Reflections on Lev Gonick’s The Year Ahead in IT, 2013

Each year I look forward to reading Lev Gonick’s “The Year Ahead in IT”.  Gonick is CIO at Case Western Reserve University, a strategic thinker, and deep analyst of ICT trends in higher education. This year’s analysis doesn’t disappoint. I highlight some key themes in Gonick’s article and finish by posing a question.

INSTANTANEOUS INFORMATION

Gonick cites the French philosopher Jacques Ellul, who fifty years ago in The Technological Society anticipated that one day soon all information would become available instantaneously:

“There will no longer be any need of reading or learning mountains of useless information; everything will be received and registered according to the needs of the moment.”

If alive today Ellul would be writing about the perils and promises of technology for the likes of Wired Magazine.  Although not as well known or influential as Marshall McLuhan, Ellul also had the singular ability to synthesize trends in different domains and to project their far-reaching implications for society.

As a philosopher and theologian Ellul was especially sensitive to the ethical dimensions of an accelerating “technical” society in which machines represent new devices in our world but also new ways of thinking about the world. And much like McLuhan, but more exacting and ruthless in his logic, Ellul drives home the point that how we think about the world acts back and changes who we are as moral agents.

(It’s a shame that Ellul is not more widely known or widely read. The documentary “The Betrayal by Technology” provides a good introduction to his work.)

Ellul envisioned a society in the not too distant future where information is stored in massive “electronic banks” and transmitted effortlessly to our brains through a type of intravenous system. Ellul’s vision is no longer science fiction. In a way he was perfectly describing the emerging convergence of digital content and learning platforms on the Internet.

OPEN CONTENT & LEARNING PLATFORMS

Open content, in repositories such as Wikipedia and MIT’s Open Courseware, is growing rapidly. Paralleling this growth in the availability of rich content, the Internet is now enabling more sophisticated forms of learning that go beyond simple information look-up and retrieval.

Semantic search engines coupled with sophisticated learning analytics, as embedded in learning platforms, will move us towards a type of “nervous system” for instantaneously acquiring information. Companies such as Desire2LearnCoursera, and Udacity, non-profits such as Khan Academcy, and educational consortia such as EdX are building out massively scalable platforms for personalizing learning. These learning platforms will serve as major nodal points of the nervous system forecast by Ellul.

Some combinations are merely additive while others are seeds for germinating Kurzweillian singularities. As Gonick observes we are rapidly approaching the second generation of open content. The phenomenon of open content and congruent technologies such as MOOCs will inevitably make learning accessible to more and more people around the globe:

“Today, millions of students are experimenting with first-generation open content. Within the next year or two, more than 50 million diverse open educational learners will find compelling motives to access the single largest, dynamic body of student-centered learning materials available.”

Both Ellul and Gonick recognize that mere information is not knowledge. The construction of knowledge from information requires social mediation. The second and third generations of open content and learning platforms, therefore, will squarely need to attack the social mediation of learning.

SOCIAL LEARNING AND SELF-REFLECTION

Social learning is a theme that George SiemensStephen Downes, and Dave Cormier have emphasized from the very beginning in their pragmatic commentaries on learning. These Canadians not only pioneered MOOCs but recognized early on that the design of learning systems must intrinsically take into account the social dimension of learning. Their time is now.

This brings us full circle to Ellul. A core insight, I believe, of Gonick’s article is that the learning enterprise, as well as the technology systems used to support it, must have spaces for self-reflection as part of their design:

“The emerging learning enterprise is about designing and creating experiences that provide opportunities to discover and gain 21st-century competencies based on assembly, synthesis, perspective, critique, and interconnected systems thinking. It is precisely the role anticipated by Ellul to create opportunities for conscious self-reflection.”

In the context of learning, social interaction and self-reflection are allied concepts. Those familiar with Eric Mazur’s pioneering work at Harvard recognize that the core of “interactive learning” is “peer instruction”, which provides a mechanism for surfacing self-reflection.

THE CHANGING ROLE OF THE UNIVERSITY

I want to close with a question for reflection. As we fully approach the world of “instantaneous information” some of the core functions of the University are rapidly becoming obsolete.

The traditional library as the “repository” of information has disappeared. The lecturer as the “transmitter” of information will soon disappear. Universities must confront the following question head-on if they are to survive the next decade:

Which capabilities must the University shed, which must it retain, and which must it evolve?

The march of technology is inevitable. As Gonick observes, “the year ahead will remain turbulent for universities and opportunistic for learners.” Intrepid universities will seize the opportunity. Fearful ones will continue to dream the past.

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