Campus Technology 2010

The Ed Tech Journey and a Future Driven by Disruptive Change

Teaching and learning in higher ed have advanced incrementally alongside rapid changes in technology. Is it time for some radical shifts? Edited by Mary Grush

As the closing keynote speaker at Campus Technology 2010, Josh Baron, director of academic technology and e-learning at Marist College (NY) and chair of the Sakai Foundation board of directors, scanned emerging technologies and trends to identify the future potential for fundamental, revolutionary change in higher education. The following is based on excerpts from his hour-long talk. (A recording of Baron's keynote is available at; click on Recordings.)

What is "disruptive change?" Let me give an example from the music industry. There are two fairly infamous dates that represent the biggest disruptive change in that industry since the introduction of the phonograph in 1877. On April 28, 2003, Apple launched the iTunes Music Store, and on April 3, 2008, less than five years later, it became the largest music retailer in the US, with 50 million customers and 4 billion songs sold. Then about two years down the road, this past February, Apple more than doubled that sales figure to 10 billion songs. This is what I consider to be disruptive change.

As educators, we must ask: Could there be a parallel in our own industry, or the potential for other disruptive changes ahead? What might higher education look like in a future filled with disruptive change? To understand the potential for disruptive change in higher education--a disruption fueled by technology and related trends--let's start with a look at the past and the roots of the global digital revolution.

Over the past hundred years, we've seen tremendous increases in the speed with which we're table to transfer data. The telegraph operator on the Titanic could send data at about 28 bits per second. A hundred years later, our Internet backbones operate at about 48 billion bits per second. This is about a 2-billion-fold increase in the speed at which we can move data back and forth on our wires and wirelessly.

And I'm sure all of you are familiar with Moore's Law. In a much shorter period of time than in our data transfer example, we've seen an exponential increase in the speed and processing powers of our computers. In the 1970s, we could squeeze about 2,500 transistors onto a CPU. The computer I have here at the front of the room has about a billion transistors on its relatively modest-for-today CPU. That's huge exponential growth in the power of our computing devices.

At the same time, we've seen massive advances in storage capacity. Most computers today have about 3-and-a-half million times the storage capacity of the Apple IIe, my own first computer, which I got in 1983. At the same time, these devices have gotten much smaller, and costs have also gone down tremendously over time for PCs and other digital devices.

So a quick historical review of the digital revolution shows us: huge increases in data speeds and transfer rates, exponential growth in computer power, massive increase of storage capacity--again, all while the technology is getting cheaper and smaller. And if you think back to the 1970s, or even the 1980s, you probably could cite many examples of how this digital revolution has changed society and your own life in truly significant ways. There's been tremendous disruption in our society in general from the digital revolution.

Disruption in Education
Now, let's look at whether this same digital revolution has impacted or disrupted education. In a 1960s lecture hall you might typically find TV monitors--analog technology, but modern for the time. Then if you jump 30 years into the future, to the 1990s, you find that analog technology was replaced by digital technology: projection systems that were considered very, very sophisticated at that time. And while the leap from analog to digital displays was pronounced, ask yourself: What did not change? The instructors still lectured, delivering in a broadcast/absorb model the very same way they did in the 1960s. In terms of learning, this was just a little bit of a shift. While the digital revolution disrupted so much of our society and our lives, it impacted education only in small, incremental ways. And generally, that is still true today in 2010.

Given the digital revolution, why is it, then, that there has not been any real disruption in education ... yet? I often make the argument that over the past 50 years, we've been primarily focused on automating education--making it a little more efficient, a bit more productive, possibly somewhat easier or more appealing--but we haven't really geared up to change or transform the basic way we're teaching, or to change in any fundamental way how students are learning.

The classic example is the move from transparencies to PowerPoint. PowerPoint is a good tool. A faculty member can share his PowerPoint slides with somebody else in a way he couldn't with transparencies. We don't get ink on our fingers anymore when we're trying to make edits or changes. But again, it's really just automating things. Generally, we're still delivering education the same way we always have.

