented) has generally decided not to participate.  Gardner thinks academia should see the internet as a familiar space, a double in my sense.  Educators could benefit our learners and improve the internet by engaging.  Perhaps there’s a sense of institutional privilege which blocks this.

Question: what would “personal formation” mean in an academia deeply engaged with the internet?

Answer: students would expand their capacity for interest.  Gardner mentioned the psychology of interest, such as the emotions around knowledge: curiosity, awe, even confusion.  He again turned personal, describing how literacy gave him as a child access to a world of conversation and learning across the ages.  Educators should look for *dispositional* markers of the psychology of interest in depth and breadth; we should encourage a learning disposition.


At this point Gardner and I climbed off Shindig’s stage in order to let participants mingle.  After energetic small group discussions, several questions surfaced.


Question from Mark Wilson: what are the best practices for a learning portfolio?

Answer: there should be a representative collection, a learner’s statement, and a reflection to accompany items.  Those items should be oriented around multimodal artifacts.  There should also be some indication of unscripted connections, learning without faculty instructions, acting within a community of learners.  Students would curate and document linked learning.  If it all works well, the portfolio should reveal a learning disposition and diligent learning, through linking and unscripted learning.  Visualization should be added, too.  For example, Martin Hawksey’s Twitter hashtag  explorer.

Gardner_Ted Newcomb question

Question from Ted Newcomb: it seems that students have outpaced teachers in their digital abilities.  What’s going on here?

Answer: teachers are often afraid of technology not working (old examples: filmstrips, movie projectors failing).  It’s also hard to learn what teachers would feel comfortable doing, because of reticence.  Students do have some serious experience, but they don’t necessarily understand digital commons.  (Gardner mentioned wanting to teach with Reddit, and asked for anyone who’s done so.  Anyone?)  Students need to be able to make digital connections across the commons, but teachers don’t usually like the commons.  We (teachers) often stick to our tribes.

Gardner returned to the hyperlink.  He thought teachers still haven’t grasped the power of a web link.  The link’s greatest power is to record an analogy.  Gardner fears students are losing that capacity.  He published an essay about this subject in January, “Networked Learning as Experiential Learning” (strongly recommended – Bryan) (thanks to Paul Bond for finding and sharing the citation on Twitter).

Gardner_Mo Pelzel question

Question from Mo Petzel: how to motivate students to create in digital domains beyond their conditioned habits?

Answer: this is a question of compliance (echoing chat discussion by Chris Lott and Autumm Caines), but there are oblique strategies to get around that.  (Yes, this is a reference to Eno and Schmidt’s Oblique Strategies card deck, which Gardner has evoked many times).

Oblique Strategies_Duncan Stephen

Gardner cites Alan Kay’s recommendation that every interface should be a learning environment.  We can follow that by making everything connected to the presence of a learning experience on the web as close to a learning environment as possible, and as far from transactional learning as possible.  This is a kind of deep gamification, to some extent, creating environments that induce clicking and exploring.  This can become a “level 3” or weird hyperlink, one which is impossible not to click.

Gardner_Mark Wilson question

Question from Mark Wilson: do you use a metadata set on Twitter or elsewhere?

Gardner mentioned Twitter Analytics, but requested clarification.

He then reflected on online reflection, observing that students can be shockingly unaware of how they engage the world, but also shockingly self-aware in ways they won’t share with teachers.  Perhaps students have a lingering suspicion that self-awareness won’t count in class.  At the same time Gardner criticized faculty for avoiding digital practice, which signals an attitude of dismissal or disdain.  We can be ruthless about what we don’t have an interest in. I commented that scaling plays a role here, driving us to ever-increasing specialization.

Gardner_Scott Robison question

Question from Scott Robison: will search become less about content and more about finding links?

Answer: Google searches rely heavily on links, and linked content, like Wikipedia (mentions Backrub, an early stage of Google’s search technology).  We can adopt practices, and either build tools or just practice searching for density of links.  We should be able to mine that density, and we can increase the odds of connections being meaningful if we include the corpus of student work.  But faculty are good at ignoring or preventing these connections.

Discussion overflowed past the hour’s end in chat, on Twitter, and in the main Shindig video platform.

afterglow Autumm Susan Mo

With that we closed this Forum.  Many thanks to Gardner, energetic participants, and Shindig for their support!

For previous Future Trends Forum recordings, notes, and announcements, click here.

*That’s our regular reference to California, for Michael Berman, George Station, and friends.

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4 Responses to Future Trends Forum #9 with Gardner Campbell: full recording, notes, and Storify

  1. A comment/question came by email:
    “I was curious about his comments on the chasm we’ve created between faculty and students (my words, not his), and was interested to hear his thoughts about closing that gap — the humanity that we need to bring back into the classroom.”

  2. gardnercampbell says:

    Scaling is the obvious problem here, especially with faculty teaching 100- and 200-level classes at large universities. I went to an undergraduate school with fewer than 3000 undergrads at the time (Wake Forest University), and the largest class I took was an intro psych class, taught by a full professor, with about 85 enrolled as I recall. Obviously I never struggled with a 700-seat lecture class.

    I’m not sure I have great answers here except to say “don’t try to scale that way”–and that’s not a practical answer, probably. Perhaps some of the ways former mega-high-schools have found to help students feel part of smaller and more manageable groups would be possible, but I don’t know. What I will say is that the more practices we adopt around the idea of relationship and connection, both intra- and inter-classroom, the more we can communicate presence and the possibility of relationship. These things take a lot of time. They also take a commitment to network effects, including online network effects. That’s a paradigm shift for most of us in higher ed.

    I hasten to say that these are very preliminary thoughts and should be taken as such.

    Thanks for the question.

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