Last week I participated in the Learning without Barriers / Technology without Borders symposium at MIT to mark the completion of iCampus, a research collaboration between MIT and Microsoft Research. The iCampus initiative seeks to enhance university education through information technologies, and in particular to create and demonstrate IT-based projects with the potential for revolutionary change throughout the university curriculum. iCampus has resulted in a number of educational innovations including iLabs - which provides online access to real labs in microelectronics, chemical engineering, polymer crystallization, structural engineering, and signal processing, and Huggable - a robotic companion for relational, affective touch designed to be used in pet-oriented therapies.
The two-day symposium included several keynotes, panels and workshops, focusing on "how innovations in educational technology can help prepare students of science, mathematics and engineering to face the challenges of an increasingly global economy." John Seely Brown gave the first keynote presentation “Relearning Learning — Applying the Long Tail to Learning.” JSB, as he is often called, reminded us that his main occupation now is Chief of Confusion, "helping people ask the right questions, trying to make a difference through my work - speaking, writing, teaching."
One of the main areas he has been writing and speaking on is learning in the digital age, and in particular, how people of all ages are learning many important skills through participation in online communities and other new forms of self-organizing, informal activities. This is a theme JSB came back to in his talk.
He contrasted the Cartesian view of learning – in which knowledge is a substance to be transferred from teacher to student - with the Social view of learning – in which understanding is collaboratively constructed. In classic, formal education as generally practiced in the classroom, you "learn about" all kinds of things. In informal, unstructured education, you "learn to be" a member of a community or team by participating in their activities - whether it is contributing to an open source project or being part of a multiplayer online game.
JSB talked about The Long Tail, Chris Anderson's 2004 article in Wired, later published in book form and its potential impact on education and learning. The thesis of The Long Tail is that we are moving from a "hit-driven" economy, characterized by a scarcity of shelf-space and distribution channels, into an “abundance-driven” economy in which technology is making possible many more distribution channels for all kind of information and content. As Anderson says writing about music "Forget squeezing millions from a few mega-hits at the top of the charts. The future of entertainment is in the millions of niche markets at the shallow end of the bitstream."
The Long Tail principle applied to learning views the classroom as the scarce shelf-space where you can teach primarily the core curriculum that the students need to learn. But there is clearly no way to expand the classroom to accommodate the "niche" interests of students because by definition they are many and varied - that is, they are in the long tail of the curve. However, by relying on self-organizing, informal, online communities, legitimizing them and encouraging students to participate in them to pursue their personal interests, you can develop a hybrid educational model combining community based learning with a formal, class-based curriculum.
Another great keynote was given by Charles Vest, President Emeritus of MIT, who was recently nominated to be the next President of the National Academy of Engineering. His talk on “Globalization and Higher Education: Competition and Cooperation” focused on the role of US universities in the current debates about globalization.
Vest reminded us that technical talent and business opportunities are growing faster outside the US, especially in the developing economies of China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Brazil and other countries. Add to that the democratizing power of the Internet and World Wide Web, and we see that industry, R&D and innovation are migrating and morphing in response to these forces of globalization.
Companies must respond to these globalization pressures by embracing open innovation, that is, integrating the best ideas no matter where they originate - in other countries, in other companies, or even in competing organizations. They must also become globally integrated enterprises, with a borderless strategy, and management and operations focused on integrated production and value delivery.
Does this global trend matter to US competitiveness? Yes, because to maintain our standard of living, and continued economic revitalization and job creation requires that we have well educated people, regional innovation clusters and venture capital networks. In order to compete in a global economy the US needs to increase the numbers of graduates in science and engineering, as well as significantly strengthen such careers so our students go beyond technical proficiency to become more broadly educated. They must be innovative, entrepreneurial and commercially savvy as well as culturally aware and able to understand global markets. They must think of themselves as global citizens.
What then is the role of US universities in such a global, competitive environment? Vest strongly believe that at the same time that we educate as strong a US based workforce as possible, US higher educational institutions should be leaders in promoting cooperation, expanding educational access and quality worldwide, and openly sharing educational resources.
This can be done in a variety of ways. Some will be physical, such as continuing to have a significant foreign student presence in US universities, as well as having US universities establish campuses in other countries. Strategic alliances between universities around the world will play an important role. But perhaps the fastest growing way of promoting cooperation will be by making openly available teaching materials, scholarly archives and the kinds of educational innovations created in iCampus.
MIT has taken a strong step in this direction through its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative. The concept behind OCW is to make the basic teaching materials for MIT subjects available on the Web to teachers and learners everywhere, free of charge. The point is not for everyone to take the identical course everywhere in the world - which Vest described as his worst nightmare about educational technologies. Rather, the idea is for everyone to use as much or as little of the OCW material as they want – and in any way they want to. They can add and delete material as appropriate and use it as part of a class or for self-learning. OCW courses are widely used both within MIT and around the world, although it is still too early to call the experiment a success.
The hope is that in a knowledge economy, there will be a diversity of open resources for education and scholarship available to all and to which all contribute. Why should we do this? Chuck Vest believes that in the same way that science thrives in an environment of unfettered communication, constant criticism, and international cooperation, it is now time to bring similar principles of communications, criticism and collaboration to bear on higher education as a whole. It will not only make us influential leaders around the world, but it will make us stronger at home.
He concluded his talk by saying "What we are observing is the early emergence of a Meta University - a transcendent, accessible, empowering, dynamic, communally-constructed framework of open materials and platforms on which much of higher education worldwide can be constructed or enhanced."
The rest of the talks and discussions where equally interesting. It was a very stimulation symposium on a very important subject.