Monday, March 29, 2010

True Telepresence and the end of space

Telepresence has to be the most obvious technological shift that will break into the mainstream, probably in the next decace, certainly before my daughter enrolls in University.
It's been a long time coming. Conference calls have been around for a long time, and with tools like Skype and various low cost commercial tools for virtual seminars, have begun to creep into the educational mainstream. At the other end of the market, top end vendors sell specialist conferenceing suites at price points to compete with the corporate jet. Affordable systems are improving fast, but they're not ready for primetime. The first 10 minutes of any session goes like this:
"Hello Galway. Are you there?"
"Yes, I can hear you, but I can't see you."
"OK Let me check the camera"
"Is Dublin on?"
"No They txted me. There's some problem. They are looking for the technician"
Once the session is rolling and everyone is logged on, it's still hard going. Participants complain it lacks the immediacy of a physical session. People at a distance can be easily tuned out as humans in the room take precedence over the lost little faces on the screen. Bandwidth bogeymen can drop people without warning. Technophiles will no doubt argue that it all works fine, you just have to woggle the transmogrifier. If it worked well, they wouldn't have to argue at all.

Forget all that, for a moment, and close your eyes. Imagine true telepresence. Imagine your seminar in classical history, given in the Roman Arena at Arles. At your feet, an ant labours busily in the dust. The sound and vision is perfect. Only the light summer breeze is missing. You see perhaps two dozen students from all over the world sitting on the dusty benches. Really, there are thousands, but no one sees that, each student only sees their peer group and you. When one student wishes to ask a question, the system artfully shifts them into the front row in everyone's illusion, gently and unnoticed, like a magician, they are just there. Only sometimes, in dialogue, does a tiny timelag betray them as from Honolulu, or Auckland. After a few minutes of introductory remarks, it's off to Actium. The class will fly as seagulls and watch the battle unfold below as the Triremes clash. Then off to breakout session in the Taverns of Athens, to discuss the outcome and argue the strategy with, it always seems, just enough bread and wine on the table to rearrange and demonstrate how it should have been fought, if only.

It's lovely, but what does it mean? Most importantly, just like Actium, winner takes all. No longer does a student need to put up with an incoherent lecturer in their local college who doesn't know a Trireme from a Bireme, and is only teaching this module because the Head of Department used to do it, but he's on sabbatical in Istanbul. If the best lecturer on the topic in the world can teach any number of telepresent students at so many euros a head, they will. They will be able to afford the splendid simulations, and they attract enough excellent postgraduates to run the small group sessions that are long the means of the your local, increasingly impoverished history department ("Or perhaps we should take on some of those new Virtual Instructors, they're very cheap nowadays"). Where once the material might have been taught in a thousand universities, now it will be taught in ten. The best teachers will command rock star salaries and draw thousands of students. The Simon Schamas and Niall Fergusons of today are in many ways like Caruso and McCormack, the first 'Stars' of opera a century ago. Back then, recordings were expensive. If you wanted to hear opera, you had to get in a room with a singer. There was work for plenty of tenors. Before recordings, they could, like lecturers, only earn their living one audience at a time. Now Carreras and a half dozen others command the lions share of the money, all the recording work, the sellout tours in 5000 seat venues. For anyone outside the top 10, it's a lean line of business, sung for love. When you can watch a top 10 performer live in 3D, in your living room, in full surround sound, it'll be leaner yet.

