Having hope about the world and education in 2018

On the winter solstice, the northern hemisphere’s darkest day, I shared some dark thoughts about the future of education, technology, and society.

Things haven’t gotten much better since.  This morning Wunderground * sent me their daily weather update:

Today is forecast to be MUCH WARMER than yesterday.
HI 8° F | LO -10° FC

Caps in original.

We don’t have much snow – just a foot or so – but it’s cold enough that the top freezes, often preventing footsteps from sinking through to the chilly earth below.  Ice on top of snow in darkness.

clown without head

Seen during Christmas break.

I’m not the only one writing about darkness.  As we reflect on 2017 and look ahead to 2018, many people are gloomy.  Articles, blog posts, podcasts, and videos identify bad trends and awful people in power.  They share dystopian prognostications.  So much is terrible that we exit December with a cringe. 2018 is looming ahead with a Darth Vader Imperial March soundtrack.

Professionally, I get it.  Readers know that in my futures work I’ve identified many, many dark and challenging trends.  Some of my scenarios contain grim elements or are openly dystopian.   As a futurist my job is not to play Pollyanna.  Instead, my task is to open people’s minds to the variety of futures, including ones many of us would rather not inhabit.

On a business level, I know that my dark work can be very attractive.  That’s far from a new insight.  “Fear sells” is a time-honed truism, from journalism (“if it bleeds, it leads”) to fiction to true crime and horror.  This dreadful truism certainly applies to education, technology, and ed tech.

But my professional charge is also to share futures that don’t loom ahead like a descending sledgehammer.  There are many possibilities for 2018 et seq, including positive and even inspirational ones.  That’s what this blog post is about.  We have passed the darkest night, and are due for a little more sunlight every single day for a while.

(I owe a debt of gratitude to a bunch of people for this one. In a recent podcast the awesome Rebecca Solnit just took darkness head-on and gave us reasons to keep working for progress.  Mimi Ito found good among the bad.  My Patreon supporters, including the new and upgraded ones (HURRAH!), are literally banking on hope.  And my family, despite having me as a gloom-meister in the house, keeps racing ahead into the future with spirits high.  This is a blog post of thanks, and a lot of love.)

So what’s looking good?

The end of overpopulation This is a huge topic, but it looks like the human race decided not to drown the planet in people.  For younger readers the epochal nature of this development might not be so staggering, so follow that link for the backstory.

Yes, calls for advanced nations to start making more babies can be either funny or creepy (again, see that link).  But it’s enormously positive that that’s where we are now, instead of figuring out how to avoid mass starvation.

Renewable energy While global warming continues to rise, one bright spot shines forth.  Renewable energy keeps making progress.  Americans have shifted a good portion of our automotive fleet to hybrids and electric cars, a dream straight from science fiction.  Solar cell prices keep dropping.  Project after project seeks to harness wind power in the best ways.  350.org, led by my neighbor and friend Bill McKibben, heroically assembles a planetary coalition to fight climate change.

Yes, it’s not enough, but it’s more than we used to have, and it looks likely to grow.

Political insurgency The United States elected a bad president in 2016, and his Congressional allies have busied themselves trying to implement a raft of bad ideas.  The flipside of this is a rebirth of activism.  Science fans took to the streets like something out of H.G. Wells.

science march Montpelier

The science march in Montpelier, Vermont.

Immigrants and their supporters have also protested and organized. Sexual assault and harassment victims organized online through #metoo. Women, above all, have leaped into the political arena in what seem like the highest numbers in American history (please correct me in comments if I’m wrong).

There’s a dialectical at work here, with awfulness calling out energetic activism.  That doesn’t show any signs of slowing down as we head into 2018.

Thinking and planning about automation I and others have been writing about automation’s possible impact for years, and this isn’t the place to summarize that.  Critics have pointed out the many ways automation can go wrong, and the problems of hype frenzy; ditto.  What I want to identify here is one good thing: that we’re talking about it all.

See, that’s not a given.  Technology and tech policy easily fall off the cultural and political radar for a variety of well-worn reasons: complexity, bad journalism, etc.  Automation could easily have suffered such a fate.  Instead, not only is there crazed hype around it, but also thoughtful discussion, imagination, and some planning.  This is why we’ve resurrected the minimum income idea, for example.  That’s why Nick Bostrom is doing breathtaking work at Oxford.  Wherever I go in the world, educators and everyone else are interested in where automation is going.  Sure, we’ll get all kinds of things wrong.  That’s what happens when you explore the future, especially for something as hard to determine as automation.  But we’re actually trying.

(I think this is a sign of science fiction’s growing popularity and good influence on society.)

Digital creativity keeps going Historically, people tend to respond to new media and forms creatively, making new stuff: new art, new stories, new shapes for expression.  That’s been going on in the digital world since the 1970s, and shows no signs of slowing down.  This is an underappreciated aspect of educational technology. (You could read a book about this).

I’ve been impressed by the hardware side, among others.  In November I visited Singapore and saw that every middle school student received a Micro:bit to explore.  The year before that, the Icelandic education minister described how they gave all students in that nation a Raspberry Pi to work on.  This reminds me of the way students work on robots, from Lego’s Mindstorms on up.

We can discuss the questions of requiring students to work on software and hardware, and I do.  But here I’d like to draw attention to the spirit of creativity playing out as students – and the rest of us – pick up technologies and explore.

