|Invent the Future: Virginia Tech 2020
A report from the Task Force on Instructional Technology
April 8, 2011
I. 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)
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 (http://perfcap.blogspot.com/) 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.
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 brains 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 they are now strikingly similar 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.”
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, a new mode of representation as important as the emergence of the phonetic alphabet.
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. Some of our thoughts along these lines will appear in what follows. 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. As a public, land-grant university, we have a special mission to provide access to the resources of a digital age for as many of our Commonwealth’s residents 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? This document offers a preliminary consideration of these questions. 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.
II. THE DIGITAL IMAGINATION
[Education] ought to teach and reward initiative, curiosity, the habit of self-motivation, intellectual involvement…. Educators and computer enthusiasts tend to agree on these goals. But what happens? Many of the inhumanities of the existing system, no less wrong for being unintentional, are being continued into computer-assisted teaching.
--Ted Nelson, “Computer Lib/Dream Machines” (1974)
Capital Gate, Abu Dhabi. Designed with Building Information Modeling software (BIM), now available for iPad.
Alan Kay, the enfant terrible of Xerox’s fabled Palo Alto Research Center and the father of the personal computer, once observed that the best way to predict the future was to invent it. There is a promise and a warning implicit in that observation. The promise is that we can build a future together. We are not simply the victims of technological determinism. The warning is that the future we get is only as good as the future we invent. In other words, we must nurture our powers of invention, powers that depend on the depth and strength of our imaginations. How can we do this in a digital context?
We must awaken the digital imagination. Despite numerous “information literacy” or “digital fluency” initiatives, typically in the form of “swimming test” requirements or other bolted-on initiatives, no college or university has yet articulated this goal in its appropriate depth and scope. When the Committee on Information Technology
Literacy published its own vision of 21st- century education in Being Fluent with Information Technology (Washington: National Academy Press, 1999), it identified computing skills, capabilities, and concepts as the three essential areas higher education should attend to in its response to the digital age. So far, higher education has ignored the conceptual level almost entirely. As a result, students, faculty, and staff are much like the fish who don’t know they’re wet. We swim in an ocean of networked computers, but we do not have the conceptual frameworks we need to understand what that means or how to invent within it.
Yet those pioneers who invented the future we now inhabit understood the crucial role of the digital imagination in achieving the ultimate goal of augmenting human intellect. Early on, Alan Kay insisted that “a computer is an instrument whose music is ideas.” Not a faster typewriter or an information appliance, but an instrument whose music is ideas. At Xerox PARC, Kay and his colleague Adele Goldberg wrote a widely influential essay titled “Personal Dynamic Media,” in which they recorded this essential observation:
[T]he ability to simulate the details of any descriptive model means that the computer, viewed as a medium itself, can be all other media if the embedding and viewing methods are sufficiently well provided. Moreover, this new “metamedium” is active—it can respond to queries and experiments—so that the messages may involve the learner in a two-way conversation…. We think the implications are vast and compelling.
Alan Kay and Adele Goldberg, “Personal Dynamic Media,” 1977
Computing as an active metamedium. Computers as ”universal machines” with the peculiar ability to simulate and model any other machine. Software, an entirely new human invention that Fred Brooks, author of the classic The Mythical Man-Month, called “pure thought-stuff.” Perhaps not everyone needs to learn to program, but certainly everyone needs to understand the implications of this invention. To read the ambitions and excitement of the history of computing, from Vannevar Bush’s “As We May Think” to Tim Berners-Lee’s “The World Wide Web” is to understand just how dramatically and wonderfully new this invention is, how extraordinary its promise, and how far we have fallen short of realizing that promise.
In 2010, Apple introduced the iPad and proclaimed another revolution. Many writers compared the iPad to Alan Kay’s original conception of the “Dynabook.” Kay, however, was not optimistic that the revolution he and his colleagues had so yearned for had in fact arrived:
One way to look at what we were doing is that we were trying to make new kinds of books, and telescopes and microscopes, etc., to advance “seeing and thinking”, but if you give a microscope to a monkey they only will hold it up to admire their reflection in the shiny brass barrel. And I think this is what happened. Education never got on the bus and the “augmentation of human intellect” (which is right there) got completely overwhelmed by the mirror effect….