So it shall be for the teachers, in the age of the Superstar Professors.
What about the University? Where does that fit into all this?
Nowhere, much.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Singular Future

There's a useful summary of Ray Kurzweil's predictions on Wikipedia. If you haven't heard of him, there's a TED talk where he presents his ideas. Kurzweil is a little over hyped (There's a movie - The Transcendant Man, and a University, in collaboration with Google and NASA), and widely criticised, but that doesn't make him wrong.
Kurzweil's basic idea is that technological change, in some key areas, is exponential, not linear. Moores law, that processing power per dollar doubles every 18 months is an example of this kind of technological rule of thumb that has held good for many years. Exponential processes, in their late stages, tend to get a little strange, and Kurzweils predictions, inferred from that, rapidly get wierd. That's trouble with exponential change. Humans can't intuitively grasp it. Our minds, evolved for counting bananas and holding grudges, tend to be unable to get a grip on it. The pond might be a quarter full of weed that doubles every day, but we still expect to be able to leave clearing it to next week.
Where Kurweil breaks from many other futurists is the prediction that computers will reach a point where they are smart enough to improve their own design. At this point, their development and intelligence will rapidly accelerate and exceed ours, and the chart of scientific development goes off the scale. Anything is possible at that point, and the machines will send us an eMail to tell us about it, if they have remembered to feed us. According to this picture, few, if any, of the institutions we know of would remain relevant, let along Universities.
Right or wrong in the long term, Kurzweil's predications in the nearer term are a useful cribsheet for the kinds of technological changes Universities must weather in the next century. True immersive virtual worlds and Artificial Intelligances smarter than us are not outrageous predictions for the 21st century, and will have serious implications for Universities as we know them. If you are a young academic, by the time you have fought your way up to a professorship, you'll be at the sharp end in dealing with these things in teaching. Just when you thought you were clever for mastering powerpoint animations and signing up to Twitter, it's going to get a whole lot harder and meaner.
The impact of technology on the structure of the University is a huge topic, and I'll return to it in coming posts where I'll be looking at the implications of specific potential technologies for the University in detail.

Friday, March 19, 2010

The Quantum of Knowledge

A little bit of knowledge is a dangerous thing, but just how little is a bit of knowledge?
The question matters for the future of Universities as their structure is determined by the scale they use as a measure of knowledge. Shipbuilders, planemakers and carmakers do fundamentally similar things, but on such wildly different scales that they appear to have little in common. A shift in the scale could have seismic implications for how Universities work.

University administrators measure knowledge in credits. In Europe, these are standardised according to the Bologna Framework as the ECTS, full time students are loaded up with 60 credits a year, 180-240 for a Primary degree, another hundred or so for a Masters. They are usually lumped into standard 5, 10 or 15 credit modules - the 40 foot shipping containers of knowledge. Academics would denounce it all as a 'Fordian Construct'.
("What's that?"
"Who cares" shrugs the College Registrar.)

Just like the shipping container, it's a powerful concept. Standard sized blocks on knowledge can be compared, mixed and matched across countries. Just like a coastal container ship, learners can in theory load up on modules in different Universities and, once enough have been loaded, have them signed off as degree. Another analogy is the invention of money. Money provides a standard commonly accepted measure of economic value, as the ECTS does for learning. It is nothing less than the monetisation of knowledge. The infrastructure of the University, from it's timetables, lecture halls to it's Virtual Learning Environments are bent around this idea. The modern VLE, focused on who has access and control over blocks of content 15 credits wide and one term long, has more in common with the software running a container port than a learning tool.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Connectivists. Echoing the structure of networks and synapses, they would see the quantum of knowledge as a useful connection between pre-existing pieces of knowledge, people, facts or systems. The quantum unit of knowledge is very small. It might be measurable, but it isn't fungible, no more than wheat can be traded grain by grain. It's more useful for teaching and understanding how to transfer and create knowledge than the administrators ECTS containers. In practice, this idea of knowledge acts more like a continuum, without the artificial boundaries of the credit unit. Tools like like Personal Learning Environments (PLE's) are conceived as frameworks for guiding it.
("Can we get a PLE from Microsoft?" asks the University IS manager.
"I dunno. Maybe we could figure something out with Sharepoint" mutters the underling.)

