Coming up: Cory Doctorow on the Future Trends Forum and in our book club

I wanted to share a dual announcement about two future events.

Well known novelist, blogger, speaker, and cyberactivist Cory Doctorow will be our guest on the Future Trends Forum on Wednesday, May 16th, from 2-3 pm eastern time.  I’m looking forward to his thoughts on the future of education and technology, and also to your questions and comments.

Cory Doctorow_Jonathan Worth

Speaking of which, we now have our next book club reading, written by Cory.

Walkaway is a near future science fiction novel about a new society, redesigned by technological forces. As the Amazon blurb describes it,

Hubert Vernon Rudolph Clayton Irving Wilson Alva Anton Jeff Harley Timothy Curtis Cleveland Cecil Ollie Edmund Eli Wiley Marvin Ellis Espinoza―known to his friends as Hubert, Etc―was too old to be at that Communist party.

But after watching the breakdown of modern society, he really has no where left to be―except amongst the dregs of disaffected youth who party all night and heap scorn on the sheep they see on the morning commute. After falling in with Natalie, an ultra-rich heiress trying to escape the clutches of her repressive father, the two decide to give up fully on formal society―and walk away.

After all, now that anyone can design and print the basic necessities of life―food, clothing, shelter―from a computer, there seems to be little reason to toil within the system.

It’s still a dangerous world out there, the empty lands wrecked by climate change, dead cities hollowed out by industrial flight, shadows hiding predators animal and human alike. Still, when the initial pioneer walkaways flourish, more people join them. Then the walkaways discover the one thing the ultra-rich have never been able to buy: how to beat death. Now it’s war – a war that will turn the world upside down.

This sounds like a great addition to our burgeoning library of near-future science fiction, which we read in order to explore the possible futures of education and technology.

I’ll share a reading schedule soon.  Grab a copy from your local library or through the links above.

I’m very excited to read one of Cory Doctorow’s novels for our book club, and delighted to have him as a Forum guest.

Please join us.

(Doctorow photo by Jonathan Worth)


Posted in book club, Future Trends Forum | 4 Comments

Fascism and imagination: reading _It Can’t Happen Here_ in 2018

Over the past few weeks I reread Sinclair Lewis’ 1935 novel, It Can’t Happen Here.  The book became very popular and discussed before and after Donald Trump’s 2016 election, and, as a literature person, I wanted to see how it might illuminate our time.

_It Can't Happen Here_ coverThis post is a mixture of review and partial analysis.  Naturally it’s full of spoilers.  I’ll start with a summary, some quick observations, then dive into the question of fascism in 1935 and 2018.  Unusually, I won’t have space to discuss the future.

This is also long, so grab a cup of coffee or tea and settle in.

The novel’s plot involves the rise and crisis of a fascist government in the United States, fascist in the literal sense, as Lewis’ tyrant is modeled closely on contemporaries Hitler and Mussolini, and draws much on reporting by his wife, Dorothy Thompson.  This American political disaster is observed then opposed by an aged, small town newspaper editor, Doremus Jessup, along with his family and friends.  The book begins as barbed bucolic satire then races into political nightmare, running from small town characters to concentration camps.

It’s a strange book to read in many ways, especially for its genre.  It reads like a kind of alternate history, with the major break from our timeline being that FDR somehow loses the 1936 Democratic nomination (this isn’t explained well), starts up a new political party (the Jeffersonians) which splits the general election, and just vanishes from the scene (67; Signet Classics edition).  At the time this wasn’t history, but a speculative future, so the book is an example of science fiction in two ways: future history and alternative history. 

At the same time there are many period details which give the alternate history texture and weight, like a good historical novel, which is another genre It Can’t Happen Here feels like.  There are also significant political details in the book, especially its last two thirds, ranging from international relations and political ideology down to the rearrangement of state and local government, which nudges the novel into political novel territory.  Ultimately, and less usefully, I was reminded of that odd offshoot of British fiction, the invasion story of imagined near-future wars and social calamities.  It’s like Ninety Eight-Four without the memory hole.

It Can’t Happen Here is also a comic novel.  Well, not entirely, but it’s  far funnier than I thought it would be.  Lewis enjoys himself immensely with goofy or satiric names: Mrs. Adelaide Tarr Gimmitch, Doc Itchitt, Captain Cowlick, Brigadier General Herbert Y. Edgeways, Bishop Paul Peter Prang, Treasury Secretary Webster Skittle, Senator Porkwood, Effingham Swan, governor John Sullivan Reek, Professor Almeric Trout, and my favorite, Dr. Hector Macgoblin.  “Berzelius Windrip” is a fantastic name for a tyrant, combining deprecation with fierce energy (try saying it out loud). 

Lewis also frequently offers good one-liners, even in the second, darker half of the book:

Malcolm had the insolent self-assurance of beef. (46)
[T]he rumbling Shad [was] a man for whom the chaplain might even have been a little sorry, after he was safely hanged. (133)
[I]n just such salons of unfortunate political escapists as the White Russians, the Red Spaniards, the Blue Bulgarians, and all the other polychromatic insurrectionists frequented in Paris. (174)
Holidays were invented by the devil, to coax people into the heresy that happiness can be won by taking thought. (117)

Poster for Detroit Federal Theatre Project presentation of ''It Can't Happen Here'' by Sinclair Lewis at the Lafayette Theatre, showing a stylized Adolf Hitler carrying a rifle standing behing a map of the United States and a fist in a raised-arm salute.A quiet bit of academic comedy runs throughout the book, as when the fascist government shakes up local government, and a “District Commissioner merely chased the Dartmouth students out and took over the college buildings for his offices, to the considerable approval of Amherst, Williams, and Yale.” (72).

Some of the comedy dates poorly, depending on the audience.  The satires of women now come off as sexist, especially the portrait of Emma Jessup, Doremus’ wife, which is mostly a maternal blank.  Calling Louise May Alcott a man (97) isn’t funny now.  I honestly don’t know Lewis or the 1930s well enough to know if the portrait of Windrip’s aide, Lee Sarason, as a gay man would have been taken for comedy or denigration at the time of publication; either way, it wouldn’t work today. 

