This Administrator Helped Shape Tech at Colleges For More Than 40 Years....

EdSurge Podcast

This Administrator Helped Shape Tech at Colleges For More Than 40 Years. Here’s His Outlook on What’s Next.

By Jeffrey R. Young     Dec 26, 2018

This Administrator Helped Shape Tech at Colleges For More Than 40 Years. Here’s His Outlook on What’s Next.

Portland, Oregon—To get to Marty Ringle’s office at Reed College, you have to climb to the top floor of the Educational Technology Center building and get buzzed past a locked door that says “This is a Secure Area.” It felt like I was making a pilgrimage to the digital equivalent of a wise old master on the top of some mountain.

And in some ways that’s not too far off. You see, Marty Ringle has been working in educational technology for more than 40 years, and he’s seen it all—the birth of the PC and and their early use at colleges, the building out of the internet, which started at colleges, and the arrival of smartphones. In fact, he was personal friends with Steve Jobs, and he heard one of the early pitches for what would become the first iPod.

I made the trip recently to seek out Ringle’s perspective. After all, while tech has brought plenty of changes, not all of them have been positive. Sure it’s nice to take an Uber, but there are plenty of ways that online networks have also bred division and polarization.

Before Ringle studied technology, he specialized in philosophy. He’s one of those rare humanists of his generation who devoted their careers to technology and trying to design a better world. So I wanted to know what he thought of what’s happening with tech now, and what he sees as the legacy of this digital revolution he helped bring in.

Listen to the discussion on this week’s EdSurge On Air podcast. You can follow the podcast on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher or wherever you listen.

The highlights below have been lightly edited and condensed for clarity (the best experience is the audio, so subscribe to the EdSurge On Air podcast wherever you listen).

EdSurge: Back when you went to college you studied both philosophy and technology, which must have been an unusual combination at that time. How did you end up mixing those two things?

Marty Ringle: The areas of philosophy that I was studying—philosophy of mind, philosophical psychology, epistemology, things like that—lent themselves to interdisciplinary studies. While I was doing research, I kept bumping into linguists and neuroscientists and psychologists, cognitive psychologists and so on, and I stumbled on what was then the nascent field of artificial intelligence and realized that a lot of the issues that I was grappling with in philosophy were being grappled with by people in other disciplines from lots of different directions.

I crossed the campus quad from the philosophy department to the School of Advanced Technology, talked to them, and they were very interested in the kind of work I was doing, and they said, "We'll make you a deal. If you come and teach things like ethics to our engineers, in return for that we'll teach you everything you ever wanted to know about artificial intelligence and computer technology more generally."

It was a devil's deal, it worked out beautifully for everyone. I got into the dual course of doing philosophy and technology. When I graduated, I taught philosophy for three years, and then Vassar College called and said they really needed somebody with a PhD who could do computer science, and they were kind of desperate. Hey, when it comes to desperation, I'm your man. I left Wisconsin and went to Poughkeepsie, New York, started teaching artificial intelligence.

After 11 years at Vassar, teaching and doing research, I thought, "I should think about other things, other paths." In the interim, I had the rare opportunity to meet and become friends with Steve Jobs.

How did you meet Steve Jobs?

In '83, Steve and a couple of his cronies, Daniel Lewin at Apple, conceived of this idea which I think was brilliant, was that if you really want to penetrate the world, a good place to start is with education. Whether it's higher ed or K-12, if you capture people's minds when they're young, and you do that with whatever technology, whatever creative works, that's going to stick with them through the rest of their lives.

Everybody's figured that out since then, and I'm not sure that they were the first to figure it out, but they certainly leveraged it beautifully. They created something that became known as the Apple University Consortium. In '83, they were inviting individuals and groups of people from around the country in higher education to come to Cupertino and look at what they were going to release.

At the time, the conception was of having a machine that had a megapixel display, a meg of memory, and a million instruction per second CPU, MIPS. That's the three Ms. The concept was that if you could have a unit like that, a platform like that that was UNIX based and powerful enough, you could really do some interesting research and scholarship and teaching and computer science and so on.