These two conceptions of the quantum of knowledge are as far apart as the kilogram and the electron mass. They are framed for very different purposes, driven by different logics. Neither is wrong, both are useful, in their place

But just because neither side is wrong, doesn't mean that one might not displace the other.
Currently the module, made up of credit units, is economically dominant, and Universities are shaped around them. But the Internet allows a much greater granularisation of knowledge.Instead of getting omnibus newspapers each morning, we get the news we need instantly when we need it. This will likely evolve to include more sophisticated tools to manage and measure knowledge as the century progresses. This granularisation presents a potential existential threat to the current model of the University towards the mid 21st century.

With no real competition, Universities ruled the roost. Credible knowledge came in degrees. But where the half life of modern knowledge is increasingly short, the logic of buying it in 200 ECTS degree sized chunks weakens. Indeed, the emergence of modules and credits as sub components of degrees is themselves a reflection of this process, as whole degrees are atomised into more bite sized chunks. As the internet facilitates this granularisation, Universities must reinvent themselves to reflect it, become less like container ports of knowledge, and more like Sushi bars or supermarkets of knowledge, where students pick up exactly what, and how much they need. That might indeed be a dangerous thing.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

University Time

"Universities Never Change!" denounce the critics. It it true? If so, is it bad? We can't think about the future of Universities without thinking about how quickly they change over time, and what controls that process.

Every organisation has its rhythms. Prior to working in a University, I worked in the research arm of a large ministry. It had clear rhythms. The daily tap tap of the news cycle, which may or may not put your project on the front page, or draw on a dreaded oral Parliamentary Question. There was a quarterly reporting cycle, an annual drumbeat of budget bids, and the long bass beat of the election cycle. In the background was the slow, almost unheard syncopated beat of the economic cycle. I've worked in the private sector too. There the beat was strong and quarterly, like a galley drum, with a longer drone of a product lifecycle, and, again, the strange irregular whalesong of the economy.

When I started working in a university, I listened hard, but I couldn't hear the beat. It took a year to realise that the fast rhythm was a term, the main beat took a full year, and main bass rhythm was the term of office of a Professor or President - decadal and generational.
An organisation can only dance as fast as it's rhythms. The Private sector ("Short sighted! Only focused on the quarterly results!") generally dances fast. Household names come and go in a few years. Government is a bit slower ("Short sighted! Only focused on the next election") but governments rise and fall as politicians and policies fall in and out of fashion.

Universities dance too, but to a slow rhythm. Short term factors like news cycles and product cycles are simply irrelevant to them. Changes of government are an annoyance - by the time the incoming Minister has mastered his brief and brought reform legislation to the floor and had it implemented, she's the outgoing Minister. The economic cycle is heard, but it's effect is marginal - a tenured academic is as insulated from it as a Benedictine monk. In a downturn, while funding is tight, demand for degrees goes up. Except in extreme circumstances, Universities do not go bust.

The time scale is also keyed to what the University makes - graduates. A newly minted degree will be in use, if only as a foundation stone of the resume, long after the graduation suit no longer fits and the graduates starter home is sold on. Importantly, it will still be in their memory when their own children are decided if, and where to attend University. Universities are one of the few organisations whose 'product' holds value and influence for so long.

Internal change in Universities is generational too. A new junior lecturer comes in, hot with new ideas. Slowly they rise the ranks, implementing some while losing enthusiasm for others. Somewhere in their late forties, as new blood comes in from below, departmental politics obliges them to become conservatives to keep the up and comings in their place. By the time the pension comes into reach, some of them would lecture in Latin if they thought could get away with it. Over the generation change does occur. The radical ideas of 2010 become the Orthodoxies of 2050.

If we want to understand how Universities will change over the 21st century, we have to accept that it will be slowly. Learning technologists, often early adaptors where 18 months old ideas are dead and buried often have trouble seeing and working with this. Barring a 'black swan' event that upsets that patterns (and the advent of the internet is not, I think, that event) Universities will change no faster than this over the next century - perhaps even slower as retirement ages rise over the century.

