Invent The Future: VT 2020
The 2011 Report of the Task Force on Instructional Technology
We are living in the middle of the largest increase in expressive capability in the history of the human race.
--Clay Shirky, Here Comes Everybody: The Power Of Organizing Without Organizations (2008)
The Case For Change. We live in extraordinary times. The Internet began as a communications link to enable information sharing and collaboration between universities, research centers, and other institutions of higher learning. The World Wide Web began for many of the same reasons. Both are now a primary means of communication on the planet, with an unprecedented speed, reach, and multimodal capacity born of the computer’s inherent property as a “universal machine,” a machine that can simulate or model any other machine. These advances have come within an astonishingly short time frame. Interactive computing is about fifty years old. The concept of personal computing emerged a little less than forty years ago, at a time when notions of personal computers seemed laughable to many people. Within the last thirty years we have moved from slow desktop computers with dual floppy disk drives to powerful laptops to sophisticated smart phones that are essentially full-featured, always-connected pocket computers that also do telephony, audio-video recording and editing, and geo-location. Moreover, some believe that we will soon be carrying web servers around in our pockets, context-sensitive machines that can seamlessly link us to many types of devices in settings ranging from offices to trains, planes, and automobiles—and everywhere in between.
If we appreciate the implications of this rate of change, we can see that, barring a major global disaster and concomitant losses of records and knowledge, we face both extraordinary challenges and unprecedented opportunities. Our challenge and duty as educators is to do our best to help students thrive as citizens of this new digital world: equipping them with skills and learning that include rich, flexible habits of mind that will enable them to face the challenges of adapting to change; helping them to develop their own capacities of creativity, problem-solving and problem-finding, and persistent, rigorous inquiry for a lifetime of learning.
The everyday miracle of human intellectual development asks no less of us. The brain is even more remarkable than the technologies our brains have invented. Given increasing resemblances among our neural networks, our communications networks, and our technological networks, what we call “instructional technology” can be considered as a medium of understanding and invention at the very center of the educational enterprise. What used to be supplemental devices are becoming as fluid and essential as language itself. Indeed, it is not too fanciful to say that we are witnessing the emergence of a new mode of representation as important as the emergence of the phonetic alphabet.
How then should we prepare students to engage with these possibilities and thrive within them as productive citizens in a digital age? We should carry out the most intensive and imaginative research to discover how our learning environments can most effectively support not only current modes of learning, but modes we can only imagine. More than anything else, however, we must think carefully and creatively about what computers represent as tools for thinking – for creating ideas that invent the future.
Virginia Tech’s tagline is not a description or a wish. It is an imperative: invent the future. What are the conceptual frameworks in our cultural moment that will best answer that imperative? How can curriculum, leadership, and organizational structures and practices prepare us for what we can see ahead as well as what we cannot?
The Digital Imagination. We must awaken the digital imagination in higher education. Despite numerous “information literacy” or “digital fluency” initiatives, typically in the form of “swimming test” requirements or other bolted-on initiatives, no college or university has yet articulated this goal in its appropriate depth and scope. When the Committee on Information Technology Literacy published its own vision of 21st- century education in Being Fluent with Information Technology (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999), it identified computing skills, intellectual capabilities, and foundational concepts as the three essential areas higher education should attend to in its response to the digital age. So far, higher education has ignored the conceptual foundation and associated intellectual capability areas almost entirely, despite the committee’s call then and in subsequent treatises from others to seriously rethink college and university curricula in light of the pressing learning needs identified.
We must seriously engage this paradigm shift: our children’s future depends on it. We do not advocate another set of tacked-on requirements, but instead a curriculum in which students, faculty, and staff could awaken and exercise their digital imaginations to explore the rich conceptual possibilities of the digital age. Learning 2.0 is about much more than content delivery, e-books, or articulation agreements. We need to consider a world in which we can and probably will move beyond the credit hour, course and term boundaries, and geographical location into a world in which creation and learning become synonymous. Although we have long known that creation and learning are intimately related, we have had to meet challenges of access and cost by scaling up along fairly crude industrial models, turning education into an assembly line. But if the Internet has shown us anything, it has shown us that a distributed, loosely coupled model of communication networks can stimulate creativity on a startling and unpredictable scale.
We should learn from the Internet itself what various types of learning communities might look like. When a small dialogue box inviting 140 characters of commentary can play an integral role in global events ranging from a U.S. President’s State of the Union Address (Twitter hashtag #sotu) to ongoing revolutions in the Middle East beginning with Tahrir Square, we are witnessing a symbiosis of creation and learning that far outstrips any vision of academic transformation based on quadrupling class sizes and outsourcing grading and instruction to poorly-compensated adjuncts and paraprofessionals. But to understand and leverage these possibilities, we must attain a far deeper understanding of computers and networks than we have yet attempted. We must understand computing and communications technologies the way we seek to understand language itself. We must awaken our digital imaginations.
