Beyond the Horizon Report: a plan and a call for participation

Two weeks ago I floated the idea of creating a new project, a future of education and technology initiative that would go beyond the late Horizon Report.

I wasn’t sure if anyone would respond, to be honest.  This is awkward stuff, thinking about starting a new project while an inspirational one is being liquidated.  It’s a bit inside baseball, too.

Then people did respond.  From all over the world.

From Australia, an offer to help out:

Also from Oz, Jonathan Nadler created this visualization for a variety of efforts, including a new research project:

Nadler_beyond the Horizon

Click to get full size.

(More from Jon below)

Another from Australia (what an awesome nation!), Kay Oddone blogged her reflections on the whole NMC story, with pointers to the future.

Rather than ‘keeping on, keeping on’, this likely halt in our favourite tech prediction publication may give us the pause to find new ways to work together to create something even better. A project that learns progressively and builds upon previous discoveries, which focuses on the how as much as the what.

The transnational team of Lisa GustinelliJonathan Nalder, and Paul Signorelli offered this call for a new community after NMC:

We are at a very early stage in the evolution of this community—in some ways, it feels as if the NMC’s body hasn’t yet been placed into the ground—but we are already seeing the genesis of a community bootstrapping itself forward in hopeful and promising ways…

(More on them below)

From Turkey came advice from a related research project:

From the United States came further concrete advice, as Michael Green called for an open approach:

So where do we stand now? Continue reading

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Three more hints from the future

Today I’d like to continue my practice of sharing news stories that seem especially future-significant.  It’s part of horizon scanning.  (Check this article for an introduction.)

For each story I’ll include a quick description, some supporting links, and a brisk yet cautious discussion of why it might matter for the future.

ITEM: two neural networks outperformed humans on a reading comprehension quiz.  Two different pieces of software written by Alibaba and Microsoft, respectively, exceeded homo sapiens on the Stanford Question Answering Dataset.

The model developed by Alibaba’s Institute of Data Science of Technologies scored 82.44, edging past the 82.304 that rival humans achieved…Microsoft achieved a similar feat, scoring 82.650 on the same test, but those results were finalized a day after Alibaba’s, the company said. 

Why this might matter: this is one area where AIs can contribute value in the economy and to humans.  Think about the many ways reading comprehension occurs in the world beyond academia.  One possibility is, as Newsweek rather excitedly proclaims, he automation of many human-performed jobs.

It’s also a reminder that China is working hard to be an AI powerhouse.  So is Microsoft, but we don’t talk about them if we can help it.

Moreover, it’s another venue where machines may exceed humans.  At what point will we start reacting?  And how will we: with resignation, violence, the development of new capacities, a focus on what humans still do best?

Caveats: I’m not sure what value of “human” they tested against.  Was it some sense of median or average person’s reading comprehension?  And what did the machine output look like?  The latter might need work before exiting the lab.

ITEM: while international students have started avoiding American universities, they are heading to Canadian academia in greater numbers.  “[T]he percentage of international students is on the rise in both Canadian colleges and universities.”

International enrolments as a percentage of total enrolments, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16

“International enrolments as a percentage of total enrolments, Canada, 2006-07 to 2015-16”

Why this might matter: for one thing, attracting international students is one way to grow overall enrollment, especially in advanced (i.e., aging) nations, like Canada.  “In the university sector, roughly two thirds of all student growth since 2009/10 has been from international students”.

For another, it reminds us that certain nations, such as Canada, are competing in a global marketplace for those students willing to travel abroad for post-secondary education.  Put another way, Canada is successfully competing with the USA in this market.  It’s possible this is a trend that will continue for at least the next three years of the Trump administration, and possibly beyond.  Will American colleges and universities manage to overcome that political problem, or will they continue to fall further behind?

Caveats: none right now.

ITEM: the Russian military stated that two of its Syrian bases were attacked by drone swarms.  The attackers weren’t known, and didn’t accomplish much damage.  Yet it might just be “the first announced use of a swarm of drones in a military action”.

