NMC Keynote: Jason Ohler on “Trends that Bend”

Dr. Jason Ohler gave the Wednesday morning keynote, in which he identified five technology trends of the near future. He believes that these technologies will help all of us cope with the information flood that only increases as we get further and further into living lives that blend the virtual and the real. To give an idea of how much information we now receive and can’t process, Dr. Ohler estimated that it would take between thirty and forty days for him to process all of the information that he receives in one twenty-four hour span. He went through each of the five trends and discussed how each of them might apply to education. I’ll discuss the trends first and then discuss all of the education-related impacts at the end. Here are the trends, in order:

Trend 1: Big Data

Google collects 24 petabytes of data every day. We really don’t have any way to keep ourselves away from the big data juggernaut, but this has both good and bad elements. Text analyzers and predictive data analytics are rapidly improving and can help us make sense of this data. But we need to think about the kinds of data that we’re collecting, especially in educational contexts, and make sure that we are clearly articulating the goals of big data and shaping its future course.

Trend 2: Immersion

Augmented reality is becoming mainstream. Virtual worlds and the real world are becoming increasingly blurry and interconnected. Immersion is the antidote to spam: when two pieces of data are meaningfully connected – like location and reviews, let’s say – then relevance is increasingly assured. This contextualization has demonstrable impacts on our ability to sort through information.

Trend 3: The Semantic Web

It used to be the case that links were page by page, that they linked one large container for or chunk of data to another container or chunk. This is changing, such that very specific pieces of data are being linked to one another to create relationships that augment intelligence. This is increasing alongside another web technology, the internet of things, that will see an even further leap in the connections between machines, data, and people. It is important to realize that now that camera that keeps an eye on the subway station is not just a camera – it is also an application platform that can run apps. These innovations will continue to make the over-abundance of information connected and intelligible, but obviously comes with other risks as well.

Trend 4: Extreme BYOD

Bring-Your-Own-Device has been around for a while, but in the new version expressed here by Dr. Ohler, the customization and personalization of these technologies will continue to test the flexibility of our IT infrastructures. This increased personalization will continue to be a boon to workers, who will increasingly be able to customize their devices to work exactly how they would like to work, allowing some additional filtering of the information flood.

Trend 5: Transmedia

Transmedia storytelling is huge everywhere except education. Rather than telling a linear story through text or bullet points, transmedia enables multiple media types and different transmission methods to coexist to tell a single story. We need to be able to communicate in new ways, especially with visual media, and bridge the gap between creative thinking and critical thinking – leading to Dr. Ohler’s neologism “creatical thinking.”

Educational Impacts

Taking all of this together, it seems clear that these trends are helping to make the amazing amount of information that we encounter more manageable. But what do these technologies mean for education? The big takeaway is that we need to be teaching students how to become active and responsible digital citizens. This can’t be confined to the closed environments of the “school web” either – they must be robust experiences with open technologies that actually model the kinds of meaning-making that students will continue to engage in throughout their lives. Creatical thinking, transmedia, augmented reality, customized devices, and the semantic web all point to the types of skills that students should be building. Moreover, students should be brought into the discussion about responsible use of these technologies and the directions that each technology should point.

There are also very good opportunities for customized learning, akin to digital tutors, that work with students on a more individual level. As algorithms for speech processing and text analysis continue to improve, the Clayton Christensen-style disruption that many in the higher-ed and K-12 space have been talking about for so long may finally be here.


cross-posted at http://nmc14portland.tumblr.com/

Educause, Day 2

I thought I had published this post awhile back. Here’s the second installment from Educause.

Day two of my Educause experience was just as interesting as the first. Games and gamification was the theme of the day. The very short version of the story: designing games is hard, and taking design elements and throwing them at non-game contexts until they stick is not a good way to approach gamification.

My day kicked off bright and early with a good session on using badges to recognize granular student achievement. Perhaps the most interesting thing to come from it was the connections I made with others who were undertaking similar projects. It was the most discussion-based of the sessions that I attended, with many different people in the audience weighing in on various aspects of developing a badge system. Two notable insights emerged for me from this session: first, their experience showed that badges could actually drive interest in a course. Second, utilizing badges forces a self-conscious alignment of course activities with learning outcomes – for what is a badge but a demonstration of competency around a learning outcome – and thus there is some question about whether badges themselves are responsible for student learning gains or the thoughtful redesign that generally accompanies the addition of badges. Food for thought, for sure.

