This is a version of the keynote talk I gave at City Tech’s Tech Day (3/18/15).


Preamble (Don’t start the Prezi, linked to the image, just  yet). I want to give just a little personal context, since it’s always good for people to know why you’re saying what you’re saying. Because I’m on LinkedIn, I had this weird experience as we hit 2015 – people wrote to congratulate me on the 15 years I’ve been overseeing Academic/Instructional Tech. That’s an insanely long time to be in a job like that, when you think of all that’s changed. But time does tell. (As Emerson said, the years teach much that the days never know.) Looking at reviews of recent publications — The End of College, for instance – I had this sense of déjà vu and went and pulled down The Social Life of Information (2000). Taking on the misguided prophecies of the nineties, it starts by saying that “the rise of the information age has brought about a good deal of ‘endism’” (16).   So I want to say a little (more) to counter all the hype and hysteria about what technology will do to higher education as we know it, partly because we’ve been through this before.

OK. If you click on the image, you can follow along, advancing the presentation every time you see an underlined heading.

Revolutions/Game Changers – It seems lots of people talking about technology want to say that one thing or another is going result in a revolution or be a game changer.  Such claims are so common we may fail to realize how rarely they’re true,  Or maybe, which is at least as likely, we sense the terms themselves are abused and overused. Revolutions are dramatic changes — changes so dramatic they beg comparison to the violent overthrow of rulers by those they rule. Games, being highly rule-bound and regulated, change rarely because they necessarily change by a rewriting of the rules. Neither “revolution” nor “game-changer”  seems to describe the changes that are essentially, at least according to Clayton Christensen, disruptions by outside forces or events or (especially) technologies. We are likely to get further with relevant examples and precedents than such fuzzy terms.

The Last Great Disruption – The past gives us a great point of comparison in the invention of the printing press and what ensued. It was both more and less radically transformative than it figures in the popular mind. We tend to forget that the ability to print books may actually be more easily and quickly effected than the widespread ability to read them — something, frankly, we are still working on. People at the advent of such changes are even less affected in seeing how they’ll play out. This is especially true of those who feel threatened by such change. They picture the consequences for themselves that may or may not come to pass.

The professors of the day were a case in point. They did feel threatened. They had access to texts, much fewer in number before than after the printing press intervened, and they imagined they would be less important or necessary because they saw their role largely as saying to their students what they texts said to them. As it turned out, saying what they books said was not the heart of teaching, or at least what teaching would become. That, instead, would lie in interpretations, applications, and extensions of understandings that would evolve over time, and widely accessible books, far from replacing teachers, would instead give them a starting point to do much more than say what was said.

Again, this took a long time. The real effect of the printing press on higher ed and the world at large required a vast growth in literacy and all the social and cultural and economic changes that would bring.

Not So Fast — So such changes are complicated, and one of the complications is surely that we can pretty much count on change being resisted. Opposing change has a long history, so much so that many posit it as an aspect of human nature. When Socrates spoke against writing in Plato’s Phaedrus (casting it as the enemy of memory), he was repeating arguments borrowed from the Egyptians, as far back in time to him as he is to us. This is not to say that Socrates was entirely wrong. In fact, he is the progenitor of the many moderns, people like Nicholas Carr and Sven Birkerts, who say that the Internet is the enemy of everything from sustained attention to careful thought. (By the way, if you want to read about faculty resistance to online education, I’ve blogged quite a bit about that, especially here.)

Sidesteps to Progress — It’s not just that technological innovations take time to overcome resistance and reach their potential.  They are often not used as they were expected (even intended) to be used. The history of technology is a series of such stories. One example is how the epochal change in communication that telegraph amounted to and how all (from our perspective) equally epochal changes that followed — the radio, the telephone, the phonograph — were conceived of in terms of the initial guise of extensions of an invention they diverged radically from (and in some cases supplanted in the process).

Example of SMS – Again it’s not just the technology, but the use-niches it falls into and flows out of. To get a sense of all that is behind the reasons for texting, check out danah boyd’s It’s Complicated: the Social Lives of Networked Teens.

Both/And, not Either/Or – So we accommodate the new, arrange it on our landscape of options till the landscape itself is changed, and the (smart)phone leads to the erasure of the public phone. The point is that things do change, and dramatically, and faster than ever before because change has accelerated to the point that what has changed is change itself, becoming the expectation and the rule, not the disruption of that. I just mentioned the iPhone. It’s been with us less than a decade; we already can’t imagine life without being constantly accompanied by this thing that is our newsstand, entertainment center, library, game collection, camera — and, oh yes, phone. It’s not just public phone booths that have disappeared. What has happened to video stores, encyclopedias, half of our newspapers? If we take the long view in higher ed, how do we make the right bets?

Mr Rogers can help, ER and his Diffusion of Innovation, running through five editions and giving us the term “early adopter”, particularly his 5 attributes of innovations, and how they bear on our work – relative advantage (almost never cost initially, but the ability to do something better, is hard for educators to see, validate, and inculcate — because we don’t teach people how to teach in higher ed), compatibility (out-of-the-box doesn’t fit in our box), complexity (enough said), observability and trialability (a problem, teaching being oddly closeted).

MOOCs amount to the exception that proved the rule — very observable and trialable (but that was part of the problem). The Massive Open Online Course was supposed to be the killer app for higher ed, our revolution and tsunami, but was a failure even (especially?) when free because at its heart it was the opposite of something new: a shopworn pedagogy, and an egregious scaling up of the large lecture class. Attempts to make it work turned out to be less massive, or open, or online, or even course-like – now absorbed into the landscape as a fringe element, useful for certain kinds of blending (the flipped MOOC), executive ed, and life-long learning. Note how, being old at heart, it was swallowed up by the already-there. Apparently we had to learn again what the printing press should have taught us half a millenium ago: transmission is not education.

So what will work? We need something that is essentially an update of Rogers, something that gives us a way to judge the value of technology in what educators value. Which brings us to

Zittrain’s 5 Aspects of Generativity –  from his 2008 book The Future of the Internet—And How to Stop It. Generativity is Zittrain’s middle way between the twin dystopias of disruptive chaos on the one hand and corporatization or “appliancizing” (his word) on the other. The 5 aspects of generativity have a striking homology with Rogers’ 5 attributes of innovation:  Leverage (cf. relative advantage – reach that is not so much scaling up as networking out, and moving from appointed time to point of need); Adaptibility (cf. compatibility – free from lockdown and compartmentalization); Ease of Mastery (cf. complexity — especially freedom from being led by the nose and told RTFM); Accessibility (cf. observability – free from the hierarchy of the top-down, getting in on the ground floor); Transferability (cf. triability – you cannot only try it out but make it your own, not just adopt it but adapt it). Want to see all this in action? Check out

The OpenLab : The best example of generativity I can think of. It’s a vast and vastly successful example of information made into knowledge and knowledge made visible. That was the whole point of The Social Life of Information: for information truly to inform (and not be inert data), for it to be transmuted into knowledge, it has to be socialized, applied through sharing and collaboration, built up mentoring and community building. That’s exactly what the City Tech’s OpenLab is and does, and it’s glorious.

One last slide: My contact info, in case you want to get back to me on any of this.

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