According to Asia Times,

It appears the mission of the swarming drones was three-fold: it was to show the Russians that their bases are vulnerable to attack even if the terrorists are far off (the attack was launched about 50 km away originating in Idlib according to reports and the Russians have now destroyed a stockpile of drones there); that the Russian aircraft and missiles were vulnerable to a drone strike; and finally that the bomblets could be used to terrorize ground crews and military personnel on the Russian bases.

One key detail: these were very, very cheap drones, DIY affairs, possibly bought for cheap on the black market:

The drones themselves are simple.  They use a small commercial gasoline two stroke engine that might be found in a weed whacker or used to power a bicycle. Structurally the drones are made out of wooden spars and styrofoam “boards” that are tied into the wooden structure with glue and plastic wrap.

The drone itself is launched from some sort of simple rail platform and guided by two piece[s] of wood on the drone with cutouts to protect the drone’s aerodynamic quality.  The drones carry either eight or ten bomblets, each stuffed with the explosive PETN (pentaerythritol tetranitrate)…

Another detail: the Russian army’s counter-drone electronic warfare team brought down some of the drones.  This is apparently now a thing.

One small detail: the Russian Ministry of Defense also issued a statement about this on Facebook.

Why this might matter: my readers might be thinking of the recent slaughterbot video, and see the Russian announcement as one step along the path to realizing that new stage in the history of human violence.

There are also multiple geopolitical aspects, which I don’t have time to get into here: Russia’s continued presence in Syria, the Ukrainian connection, blaming the US, etc.

Caveats: it’s not clear why the Russian military made this statement.  Are they actually spooked, and are airing the story to raise awareness?  Is this a hoax or maskirovka, aimed at some other goal, like Ukraine or the US?

Moreover, the “swarms” aren’t very large.  One attack featured ten drones, while another a mere three.

So, three stories from this week.  Three potential pointers to the future.

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Our book club’s next reading is… Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything

Last week I asked readers to vote for our book club‘s next reading.  After a very energetic process (117 votes, 7 comments, plenty of stuff on Twitter and via email), we have a new title.

The winner is….

Kelly and Zach Weinersmith, Soonish: Ten Emerging Technologies That’ll Improve and/or Ruin Everything (home pageAmazon) (2017).

As I noted in the original post, Zack is the creator of the amazing and amazingly prolific Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal webcomic.  Kelly is a parasitologist.  Together they dive deeply into a mix of technologies, based on scholarship and interviews with practitioners.

Given the enormous importance of technology to the future of education, this is a fine book to read.

So grab your copies (library or purchase, digital or print).  I’ll share a reading schedule… soonish.

How did other titles fare?

The closest runner-up was Chris Newfield’s The Great Mistake: How We Wrecked Public Universities and How We Can Fix Them.  (I remind you that Professor Newfield was a guest on the Future Trends Forum this summer.)

Just behind that were Angela Nagle’s Kill All Normies and Richard Susskind and Daniel Susskind’s The Future of the Professions How Technology Will Transform the Work of Human Experts.

Thanks to everyone who participated by suggesting titles, voting, and sharing their thoughts!

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Preserving today’s digital universe for the future: an important call

In the years to come, how can universities, libraries, and museums best preserve the digital present for the future?

This has been a vital question for decades, but has taken on a new dimension of late as automation and algorithms have started altering the landscape.  How do we preserve algorithms and the systems they structure?  Cliff Lynch, the Coalition for Networked Information (CNI)’s leader and one of the most brilliant thinkers on this planet about digital matters, period, offers an important analysis and path forward.

There are so many good pieces in the long article, like this fun thought experiment:

Imagine that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg suddenly recognizes and totally embraces the idea that stewardship of some version of at least the public portion of Facebook (whatever that may be) is profoundly important, and that the company needs to support and enable it. Facebook then offers a comprehensive record to one or more stewardship institutions — perhaps the Library of Congress, Harvard University, … — and perhaps even some funding (one can always dream). How many petabytes, and how many square miles of data centers are necessary to support and provide any form of meaningful access to this data?

Or the idea of “robotic witnesses”, or trying to remix population segmentation.