Then came the second keynote presenter of the conference: Jane McGonigal. For those not familiar with Jane, she is a gifted game designer committed to doing real societal good through the games that she creates. She gave an inspiring talk about the future of games in education. Two things stood out quite strongly to me. First, as part of a discussion about the ways that games make people feel, I was struck by the most common feeling experienced by gamers: creative agency. I’m willing to bet that this is not the first thing one would think about or talk about it the context of higher education, but it is obviously a powerful motivator for gamers (as evidenced by the now one billion gamers on this planet).

Second, gamers fail an average of 80% of the time. Think about that for a second. When you’re playing a game and trying to accomplish a goal you feel engaged in that game. If you fail the first time that you try the goal, it actually seems to increase your motivation to try again. To make this more concrete, my wife has been playing Candy Crush for a few months. There are times, now that she’s in the really hard levels, that she will try a level twenty or thirty times before mastering it. While this can get frustrating at times, it seems that the act of failure also teaches: trying out a strategy and trying to understand why it fails is a great way to learn (and is not dissimilar, incidentally, from the hypothesis-experiment model in most science disciplines). Once again, this is not the model of higher education. We are all about high-stakes exams, where failure is not an option at any point in the process. What would it look like if we embraced a model more similar to gaming that encouraged students to try something until they mastered it? Our assessments would need to get more sophisticated, for sure, but perhaps rethinking the multiple-choice model would be good for us anyhow.

Educause 2013, Day 1

I’m having a great time at my first Educause. It turns out that being surrounded by thousands of IT professionals dedicated to making their organizations better is a heady experience. Sir Ken Robinson’s keynote this morning was enchanting. He is the kind of speaker who can mix demographics with science fiction and educational paradigms to create a captivating experience for his listeners. Though his message was similar to other talks of his I’ve seen, I was struck by the shared vision of creativity and innovation that he inspired in his listeners. My main takeaway from his talk was that we’re still at the beginning of the digital revolution and, given the kinds of challenges that we are facing with population and climate, we need to become even more creative in our endeavors. Educational systems need to reflect this priority rather than holding on to an outdated, industrial-revolution-era model.

This theme continued with a talk by Mimi Ito of UC Irvine. Mimi is a cultural anthropologist who studies the uses and cultural meanings of technology among young people. She made a great distinction between the ways that learning has changed, especially its new networked and socially-mediated dimensions, and the way that education has not changed. Like Sir Ken, she sees the educational system as based on an outdated paradigm, though she defines the old paradigm slightly differently: information scarcity. Thus she thinks that our current transition to information abundance should cause us to reconsider our educational models. She made an analogy that I found particularly insightful: when human beings lived in an age of caloric scarcity, our biological systems for storing and miserly use of those resources made great sense. In an age of caloric abundance those strategies no longer make sense (and, indeed, can be maladaptive), and our job as eaters becomes one of choosing our food wisely. Likewise, information scarcity leads to the kinds of educational models we still have today, like lecture-based classes and expensive textbooks. But this can (and perhaps should) change with the recognition that scarcity is no longer the reigning paradigm.

Two other things stood out to me in her talk. The first was her call for educators to use insights about how students learn outside of school to change the way that students learn in school, hopefully mediating the culture clash in learning modalities between the two areas. It turns out that students are learning quite a bit through outside-of-school online interactions, including an increasingly important technical literacy. And this idea is not new: Dewey talked about the potential seamlessness of education many years ago.

The second point that stood out to me was the distinction she drew between learning motivated by interest and learning motivated by friendship. The latter is learning that comes from one’s peer group, from keeping up with one’s friends of Facebook and Twitter and other social media outlets. The former is learning that students seek out because they are interested in something, be it web comics or programming or how to build a pumpkin-launching device (no, seriously). This learning does not necessarily have anything to do with their in-person social group, and in fact often creates a sort of distributed peer community organizes around a certain topic. Anyone with a particular hobby can tell you how deep this rabbit hole can go. Her point here, though, was that it may be important for educators to target the interest-based engagement rather than the friendship-based engagement in order to avoid the “creepiness factor” and engage students where there interests lie.


Though I went to three other sessions, the two referenced above were the highlights for me. I’m excited to see what Day 2 has in store – I think it will likely be great.