Build Not For The Future, But In The Future. Colleges and universities must finally abandon notions of one-size-fits-all that have dominated our views of scaling and access for over a century. The digital age permits mass customization. Human behavior involves bonding with others – an extraordinarily complex, personal, and varied array of experiences. To get to the variety, depth, and complexity of true learning, which requires human bonding and functional human bonds, we must commit to the positive effects of mass customization that the digital age makes possible. We should empower students’ awakened digital imaginations not only for self-expression but also for reflection on their own identities and purposes as students. We should not hand them a portfolio made up of pre-formed data buckets. We should instead challenge them to build their own personal cyber-infrastructures, iteratively developing them as their concepts deepen, their knowledge broadens, and their imaginations flourish. We should challenge them not to “manage” their learning, as the term “learning management system” implies, but boldly to lead their learning lives within their degree work and far beyond it. We must also empower them to understand the ways global digital networks operate and what makes them possible. We must empower our students as digital citizens to make their contributions to global conversations, and to establish the corner of the global network that will be their own “Speaker’s Corner.”
Such a vision of digital leadership in our students’ future will require strong leadership now, before we have all the knowledge we would like to proceed. To put it another way, the leadership Virginia Tech must demonstrate to the world depends to a large extent on the willingness of its administrators, faculty, and staff to empower each other to take the risks required to invent the future. If our digital imaginations are awakened, if we have grown into the agency and self-efficacy of mature digital citizenship, and if our leaders are willing to underwrite the invention process, which includes successes, failures, and “just plain crazy” experiments that would result, perhaps Virginia Tech would find itself the place where the most engaged and ambitious students are eager to be.
To Invent Is To Reinvent. We know we need robust infrastructure: high-capacity, high-bandwidth connections, both wired and wireless, and ubiquitous throughout the campus’s physical spaces; flexible, reconfigurable learning environments; support for faculty, staff, and students; easily accessible and navigable digital repositories, and so on. We can identify these needs fairly readily, even if we do not yet know how we will design or support the resources that meet them. Once again, however, the real challenge is cultural. In addition to specific goals like the ones outlined above, task force members and invited contributors alike consistently used words like “flexibility,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “integrating,” and most challenging of all, “nurture and develop.” These are words that point to attitudes and values. These are cultural words. How can we inculcate such a culture at a large research university with over 3,000 faculty and over 30,000 students, plus staff and administration? How can Virginia Tech become a community of master learners?
The challenge for Virginia Tech is to identify individuals, teams, and services that provide real value and organize them into a set of flexible, networked links. The challenge is one of communication within and across structures that empower each person to create links among loosely joined parts. If Virginia Tech is to invent the future, it must empower people who yearn for the difference that creativity, innovation, indeed learning’s inventions and reinventions, will make.
Self-Similarity, Recursion, and Emergence. Committees are often called “graveyards for good ideas.” At their best, however, committees are excellent platforms for emergence. The most exciting and productive instance of the adjacent possible is two trusting and inventive colleagues in conversation with each other. If the extraordinary success of the Internet and the Web has taught us anything, it is that conversations within networked, interactive computing environments can scale and generate an emergent “wealth of networks” far beyond our expectations. Going forward, we can design such an environment by awakening the digital imagination, empowering faculty, staff, and students as digital citizens, and creating “hubs” or “nodes” of conversation that are linked internally and externally in a network of innovation. If we are to create and innovate within the extraordinary disruption of the digital age, we must not insulate ourselves from disruption, for that would be to reject the global conversation itself. We must build curricula, learning environments, learning opportunities, and organizational structures that foster the capacity for collaboration and self-surprise within a framework of shared values and goals.
So it is that a task force on instructional technology inevitably becomes a task force on institutional mission and culture. The difference, of course, is the difference computers and networks, properly understood, will make and what those who yearn for learning will accomplish in light of new understanding.
Visions of the Possible for Master Learners. This report is designed to foster an interactive discussion of possibilities for learning at Virginia Tech. The report resides on a website (http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/inventthefuture2020/) which uses an open-source personal publishing platform called WordPress. Menu headings were suggested by Learning Technologies and CIDER staff. The broad array of content includes contributions from the Task Force on Instructional Technology and invited participants to discussions between January 14 and May 20, 2011.
Recommended Actions: Virginia Tech should dedicate a defined percentage of its efforts to creativity and innovation in technology-enriched learning, discovery, and engagement activities in ways that allow for proposals of pilot activities, their ongoing assessment and improvement, and their instantiation as vibrant, sustainable activities or enterprises.