And this powerful, condensed summary of what algo-preservation could be:

Actually documenting the “Age of Algorithms” ideally involves capturing and preserving the answers to two questions. The first is to record, given each specific set of inputs (which may include identity, history and context) the actual outputs of the algorithm at a given point in time. The second, and even more difficult but much more comprehensive question is to be able to capture the answer to the subjunctive form of the first question: given a hypothetical set of inputs, what would the algorithm’s outputs have been at a given point in time? [emphases in original]

Not to mention this very challenging assessment: “this new world is strange and inhospitable to most traditional archival practice.”

Cliff also offers a very rich summary and analysis of the AI/big data world.  Recommended for this alone.

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Libraries, ed tech, net neutrality, and online learning: this month on the Future Trends Forum

Over the rest of January the Future Trends Forum will explore several vital issues for the future of education and technology:

Monday, January 8: Katie Linder, research director for Oregon State University’s Extended Campus, will introduce an exciting and possibly unique new project that she just launched.  The Online Learning Efficacy Research Database aggregates scholarly research about how well digital learning succeeds.  It compares wholly online learning to blended and offline methods.

Dr. Linder directs the Oregon State University Ecampus Research Unitand is an associate editor for the International Journal for Academic Development.  She hosts two weekly solo podcasts (You’ve Got This and The Anatomy of a Book), a weekly interview-based podcast (Research in Action), and a seasonal podcast (AcademiGig) co-hosted with Dr. Sara Langworthy. Katie also writes a weekly essay series. Her most recent book is The Blended Course Design Workbook: A Practical Guide.

That’s today!  Please do join us.

(note the date; we’re usually on Thursdays.  This week’s an exception.)

Lisa HinchliffeThursday, January 18: how will libraries change in the future?  Lisa Janicke Hinchliffe, professor/coordinator for information literacy services and instruction in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, will share her insights.

Lisa served as the 2010-2011 President of the Association of College and Research Libraries, which launched the Value of Academic Libraries Initiative during her presidency. Along with Debra Gilchrist, Lisa is the lead designer for ACRL’s training program for the Standards for Libraries in Higher Education and the IMLS-funded Assessment in Action project.

Lisa has presented and published widely on information literacy, teaching and learning, the value of libraries, library assessment, program evaluation, and organizational innovation. Her most recent book is Environments for Student Growth and Development: Libraries and Student Affairs in Collaboration (co-edited with Melissa Autumn Wong). She is an internationally sought after speaker and has also conducted workshops and trainings on five continents.  She’s one of the most dynamic librarians I’ve ever met.

Lisa is especially knowledgeable about, and active in, digital literacy.  She recently worked on a digital literacy report with myself and several others.

Thursday, January 25: what’s next with net neutrality, education, and technology? Jarret Cummings, the Director of Policy and Government Relations for EDUCAUSE, author of the official EDUCAUSE statement about net neutrality and education’s stake in maintaining it, will join us.

Jarret has helped assemble a broad coalition of institutions and associations across education, technology, and the cultural heritage sector.  I interviewed him about this in December.  I plan on asking his thoughts on what the FCC’s actions mean for teaching, learning, and research.  I also hope to seek his advice about what we should do in response.

There’s more to come in February.  Stay tuned.

If you haven’t had a chance to catch the Forum live, here are some recent recordings:

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International students decline, and so do American university budgets

A slowdown in the number of international students heading to American colleges and universities has started putting pressure on those campuses while surprising none of my readers, according to the New York Times.  All right, the Times didn’t assess your savvy, but you get the idea.

To recap: American higher ed has aggressively sought out foreign students for years and for various reasons, financial and diversity-related.  Yet over the past year that rising tide has paused or declined.

Why?  Trump is one obvious reason.  Another cause, not well understood in the US, is what Stephanie Saul describes as “the increasing lure of schools in Canada, Australia and other English-speaking countries.”  Remember what I’ve been saying for years, that higher education is increasingly becoming a single, transnational marketplace.

Saul adds other reasons:

Officials said that other reasons for the decline in enrollment include increased competition from schools in other countries, cuts in scholarship programs in Saudi Arabia and Brazil, and a currency crisis in India caused when the government decided to swap widely used notes for new bills.

Recall, too, my emphasis on declining enrollment in American higher ed, when Saul observes that “[t]he shift comes just as some states also are experiencing a drop in domestic students, partly the result of a decline in birthrates two decades ago…”

For years, American colleges had been staking their futures on continued growth in foreign students, and after the recession a decade ago, those students were a lifeline for colleges that had poured money into new buildings and amenities.

