In higher ed, people often look to a few elite schools for big new ideas. But that might be changing. These days innovation seems just as likely to come from a state school, a small liberal arts college, or even an upstart from outside the traditional system.
That’s the argument made by Bernard Bull, vice provost for curriculum and academic innovation at Concordia University Wisconsin. The former high school teacher is also a blogger, and he runs a podcast of his own, called MoonshotEDU. He’s optimistic about what he sees as a greater diversity of models and teaching practices at colleges and universities. But he’s also concerned about other pressures he sees in edtech, that are pushing toward standardization as colleges experiment with big data and algorithms.
EdSurge recently sat down with Bull after his keynote at the Educause Learning Initiative’s annual conference in New Orleans. We talked about what he sees as the most important new edtech trends and why it’s still important to read tech critics. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
EdSurge: You’ve talked a growing movement in education that you compare to outsider art in the art world, where newcomers are trying experimental things in higher ed. Do you think there's a significant Outsider Education movement?
Bull: There's definitely an outsider learning movement. If you go back to the '60s and '70s, you see all these really fascinating conversations and lots of thought experiments about ‘What Could Be’ in education. That's where we have the open classroom concepts in the K-12 and lots of conversation around self-directed learning—all these fascinating ideas. But they were ahead of their time. These were ideas that people were imagining in a future context where this could happen, but most of the early implementations just didn't take. They didn't work.
Then you jump ahead to the '90s, and we have this information revolution and the internet. We find ourselves now in this connected age. That's when a lot of those '60s, '70s ideas started to get some traction. In the '60s and '70s, people were talking about self-directed learning and peer-to-peer learning, learners helping one another learn, you don't need the instructor, and those kinds of things. Now we're actually in an era where that's true, where that's possible, and that’s happening.
If I’m a person with relatively interesting ideas and the capacity to mentor other people, I can find a following today. That's a reality of the connected and the digital age. One of the examples I gave in my talk is Howard Rheingold, a fascinating individual with some intriguing thoughts about this modern digital context. He started his own [entity] he called Rheingold U. It's not really a university, but he offers his own classes. He has [students] like me, higher-ed professionals who are taking classes from him to imagine what's going to happen. That's just one of thousands of examples of individuals who can create their own schools or classes or learning environments.
Do you think this could actually have an impact on the way traditional higher ed works?
I think it is already. I think when we look at higher education, we oftentimes look at it as an entity, as if it's just one thing. That's why I often use the phrase ecosystem. Maybe it's become a little bit cliché, but I think the metaphor still holds up. It really is an ecosystem. It's not as if it's this one thing that a certain person or small group of people are strategically growing. It's organic. Things pop up and then they die. They come and they grow and they interact. Sometimes in positive ways and sometimes not-so-positive ways. That's what's happening with this digital space.
I picture the current landscape of higher ed. Imagine this massive mural that represents all of the different things that have been happening in higher ed for an extended period of time. Then imagine all the sudden on that mural small adjustments start appearing. Maybe it's a landscape art, and a small garden appears in one place, and another garden, and another garden, and another garden. All the sudden, we find that same picture is now covered with this new vegetation and this new growth. That's what I see happening in higher ed.
We have this outsider innovation. It's a place to incubate ideas that is free from some of the regulatory issues and some of the restraints and the bureaucracies sometimes in formal learning organizations. People are able to iterate and experiment, and they learn things. People are applauding them in higher ed. Or, from the learner perspective, learners are sometimes choosing those outsider learning opportunities in place of where they might have chosen a traditional degree or higher ed pathway.
There seems to be a mounting frustration with high cost of higher ed, and that probably plays into it. But isn't there a danger that you could end up with students wasting their time or not getting something that really is going to serve them well?
Yeah, I certainly am not an advocate of removing all regulation. Regulation is not the enemy. Bad regulation is the enemy. Maybe we don't even need the enemy metaphor. On the federal level and in some of our states, we clearly have some policies and regulations that are based upon very narrow constructs and metaphors of what education should be, tied to the credit hour and the like. I think that's creating some unnecessary limitations.
It really ties higher ed professionals' hands behind their backs sometimes to innovate in some really promising ways that could help students. I definitely think that by adjusting the policies and giving higher ed organizations a little more freedom and flexibility, while still being able to work within the federal financial aid system, I think that that could actually really help with the issue that you just described. Higher ed organizations are generally pretty ethically minded. They want to do right by the students and their stakeholders, in general. Certainly we can point to bad examples. But I think that's one piece where it's an uneven playing field right now.
You wrote a book called What Really Matters, focused on ten issues facing the future of education. One of the things that you mention is you've often found yourself drawn dystopian writers like Neil Postman who raise alarms about the way technology is evolving. We still hear a lot of suspicion on campuses—especially the Silicon Valley world. What do you learn from some of the tech critics? How do you put that in with your I see as your often optimistic view of what you're seeing in edtech?
