The Case For Change

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)

My personal view is we are observing the early emergence of the Meta University: a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced.
–Charles Vest, MIT, 2006. For an example of Vest’s vision, see the National Science Digital Library, as well as the Computing Portal.

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 the 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 the notion of a personal computer seemed to many people as laughable and irrelevant as the idea of a personal Saturn V.  Within the last thirty years we have moved from slow desktop computers with dual floppy disk drives to powerful laptops to sophisticated smartphones that are essentially full-featured, always-connected pocket computers that also do telephony, audio-video recording and editing, and geolocation.  Adrian Cockroft ( believes that soon we will be carrying web servers around in our pockets, context-sensitive machines that can seamlessly link us to varied peripherals in settings ranging from offices to trains, planes, and automobiles—and everywhere in between.

This recent presentation by Lee Rainie, Director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, makes the elements and character of these changes very clear:

[slideshare id=7689667&doc=rainiepresentation-110420165531-phpapp01]


As both Kevin Kelly (What Technology Wants) and W. Brian Arthur (The Nature of Technology) have recently argued, the pace of technological innovation, and the often disruptive change it brings, will continue to increase, and the rate of increase will also increase. This now-familiar “hockey stick” graph is born of the essentially combinatorial nature of technological innovation. If we appreciate the implications of this rate of change, we can see that, barring a major global disaster and a concomitant loss of records and knowledge, we face both extraordinary challenges and unprecedented opportunities. Our challenge and indeed our duty as educators is to do the very best we can to help our students thrive as citizens of this new digital world, equipping them with skills and learning, yes, but also with the meta-tools of rich, flexible habits of mind that will enable them to face the challenge of adapting to these changes as well as to develop their own capacities of creativity, problem-solving and problem-finding, and persistent, rigorous inquiry for a lifetime of learning.

There is one analogously dizzying and wonderful rate of change in our experience: the everyday miracle of human intellectual development. With more potential neural connections than there are particles in the known universe, the human brain has evolved to be, in Norman Doidge’s words, “the brain that changes itself.” The brain’s meta-ability of self-shaping, of employing meta-cognition to direct its own growth and development over a lifetime, is even more remarkable than the technologies our brains have invented. Yet those technologies are now strikingly similar to our brains in their growth and, according to many thinkers, in their very nature. As Kevin Kelly writes, “Our technological creations are great extrapolations of the bodies that our genes build. In this way, we can think of technology as our extended body…. If technology is an extension of humans, it is not an extension of our genes, but of our minds. Technology is therefore the extended body for ideas.” Certainly that “extended body” has implications for our bodies as well as our minds. Our senses are extended and enlarged by instrumentation and by telecommunication technologies. Yet such extensions and enlargements emerge from conceptualizations, and inevitably privilege mentation (albeit embodied mentation).

Ray Kurzweil's provocative graph of computing vs. neural capacity and power.

Given this increasing resemblance between our neural networks, our communications networks, and our technological networks, as well as the computers that have propelled our world into its increasingly complex and varied digital future, what we call “instructional technology” has become 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 language, metaphorically speaking, a new meta-mode of representation as important as the emergence of the phonetic alphabet. As Ed Fox astutely observes:

A key part of going digital is using computing approaches along with enhanced efforts to build more complete, comprehensive, and useful models in all other disciplines, so we can represent processes, phenomena, and other aspects of reality. Having representations allows us to discuss, analyze, simulate, integrate, and engage in all types of related processing. (Unpublished correspondence.)

How then should we prepare students to engage with these possibilities and thrive within them as productive citizens in a digital age? We can and should survey technological trends. 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 thought, to use Howard Rheingold’s phrase. We must build a curriculum and organization that are answerable to the cultural moment we have before us. Given our heritage as a public, land-grant university, we have a special mission to provide access to the resources of a digital age for as many learners as possible, as well as access to the high-quality education that will equip them to take full advantage of these resources as participants in a democratic society.

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? Current learning technologies as well as the technological landscape we see before us inform this consideration, but the focus is on underlying conceptual frameworks and organizational practices. Lists and inventories are helpful, of course, but the real challenge, as always, is cultural much more than technological—unless one considers culture a technology as well, one we can shape, like our brains, to permit and encourage further growth and development.


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