(Actually, Lewis follows his German inspiration closely along these lines, with many passages describing the fascists as gay or effimate, and not always comically, as far as I can tell. For example, “[a fascist] trooper, girlish-faced, crimson-lipped, fawn-eyed, throw himself on the fallen cornet and, whimpering, stroke that roustabout’s roast-beef cheeks with shy gardenia-petal fingers.” (49).  I don’t know if today’s reader would view this in terms of the homophobe-who-is-really-gay trope, or just as homophobia.)

And some of the jokes might be too bleak for 2018:

Probably many of them cared nothing about insults to the Corpo state, but had only the unprejudiced, impersonal pleasure in violence natural to most people. (90)
Father Stephen Perefixe, when he read the Fifteen Points, was considerably angrier than Doremus. He snorted, “What? Negroes, Jews, women—they all banned and they leave us Catholics out, this time? Hitler didn’t neglect us. He’s persecuted us. Must be that Charley Coughlin. He’s made us too respectable!” (37)
These were the chaplains-at-heart, who, if there was no war in which they could humbly help to purify and comfort the poor brave boys who were fighting, were glad to help provide such a war. (169)

The comedy fits well in the contemporary tradition of satirizing fascism, from Chaplin’s Great Dictator (1940) to Spike Jones:

Rereading, I’d forgotten that this is very much a Vermont novel.  That state is where most of the action takes place, from the first sentence onward.  Lewis invents the town of Fort Beulah, but it could easily be any number of the state’s small towns.  He has a good sense of just how unseriously people took and take Montpelier.  He knows that Vermont played a key role in the Underground Railroad. And he knows the beauties: “An upland hollow and mist beneath the moon—a veil of mist over apple blossoms and the heavy bloom of an ancient lilac bush beside the ruin of a farmhouse burned these sixty years and more.” (12) One plot device even involves a sap bucket (124).

sap bucket_Jessamyn West

Sap bucket. In Vermont.

It Can’t Happen Here is also a novel about relationships and families.  The Jessup family and friends are the main group of action throughout.  Members and associates pick up different roles, from active anti-fascism to quiet complicity to becoming assassins.   There’s a fascinating subplot about Doremus’ romance with local freethinker Loridna Pike, weirdly encouraged by Ceclia, Doremus’ daughter (63).  I think this was supposed to be a celebration of free love, or a way of showing how political passions spill over into interpersonal connections.  I’m not sure how contemporary readers viewed the abandonment of Emma Jessup, now how it would be read today.  Readers of dystopias will be familiar with the classic trope of the heroic, romantic couple.

What does this have to tell us about the Trump era? Continue reading

Posted in literature, politics | Tagged , | 6 Comments

Becoming an accidental futurist

People sometimes ask me how I became a futurist.  It’s a flattering question, and the answer is a bit messy.

I haven’t written about it before, so I’ll share the story now.  Maybe this will be historically useful for showing one odd path into the futures business.

Let’s begin with modern times and a professional transformation.

During 2002-2013 I stopped being a professor and instead worked for the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education (NITLE).  That was a nonprofit that helped small, private, undergraduate campuses grapple with new technologies.  I focused on exploring and applying emerging technologies (mobile! Web 2.0! gaming! the open source LMS! ah, a different era) through research, workshops, talks, writing, and so on.

Over time two things occurred in that work which drove me into futuring.  First, it became simply too limiting and outright impractical to only focus on technology.  To understand the connection of education and technology I needed to explore patterns of institutional change, higher education finance, conflicting models of education’s purpose, the transformation of the professoriate, changes to literacy, digital literacy and more.  All kinds of domains came into play: sociology, economics, information science, etc.  Gradually futures work emerged for me as the best framework for situating and understanding the developing connection between education and technology.  Once I realized that, so much snapped into focus.

(The futures profession is fascinating sociologically and in terms of modern history.  It’s a very small world, but one with an awful lot of intellectual activity in a very short time.  It has multiple methods, schools, and approaches. Most people don’t see this.)

Second, I discovered a reframing technique which is nearly a language hack.  If I began a talk or meeting or workshop with the word “technology” certain reactions became predictable.  Some faculty and staff would immediately disengage, seeing tech as wholly under the responsibility of campus IT.  Others considered technology to not be a worthy intellectual topic, deeming it along the lines of campus electricity and water supplies.  Still other professors and staff would resist at once, putting up their shoulders and muttering about being Luddites.  I could see audiences disengaging and slipping away.

But if I replaced the word “technology” with the phrase “the future of education”, everyone would be interested.  That’s a topic which every person in education is keen on.  And under that header we could talk much more effectively and productively about technology (and other things).  Even the soi-disant Luddites would participate without kneejerk opposition.

APF LogoSo I built on that shift to futures work.  I dove into the forecasting field, learning how to create scenarios, track trends, scan horizons, and build futures markets.  I immersed myself in the futures profession, reading the literature, participating in online discussions, joining a professional society, presenting to futures conferences.  I applied futures methods, assessed their efficacy, sought feedback, and improved.

My NITLE work got better, more effective, and more interesting to wider audiences.  In fact, requests for my services soon came in from institutions beyond NITLE’s remit: community colleges, research universities, military campuses, and schools from around the world.  A futures business began to take shape.

So moving into the futures world became the basis for my business, and for my career.

I hadn’t trained for that in the usual way.  I didn’t attend the University of Houston’s excellent foresight graduate program.  Instead my graduate work (MA, PhD) was in English literature (the long eighteenth century; Gothic lit) and composition.  My undergrad was in history, a field that often strongly opposes futuring.  So how could I make this professional shift in a serious way?

The answer really stems from my childhood, and a taste/mental habit I learned then: a love for science fiction.

I was born in 1967, and grew up reading as much sf as I could get my hands on: Golden Age, young adult, New Wave (American and British), space opera, time travel, you name it.  My mind was fired with thoughts of space travel, of course, and of sciences and technologies to come.  I also saw a transformed social world ahead.  Yes, the human race would think of itself as a species, rather than as a cluster of nations, and we’d be much more serious about ecology.  Gender equality was coming, and probably through widespread androgyny.  New forms of marriage, new body types, new relationships, religions, social arrangements all arrayed themselves in my preteen mind.

spaceship by erp_wyatt

I also became aware of how predictions could misfire, as I read older books and textbooks with incorrect visions of the future that I was growing up in.  That was when I first realized the present was often someone else’s future gone astray.  I was thinking pretty hard about the futuring business, without knowing it.