Alan Kay, responding to Alan Levine’s blog post “The Dynabook Pad” http://cogdogblog.com/2010/10/17/the-dynabookpad/ on October 21, 2010.
We should not let any technology make monkeys out of us or our students. Indeed, education is among other things our uniquely human culture of making the most out of our peculiarly human characteristics. Yet the augmentation of human intellect within the metamedium of networked, interactive computing has not yet become a priority in any significant way within higher education.
It’s tough to go through a paradigm shift. When the earth moved from the still center of the universe to the moving orbit of a heliocentric cosmos, massive intellectual and social disruption ensued. When Hamlet was in its first run at the Globe Theatre, no one knew that a déclassé public entertainment on the wrong side of the Thames would one day be called the primary catalyst of modern self-awareness. Note, however, that in both instances those who were agile and committed enough were able to be among the first not only to enjoy the fruits of these discoveries and accomplishments, but also those who could successfully exercise their own agency and creativity within the rapidly changing context.
There have been numerous and welcome curricular shifts in response to emerging cultural concerns over the last forty years, but no college or university has yet had the vision or courage to answer the call sounded in 1999 by the blue-ribbon Committee on Information Technology Literacy in their National Academy publication Being Fluent with Information Technology: “the committee believes that successful implementation of FITness [i.e., fluency in information technologies] instruction will require serious rethinking of the college and university curriculum.
Computer Science and Telecommunications Board, Committee on Information Technology Literacy, Being Fluent with Information Technology. Washington: National Academy Press, 1999.
This committee did not advocate another set of tacked-on requirements, but instead a curriculum in which students, faculty, and staff could awaken and exercise their digital imaginations, working together from matriculation to commencement as each new cohort appeared to explore the rich conceptual possibilities of the digital age. What John Harwood (CIO Penn State) calls “Learning 2.0” is about much more than content delivery, e-books, or articulation agreements. We need to consider a world in which we can and probably will move beyond the credit hour, course and term boundaries, and geographical location into a world in which creation and learning become synonymous. The irony is that we’ve long known that creation and learning are intimately related. We’ve had to meet challenges of access and cost by scaling up along fairly crude industrial models, turning education into an assembly line. But if the Internet has shown us anything, it’s shown us that a distributed, loosely coupled model of creation and communication networks can trigger network effects on a startling and unpredictable scale.
We should learn from the Internet itself what a learning community can be like. When a small dialogue box inviting 140 characters of commentary can play an integral role in global events ranging from a U.S. President’s State of the Union Address (Twitter hashtag #sotu) to ongoing revolutions in the Middle East beginning with Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, we are witnessing a symbiosis of creation and learning that far outstrips any vision of academic transformation based on quadrupling class sizes and outsourcing grading and instruction to poorly-compensated adjuncts and paraprofessionals. But to understand and leverage these changes, we must attain to a far deeper understanding of the computer itself than we have yet attempted. We must understand computing the way we seek to understand language itself. We must awaken our digital imaginations. If Virginia Tech seizes this opportunity for leadership in this vital area, that leadership will demonstrate that the noble democratic vision embodied in the concept of the land-grant university is the true mother of accomplishment, and a far more sustainable and equitable engine of economic prosperity than any other vision has yet realized.
Richard Feynman's blackboard at CalTech.
How might we begin? We might begin with a curriculum that brings students into creative, challenging contact with the history and dreams of the digital age, perhaps in a first-year experience that asks them to reflect critically on their own digital lives as well as begin to shape and share their own digital creations, both intramurally and publicly. Research into the neurobiology of learning, building on decades of educational research, has shown that students learn deeply when they are asked to narrate their learning, curate their creations within the learning environment, and share what they have curated with a wide and, when appropriate, a public audience. As students understand that they are not simply completing an assignment at a professor’s behest, but in fact beginning their life’s work, they will necessarily become more engaged and produce more authentic work reflective of their own growing interests. By making that process as public and open as possible, Virginia Tech will create and share not only educational resources, but the excitement and engagement of the Hokie educational experience itself.
Of course, to get the full benefit from these experiences, students will need to enroll here, at Virginia Tech itself.
