Reading the Trend Lines Reshaping Education: A Look at Bryan Alexander’s...

Digital Learning in Higher Ed

Reading the Trend Lines Reshaping Education: A Look at Bryan Alexander’s Book in Progress

By Jeffrey R. Young     May 21, 2018

Reading the Trend Lines Reshaping Education: A Look at Bryan Alexander’s Book in Progress

This article is part of the guide EdSurge Live: A Town-Hall Style Video Forum.

Futurists play a mental game of obsessively tracking what’s new right now and making imaginative leaps to predict what might come, say, ten years out.

So what do futurists say is coming for higher education?

This week EdSurge sat down with perhaps the most well-known futurist of higher education, Bryan Alexander, who is working on a new book tentatively titled Transforming the University in the 21st Century, The Next Generation of Higher Education, expected to come out next year. Alexander is also a consultant, speaker and researcher. He puts out a monthly report called “Future Trends in Technology in Education,” and he hosts a weekly video called the Future Trends Forum.

Alexander was a guest on EdSurge Live, our monthly video discussion forum, and attendees asked the futurist about his upcoming book and what’s next for higher ed. Below are highlights from the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity. Or watch the video of the entire discussion.

EdSurge: You’re working on a book about transforming the university for the next generation. Can you give us a preview of the argument you’re making.

Alexander: Sure, happy to. So the first half of the book looks at trend lines that are reshaping higher education in the present. Some of those trends are technological, some of them are within education, some are outside of education—such as demographics and economics.

The second part of the book builds some scenarios for universities down the road. Not necessarily scenarios that I would like to see, but what would happen if certain trends become especially powerful.

Take the medical sector, for example. We already know that in the United States that we have all these trend lines showing that the medical sector is larger than it was before in terms of the numbers of people employed, that more and more people need more and more degrees and certifications, and we know that the sector is getting larger and larger financially. Well, if we extrapolate this trend forward, say 10 years, we can imagine healthcare becoming the leading industry in the United States. If we imagine that happening, we can envision how a campus would be different.

For example, campuses might have more nursing programs, more radiology, more full medical schools. They have perhaps more allied fields such as medical ethics. They may have more and more pre-med programs that are shaped from other programs. And you can think of everything from history to writing to of course the hard sciences. You can imagine this backwards a bit to K-12, where people in high school want to take pre-pre-med programs. It's not a lightning change that transforms the entire landscape, but in many ways we’d just become more medical, and more medically inclined. But that would have an interesting fallout. [For instance,] IT departments would have more to do because much of healthcare has tremendous IT demands—everything from electronic medical records to huge amounts of visualization to very thick bandwidth needs.

Is there another big trend that people might be surprised by or that you are focusing on?

One that I often look for as a positive light is the possibility that we may view the digital revolution as a kind of Renaissance. Ten years from now we may look back at the previous 30 years and realize that we have lived through an unusual boom in human creativity, that we now have this gift of storytelling and publication given to the majority of the human race, that we have new forms of creativity and storytelling, everything from gaming to VR, and this has shown up in education where we have students as makers, where we have faculty making more media and digital storytelling has gone mainstream. Where we have all kinds of practices of visualization and 3D printing to help us imagine and build new facilities and things that are hard to discern.

Are you saying there might be a time later where we look back and wish it had been like that again. Do you see this creative era tapering off now for some reason?

This is part of the power of the scenario rather than the trend, is that the scenario eggs on your imagination. It might be that in 2028, we think we've just lived through this Golden Age, and maybe Moore's Law comes to a halt, which is quite possible. Maybe we shift instead to some kind of anti-creative world—where we have something like massive firewalls, massive amounts of connections being broken thanks to [the end of] net neutrality. We may have gamified authoritarianism like we're developing in China.

The trends are all based on research, they're all based in the present, they're all tangible, they're all thoroughly documented. But the other scenarios are more speculative. So what happens when you take this real world material, stretch it a little bit, and see where it goes? That's the arc of the book, is to give you a whole bunch of trends in the present, stuffed with footnotes and lots and lots of examples, and then take these further and see where our education might go.