Yet we need to recognize that there are emerging trends and technologies percolating that really do have the potential to change education in much more significant ways than we've seen in recent times--and possibly even be truly disruptive. No one knows what the future holds, and we probably won't be able to forecast a disruption, but there are some technologies and trends we should keep watching as they begin to demonstrate their powerful impact.

Open Education Trends
First, we'll look at open education. At the core of the open content movement in higher education are illustrious efforts that have been going on now for almost a decade, to make high-quality university-level course materials free and openly available to the world, via the Web. By "course materials," I'm talking about homework solution sets, assignments, exams, and even lecture notes, videos, and audio content in some cases. By "free and openly available," I mean the ability to access, share, and I think most important, to remix this content without cost. This trend is being facilitated by the legal framework that the Creative Commons organization has put together. The classic example of this type of content is MIT's OpenCourseWare initiative. OCW is close to fulfilling its expectations to put virtually all materials for all of MIT's 2,000-plus undergraduate courses on the Web as open content. This open content effort has expanded with the OpenCourseWare Consortium, which has 176 institutional members from 37 different countries.

Similar to the OpenCourseWare initiative, we also have efforts underway to open the other great pillar of higher education: the textbook. This work is perhaps best represented by Connexions (based at Rice University [TX]), one of the early projects in this space. Connexions has focused on building an environment that allows experts to collaborate on developing textbook content. One of the interesting components of the project is the concept of "micro contributions." If you're an expert in a narrowly focused field, or maybe, like most of us, have very little time, but you want to contribute, you can come in and put together a very short module; a little nugget of knowledge or information. And in fact, that's how all of the Connexions content is created--in a type of modular format, with the idea that you can then remix modules together into collections, and the collections would basically represent a textbook.

People have raised questions about the sustainability of open content models. But what we're starting to see now--and it is still relatively early in the unfolding story of open content--is a commercial ecosystem beginning to grow up around existing open content. This mirrors what we've seen in the open source software domain, where the classic example is probably Red Hat, which sells commercial services around the open Linux operating system. In higher education, we have other examples of this model, with commercial companies like rSmart, which provides services around Sakai and Kuali. And we are beginning to see companies like Flat World Knowledge, as well as others, which are providing open access to open textbooks, but with a commercial model. The basic idea of Flat World Knowledge is to make textbooks free and openly available online through a Creative Commons license. The company charges a fee for printing, but this open licensing structure is facilitating many new things in the textbook industry, allowing for customization and freeing faculty members from the pain of new editions.

The last open education effort I'll touch on here is the Open Learning Initiative's open instructional software development out of Carnegie Mellon University [PA]. All of the work that team is doing is based on cognitive and learning theories. As a result, the software includes "cognitive tutors" embedded into the instructional software packages. The tutors provide an important scaffolding students need for learning, similar to the support a human tutor would provide in another context.

Impact of Open Content
Let's consider the very significant future impacts--and potential disruptions--that these technologies, especially working together, may cause. We're on the verge of seeing the cost of education content fall dramatically. The $150, $200 textbook model, I believe, is simply unsustainable, and we are going to see that model fall apart in the not-too-distant future. One of the consequences will be the collapse of the traditional publishing industry model, similar to what we're seeing in the music industry today.

I also think we may see an important movement toward best-of-breed content. I sometimes refer to this as incremental innovation, which flows from the ability to share or remix open content. For example, I might put out a particular piece of educational material. Someone may take that material, modify or tweak it, and bring his own innovation to it. Over a relatively short period of time, we end up with high-quality, innovative, best-of-breed materials. As a result, we might find that faculty and instructors are free to focus on teaching and learning, or on facilitating their own research work, rather than spending so much of their time on course content creation.

We're entering an age when it's becoming more and more ridiculous that our faculty are, every year, re-creating Econ 101 over and over again at our institutions. Yes, they all need the ability to customize that content, to make it their own. Teaching is a very personal thing; of course they're not going to grab something from MIT and use it as is. But why should we all be redoing that coursework over and over again?