In the same way, we cannot awaken students’ digital imagination without intensive development opportunities for faculty and staff that will inspire their digital imaginations as well. Much has been written about “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.” While there are significant differences in experience between an 18-year-old and mature adults who are (let us say) farther along in life’s journey, labels such as these tend to pigeonhole the young and excuse their elders from the necessity of learning this new language fluently. Faculty and staff are overworked, it’s true. Demands of teaching, research, service, and continued learning are enormous and seem only to grow as the years go by. The moral is therefore clear: a university committed to digital leadership must provide time, rewards, and recognition to encourage faculty and staff to pursue development opportunities. But there must be more. There must be a clear signal of institutional priorities from the presidential level through the tenure and promotion committee all the way down to the departmental level. And there must be a move away from “training” and workshops into deep, authentic intellectual and experiential engagement with the conceptual frameworks underlying our digital age. Faculty respond much more readily to ideas, inquiry, and discussion than they do to “training.” The training/workshop model may get us to skills of a sort, but it leaves capabilities and especially concepts almost completely untouched. By contrast, seminars and inquiry groups begin with the conceptual framework and do their work by means of deep, playful, and creative intellectual encounters. The “deliverable” should be a whole new mind, to borrow the title of Dan Pink’s book—a changed perspective on the digital world, as well as a renewed sense of curiosity and commitment to exploring its many wonders.
And what about staff development? It should be no different than the opportunities afforded faculty. Indeed, some of the richest, most diverse, most silo-busting and collaborative seminars are those in which faculty and staff learn and grow side-by-side, establishing synergistic partnerships that can transform entire schools and build strong, enduring networks of trust, respect, and encouragement.
III. BUILD NOT FOR THE FUTURE, BUT IN THE FUTURE: The Case For Digital Citizenship
To understand is to invent.
We rightly think of citizenship in terms of nations, but there’s a deeper meaning that’s especially important in our interconnected, global, digital world. The citizen is the one who enjoys the privileges and duties of freedom. Freedom, in turn, depends on agency, self-efficacy, a sense of one’s own power to make effective choices and realize one’s fullest potential. To do so in a digital age requires an expanded notion of citizenship. Becoming a digital citizen means one can experience effective agency and self-determination in one’s culture—and culture increasingly comes in the plural as time and distance are no longer barriers to free and fluid communication. Indeed, one’s “cultures” increasingly implies a significant portion of “one’s planet.” To have the freedom of this realm, one must become a digital citizen. Once the digital imagination is awakened, the goal of digital citizenship can be reached.
To get to this level, however, colleges and universities must finally abandon notions of one-size-fits-all that have dominated our notions of scaling and access for over a century. The digital age permits mass customization. The culture of a school can look much more like New York City and much less like The Mall Of America. Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and formerly of a sister school to the north, George Mason University), has argued that human behaviors exist on a continuum that can be describe by three points: sleeping, eating, and bonding. Sleeping is very nearly one-size-fits-all. Eating is much more varied and personal. Bonding is extraordinarily complex, personal, and almost bewilderingly varied (as any parent of a teenager in love can testify). Dede observes that we treat learning like sleeping, yet everything we know about learning suggests it is really much more like bonding. “Yet the very best of our high-end learning environments have about as much variety as a bad fast-food restaurant,” he concludes.
To get to the variety, depth, and complexity of true learning, then, we must commit to the mass customization that the digital age makes possible. We cannot and should not do that work for our students. We should empower their awakened digital imaginations to do that work for themselves, as a powerful opportunity not only for self-expression but also for metacognitive and critical reflections on their own identities and purposes as students. We should not hand them a portfolio made up of pre-formed data buckets. We should instead challenge them to build their own personal cyberinfrastructures, iteratively developing them as their concepts deepen, their knowledge broadens, and their imaginations flourish. We should challenge them not to “manage” their learning, as the term “learning management system” implies, but boldly to lead their learning lives within their degree work and far beyond it. We must also empower them to understand the way the global digital network operates and what it makes possible. Just as we buy our own houses without applying for permission to a state “housing management authority” (let’s ignore for the moment that a mortgage does involve an application), so we can register a domain, subscribe to a hosting service, install open-source software, and begin to publish our thoughts and dreams to the world without having to have even the FCC-third-class-license-with-broadcast-endorsement one had to have to be a disc jockey back in the day. To quote Clay Shirky again, it’s as if every book came with a free printing press. Just as in the days of the printing press, there are many worries about authority, authenticity, intellectual property, and sheer volume of information. These complaints emerged within a few decades of Gutenberg’s invention. Yet we do not rely on a National Committee To Screen And Filter Books for our self-directed learning within this abundance of conversation. We educate our youth and ourselves to read and write with facility and discernment. Likewise, we must empower our students as digital citizens to make their contributions to the global conversations, and to establish the corner of the global network that will be their “Speaker’s Corner,” just like the corner in London’s Hyde Park where by tradition anyone can have their turn to speak—and thus to lead the next phase of the conversation.