Science!  Despite the many ways people worldwide oppose a variety of scientific projects, researchers keep growing what we know about the universe.  Even though anti-vaxxers apparently hanker for a return to the plague old days and intelligence designers (or however they brand themselves) still oppose the fossil record, scientists continue to work.

Owain and Bill Nye exhibit

My son, Owain, paying homage to a Bill Nye exhibit at the Smithsonian.

Some fields are in various forms of crisis, notably social sciences.  Psychology is still reeling from the disastrous reproducibility crisis.  Economics still struggles with 2008.  But these can be the kinds of challenges from which fields emerge with better methods, intelligence, and teaching.

The open revolution proceeds Every month more educational content appears as open education resources.  Z-programs and entire Z-degrees are now a thing.  Many people labor mightily to flip scholarly publication to open access.  Others work on open pedagogy (shout out to Robin DeRosa).  The Creative Commons keeps growing.  Indeed, “commons” has become a cliche, as it’s so widely used.  It’s amazing to see this proceed in the teeth of fierce and/or stodgy opposition.  It’s like the dialectical opposite to neoliberalism.

Higher education’s self-awareness My sense is that people working within American colleges, universities, and associations are increasingly alive to the economic crisis most institutions are working through.  In my work, a greater proportion of folks other than chief financial officers are interested in the topic and know at least a little something.  Conversations about the topic are hard to have, sometimes, which is why the appearance of NACUBO’s discussion guide is very well timed.  This is progress.

Related to this is the growing movement for various forms of free public higher education.  There are many problems with these, as Sara Goldrick-Rab points out in her trailblazing work (another fine Future Trends Forum guest).  But the drive is there, and offers a potentially positive alternative to our current system.

The human factor Above all, what inspires me with hope and humility is the people in education: the faculty, the technologists, the librarians, the administrators, the groundskeepers.  In 2017 they took an enormous amount of heat.  A growing number of Republicans think educators are taking the country to hell.  A number of progressive critics deem a good chunk of educators to be hidebound regressives, brazenly fighting to turn schools into hellzones.  Few are paid anywhere near “well”; the majority of American faculty would do better driving for Uber or flipping burgers.  Again and again we are assured that educators, ed tech, and education is doomed, stalled, hateful, or terrible.

And in response?  These people just keep working.

The librarians – ye gods, can we really not understand their heroic nature, even at this late date?  Nobody has to teach and support every person who walks unmediated, unscheduled, and unannounced into their doors.  Librarians have little press, and next to no visible fans.  They face an existential crisis like no other sector in education. Their budgets are at best frozen.  Popular culture ruthlessly stereotypes librarians as unprofessional, cringing scolds.  Heaps of sexist tropes fall upon librarians without a touch of popular demur.

And they keep doing their work.  Without fanfare librarians connect people to information, train people on technology, provide safe spaces for younger folks and work spaces for all.  They keep reinventing their spaces and services.  It staggers me that libraries do this and we don’t hold regular parades on their behalf.  Of course librarians will rock 2018.

All kinds of education professions work largely beyond the limelight at the majority of American institutions.  With depressing persistence popular conversations around higher ed tend to zero in on the handful of richest colleges and universities.  It’s Harvard, Stanford, and a clutch of elite liberal arts colleges that hog the media’s attention, and many educators follow suit, sadly.  Meanwhile, community colleges teach nearly one half of American students.  Swarms of private colleges, often religious in mission, continue their work.  Many public universities that aren’t flagships get starved by state legislatures, yet they keep on with their fundamentally democratic mission.

I often write about the ways American higher ed serves to midwife plutocracy into the middle of the 21st century.  It’s vital to remember that the pre-neoliberal model of higher ed, reaching from the 19th century’s land grants to the 1960s community college boom, still exists and does a huge amount of education.

And the students, ah, the students.  To begin with, my readers know of the growing importance of “non-traditional” (soon to be “traditional”) students: older adults, taking classes in ever-growing numbers.  They have little representation in popular awareness, since we’re still, idiotically, convinced that higher ed is about 18-year-olds heading out of state to a residential campus (remember, this is one niche of several in higher ed).  Adult learners hack classes in between jobs, caring for family members, and trying to fit into a strange if not forbidding schoolscape.  In 2018 we should see this continue, and probably grow.

What about those “traditional” students, the tail end of Millennials and rising Homeland/Z Generation?  It’s still fair game for older folks to not just disdain them, but to blame them for every damn thing, from election outcomes to economic woes to cultural problems and simple bad taste.  Frankly, a disturbing number of older folks openly hate the rising younger ones.  It’s not a new story, of course, but still one that sells.  A lot.


Found on Facebook.

In response, those kids turn to terrorism and drugs, setting alight the world that spurns them.  Actually, no: they just get to work.  Instead of punching back at their elder enemies, the rising generation of traditional age students takes a hard look at the awful stuff we’ve done to them (think: climate change; a bad workforce; heaps of student debt; the balance of the opioid plague)… and bends to the grindstone.  They work in the gig economy, putting in hours for low wages as their elders screw up healthcare and grow the plutocracy.  They go to class in growing numbers, proportionally, and knowingly place mounds of loans on their shoulders.  Some of them start political movements aimed at justice, and keep on in the teeth of reaction and fury.

Every single day Millennials and Homelanders inspire me.  I hope that in 2018 more people share that same inspiration.

What is inspiring you, as you look ahead?

*Wunderground was co-founded by the University of Michigan’s Perry Samson, who was a splendid Future Trends Forum guest.


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