By age 10 I knew the future would be seriously different from the present.  I’d taught myself an unusual curriculum, and accidentally prepared myself well for the 21st century.  Not in terms of specific events or technologies (insert here a deep sigh for human spaceflight), but by adopting a mental stance in favor of the new, the different, and the strange.  Not in terms of technology, but by thinking of the world as a complex system with many interconnected and changing domains.  I remember reading into Future Shock (Alvin Toffler, 1970) and laughing cruelly at the thought that anyone could be unprepared or dangerously thoughtless about an onrushing future.

As a teenager I moved away from this to a degree.  I was 13 when Ronald Reagan won the 1980 election, and so my future visions turned towards the degraded, the desperate, and the apocalyptic.  At the same time the social toll of being an eccentric proto-futurist grew strong enough to depress me into isolation and self-loathing.  I learned coding – BASIC, FORTRAN, COBOL, even a bit of assembler – but set it all aside in years of self-doubt.  Science fiction remained in my mind and before my eyes throughout, always offering new possibilities.  I kept reading sf, fervently hoping for future different from and better than a repulsive present, terrified by what seemed likely to transpire.

(To this day, I find myself horrified by anyone who looks back fondly on their junior high/middle school and high school years.)

Some other time I’ll write about how going away to university saved my life and rebooted my brain.  The key detail here is how I started studying science fiction with the very great teacher and  scholar Eric Rabkin.  As my studies turned towards literature and the profession thereof, as I moved from undergrad to master’s then PhD, Eric’s deep love for and uncanny perception of sf’s full range and complexity was one of the greatest forces shaping my career.  As I read extensively in political science, then history, then literature, Eric held out science fiction’s gleaming road forward.

Becoming a graduate student, preparing to become a professor, studying literary history and historicist methods, I gradually turned back to the future.  Through a futures orientation I saw new ways forward for learning, for literature, for my students.  I returned to technology in the 1990s, glimpsing in it a transformation for the whole enterprise of education.   Infusing this spirit into my professional work, I won a professorial position.  Years later this unusual spirit caught the eye of people working for a nonprofit called the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education… and now we’re back to where I started this post.

It would take some years for them to germinate, but the seeds for a futurist’s career were deeply sown from my childhood on.  The futures path was one of those accidental, shambling, stumbling vectors that seems unlikely or invisible until it’s been traversed, and then we can only marvel it took us so long to see what was before us the entire time.

(spaceship image by erp_wyatt)

Posted in personal | 4 Comments

Why the resistance to demographics in education?

Why do people lack information about demographics?  Is there a kind of resistance to demographics, at least in education?

I’ve been struck by this over the past several years.  In my work with hundreds of campuses and organization, and not a few governments, many* people have reacted to my presentation of demographic data with shock and excitement.  This is especially true of educators, and when said data is neither controversial nor bizarre, at least to me.

People don’t respond with arguments.  They don’t contest the research or dispute its importance.  They are just, all too often, surprised.  Aging states, the decline of the youth population, the rising hispanic population, etc. –  this is news to most of them, from what I can tell.

This is frustrating for a futurist, as demographics are very useful tools.  It’s also weird for the education world, since demographics clearly have a powerful impact on schooling.

This topic returned to mind after reviewing Nathan Grawe’s important new research, and hosting him as a guest on the Future Trends Forum two weeks ago.

His research is ground-breaking, but also keys off of what he and I thought were common knowledge.  He tells me many audiences react with shock and appreciation to his basic assertions, which he thought were well understood.

This reminded me of how rarely I see demographics spoken of in the ed tech world.

So what’s going on?  Why isn’t demographic research tripping off of everyone’s tongues?

I pushed this query across a bunch of venues, and did a little digging.  Let me share some findings, then see what you all think, dear readers.

Stats are not sexy Most of the demographic research I see appears in raw statistics or tables.  Rarely do I come across excellent visualizations, like Grawe’s:

Grawe_Forecasted growth in high school graduates 2012 to 2032

I hear from people who teach stats and numeracy that most Americans are pretty shockingly innumerate.  So maybe it’s not demographics per se that we avoid, but the way the field’s research appears: as numbers without visualizations or stories.

Speaking of which…

We prefer generational monickers Many people really enjoy seeing themselves or others in generational framings.  So and so is a Baby Boomer; ah, Millennials are thus and such; well, as an Xer I…, and so on. Strauss and Howe provide very accessible identities and stories for people to access.  Perhaps this displaces looking at the research and data that makes these more complex and, er, realistic.  We’d rather talk about the baby boom instead of the birth dearth.

The persistence of the past Humans have a hard time adjusting to change, often enough.  Admitting that the population one inhabits has changed since childhood can be an unpleasant shock.

Politics Demographics automatically involve major policy issues, from race and ethnicity to deindustrialization, from identity to taxes.  Many are contentious, and so many people will shy away from discussing these out loud, and perhaps avoid learning about them.  For example, thinking about an aging population often leads to realizing that retirement is increasingly unavailable, elder care underfunded, etc.

Speaking of politics…

The politics of religion and sex Demographics is ultimately about the most intimate aspects of human life: birth, death, and sex, for starters.  For many Americans these are awkward (on average) issues to discuss in public.  They involve radical or even painful aspects of religion and personal politics.  Think of abortion politics, for one, or the belief that black babies are being massively aborted for evil reasons.  Think, too, of the possibility that we’ll see new calls for women to have more children, and how that flies in the face of women’s social progress.

I suspect connections to health care make it even more difficult, at least in the United States.  On the positive side the growing population of older folks is a terrific triumph, a civilization-level win for science, public health, sanitation, technology, and care.  On the negative aspect, though, thinking this through means not only grappling with serious complexity, but dealing with the agonized mess of how America finances and restricts access to health care.  All too often we’d rather not talk about it.

It’s like the weather Like the old joke goes, we can observe these phenomena, but not do anything about it.  For some people the huge shifts of birthrate or immigration are meteorologically beyond our ability to address.  So this could cause people to stop paying attention, or to turn away in impotent frustration.

So: numbers, cheap stories, awkward politics, impotence.  It sounds like demographics are just a pain for most to investigate.

What do you think?  Do any of these map onto your experience?