It may be the case that students who are used to sitting in silence or distracting themselves with Internet snacks will be caught off guard when they are not told to put away their laptops but are instead encouraged and indeed expected to demonstrate their contributions to the digital age. They may recall that something is at stake here, and that their capacity as free men and women to create knowledge and find meaning is a privilege not lightly to be discarded. Likewise, it may be that teachers (and staff, too) who are used to captive audiences will need to realign their goals and behaviors toward the free men and women, the digital citizens, who come to study with them. The old contract in which both students and faculty pledge to leave each other in peace may become a new relationship in which both students and faculty are open and eager to building together as fellow digital citizens.
But there’s a catch: such a vision of digital leadership in our students’ and nation’s future will require strong leadership now, before we have all the knowledge we would like to proceed. To put that another way, the leadership Virginia Tech must demonstrate to the world depends to a large extent on the willingness of its adminstrators, faculty, and staff to empower each other to risk failure. We all fear anarchy, and rightly so. There must at some level be the confidence that trains will run on time, for without that confidence, our lives are ruled by fear and anxiety (and our schedules are thrown into a cocked hat). Yet an on-time train going in the wrong direction is worse than useless. Likewise, a burnished and mechanically sophisticated Titanic on the bottom of the North Atlantic is a tragedy, not a monument. The example of Google is instructive here. “Google Innovation Time Off” has become famous as a means of encouraging employee creativity and innovation (and thus leadership). 20% of the engineers’ work time can and should be spent on their own projects. Most famously, gmail and AdSense emerged from “Innovation Time Off.” What is less well known is that Google Labs, the primary beneficiary of this innovation, courts just the kind of anarchy higher education would no doubt blanch at:
Google Labs is a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them. Please note that Labs is the first phase in a lengthy product development process and none of this stuff is guaranteed to make it onto Google.com. While some of our crazy ideas might grow into the next Gmail or iGoogle, others might turn out to be, well, just plain crazy.
Could we build a Google Labs for curriculum? For majors? For capstone or cornerstone courses (or projects, or experiences)? For departments? If our digital imaginations are awakened, if we have grown into the agency and self-efficacy of mature digital citizenship, and if our leaders are willing to underwrite (with political as well as financial capital) the failures and “just plain crazy” experiments that would results, perhaps Virginia Tech, like Google, would find itself the place where the most engaged and ambitious students are most eager to be. Google is not perfect by any means, but if you can imagine a digital environment in which we empower ourselves and our students to “launch their imaginations early and often,” to slightly modify another Google mantra, then you can imagine a Virginia Tech that can truly lead in a comprehensive, integrative program of digital citizenship.
You don’t have to believe in the “singularity” to see the wisdom and the caution in this Ray Kurzweil quotation: “I'm an inventor. I became interested in long-term trends because an invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it is started” (emphasis added). The wisdom is clear, the caution perhaps less so. But consider the second half of that second sentence. The best, most prescient, most effective inventions will likely not be completely understood or even understandable when they are begun. The true innovators among our digital citizens who invent the future will need the patronage and courage of leaders who are not afraid to confront their own lack of understanding and who can live with the paradoxical certainty that the “unknown unknown” is where the richest innovations will come from.
