You’re In the Prediction Business

The best way to predict the future is to invent it. Link

The best way to predict the future is to issue a press release. Link

As I wrote in my first post for our academic information services newsletter, anyone truying to bring about innovation and change in education is in the prediction business—like it or not. Unfortunately, as Yogi Berra supposedly[1] said, “Prediction is difficult, especially about the future”. When we make a decision about implementing a policy, buying some new hardware or software or launching a new program, we’re making a judgement based on our understanding the present and on our imagination of how that present condition might change in the future. Educational planning always involves someone’s interpretation of the future along with some judgment about what steps are most likely to influence our position in that future.

Unfortunately, must of us not very good at either accurately understanding what’s happening now or at anticipating what might happen in the future. Our goal in this class is to help you develop a effective set of tools and techniques that you can use individually and within your organization to better measure where you are and to envision possible futures.

We seem to be particularly bad when we’re focusing on the impact of emerging technologies as diverse as cars, computers or tech corporations:

1903: “The horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad.” — president of the Michigan Savings Bank advising Henry Ford’s lawyer not to invest in the Ford Motor Company.

1977: “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home.” — Founder of Digital Equipment Corp Ken Olsen in a speech to the World Future Society.

1996: A Forrester Research analyst(quoted in The New York Times): “Whether they stand alone or are acquired, Apple as we know it is cooked. It’s so classic. It’s so sad.” David Pogue in the New York Times

2016 “It’s very important, if you have something really important, write it out and have it delivered by courier, the old fashioned way. Because, I’ll tell you what, no computer is safe,” President Trump on the importance of cybersecurity to his administration. People Magazine* link

My own record record in making predictions about educational technology is a little sketchy. I wasn’t impressed with wireless the first time I saw it, and when I first saw Youtube and online video, I declared pretty emphatically that wouldn’t work. (I did, however, anticipate the importance of the cable modem. My planning paper at Syracuse University School of Information Studies received a B-. The instructor commented that the the paper met the requirements of the assignment, but that my assertion that coaxial cable would become important in expanding high speed internet to the home was ludicrous.)

As Audrey Watters’ essay about the failures of technology, illustrates, of most of our commercial, not-for-profit and government institutions have been just as bad at making predictions about the future as I have—-maybe even worse. This essay and Audrey’s other writings are worth reading who is serious about educational planning. Her historical perspective is carefully researched and provides some very useful insights about how to frame the future decisions. Even though she’s careful to assert that she is no futurist, I think she is right on target when she identifies the key task for the future of educational institutions.

Therefore the task for schools – and I hope you can start to see where these different predictions start to converge – is to prepare students for a highly technological future, a future that has been almost entirely severed from the systems and processes and practices and institutions of the past.

Clearly, totally severing our connections to the systems, processes, practices and institutions of the past isn’t the role of the university. But it seems clear to me that those of us who work in higher education don’t really have much leverage to change the trajectory of the kinds of technology that will shape our student’s futures. Much of the basic science that will define the commercial technologies of the future will still come from our labs, but Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, the Chinese government and even Microsoft will still have more power to define the technologies and workspaces of the future.

As we go forward with this class, we’ll try to practice the art of developing realistic ways of anticipating the future—both individually and institutionally. The key to this technique is to train ourselves to think in terms of questions and possibilities of alternative futures, rather than predicting the success or failure of a particular technology. It makes no sense for us to be arguing about whether of jobs displaced by robots and AI will be 25% or 40%. It does make sense for us to think about how we might respond individually and collectively if large numbers of jobs are replaced by machines. (Maybe the better question is when?)

Before we start to worry, about let’s start with simpler exercise. Everyone in this class is working towards a doctorate, and you must have some expectation of what you might do with that degree once you finish.

  1. What sort of professional and personal goals do you have for your post-dissertation life?
  2. What changes do you predict in the world of work and education that might make it either easier or harder for you to accomplish those goals?
  3. How confident are you that your prediction is accurate? How did you come to come to believe that future might exist?
  4. Are there concrete actions that you can be taking right now that will help you capitalize on the opportunities that technology might make available to you?
  5. Are there actions that you could taking now that will help you overcome any obstacles that technology might through your way?

[1] Nothing is ever as it seems, even finding simple quotes to include in presentations. I grew up thinking that Yogi Berra definitely said this, but it seems that might not be the case. The following comes from the “quote investigator:

In 1991 a marketer in the tourism industry in Virginia ascribed a variant of the saying to Yogi Berra:

Randall Foskey, director of admissions marketing for Colonial Williamsburg, probably said it best last week at the legislative dinner sponsored by the Virginia Hospitality and Travel Association.

“In the words of Yogi Berra, ‘I never make predictions, especially about the future,’” Foskey said.

In the News: Fall Seminar on Technology Planning and the Future of Work

Our upcoming graduate seminar looking at ways professionals can prepare personally and professionally for a workplace transformed by technology has made the William and Mary News.

Instead of focusing on specific skills, Roche is looking at the bigger picture — how can we design learning experiences that prepare future generations to work together and become problem solvers? This question is among those Roche will explore in his seminar course this fall on Educational Technology Planning.

As the prospectus suggests, we’ll approach that bigger question by answering three smaller questions.

First, how might the dramatic changes in core technologies like machine learning, artificial intelligence and deep learning, “big data”, robotics and “the Internet of Things” shape the workplace of the next generation? If those changes come about, what might it mean to be “college and career ready”?

We’re not going to pretend to be able to predict the future here. As I wrote about in my first post to our Academic Technology blog prediction is a tough business. However, the core process of educational planning includes understanding the complexity of our current environment and then envisioning what the future might become—even when today is complicated and the future is murky.

Second, how can educational institutions at all levels design the technological infrastructures to support learning and effective administration?

The path from the complicated present to the possible future is paved with concrete decisions. Administrators have to decide how to invest in the staff, hardware and software that will prepare their students to navigate the workplace of the future. Those investments are expensive and, once you make the, it’s hard to change directions. We’ll try to find ways during this class to think about how we evaluate and purchase products and service that enhance flexibility and the freedom to learn, while avoiding career-limiting decisions.

Finally, how can individuals become better self-directed learners so that they can thrive personally and professionally in these new work environments?

Even if we can’t predict the jobs of the future or the exact types of education that the next generation of workers will need, it seems pretty likely that the central skill of the future will involve “learning how to learn”. Generations of adult education researchers have identified some of the key components of self-directed learning, and we’ll spend some time in this class looking at how to apply their insights into our own learning.