*Yes, note that I use words like “many” and “some”.  #notalleducators resist demographics.

Posted in demographics | 4 Comments

CNN produces Gothic horror, and this is a problem

CNN is not good for America.  And I’m not talking about their relationship with Trump.

A few weeks ago they ran a story very prominently on their site: “Missouri police officer is dead after 911 call of women screaming”.  That’s the actual headline.  Take a look.

I’d like to dive into this story as an example of one way CNN and other cable news outlets have gone badly astray.

Headlines and stories like this are horror tales, simply put. They are about terror and gore.  They are designed to give readers the delicious thrills that Gothic fiction and dark fairy tales have long instilled in audiences.

As a scholar of Gothic horror, I recognize this kind of thing. I respect it on a formal level. There’s a nice sparseness and direction in the headline and body prose.  The tale begins with a quick, effective jolt that rapidly drags in the reader/viewer. Well done, .

But as someone who studies technology, I find it appalling. Remember that for *decades* American violent crime has gone steadily down, but most Americans have been convinced we lived under a nightmarish crime siege.

CNN plays a key role in that, as I and others have shown. CNN has continuously celebrated violent crime stories far, far out of proportion to their reality.

Obviously this is about ratings.  Remember that “if it bleeds, it leads” is both a publishing maxim and a fine assertion of the power of horror stories.  Scary stories can attract eyeballs in every sense, as every horror fan – and every parent of children – knows.

As an information source, CNN helped skew Americans’ sense of reality in terms of violent crime. As things got better, they took exquisite care to make sure we thought they were the opposite. Why does this matter?

On the face of it, it’s disturbing to know cable tv news helped generate a fantasy world. (Maybe we need a new term to cover this. Using reality to make fantastic visions… sounds like fantasy football. “Fantasy crime”? )

But remember that Trump won in 2016 in part by arguing that America was under siege from violent crime. Who do you think convinced about 1/4th of American voters of this idea?  Social media played some role, which is in the public eye now, but tv’s huge role is underappreciated.

Recall, too, the American love of guns. A key driver for gun ownership is self defense. CNN teaches viewers that they live in a dangerous hellscape, with terror about to attack at any moment.  Put another way, CNN is the NRA’s best secret friend.

American cable tv news has been an underrecognized problem for years, now. Alas, it’s easy to give those networks a pass when Trump threatens them, and when many focus on Facebook/Google/Twitter as news purveyors. This is a matter for and .  (I’ll have more to say about this later on.)

Let’s return to that CNN story, and look at it closely. Here’s the opening line: “A shooting incident that left one police officer dead and two others injured in Missouri started with a 911 phone call punctuated by screams.” Well done, horror authors! The scene is set, and the horrific note sounded, all in one brisk sentence.  “During the call, two women could be heard screaming in the background at the home in Clinton” – imagine this as a film. Better yet, as podcast. (Radio theater, in fact, was always the theater of the mind.)

Note the feeble attempt at justifying the story, later on: “This is the second Clinton Police Department officer killed in less than a year.” Hmmmm…. sounds like a scary trend! You know what? Maybe ! (See how this works?)

To be utterly clear, I’m not dismissing the suffering that actually occurred, in case CNN fans want to offer that response.  Obviously.  Need I mention there are first responders in my family?  And that I’m not a sociopath?  This isn’t a question of “was the event bad”, but rather: should a national/international network, like CNN, whip it into a major scary story? Put another way: down the road in Clinton I suspect one or more people died this week of congestive heart failure, or cancer. Those are also stories of terror and suffering – arguably, greater terror and suffering than that police shooting.

In fact, heart disease and cancer kill far more people than gun violence in the US.   Many, many people have intimate experience with these killers.  *And* there’s stuff viewers and readers can do about it right now. It’s funny how CNN doesn’t run these as screaming headlines.

To an extent this publication strategy relies on the way humans perceive risk in terms of novelty.  Tom the Dancing Bug has a nice cartoon about this (HT Rob Henderson), about how we respond more to shocking and surprising stories than to tales based on large statistics or continuing trends.   Yet I think if CNN is truly possessed of world class storytellers, they could turn heart disease into a gripping narrative.  (Might I recommend a certain book on the subject?)  They could also choose not to flog a relative handful of crime stories into a national terror wave.  Instead they very carefully selected the violent crime horror route.

This could well be an important story for Clinton, Missouri. (Or two related shootings might be a coincidence, a possibility CNN leaves unexplained. Again, see how this works?) But for a national and international audience, where CNN works? This is Gothic puffery, a deliberate act of fearmongering, with consequences. And we’re not holding CNN and its ilk accountable.  It’s time we should.

Posted in digital literacy | Tagged | 3 Comments

The shake-out is coming: the Wall Street Journal looks at higher ed’s future

Last month the Wall Street Journal published an article about the future of higher education with a clear and provocative title, “U.S. Colleges Are Separating Into Winners and Losers”.  In it Douglas Belkin offers a dark argument: that a chunk of American higher ed is in existential trouble.

The editors summarized this argument as “the shake-out is coming”.

Here I’d like to pull out some key aspects of the piece, as they add to our understanding of the future of higher ed, and in particular what I’ve elsewhere referred to as “peak higher education.”

Belkin does a good job of quickly summarizing the long-term boom and bust narrative for American higher ed enrollment:

For generations, a swelling population of college-age students, rising enrollment rates and generous student loans helped all schools, even mediocre ones, to flourish. Those days are ending… In 1980, 47% of high-school graduates enrolled in a two or four-year college. Today, it’s nearly 70%. But between 2011 and 2016, enrollment at the bottom 20% [of campuses in the WSJ ranking] declined 2%. The top 80% of schools grew 7%.

So: a long arc of growth, followed by a recent decline.

Belkin also identifies geographic differences – utterly known to you, my readers:

Because the demographic dip is so pronounced in the Midwest and Northeast, low-ranking schools there are the most vulnerable to enrollment declines. Schools in Pennsylvania, Ohio and New York made up a quarter of the 237 schools that saw a 10% or greater decline in enrollment between 2011 and 2016.

Schools like Edinboro University (1022 on the WSJ ranking) in northwestern Pennsylvania are scrambling to realign their academic offerings to attract more students as they cut costs. Between 2011 and 2016, first-year enrollment has plummeted to 1,051 from 1,482 and the faculty shrank by nearly a quarter.