This is not such a bad thing. In a world of short term institutions, there is advantage on taking a longer view. Immune to short term fad ("I can't get the Head of Department on Twitter!) the University acts as a sort of weighted average of the thinking of the last 30 years. In many ways, it's a clearer indicator of what's going on in the world than the fast changing private sector - just the same as a long term average of a commodity price is much more instructive about the fundamentals of that commodity than yesterdays spot closing.

The risk is, of course, in those "Black swan" events. The same features which protect Universities from economic cycles fashions and fads and help them create a long lived brand make them as blind to rapid change as we are to the flap of a wasps wings. Fast paradigm shifts, whether out of the blue, or as sudden tipping points in previously gradual processes present a real threat to the core operating model of the University moving forward.

I could tell you what I think those will be, but you wouldn't believe me.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Music, Newspapers, Universities: The Domino Theory

Much of the current thinking about the future of Universities rests on supposed similarities between Education and other sectors who core product is knowledge or information, like music, or newspapers. Many of these similarities are entirely superficial, and that idea that Universities will suffer (or enjoy?) the same fate is not a given.

The idea goes like this. First, the web made the marginal cost of distributing information effectively nil. Industries whose core product is information, such as the music industry, were first against the wall the revolution came. For music, Napster was the first wave, and the old music industry fought back with law. In time, iTunes made the model work, and now internet downloads are the main sales channels, old fashioned music shops are emply lots on the high street, and successful musicians and garage bands can increasingly 'go indie' sell direct online, and disregard the conventional mill of the record company.

The same thing is happening to newspapers. eBay, Craigslist and Google hollowed out the advertising revenue. Individual website and bloggers bypassed newspapers and spoke directly to readers on the subjects they cared about, publishing instantly. The idea of an omnibus daily newspaper, covering everything from world news to local sport, read by all, is increasingly an anacronism. Why pay for superficial coverage of everything when what you really just want is the financial news from Singapore, or in depth coverage of Canadian Lacrosse?

The same logic is applied to the third domino, Education. Why go to a general university and hear a third rate lecturers give an indifferent presentation of material from a 20 year old textbook, when you can download great lectures from Stanford, Harvard and MIT. Why settle for a lecturer who wrote a booklist when you can hear the lecturers who wrote the books on the list? The domino theory would imply that Universities too would become irrelevant intermediaries on the sales channel of knowledge, as expert teachers can be reached without them, just as you can buy singles direct from the bands website, or follow leading thinkers on their blogs and podcasts.

It's absolutely correct, of course, but it rests on the assumptions that Universities are selling knowledge to end consumers, just like newspapers and record companies. This is untrue. Universities are selling knowledge for resale to employers, and this introduces a generational lag into the scenario.

Most people earn a degree with the hope it will help them get a job. If good jobs were available without the time effort and expense of University, most wouldn't go. The degree sits, bright and hopeful, on the leading page of the new graduates oh-so short resumes, hoping to catch the eye of a potential employer, typically a generation older. The degree is not bought for itself, it is bought to appeal to that person. It's just like the interview suit. It may be a nice suit, it may be well cut, but it's chosen to appeal to someone a generation older. The degree, just like the suit, is bought for resale to an interviewer.

This means the domino effect will come to universities a generation later than commentators think, when that interview panel has caught up. Imagine, if you will, if a new graduate was employed based on their record collection. The graduate would choose carefully to appeal to a person born in the 1960's. There would be a little glam rock, some Some classical, but not too much. Perhaps some carefully chosen collectible vinyl. Absolutely no hip hop.

And so it is with education. It will only be in 2040, when the Twitter generation is sitting on the interview panel, that a person truly 21st century tertiary education will be taken seriously. You learned a degrees worth of knowledge from Youtube? Your learning journey documented on a Connectivist ePortfolio? Great. You'll never make the interview shortlist until the recruiters know what those things are. Until then, they'll want to see a degree from the University of The Twentieth Century, just like they have. Until that changes, the University as we know it is safe.