C-Level View | Feature

Technology Change: Closing the Knowledge Gap

A Q&A with Daniel Christian

Is the rate of technology change outpacing your ability to understand its impact, respond to its potential, or adapt to it appropriately? Here, CT speaks with the Instructional Services Director at Western Michigan University's Cooley Law School about closing this knowledge gap. Daniel Christian's unique perspectives stem from his work on instructional design in a law school context.

"In some cases technology changes before we can experience it enough to learn how to manage it and make good decisions about it." — Daniel Christian

Mary Grush: When you and I spoke earlier, we were agreeing that it's important to encourage departments, organizations, and developers to try to understand better, how their technology interests fit into a bigger picture, especially given the apparent escalating rate of change that surrounds everyone. First let's ask, how are we handling this rate of change?

Daniel Christian: I think, from a societal standpoint, we are not used to the current, exponential rate of change in environments affected by available and emerging technologies. Many of us grew up with linear, incremental changes that were more manageable and less likely to leave us blindsided.

Grush: Which technologies are changing fast enough to concern you especially? What do we need to be aware of?

Christian: Currently, I'm watching artificial intelligence (including machine learning-based applications such as computer vision and facial recognition), advanced robotics and automation systems, and data analytics and the algorithms that are used to make life-changing and/or business-critical decisions. Blockchain-based applications are also worth watching as candidates for this list of the most impactful technology areas that are moving quickly ahead of us.

The rate of technology change often outpaces our ability to understand it.

The key point I want to raise awareness of, is that technologies — especially those emerging technologies I just mentioned — tend to move far ahead of us, fast. In some cases technology changes before we can experience it enough to learn how to manage it and make good decisions about it. Technology changes quickly. People change slowly. The rate of technology change often outpaces our ability to understand it.

Grush: How do you see this affecting your own field, now that you've moved into the realm of instructional design specifically for legal education?

Christian: It has caused a gap between what's possible and what's legal. For example, facial recognition seems to be starting to show up all around us — that's what's possible. But what's legal?

Grush: What might legal educators want to ask, to help them understand how to bridge that gap?

Christian: The overarching questions are: What do we really want from these technologies? What kind of future do we want to live in? My professional experience over the years has been in instructional design for general education, but now that I've merged into the field of legal education (it's been nearly one year), my lenses, if you will, are tuned differently. Still, no matter what discipline you are working in, those are the key questions to ask.

The overarching questions are: What do we really want from these technologies? What kind of future do we want to live in?

Grush: Looking for a moment through your "lenses" tuned to the legal field, who should be asking those questions?

Christian: Lawyers, judges, attorney generals, legislators, senators, representatives, and people in the corporate world who are developing these technologies… All of these people — and for that matter, each of us — could help society more, given some deep reflection about why we are employing specific technologies and what we want from them.

Grush: But you'd expect different ideas from different people, wouldn't you?

Christian: Yes, that's true. And ultimately the related decisions about technology will happen in different places and in different ways… But from my legal education perspective, I've seen a big gap in the general understanding of what's possible and what's legal. I'm trying to close that gap.

Grush: Then let's talk a bit about the process of understanding what's possible.

Are we really going to be able to understand, in a timely manner, the possible impacts these technologies are going to have?

Christian: That's an important piece of the puzzle, of course — especially given the investment large companies have in developing technologies behind the curtain before introducing them to consumers. Generally speaking, do I know before launch what Apple is developing, or Google, or Amazon, or Microsoft, or IBM? How do most people know that until the companies have actually come out with their announcements? And at that point, where do I stand in terms of being able to make effective decisions about these technologies?

Part of the extreme rate of change is driven by the competition to rush technologies to market: Are we really going to be able to understand, in a timely manner, the possible impacts these technologies are going to have?

Grush: At that point, is the process of understanding what's legal going to help?

Christian: Eventually, yes. There's a long road ahead — which may include more standards development and potential regulation in some new areas. But if our awareness is sharpened, we'll know both what's possible and what's legal. Over time, a more general knowledge of what's legal will help shape what's possible — these things work together.

Grush: So, who's going to lead the charge? Is there an important role here for law schools to create programs and curricula about the possibilities of emerging technologies — and examine their legal issues?

Christian: Yes! And it's a relatively new role that offers real promise to benefit both the legal profession in general and the law schools that offer these types of programs in particular.

There could be many benefits to the schools that take on these challenges. Enrollments will increase. Graduates will get excellent jobs, and new applicants will view these schools as much sought-after choices. Work done at such law schools on the legal implications of emerging technologies will inform the profession in general and present significant value to society overall.

Those law schools that expand their understanding of emerging technologies and lead the field in the exploration of related legal issues will achieve greater national prominence.

I'm not saying that building programs and curricula related to emerging technologies will be easy or cheap, and I'm not saying that this will fit into every school’s mission. But those law schools that expand their understanding of emerging technologies and lead the field in the exploration of related legal issues will achieve greater national prominence.

Grush: Finally, considering a wider range of disciplines, what should technology leaders keep in mind?

Christian: Going back to the rate of change, it's important for us to be constantly pulse-checking what's going on around us, and building a better understanding of the true impact of our technologies. With persistence, even in this challenging environment, it's possible to close the gap.

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