A death spiral. Photo by Paul Downey.Now within that overall and geographically markets decline is a divide, which is key to the analysis.  Belkin mentions the WSJ running an analysis of more than 1,000 colleges and universities (roughly 1/4-1/5th of US higher ed) and reaching this conclusion: “U.S. not-for-profit colleges and universities are segregating into winners and losers—with winners growing and expanding and losers seeing the first signs of a death spiral.”  This finding and its phrasing alike both echo Slate’s notorious 2014 celebration of the death of small colleges (“If the demise of a few schools can make the rest of higher ed a bit healthier, then let the death spiral whirl”).

The article doesn’t go into detail about how the analysis works, but suggests that it’s strongly driven by economics, unsurprisingly.  “The Journal uses 15 metrics to determine quality and rank. They include return on investment, student engagement and academic resources.”  For example, “At Clemson University, the Journal found, graduates on average earn $50,000 a year 10 years after entering college and the default rate on student loans is 3%; the average Concord graduate earned $32,000 and the default rate is 15%.”

So we see one projection for the future of American higher ed, that a good number of institutions are facing serious, even existential threats.  Identifying which institutions are thus endangered becomes a matter of assumptions and models.

Now, this then leads Belkin to show some strategies whereby these campuses fight the death spiral:

…academic program prioritization (“Edinboro Provost Michael Hannan said if he could go back a decade, he would urge his school “to move much more quickly to evaluate which academic programs are attracting students and begin launching new ones that do a better job.”)

…closer ties with business (“Clemson’s success is tied to its embrace of the labor market, said Chuck Knepfle, associate vice president of enrollment management. The school has several corporate partners and has tied curriculum to their needs.  ‘Our students get jobs, we put successful people out there and that is well known,’ Mr. Knepfle said.”)

…aggressive recruitment from far away (“At Concord, Jamie Ealy, vice president of enrollment management is increasing efforts to enroll students from out of state and overseas. He has hired people in Florida and Virginia to market the school and is trying to attract students from Scandinavia, Africa and Asia.”)

…and cuts, including queen sacrifices (“All these schools have just been doing their own little thing and hoping all these problems will go away,” said [Charles Becker, Concord’s vice president for business and finance]. “They haven’t and they won’t. Consolidation and right-sizing is ahead.”)

Again, my readers are familiar with all of these.  These are all strategies in play, shaping where campuses head next.

Consider: recruiting aggressively out of state and out of country, which runs into all kinds of problems (rising nervousness about heading to the US; state governments unhappy with public universities focusing effort elsewhere), and hence a variety of politics.  Close ties with business is also heightening political tensions over the purpose of higher ed, not to mention anxiety about either certain businesses (cf the current anti-Silicon-Valley moment) or about business in general (cue left politics, or worries about wealth inequality).

Academic program (re)prioritization brings up another suite of politics.  We can see the arguments most brilliantly displayed in Chris Newfield’s response to the Stevens Point story.  Again, what is the purpose of higher ed?  What is the role of economics, from a program’s financial sustainability to graduates’ incomes?

I don’t know if these politics will escape the academy.  In my work I’ve found the rest of the United States blissfully ignorant of most of higher education’s realities, from the shift to adjunctified labor to the transition to a new student body.  Perhaps some arguments and signals will escape academia’s event horizon to reach state legislatures and national media, translated or scrambled in the process.

Overall, though, I’m not seeing much interest in directing public monies to buoy up struggling publics, nor public appetite in ramping up our extraordinary debt even further to pay for privates.  In recent talks I’ve been describing this as “crunch time”, and will write more about that theme shortly.

PS: on a meta-note, this post is about an article many people can’t see, because it was trapped behind a paywall.  Recently that newspaper experimenting with making more content available to some non-paying readers.  Should I keep writing about these non-open stories, or avoid them?  Or should I summarize them, as I did here?


Posted in future of education | 13 Comments

The powers of digital literacies: responding to danah boyd and all

How should we best teach digital and media literacy?  How can such teaching respond to today’s politically and technologically polarized milieu?

Last week a discussion brewed across Twitter and the blogosphere as several digital literacy people (Benjamin Doxtdator, Maha Bali, Renee Hobbs, Britni Brown O’Dell) responded to danah boyd’s SXSW keynote.  Here’s a video of the latter:

I chimed in on Twitter belatedly, caught between storms, travel, presenting, and consulting.  danah then responded with a blog post, and invited all of us to reply.

So here I am.

I’ll respond to key items from both her blog post and the original speech, as best as I can.

(NB: I’m writing this between a dozen plane flights and on various new medications.  Hopefully it is coherent.)

Some personal background: I’ve been involved with information and digital literacy efforts since the 1990s.  I’ve published and spoken on these topics, as well as closely related ones (copyright).  I built and led an information fluency effort at Centenary College.

To the discussion, and starting with actual media literacy: in her speech boyd argues that “a perverted version of media literacy does already exist… When tech is involved, it often comes in the form of ‘don’t trust Wikipedia; use Google.'”  My experience of this differs from danah’s and also from some others’ in this discussion, I think.  I don’t have nearly the K-12 immersion that danah has had.  I work primarily (although not exclusively) in higher ed, but over the past twenty years I have traveled to, and worked with many people working in, hundreds of campuses in the United States (and beyond, but the US is, I think, the frame of this discussion).  I have also studied digital literacy (which includes media literacy) across American higher ed (and globally, but ditto).

My sense is that, yes, there is still a strong antipathy towards Wikipedia – not just “treat it as an encyclopedia, with the limitations that form historically affords”, and not “it’s a social platform, so let’s study and even edit it”, but “avoid the Wikipedia.”  I’ve seen this across institutional types and geography.  At the same time, I’ve heard from faculty and librarians who either celebrate Wikipedia or just quietly allow its use.  I’ve had some fantastic and bizarre conversations with educators about this.

I have also seen many and varied information and digital literacy programs throughout higher education.  These don’t focus on the difference “between CNN and Fox”, as danah also noted, but on finding information in the general digital ecosystem, especially for scholarly work.  Such programs are often housed in academic libraries and driven by their librarians.  They are often about helping students calibrate trust in response to the open web’s many forms, and in identifying securely trusted sources accessed through databases and portals (JSTOR, Google Scholar, library sites, etc.).

