Friday, December 31, 2010

What mattered in 2010

"The future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed" William Gibson famously remarked. And in 2010, it did feel that the future crept a little bit closer. In the spirit of the season, it's worth reflecting on what was significant in the longer term in 2010.

I believe I was the only blogger in the Milky Way who didn't write about iPads this year. I do think in the long run the tablet wave is indeed significant. It creates casual, mobile access to the web without the screen size problems of mobiles and smartphones, and the 'open the lid and lean forward' requirement of a laptop. That is really important, especially when combined with the continuing spread of good fast mobile networks. Tablets make knowledge properly mobile at a reasonable price point, and I think that's a significant step ahead. Progess like that, while it seems incremental, brings us closer to the next phase change in our behaviour and relationship with knowledge. Next step in the stairs is gesture controlled wearables, but probably not mainstream until late in the decade when the Tablets market is saturated and commoditised.

The Browne report, and the rapid implementation of it's financial changes was also a big story this year, with substantial local effect in the UK. It basically shifts the UK from having the current taxpayers paying for Higher Education to having future taxpayers and workers pay for it via loan repayments (and bailing out loan vehicles with tax money when they go sour). Some countries have had this model for years with loan schemes of one sort of another, with mixed results (thinking of the US and New Zealand). I suspect the UK move might finally put that model over the top as the global standard.

Also in the UK, Pearson announced they were moving to offer degree level qualifications. My perception of Pearson is as a very mature, serious operation. From Ladybird books to The Economist, they produce good stuff. I'd certainly take a qualification from them seriously.  The move represents, I think, a maturing of the for Profit HE sector. Meanwhile Kaplan, probably the most famous trailblazer in for-profit HE, seem to be having difficulties with a number of business ethics related legal cases. Early entrants to new frontiers do often tend to have, shall we say, flexible ethics, but in time the frontier grows up, a sheriff arrives and things settle down to business as usual. I think we're seeing this here.

Meanwhile, while the first world, and particularly Ireland where I write, wallows in economic mud, India and China, and the world overall continues to grow richer. In 2011 I'll really need to learn more about higher education works in these places, as it's there the future will be defined. By sheer weight of numbers as their middle classes pour into HE, how it's done in Chonqing and Calcutta becomes the world standard, perhaps wearing the European University model as a skin, if at all.

Predictions for 2011? Off the top of my head:

  • Cheap, ubiquitous tablets become a commodity and overtake the laptop as the standard information device
  • Building tempo of mergers, acquisitions and bankruptcies (or similar) in the UK higher education space as the sector shakes out the implications of the changes.
  • Universities in India, China etc continue to fight their way up the rankings and grow.

But I don't really do short term predictions...

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Book Review: The Gutenberg Galaxy

I've heard a lot about Marshall McLuhan over the years, most recently in an excellent article by Megan Garber at the Nieman Journalism Lab, so when I passed him in the library, I thought the time had come.

The basic idea of the book is that printing didn't simply alter the economics of book production, it actually altered how we think. Prior to printing, we lived in an oral culture. Ideas came in through our ears and out our mouths. Teaching methods were (it is thought) centred around discussion, dialectic and the scholastic method - very open and verbal.

After printing, the book length argument became the quantum unit of knowledge. Ideas now came in our eyeballs, and out of our hands. We became a visual culture. With that, we lost something. You can't argue with a book, except maybe by writing another one. The book becomes an eternal Authority. It establishes a monopoly, and the idea that any idea not in a book form  is somehow trivial.

The implications for the development of higher education are interesting. With the book comes the text book, and the idea that one course maps to one (or a small group of) text books which the course aims to help students understand. The book and the course became symbiotic, containerised learning blocks.

McLuhan's book also raises the idea (in 1962!) that what he called 'The Electric Age' was undoing this transformation, and putting a closing bracketed on a 500 year period of book centric history -  'The Gutenberg Parenthesis". McLuhan saw that the media of the day was moving people back from a print and book centric culture to an oral culture. We've seen it accelerate since, from the radio talk shows on to the internet, bloggers and twitter, as the quantum of knowledge gets smaller again. Later ideas like Connectivism  make the case that the knowledge doesn't really sit in a fixed, static object like a book any more, but resides in a network of connected people and resources. We've moved from an audio/oral culture with a small quantum of knowledge, to a visual/text culture with a large quantum of knowledge, and now back or onwards to a multimedia (visual and oral) mode of culture where the quantum of knowledge is small again. The Megan Garber article I linked to above demonstrates it nicely, putting short text, a piece of video and hyperlinks in one easy to digest quantum of learning. The medium is the message, as McLuhan says.