I was charged to create a meeting that would bring together the top colleges and universities in the country—15 or 20 of them—with folks from Silicon Valley who would be in the best position to create such a machine, and market it to higher ed.

Steve, who was pretty much out of work at that point, so I invited him to come to Pittsburgh to the meeting, and he came. During one of the coffee breaks, I went over to Steve and I saw him smiling, which I hadn't seen him do for a while, and I said, "What are you thinking?" He said, "I'm thinking I know what's going to happen next."

He went back to California, he talked to somebody from Stanford, a faculty member, and I'm not sure what the connection was there, but the next thing I knew, a number of us were being invited to be on the advisory board of this company called NeXT.

You know pretty much how that story wound up as far as NeXT was concerned, but not as far as how the whole enterprise was concerned, because Steve brought that technology back to Apple when he went back to Apple, and life continued on into the '90s. Here we are today.

Back to your work at colleges, what would you say has been the biggest benefit from having that tool come to reality in the academy?

What have the descendants of the 3M workstation platforms given us? They've given us dance and choreography software, they've given us computational graphics software, they've given music composition and notation software. You go across the arts, the humanities, all of the social sciences essentially, if you look at economics, every discipline you can imagine is to a greater or less extent, taking advantage of computing power that is unlocking doors for research, that didn't exist.

There are vast new avenues of research and scholarship that didn't exist 30 years ago or 40 years ago. People weren't conceiving of what something like bioinformatics could be, and what data science applied to urban planning could be.

They couldn't imagine, if you could marshal not millions of bits of data, but gazillions of bits of data, you could start predicting weather, you can start doing all kinds of things that were unimaginable, except to some people who had really good imaginations. That's where we are today, and as far as where we're going tomorrow, it's the same story. If you were to ask me, "Well, what do I think the applications 20 years from now are going to be?" Who knows?

Today we’re in a time where it seems like a lot of people in technology who built this world that we're living in are also having some second thoughts or some concerns about the ethical implications of what's been built.

When I was in graduate school I was asked if I could teach a course in ethics to the engineers, to the software engineers. I said I would, and in that course, one of the key topics was you remember back in the '30s and '40s when physicists were being asked to focus on nuclear energy and develop weaponized nuclear energy, that there was some awareness that this was letting the genie out of the bottle.

As we saw, historically, it was quite a genie. A point that I was making to the engineers, who were very much heads-down in coding, that the artificial intelligence research that they were doing today could easily at some point down the road, become a critical ethical issue. Now, we've seen lots of movies, the Terminator movies of what the future could be like if the robots rise.

There are people today who are well respected, well known, who are expressing anxiety and concerns about this. I personally think those are very well placed concerns. Not just in terms of the immediate obvious concerns about privacy and tracking and profiling people to within an inch of their lives and all those sorts of things, but decision-making, understanding the strengths and weaknesses, the limits of technology, not just today, but tomorrow, I think is vital.

If we focus entirely on the benefits and we don't pay any attention to the risks, by the time we recognize them, disaster may already have struck. So what do we do? Well, I think the people who are making the noises now are doing us a service. There should be a required course on ethical dimensions of technology to make sure that people who are in the trenches are exposed to these things and that there's some thought being given at every level to putting in safeguards.

I've been a technology administrator for 30 years, I've got a small community here at Reed College. We do technological change and innovation all the time, and we do care about those things. When we introduce a new system, like a learning management system, we don't just say, "Hey, five years from now everybody's going to be using that, that's going to be fantastic, let's just roll this out and shove it down their throats."

We pay a lot of attention to how we can do change management in a way that maybe takes a little bit longer, but we'll get there, and we'll do it in a way that the community is comforted that technology is serving their needs, and not vice versa.

If we could do it at Reed, we can do it in higher education. If we can do it in higher education, we can do it in society in general. And I don't know that there's a compelling reason other than somebody who is so focused on the profit margin of the next quarter, that they can't step back for a minute and see that there are lots of different routes to get across the river. You don't have to take the one that's filled with crocodiles and lose half your staff in the process. Take a little while, go to the left, go to the right, find a land bridge, do it intelligently.

 

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