“I am not arguing that media literacy causes hatred. I’m arguing that it doesn’t solve it. And, more importantly, that a well-intended but ineffective intervention can actually do harm.”

I agree with this, and applaud the citation of Tripodi’s important work on evangelical hermeneutics.  I am especially pleased at taking religiously conservative viewpoints – and students – seriously and thoughtfully, rather than as villains (“I worry about how people judge those they don’t understand or respect”).  I’ve taught at a college deep in America’s Bible Belt, and know well the dynamics of teaching progressive/feminist/critical theory/Marxist/etc. content and approaches to politically opposed students.  (Which includes supporting students there who are engaging positively with such ideas, and who are all too often disappeared by liberals from other regions; ah, geographic prejudice is alive and well in the US.)   It’s really easy to backfire.  In short, blue can boost red.

“Can you give me examples of programs that are rooted in, speaking to, and resonant with conservative and religious communities in this country? In particular, I’d love to know about programs that work in conservative white Evangelical and religious black and LatinX communities?”

This is a great question, and I can’t point to such programs in the United States.

I can point to the work a group of us did last year in international digital literacy, working with the late New Media Consortium.  One of our findings was that nations and regions often expressed different frameworks for teaching, and understandings of, digital literacy.  That included, among other things, a stronger emphasis on media literacy in the Middle East and North Africa; it might be worth exploring those frameworks, as different as the context is.  The European tendency to emphasize aligning student growth with national and EU-level regulations is interesting, and I could imagine transplanting that to the US backfiring.  I do wonder about the African emphasis on digital literacy for economic purposes – jobs and economic growth – and if that approach could cross political and religious divides.

“How do you stabilize students’ trust in Information, particularly among those whose families are wary of institutions and Information intermediaries?”

This is a great question, although my take might differ from others’ in this discussion.

For one, I’m fascinated by the authority politics of digital literacy.  As I wrote earlier, one way of viewing new developments in the field is as a struggle over where authority should be located: in empowered individuals making critical choices themselves, or in trusted institutions, including ones established before the Web.  While Trump has slammed some tv news and newspapers, a lightly dialectical response has occurred, with people flocking to pay the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Guardian (whose American coverage success story is fascinating), and others to get behind paywalls support their coverage.  I’ve also seen calls to support certain tv news outlets – CNN, MSNBC – along with their being cited uncritically.  I have not seen a return to authority for other, classic gatekeepers, like librarians, radio stations, or print publishers, but each longs for more.  This is classic American politics – individuals versus authority – and also ancient human politics.

I’m also less concerned about what some call a crisis of authority.  I do take Mike Caulfield’s observations seriously, especially on a practical level.  At a broader level I am concerned about some strange or addled beliefs insofar as they have public impact, such as antivaxxers keeping dangerous diseases alive (Bruce Sterling: “anti-vaxxers are a greater public health menace than the NRA”), young Earth creationists squelching biology teaching, and climate change denialists working to stop all kinds of research and policy.

At the same time I see many authorities doing just fine.  As mentioned above, for all of Trump’s bluster, many of his media targets are healthier now than in 2016.  This, despite their well known biases and grievous problems, which I’ve written about in terms of national tv news.  Criticizing major news media is and has always been a fine thing – do I need to cite Chomsky on this, or refer to plentiful examples, like the Washington Post’s little blacklist article?

I don’t know if this is what Kate Bowles was thinking of with this tweet, but it might align:

Or Renee Hobbs:

I’ve been concerned about those who teach media literacy as a valorization of mainstream media or who present it as merely making simplistic distinctions between fact and opinion.

I’m also leery of dismissing opposition to one’s preferred authority without taking that resistance seriously.  For example, while I abhor anti-vaxxers, I’m mindful of how the medical establishment all too easily runs roughshod over patients, especially those from marginalized populations.  At another level, we can think of the bizarrely underdiscussed habit of Americans in refusing to punish public figures for horrendous mistakes and crimes, such as invading Iraq, conducting torture, failing to perceive much less stop 9-11, all the way back to Iran-Contra’s perpetrators largely escaping justice.  Think, too, of how many bankers and policymakers were prosecuted or otherwise punished for the 2008 financial meltdown.  Remember how successful both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump were in connecting with voters on the theme of “the economic game being rigged”; that isn’t a fantasy in an age of increasing economic inequality and decreasing economic mobility.  In short, there are reasons for distrusting authority we can pay heed to, and should, if we want to build up trust.

Beyond the media world and the United States, we’re seeing political authorities expanding their powers, from China to the Philippines to Russia and Poland.  While some are suspicious of populist movements as rebellious or unsettling, authoritarian politicians can readily adopt those insurgent energies into rule.  We may be heading into an illiberal, rather than (classically) liberal age.  This is another reason I am skeptical of pushing for more trust in authorities, and am often sympathetic to anti-authoritarians.

Shorter: go read Renee Hobbs.

Back to boyd and her final note:

when I try to untangle the threads to actually address the so-called “fake news” problem, I always end in two places: 1) dismantle financialized capitalism (which is also the root cause of some of the most challenging dynamics of tech companies); 2) reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people. But neither of those are recommendations for educators. <grin>

Bravo for returning to the problems of capitalism, and another cheer for mentioning financialization, which often drops out of American political discourse (either because it’s complex and unsexy, or because certain politics depend on finance).

However, I firmly disagree with this conclusion, even with the ultimate smile.  These are precisely tasks for educators.

Dismantling financialized capitalism is something we can research and teach – and do.  We have generations of left-wing pedagogy to draw upon, like the work of Myles Horton and Paolo Friere (cf our passionate book club reading).  We have recent political movements, like Occupy, the coalition around Bernie Sanders, and the rising Democratic Socialists of America.  There are people doing this now.  No, 5th grade teachers and university adjuncts alone can’t win the White House and Congress with a left-wing political party, but they can play a role.  As one does in a democracy.

Similarly, instructors can actually work to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.”  We do and have often done this in a variety of ways, from nurturing learning communities to supporting interracial busing to service learning to social justice pedagogy in the classroom (for example).  I think open education – open access in scholarly publishing, open education resources, open teaching – is also a fine way to “reknit the social fabric of society by strategically connecting people.”