Just think about what this means for an awful lot of colleges and universities.  Dependent on tuition for revenue (very, very few have powerful endowments; most states have drastically cut per-student support), these institutions are utterly committed to getting students in the door. They will market themselves energetically and build up campus support systems.  Saul gives an Ohio example of the latter: “In just the past six months, the University of Akron opened an international center in an existing building and hired 10 employees to work in international programming.”

That very open and welcoming door, recently crowded, is starting to show some empty spaces now.  That means program cuts:

Budget cuts are underway….

Wright State has decided to eliminate Italian, Russian and Japanese, part of more than $30 million in budget cuts…

[The University of Central Missouri] has been forced to cut instructors in computer programs, where many of the foreign students were enrolled, as well as defer maintenance and shave money from other departments, such as the campus newspaper.

This international decline also means human losses:

At Kansas State, Italian classes are going the way of the Roman Empire…

Other cuts included the full-time French horn and tuba professors, both one year short of tenure protection. The school had asked both to remain as adjunct professors with reduced pay. Instead, they landed other jobs, and adjuncts have taken their positions at Wright State.

When I first wrote about peak higher education nearly five years ago I was hoping to be dissuaded from that dark idea.  Instead, reality just keeps confirming my model.

PS: extra kudos to reporter Saul for focusing on midwestern schools.

(thanks to Tim Lepczyk)

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Beyond the Horizon Report: towards a new project

The Horizon Report, produced by the New Media Consortium, seems to be ending with that group’s liquidation.  (To learn more about the NMC’s sudden demise read here and here.)

What’s next?

Will the Horizon project become a historical artifact and recede into the past?

Or can we create a new project, one that explores the future of education and technology, using some of Horizon’s strengths while building a fundamentally new effort?  Put another way, if we wanted to create a new project from scratch in 2018, what would it look like?

With this post I’d like to kick off a process that could lead to a prototype or even a new publication.  I hope interested parties can take part as they see fit, and that as many people partake as possible.  I plan on following up with the effort through the blog, other technologies, and in person meetings.

On a personal note, Horizon meant a lot to me, professionally, as it did for thousands of others.  I’d like to respect its history and memory by creating something new.  To that end I will devote my professional expertise and some (scant!) resources to development.

To be clear, in this post I am not talking about the 2018 Horizon Report for higher education.  That one is roughly half done, and its fate will be decided by the bankruptcy process.  Here I’m referring to what we can do beyond that.   I am also not writing to represent the NMC, as I am not an employee, creditor, or debtor; I am writing as an independent, thinking about a different project.

Let’s begin with questions.  I’ll supply some answers that might look like a FAQ, but are really designed to take the questions further.

And let’s creatively open our minds to the full range of possibilities.  This could be fun.

Dawn on Australia's Gold Coast

Q: What was the value of the Horizon Report?

A: Some institutional decision-makers found it useful for strategizing their next moves (hiring, purchasing, organization, etc.).  Others saw inspiration in creating new projects.  Perhaps the key aspect was getting ahead of the present, anticipating what could be coming down the pike.  Some referred to it as actionable intelligence.  One appreciative observer adds that

the report is a great corpus to analyze recurring conversations and singular topics in the edtech community.

In my experience, the value of trend forecasts like the Horizon Report lies less in offering correct prognosis about the future and more in inspiring discourse within the community by depicting alternative futures for educational technology adoption…

Q: What methods should a new project use, if it wants to provide that value?

A: Horizon used a version of the Delphi method, which is a process for getting experts to forecast the future of their domain specialty.  It’s a classic, invented by RAND in the 1950s, and has well known strengths and weaknesses.  A new project could easily adopt a form of Delphi, configuring it strategically.

Delphi from RAND

RAND’s graphic for Delphi.

There are other methods out there as well.  The futures world has an established toolbox, which I’ve sketched out here and here.  Scenario creation is a popular one, combining imagination with role-playing and a somewhat detailed vision of a possible future (examples). There is trends analysis, which identifies present-day trends then extrapolates them into the future; my FTTE report is an example of this.  Prediction markets bring in gaming and different social dynamics (I used to run one for the National Institute of Technology in Liberal Education; alas, there is no archive; I did publish an article about the project).