It seems like much of the tech coverage in the media used to be about gee-whiz stories, but these days we hear more about the unintended consequences of all kinds of tech, like the latest privacy concerns about Facebook. Do you count yourself an optimist as you looked forward, and have your views about tech changed in the past ten years now that we’ve seen some of these unintended consequences?

I'm not so much a pessimist as someone who is very disappointed. Some of the really atrocious behavior online is stuff that we've experienced before, but this time we've really let it get out of hand. For example, in the gaming universe, there's long been social dynamics like griefers. A griefer is someone who goes into a game and just kills people just to ruin their day. In the 1990's we developed ways of handling that.

There's a fantastic, very powerful essay by Julian Dibbell called A Rape in Cyberspace, which covers the use of the virtual world to torment a female player. It's from 1989. So we had harassment, we had abuse, but we developed norms of all kinds to content with it. We developed laws. We developed policies. We developed practices.

So I'm very disappointed that the troll armies that were burst and spawned in GamerGate were able to, in many ways, run unchecked and to really do harm to an awful lot of people. You know that practice has now gone widespread, where you have versions of troll armies working for, say, the Philippine government, or helping spread the destruction in Myanmar, or backing Trump in different ways.

I find that disappointing and I'm working to imagine different ways forward, where this could go. It's possible that we'll see, for example, widespread government restrictions on social media in the United States against fake news or against abuse. It's possible that we'll see states or private organizations such as Facebook push really hard to have restrictions against abusive content. A recent Pew poll asked Americans who would you like to have help you deal with fake news online, and only 39 percent or so thought the federal government should do that. A clear majority thought that companies should do it, which is interesting.

I'm trying to imagine the different ways that this could go forward and to think about how it would work for education. I do think that we are in an extraordinary time with so much potential for human creativity, for our ability to connect with each other like we're doing now, and for learning. With so much for student empowerment, so much for institutions to better meet the needs of students, so much potential for furthering research, so much potential that we have for boosting learning and access. So right now I'm hedging my bets: I think we have several different paths forward, and I really hope that we avoid the bad ones.

[Audience question] What about the role of parents with this discussion of the future of education? I'm wondering how much that may have come up for you in some of your conversations or as a part of the book?

Many people in education really like to think of education in terms of being parents, which I find fascinating. So you'll see a biologist say, as the mother of a 16 year old… People really do frame themselves that way, but I'm not sure how much longer that will continue, again, given demographics. We had this shift away from the educational institution as a provider of family responsibilities, but we've really reversed that and we've gone back in many ways. Our institutions now not only provide home, not only provide food, not only provide sports and other services, but now we provide increased psychological counseling, we provide increased medical support, we provide more and more student life than we ever had, especially in residential campuses.

In many ways our institutions are taking up that role and becoming more and more parental, and that's one of the reasons for the increased cost of higher education, is because all of those cost money to do.

[Audience questions] What are your thoughts on the difference between the concepts of pedagogy and andragogy?

If you haven't seen this argument, part of it is the idea that [the word] pedagogy involves a major power imbalance. The Greek meaning has to do with training or leading children, for example, and so that may not be an appropriate term for adults.
Andragogy is an awkward but still useful term for talking about adults, and brings to mind all the different ways of actually teaching adults that differ. There's even another term—heutagogy, which is an even more awkward term that refers to the self pedagogy of being a self-directed learner.

What I like about these terms is that they each indicate possible ways for structuring learning. Heutagogy reminds us that autodidact is a key part of the learning landscape and we all are autodidacts in different stages of our lives, and we have to figure out, in many ways, how to respond to the autodidact's demands and needs. Steven Downing, for example, has written quite frequently about this. Thinking about students as adults rather than as children really in many ways teaches us to think about the full range of adult life … the idea of an adult being enmeshed in a web of responsibilities and roles.

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