In addition, new technologies and applications in open content are going to empower self-directed learners in a significant way. An intriguing statistic in terms of the MIT courseware is that the largest population of users of MIT/OCW materials are not educators, and they're not students. They are self-directed learners. They're people who are coming to MIT because they have a passion to learn something. That's a powerful signal to recognize: When you put your content out there, there are people who are motivated to come and use it, to learn on their own.

Personal and Open Learning
Let's move on and look at learning technology trends, especially the emergence of the personal learning environment [PLE] and the open learning network [OLN], e-portfolios, and the semantic Web. If you've been following discussions in the blogosphere and in the Educause publications and Campus Technology, you're probably aware of the "post-LMS era" that people feel we're entering. Interest in this phenomenon is driven in large part by the concept of the personal learning environment. I have yet to find a standard definition of the PLE, but some of its characteristics include that it tends to be a highly customized environment, built by the learner himself. Learners use Web 2.0 tools to aggregate content and connections--so you can gather information from many sources, while at the same time making connections with other people around that content.

Let's take me as an example. I happen to use iGoogle, and I have a Google Reader. My personal learning environment technology choices are aggregating about 20 or 30 blogs for me, so that I can follow them easily and see what's happening in my areas of interest. I have my Twitter gadget working so I can see the folks I follow on Twitter and then tweet back to them. I have news aggregators looking at NPR and CNN, and a calendar plus other components I can use in my personal environment. So, we see that while the LMS has been out there and in development for 10 to 20 years or so, it has really been built just to support status quo teaching--lecturing and very traditional forms of education--while personal learning environments like mine tend to be much more open and participatory, as well as learner-centric.

The question becomes: Will the LMS and the PLE diverge? Will we have two separate islands--an LMS island and a personal learning environment island? That's really where the concept of the open learning network comes in. The idea here is to leverage some of the open standards that are emerging--the IMS Common Cartridge and Learning Tools Interoperability standards, plus standards outside of education like the open social API standards from Google--and to use these standards to allow us to mash up the LMS and personal learning environment. So this concept of the open learning network, which is fairly new compared to other trends, most certainly has the potential for a lot of disruption.

Next, electronic portfolios: Since 2003, the use of e-portfolios on our campuses has tripled. Over half our institutions have some type of electronic portfolio use going on, and we've seen that trend also internationally. A couple of growth drivers behind all that interest include reflection and accountability. I think all of us in education are beginning to understand and appreciate the value of reflection for student learning. Reflection is a critical component of any really good e-portfolio implementation; it's a great way for students to engage in learning. And, of course, there's accountability--I think we all know that word pretty well now. The Spellings Commission has driven it into our minds and pushed it into our universities especially over the past couple of years, and higher education administration is looking at e-portfolios as a way of documenting learning outcomes and addressing the accountability issue. A missing piece, I would argue, especially on the reflective side of e-porfolios, is a credentialing model. A new credentialing model will open the doors for better uses of e-portfolios, and possibly unlock the floodgates of disruption in fundamental education practices.

The last thing I'll mention is the semantic Web. This disruptive vision has been around since the early Web, but many people refer to it as Web 3.0 because it's not really "here" yet. The concept is to create a common data framework that allows computers, machines--any access devices--to understand the data that is on the Web on a more complex level, almost like human comprehension. Tim Berners-Lee, who is credited with inventing the World Wide Web, has been speaking about the semantic Web for a very long time. We don't yet have anything like the semantic Web Berners-Lee articulates, but efforts like Wolfram Alpha are worth watching, and they do allow learners to ask computers much deeper questions than most Web search engines do.

We could go on much longer as we search the edges of our industry for signs of coming disruption, but this is a good place to end--back with Berners-Lee's vision of a potentially disruptive technology. If Berners-Lee ever realizes his dream, we'll have not just a superhighway or a huge library/repository: The true semantic Web is going to turn our humble though vastly connected World Wide Web into something you wouldn't dare dream of--a much more powerful, intuitive tool for widespread learning and knowledge generation.




Flat World

Google Reader:

IMS Global Learning



Open Learning

Red Hat:




Wolfram Alpha:

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