As a thought experiment, imagine explaining to a medieval king who prides himself on not needing to know how to read that a day will come when mass literacy empowers citizens worldwide. Imagine explaining to an alpha-male executive in the early 1960s that a day will come when not knowing at least the rudiments of typing will likely disqualify an applicant from obtaining an executive position. Imagine explaining Twitter, or YouTube, or blogging, to the world of 1995, a time when many people loudly insisted that no one would ever do something as foolish as enter a credit card number in a form on a Web page. Virginia Tech has a proud tradition of invention and innovation. We likely believe we would welcome the next Jeff Bezos and empower him to invent the next Amazon.com. Are we willing to provide that encouragement and those opportunities as part of our core curriculum? Can we imagine a CLE that increases our students range of, and capacity for, sheer interest and curiosity, and empowers the exploration and expression of that curiosity within a digital context? If we cannot, we risk losing one of the most extraordinary educational opportunities humanity has ever encountered. Moreover, we shortchange both our students and ourselves. Not only our tagline but our very mission should steer us toward full and deep intellectual and creative engagement with the digital age.
III. TO INVENT IS TO REINVENT: An Organization Of Small Pieces Loosely Joined.
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
Can we build a Meta University within universities as well as among them? Any university that wants to be a leader in the digital world must do so. The most effective contributions to this Meta University will come from those institutions that walk the walk within their own structures. That is, the organizational structures that will most effectively invent the future and lead education into a new millennium will be those in which the organizational structures are themselves “accessible, empowering, dynamic,” those that are “communally constructed framework[s] of open materials and platforms.”
We know we need robust infrastructure: high-capacity, high-bandwidth connections, both wired and wireless, and ubiquitous throughout the campus’s physical spaces; flexible, reconfigurable learning environments; support for faculty, staff, and students; easily accessible and navigable digital repositories, and so on. We can identify these needs fairly readily, even if we do not yet know how we will design or support the resources that meet them. Once again, however, the real challenge is cultural. In addition to specific goals like the ones enumerated above, the organizational subcommittee consistently uses words like “flexibility,” “collaboration,” “sharing,” “integrating,” and most challenging of all, “nurture and develop.” These are words that point to attitudes and values. These are cultural words. How can we inculcate such a culture at a large research university with over 3,000 faculty and over 30,000 students, plus staff and administration?
Once again, we should look for a guiding principle to the Internet itself, in particular the World Wide Web. In “Small Pieces Loosely Joined” (www.smallpieces.com), his classic work on the design and organizing function of the Web, David Weinberger writes, “the Web gets its value not from the smoothness of its overall operation but from its abundance of small nuggets that point to more small nuggets.” The challenge for an organization, then, is to identify those nuggets, teams, and services that provide real value and organize them not into a tight structure but into a set of flexible, networked links: small pieces loosely joined.
Large organizations function in almost the opposite way: huge pieces tightly joined, or perhaps even worse, huge pieces completely disconnected from each other. The challenge is one of communication within a structure that empowers each person to create links among the small pieces loosely joined. Again we must ask, where are these conversations possible (answer: everywhere), and how can we foster them? Ironically, task forces such as this one are often the first time people from clearly interdependent areas come together to voice their perspectives and articulate common goals. Here leaders in the Registrar’s Office share their hopes and frustrations with leaders from the College of Architecture and Urban Studies, or with leaders from IDDL or CIDER. Here the conductor of a laptop orchestra brainstorms with an education researcher, the dean of undergraduate studies, and the chief information officer. We must instantiate these conversations more regularly and widely. Such conversations not only generate solutions and ideas, but also identify and begin to link those small pieces loosely joined. Again, leadership is key. A task force such as this one clearly signals the priority and urgency the institution has given to the conversation. To stimulate more of these conversations, we will need more such assignments, more such signals from our leadership.
We have already seen how Google sends these signals to its employees. It’s instructive also to recall Apple’s beginnings. When it came time to design the Macintosh, a group physically relocated to another building on the Apple campus and literally flew a pirate’s flag from the rooftop. When the Macintosh was finished, the first ones included reproductions of the signatures from the entire project team inside the case of the machine.
Metaphorically speaking, our approach to organizational structures for 21st- century digital leadership must be one in which talented, committee workers have the chance to be pirates (i.e., innovate dramatically, even radically) as well as the chance to sign their work, even if only they will know the signatures are there. Instead of silos, we must build platforms for invention and reinvention. Wealth will be generated if those platforms are fundamentally platforms for conversation, and that conversation is encouraged to imagine and embrace risk for the sake of renewal and invention.