One more point: I’m a bit surprised to not see more calls for the open web in this conversation.  If we want to get away from platforms we see as multiply dangerous (Facebook in particular, it seems), then we could posit some better sites.  I’m for RSS and the blogosphere.  Others may plump for Mastodon.

I’d like to say more about this from a futures perspective, since that’s my job, but not in this post, which is already way too long.

One final, meta, small note: it’s interesting how much of this conversation happened on Medium, rather than on self-hosted or other-hosted blogs.

Posted in digital literacy | 14 Comments

How will income inequality shape digital literacy?

As several nations see income inequality escalate, how will that shape digital literacy efforts and practices?

I’ve been thinking about this for several years, as I’ve worked on digital literacy and been researching income inequality.  Some of our book club readings and discussions have spoken to this, like Our Kids and Capital in the 21st Century.

Let me throw out some factors, questions, and ideas.  I’ll focus on the United States for now, but want to move on beyond that country if possible.

I’m assuming a few things for this post: that income inequality will continue to increase; that we can analyze class a key factor; that we will value digital literacy at least as highly as we do now.

The digital divide – we’ve already seen class playing a role in who has access to what hardware, software, and network speed (my most recent article on this).  That divide should drive different skillsets, experiences, and expectations.  Could it mean that those with splendid digital capacity are more likely to understand streaming video, or using more high-end and technologically demanding software, such as 3d imaging apps?  Perhaps the lower classes will use Google Maps, while the upper GIS.

Will certain hardware be associated with the lower classes, yielding stigma, as Amanda Sturgill suggested?  Could software follow suit?  I can imagine coding becoming the sign of the lower classes (if compensation falls, especially through globalization), the upper (if coding requires rare teaching), or the middle.

One Hechinger Report article offers this vision:

imagine the difference between a classroom that is full of seamlessly integrated technology — laptops, desktops, tablets — and the classroom that only has one or two obsolete candy-colored iMacs on a shelf lining the back wall. In the affluent classroom, perhaps students regularly benefit from digital simulations and game-based learning. They have access not only to cutting-edge educational content, but also to the psychological, social and emotional benefits of digital game play.

Or, as a NASPA post observes, “[l]ow-income and first-generation students may not know how to use certain software programs or have the social capital needed to find out how those programs are used.”

Which brings up a related point: how will computer gaming fall out in terms of digital literacy?  Will understanding games become the mark of taste, or a sign of being a prole?  Will different types of games line up by class – say, hunting games for the rural poor, with indie games for the well educated?

Definitions – besides digital literacy, there is also digital fluency, digital competency, digital independence, and even digital sophistication.  Each has different resonances and multiple definitions, implications, and emphases.  Could we see different labels emerge for different classes?  Perhaps we’ll see some version of “remedial digital literacy” versus “advanced digital literacy”.

Related to this is the way digital literacy includes prior literacies for media and information.  If we correlate education with class, as America seems to be doing ever more closely, will the upper classes see themselves as more media and information literate than the rest?

Automation – how automation impacts digital literacy is a great topic, and let me pull out two elements.

First, who will have the most access to operating AI?  Who will receive the best education and training?  I could well imagine a scenario whereby AI is the province of the wealthy, who direct it across everyone else.  Alternatively, the 1 % own, but do not themselves handle the technology; the latter is delegated to coders as part of the middle class.

Second, what will be the class signature of robots?  That is, to which class will robot skills be assigned?  I could see robot mastery as a sign of the elite, given their greater economic cost.  On the other hand, robots’ association with repetitive and/or menial labor might drive their handling to the classes that would otherwise perform these tasks themselves.

Privacy – as multiple forms of surveillance burgeon, will we all be equally subjected to them, or will class break out different responses?  My sense is that in K-12 schools lower class students are more likely to be surveilled, generally speaking, and less likely to obtain power over their data; I’m not sure if that’s accurate, or if we can generalize from it.

The sense that schools more populated by lower class students are also more dangerous could ramp up surveillance there as well.

Will the elite be trained not in responding to surveillance, but in controlling, applying, and managing the surveillance of others?

Creativity  – some of us (but not all) see making and creating as key to digital literacy.  Yet it seems that teaching students to be creative, especially in secondary school, could different strongly by class.  Schools with lower funding (remember than K-12 funding in the United States is very local, generally) and serving students from lower income families could receive less education in the full range of digital creativity than schools for the elite.  Ultimately, digital literacy as digital expression could become an upper class marker.

These are opening questions for a larger discussion.  What do you think of these?  Which questions would you add?

(thanks to Steve Covello for suggestions on Twitter)

Posted in digital literacy | 5 Comments

Robots, buyouts, and spinoffs: four short stories for the future of education and technology

Here I’ll continue my new practice of sharing several short stories from the past week that strike me as connected to important trends.  You can find more of those trends among the others I map at FTTE.

ITEM: Amazon’s home robot/entertainment center/node for controlling humans Alexa has a new “skill” (a routine, like a macro).  It plays AI-generated music.

This brings together a few trends: new(ish) interfaces (here, voice and audio only); automation used for interfaces and also for creativity in some form.

(Some may remember me telling terrified/disbelieving/bemused audiences two years ago about the rising tide of computer-generated creative content.)

ITEM: a Chinese company has bought up one American college, Westminster Choir CollegeBloomberg thinks this is a rising trend.

A few thoughts about this: note that it’s a very small and specialized school.  We could see more of this as many private colleges face continued economic pressures, and as China’s elite continues to grow enormous economic power.

Rider, based in nearby Lawrenceville, said the 98-year-old music college lost $10.7 million since fiscal year 2015. Rider suffered a blow in November when Moody’s Investors Service downgraded its outlook from stable to negative. Beijing Kaiwen made the best proposal to keep Westminster operating as a choir college in Princeton, Rider said in a statement.

I’m not sure of the Chinese buyers’ motivations.  Is this an investment property with a profit strategy in place?  Is owning an American campus a prestige good (it’s in the town of Princeton)?  How does it fit in with potential US-Chinese economic strife?

From the American side, will some see this as a national security threat?  Will Trump mobilize anti-Chinese racism?  How viable is that in 2018?  Will we see a drive to protect our precious American academics from the Chinese threat?