Yeah, I cut my teeth on the media ecologists and critics like Jacques Ellul, Louis Mumford, Neil Postman, and Marshall McLuhan. A lot of those people really helped me form my ideas and my thinking.
I started in the K-12 space. I saw, in the '90s, when I first became a high school teacher, [then a] middle school teacher, I saw the way in which the digital world was impacting people's lives, even their most deepest-seated beliefs and values about life and the world. And I noticed how media influenced their beliefs and ideas, and how people's pursuit of truth and truth claims. This was '93-'94. We're finding that this is at the same time that there's a push to get the internet into classrooms, on a federal level. I'm observing all of that as a social studies teacher and realizing, "Wow, I need to figure out how to prepare young people for this new world."
It was kind of like a media literacy, information literacy drive for me. Helping people realize that their beliefs and their values and their view of the world is being shaped without them knowing it. The example I'd often give is, If you can't read, if you're not literate with a book, the book can't really influence you. But if you can't read media, it still has its way with you. It still works on you.
In some ways, when you hear me talk and it sounds a little bit utopian, it's actually being a critic of the current technologies, technologies like the current letter grade system, the current credit-hour system, the current systems that sometimes inhibits student-centered learning, the archaic policies and practices that we don't even remember where they came from but we still hold on to them. In some ways, I'm not really championing for a particular new innovation. I'm just trying to encourage us to recognize that our current innovations are not all that we thought they were and maybe we need to reconsider some of them.
How well do you think that's going? You're at an institution and trying to work on innovation there.
In higher ed at large, I am optimistic about where we're going. I think we're creating an increasingly diverse educational ecosystem, which I think serves the learners best.
I work from a fundamental assumption about human beings that humans are inherently worth something, they're valuable. That's a Constitutional concept in our country, right? That each person has unique value and worth and they also have a unique set of gifts, talents and abilities, some of which may be inherent and others that will be developed because of life experiences and emerging passions throughout life and things like that.
If that's true, then if I have a cookie-cutter education system, and we try to nationalize and scale everything, we just make it more uniform. We're creating a system that's not for diverse people who are uniquely gifted with different gifts, passions, callings, interests, abilities, and all those things.
What do you see as the obstacle to that at an institution like your own or within traditional higher ed?
Historically in higher ed, we have modeled ourselves after a few elite schools. That is changing. We now see innovations that are coming from the grassroots, and they're emerging from other places. It's not all sort of the president of Harvard has an initiative that then trickles down to everyone else, or MIT or Stanford or Princeton or Yale. We're seeing state schools do incredibly innovation things, going directions that others are not doing. We're seeing curricular innovations that are happening and popping up based upon a local need or a regional need.
It seems like higher ed is still very hierarchical and status oriented, though. which schools are you thinking of when you say those non-MIT's and non-Harvard's?
The thing that's neat about it is I could name certain schools, like the Arizona State's, that have really stepped up as an innovative state school, and UW-Madison has done some really incredible things. We have some big flagship state schools. But what's most intriguing to me are the dozen schools that I can't name for you. They're the small liberal arts schools that are doing incredible things that you and I don't even know about. They're doing great things for 150 students or 300 or 500 students.
You’ve talked about how big data is coming in higher ed. What does that look like for a typical student?
This has many possible futures. I want to try to influence it in one direction, candidly, because I think that there is a more humane and better way to go than others. I let my values kind of stick out there. I'm very concerned about closed algorithmic systems. These are systems that kind of rate and sort you, but you don't have any say on how it's rated and you don't get to see behind the curtain and see how it's sorted. That's incredibly disconcerting. That amplifies the prejudices and values, intended or unintended, of the designers of those systems. That is very concerning. That's happening, probably in a number of contexts that I haven't looked at yet.
I'm concerned that that will start to happen more and more in education, as we try to do really well meaning things. Like build these algorithmic tools that predict whether students are likely to persist or not, and then we have interventions to step in and try to prevent them. Or we advise students away from taking certain courses because the algorithm claims that they only have a 10 percent chance of getting a passing grade or getting a B or higher.
That is massive. That's going to grow. There's a lot of investment. We're going to see more start-ups in that space. We already are seeing quite a bit of investment. When you see start-ups and you see investors, then there's also a desire and a push to scale. When there's a push to scale, there's a push to standardize so that you can scale more easily. When there's a push to standardize, you lose what I was talking about before, about meeting the unique needs of people, sometimes. Unless we can have some really wonderful experiments around open, transparent use of data and algorithms, even giving learners the ability to co-create algorithms or to manipulate the algorithm to give them answers to their questions. That, I think, has a ton of promise, but it's definitely not something I would say is the future. The future is data. There's no question. Big data is here to stay. It's just whether we're going to make a better world or worse world with it.