IV: SELF-SIMILARITY, RECURSION, AND EMERGENCE: A Few Preliminary Conclusions
The task is the same now as it ever has been, familiar, thrilling, unavoidable: we work with all our myriad talents to expand our media of expression to the full measure of our humanity.
--Janet Murray, “Inventing the Medium”
A pattern emerges within all this discussion, a fractal pattern of similar principles and conceptual frameworks. We can identify this pattern with the help of Steven Berlin Johnson’s Where Good Ideas Come From, which traces significant innovation and invention over the long sweep of human history. His conclusion is that combination and recombination of what he calls “the adjacent possible” fuels growth and innovation. The principle is the same as for emergence, and as difficult to imagine: network effects that appear in a macrostate are not yet visible in a single instance or microstate. One cannot have a flock of bird. Yet knowing that, we can begin to understand the possibilities of self-stimulating, self-organizing structures, and can begin to build platforms in which the range and number of adjacent possibles are increased and best positioned for success.
Although committees are often compared to graveyards for good ideas, at their best, committees are excellent platforms for emergence. The most exciting and productive instance of the adjacent possible is two trusting and inventive colleagues in conversation with each other. If the extraordinary success of the Internet and the Web has taught us anything, it’s that conversations within networked, interactive computing environments can scale and generate an emergent “wealth of networks” far beyond our expectations. Going forward, we can design such an environment by awakening the digital imagination, empowering faculty, staff, and students as digital citizens, and creating “hubs” or “nodes” of conversation that are linked internally and externally in a network of innovation. Whether we call this network a “skunk works” or a flotilla of pirate ships, we must empower this network not only to invent but to reinvent. If we are to create and innovate within the extraordinary disruption of the digital age, we must not insulate ourselves from disruption, for that would be to reject the global conversation itself. We must build curricula, learning environments, learning opportunities, and organizational structures that foster the capacity for collaboration and self-surprise within a framework of shared values and goals.
As it happens, interactive computing was invented for that very purpose. Douglas Engelbart, the father of interactive computing, wrote these stirring words in the essay that would eventually launch the Internet itself, “Augmenting Human Intellect: A Conceptual Framework”:
We do not speak of isolated clever tricks that help in particular situations. We refer to a way of life in an integrated domain where hunches, cut-and-try, intangibles, and the human ‘feel for a situation’ usefully co-exist with powerful concepts, streamlined terminology and notation, sophisticated methods, and high-powered electronic aids.
No self-respecting institution of higher learning would neglect these principles, as they are the foundation of educating our citizens for maximum agency and contribution to a democracy, a form of government that is itself a model for reinvention of the kind we are discussing here.
MIT’s Seymour Papert devoted his career to the idea that interactive computing offered a new mode of experiential learning. In 1993, he published a book titled The Children’s Machine: Rethinking School In The Age Of The Computer. In this magisterial and also deeply personal work, Papert distinguishes “Schoolers” from “Yearners.” “Schoolers” are surprised and even indignant about the need for “megachange.” By contrast, Papert writes, Yearners “do not say, ‘I can’t imagine what you could possibly be looking for,’ because they have themselves felt the yearning for something different.” If Virginia Tech is to invent the future, it must empower its Yearners. It must help to awaken their digital imaginations, give them the tools, responsibilities, and freedoms of digital citizens, and help them build platforms to support and foster emergence despite the risks and failures along the way. Only some of the obstacles to inventing the future are technological. Most are cultural. Here too Papert’s insights are instructive.
My overarching message to anyone who wishes to influence, or simply understand, the development of educational computing is that it is not about one damn product after nother (to paraphrase a saying about how school teaches history). Its essence is the growth of a culture, and it can be influenced constructively only through understanding and fostering trends in this culture.
Thus a task force on instructional technology inevitably becomes a task force on institutional mission and culture. The difference, of course, is the difference computers make. Surveying the landscape and visible horizons of a digital world as digital citizens with a fully awakened digital imagination, we may plausibly conclude that computers, properly understood, may make all the difference indeed.