ITEM: an Australian group is launching its own Delphi-method-using future of education report. Jason Zagami (Griffith University) has started this up, aiming to include all of Australian education, from primary to post-secondary schools.

Australian Educational Technology Trends

I don’t know much more about this than what that page displays.  Professor Zagami, would you like to comment?

So many projects are springing up in the wake of NMC’s death: CoSN’s Driving K-12 Innovation, EDUCAUSE’s stewardship of Horizon, and our FOECast.  There’s the trend of demand for more intelligence about the future of education and technology.  There’s also the developments in professional associations.  If this is a small startup, rather than an association, perhaps that’s a signal about the way forward: smaller, nimbler, less remunerative.

ITEM: Bruce Sterling offers the term “makertainment.”  That means entertaining videos based on maker activities.  He was thinking of Simone Giertz (YouTube).  I think this is the video he mentioned, wherein Giertz creates, hunts, and eats a robot:

I prefer this one of hers, just because of the title: “I built a hammering machine that destroys everything”.

Sterling’s been writing about makertainment for a few months, including a note about a “laser bazooka” and a more prosaic box building. Here’s Sterling’s whole SXSW keynote:

What trends does this story (the term, the videos, the practice) embody?  For a start we have the continued presence and development of the maker culture movement, including DIY video programs that now seem to make money.  There’s also the sense of technology enabling new forms of creativity, including engagements with non-digital concepts (here, the politics of food and hunting).  There’s also the rise of women in male-dominated tech fields.

Plus, robot eating and laser bazookas.

(thanks to Ed Vielmetti and Jonathan Nalder for links)

Posted in professional development, technology | 1 Comment

Digg is going to kill Digg Reader; what should we do now?

After five years of operation Digg Reader, an RSS reader, is about to be killed.

Here’s what greeted me over the weekend when I fired it up in a web browser:

Digg Reader shut down notice

“Bummer, we know.”

As far as I can tell there haven’t been any formal announcements or explanations from Digg. There’s a little copy of this notice on their Zendesk, for what it’s worth (“It’s been fun y’all”: seriously?). I’ve tweeted at them and sent email; no response yet.

Damn it.

Five years ago we went through this when Google unceremoniously killed their RSS reader.  Well, I say “we”.  Back in 2013 I suspect there were more of us relying on Google Reader.  Possibly the number of us using RSS aggregators has declined since.  Even more likely is that fewer people use Digg Reader now than GR back in the day.  Gizmodo snarked, “Were you even using it?”

Well, I was.  Personally, I rely on an RSS reader to organize a hefty amount of feeds for my research.  It lets me arrange and rearrange a wide range of feeds into streams that make sense for my work.  RSS saves me a heck of a lot of time, and also lets me more easily track patterns across inputs.

Visually, a good RSS trawl makes me feel like this supervillain:


Politically, I’ve always supported RSS.  It’s a free and open standard.  It empowers us to explore and connect with the open web.  It offers an alternative to, or different ways into and around, the commercial web.  It ties in well with the call some of us issue and/or heed to return to blogging.

RSS lets us return to what Molly McHugh calls “the chronological internet“.  That’s an experience we control, without the dubious benefits of some company’s blackboxed AI (hello, Facebook).  McHugh again: “Users are curators of their internet experiences”.

The end of Digg Reader reminds us of what Alan Levine eloquently observed back in 2013:

This is a bit of a reminder that the web we inhabit is made by others. Can be taken away. The web is a fabric, and I thought of that yesterday while using a broom to knock some spider webs off the side of my house. The web with holes, empty spots, becomes a tattered fabric. Holes might merge to gaping voids, and then giant swaths of dead space.

We should be making the web, not breaking it. And we make in our own spaces.

So, what to do now?

First now, I’m going to keep on with RSS, somehow, picking a new reader to try.  I believe in the politics, and I know the personal benefits are solid.

(Even though I’m starting to feel like a crank.  “Back in the day,” he wheezed, “we used a dag blamed RSS reader!”  He pounded the porch with his cracked cane.  “And it was good for us!  Not like the fancy, stupid Facebook and Snapflat you kids use these days!” He coughed again.  Not so much blood this time.  Nobody else saw, because nobody else was listening.)

Second, choices choices await.

I tweeted about this stupid Digg mess, and one project, Inoreader, swiftly pounced:

I appreciate that.

Then another site, the better known Feedly, tweeted me as well:

That 100 feeds limitation looks pretty stark for me, though, since I have cough cough more.

What are the other options?

On LinkedIn one contact recommended BazQux.  I know nothing more about this delightfully named thing.

Still on deck from last time: FeedWranglerNetVibesNewsblur, The Old Reader.  I’m not sure if PressForward can work as an RSS reader.  BlogTrottr works by email, which doesn’t appeal to me right now. Some old ones look dead or in hospice, like Fever and PrismaticBloglines isn’t loading.

New to me since I last looked into this grim matter: PandaFeedbinSelfoss, which requires installation, I think.  G2Reader.  Feeder.

Should I pick up an established, hosted service, or try carving out time to host my own?

And third – let’s look ahead a bit.

A giant company (Google) exited the RSS space.  One smaller company (Digg) jumped in, then exited.  Are all of the other RSS readers provided by start-ups and tiny firms?  Has RSS reading become that marginalized?  Are we this bound up with the “helpful”, AI-driven feeds so many experience through Facebook and the like?  For another science fiction reference, we might collectively accustom ourselves to benevolent AI oversight, as with Iain Banks’ Culture universe (thanks to Crainist for the idea). This is one future path.

One would think that the rising disgust at giant social media and other tech firms might drive people back to RSS, as an open, easy to use standard.  Perhaps we’ll see the RSS reader equivalent of Mastodon.  There will be a reactionary movement growing in strength.  RSS could ride alongside people seeking social media detoxes and setting up their own, tiny social networks. Call it the Butlerian Jihad for RSS and the open web.  That’s another way forward.

Or maybe a small number of us will tend the open flame, huddled around a shrinking number of oddball RSS reader, stolidly blogging away.  We’ll be like the Amish in Pennsylvania, plodding along while the others whiz past.  Or we’ll become something like a minority religion, somewhat tolerated, sometimes disdained, often sidestepped.

Over to you, dear readers.  Which way forward for RSS, both in the big picture and in the practical sense of which reader to try?

Posted in technology | 50 Comments