There are others.  A new project could pick up one or more of these.

Q: What form should a new research project take?

A: Horizon was a report, a clearly demarcated, identifiable, and short pdf document, often appearing on an annual basis.   In 2018, is that the best way to communicate such research?  Would a more fluid and continuous object be better, such as a wiki or Google Doc?  Would a series of short bursts work for more people than a single bundle of findings?  Conversely, should a research project have multiple dimensions, combining different production and release modalities?

Are there other and/or newer technologies we could use? (Let’s talk about specific technologies in the next question.)  Should face-to-face discussions play a role?

Q: What technologies should people use to produce and consume it?

A: Horizon has grown in web pages (wikis, a browser-based voting tool) and appeared in published form through pdfs.

NMC Horizon wiki screenshot for 2017

In 2018, are other platforms better suited for producing and sharing such research?

For example, video continues to dominate the digital world in all kinds of ways.  Should a new research project appear as one or more video files?  Or consider podcasting, a decade and a half old technology that now enjoys a new renaissance.  Would a new futures effort be better communicated through a podcast series?  Can we use big data and new analytics to learn and/or publish more?  The Shaping Tomorrow project is a fascinating example of this.

Other alternatives come easily to mind.  Imagine storing findings in a blockchain, giving them a kind of digital permanence so subsequent researchers can return to them.  A team could produce a virtual or mixed reality experience, such as a scenario or presentation.  Another group might build an augmented reality layer superimposed over a campus, overlaying a future on top of the present. (For my money the great experts to consult on this are Maya Georgievna and Emory Craig) We could use or create a game to stir the imagination, like the one built by Canisius College students, or the old Virtual-U computer game, possibly updated, or a version of The Thing from the Future.

Q: What about criticisms of Horizon?

A: People have criticized Horizon since the beginning (one example) (another) and for many reasons (too focused on tech to the exclusion of non-tech dimensions; not enough rigor about actual technology adoption; no looking back at previous iterations; too commercial; etc.).   From my view, I think we should aggregate these criticisms to see how they can shape and temper a new project.  I’d love to include critics in the process as well.

Phoenix from Harry Potter wiki

For Harry Potter fans.

Q: What should we call such a project?

A: I like “Prospect”.  Ceredwyn recommends “Phoenix”.   We crowd-sourced this question during the holidays and saw a ton of other terms: edge, parallax, genesis, ambit, and more (check this post).

Q: How could we actually create a new project?

A: Looking ahead, this seems to require a group effort.  I could produce one myself, but don’t have the time, and think the result would be better if it drew on a variety of backgrounds and imaginations.

Such a team should be diverse along many axes: gender, race, geography (yes, this should be international or transnational), and profession (think librarian, IT leader, faculty member, museum administrator, start-up founder, foundation staffer…).  It could be physically colocated, but a distributed team seems more likely to come together.  The team should be able to tap into multiple networks for intelligence and feedback.  We should reach out to global leaders and experts for feedback and participation, depending on availability.  Horizon veterans and NMC staff could be sought, ditto.

We could follow a design thinking process, starting from ideas and developing a prototype.  This could occur in a face-to-face meeting, or online, or a series of such events.  The prototype could be unveiled the world as a proof of concept, and a calling card for support.

Phoenix/Prospect/whatever-we-call-it would need support beyond the goodwill of participants and fans.  The Horizon Project used to draw on NMC staff resources, enhanced by support from the EDUCAUSE ELI group.  Would a new project arise within another institution, or would it be independent?  Would it require a board and multiple sponsors?  Could crowdfunding suffice to keep it going?  Should it sell results and/or associated products?

Would the project maintain a group of experts over time, or cycle some off to keep things fresh?  What kind of assessment mechanism would work best?

Should the new project be conducted in the open, with content available for all, like an open source software build?  Or should some or all of it occur offline, like the way the Horizon Report was written (as opposed to the Delphi derivation of findings), perhaps to allow privacy for participants in a challenging online environment, at least in certain nations?

Q: Should we do this?

A: I think so.  Please share your thoughts.

Q: What questions and answers do you have?

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