The implications for the future (and present) of higher education are substantial. The quantum of learning shrinks back down again from a book sized argument to 500 word blog post, a 6'40 second Pecha Kucha presentation or even a 140 character tweet. The quantisation of knowledge into Bologna Standard modules stops making sense again just when it has been formalised. The Gutenberg age is over, knowledge is now sized for Fedex Box, or a postcard, not a Shipping Container.

In terms of style, I was surprised to find McLuhan is a pain to read. The book opens with a lengthy discussion of King Lear as a metaphor for something or other. It all sounds clever, but like King Lear, I have three daughters. Being thus driven mad already, I didn't follow it. Perhaps on a second reading it would become clear, but there are 100 million books, and life is short. No second chances. His prose assumes an easy familiarity with folk like Kant and Heidigger which will put a some of the book out of reach for many. Some writers bring the reader along on a journey and make them feel clever. McLuhan just makes me feel dumb. And yet, when I approach a point of giving up the book for a bad job he trots out a line like "As the book market expands, the division between intellect and commerce ends". As clever, thought provoking and quotable a sentence as any I've read. That's a whole book right there in twelve worlds. It's a shame about all the other ones. It's telling that his insightful ideas on how printing created authors didn't mention how it created editors too.

Would I recommend it? If you're a humanities wonk who eats Kant and Derrida for breakfast, knock yourself out. Please. Otherwise no. He has great ideas but save yourself the time and just read the Cliff notes.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Book Review: A University for the 21st Century

"A University for the 21st Century" is a thoughtful and thorough book, detailed and well considered, although it let's itself down by making a fascinating topic seem somewhat dull.

I had high hopes for this book. The author, was President of the University of Michigan for 12 years, and has clearly thought and researched deeply on the subject.

In terms of content, the book did not disappoint. While focused very much on the top end research University, Duderstadt had a clear grasp of the big issues. Even technological trends which had not yet taken form when he wrote (like Personal Learning Environments and the importance of online social networks) he seems to have been able to smell coming in the wind. His writing is detailed and thorough - the author is an Engineer by training, and it shows. The work feels like a textbook. The issues are dissected with considerable clarity - his chapter on resources and funding is a particularly clear primer on this currently hot topic.

I found the picture he presented of a high end US university interesting. From a European perspective it's easy to miss the fact that many US institutions own and operate substantial teaching hospitals, which are often themselves as large as the University itself, and are very significant health care providers. On the other side, they also operate football and basketball teams which attach huge followings and media attention. For Irish readers, imagine if University College Cork (my local) owned and operated the Cork University Hospital (currently, the connection is nominal, the hospital is state run despite the name) while also managing the Cork Senior Hurling and Football teams. The diversity and complexity of the task is daunting.

For a book written a decade ago, it's aged well. Even the technology chapter, which you might expect to be weak given the time it was written, clearly maps the same kinds of longer term trends I've written about here. Other trends, like the idea of Open Content, he certainly grasped as a general implication of the internet, even if he did not predict them in any detail (who could).

Duderstadt, alas let's himself down in the writing. Perhaps my limited attention span has simply atrophied beyond use, but the book to me reads too much like a textbook. In his forward, the author expressed the hope that the book would interest a mass audience. It will not. There are fairly well established ways of making non fiction compelling and accessible (use of narrative, personal anecdote and so forth), and Duderstadt employs none of them. Something about his writing gave me a compelling urge to get up and make tea a paragraph in. There is never a good reason to start a paragraph with 'Furthermore', as he often does. It's a pity, as it made it harder work than it needed to be, and will have greatly narrowed his readership and influence.

If your library has it, I'd recommend taking a look at it, but it will be a book to lean forward and study with coffee, rather than lean back to read with a Christmas drink. If your interest is casual, you might skip it, but if you are involved in the management of higher education at any level, the book is mandatory and will repay careful study.

Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Four Big Trends: Pecha Kucha Presentation

Here's a presentation I did at the Cork Pecha Kucha event on the four big trends in Higher Education in the 21st Century. The content will be familiar to some readers, but you may find it interesting nonetheless.

Pecha Kucha is a really interesting presentation format if you haven't run across it, it's worth trying. 20 slides, 20 seconds per slide, slides advance automatically. No time for Ums and Awws, and you have to cut to your main point on the slide right up front or you'll miss it. The speed also forces you to gloss the details and caveats a little. Challenging. If you haven't tried it, do.

My apologies for the lighting on this piece. I do in fact have a face as well as voice, but the presentation is perhaps the better for my appearance as a Mysterious Shadow.

Thanks to Nicki Ffrench-Davis for arranging the event, taping it, putting it online, and making me do it over again when the tape ran out halfway through my first run.