Consortium for Local Ownership and Use of Data, Inc.

How the Internet (Our 21st Century Printing Press) Can and Must Transform Universities

First the Printing Press, Now the Internet - How Technology Drives Change Community, Conversations and Content (An Open Letter to Universities - Written from my Context as a Northwestern Alumnus)

 

When Northwestern was founded, it was defined by a place 12 miles north of Chicago and was meant to serve another place, known then as the Northwest Territories. As I discussed during a 2009 NAA (Northwestern Alumni Association) Board of Directors meeting, a Northwestern -- as place -- has slowly changed to a Northwestern  -- as community.  During my alumni admission council interviews with potential new students, I stress to them that although the first four years of their journey with Northwestern will occur in a place 12 miles north of Chicago, the more important journey is one that will last a lifetime.  These new students are joining a community, a community that happens to begin physically in Evanston (or Chicago or Qatar) yet stretches across a lifetime.

When thought of from this perspective, one realizes that a strategic plan for technology can not start from the tools but must instead start from who we are as Universities.  Community is that starting line.

Community
If indeed a University is a community and not a place, then we must challenge ourselves to wrestle with the bold implications of such a new perspective.  As I suggested when I guest spoke to the NAA board in March 2009, attaching University and Alumni Association to the end of Northwestern is one outcome of viewing Northwestern as a place and not a community.  We are Northwestern.  Someone applying for admission to be an undergraduate, law student, medical student or any other program, already knows Northwestern is a university.  They don't need to be reminded.  Even more challenging is that we see graduation as an end, rather than a phase.  By placing graduation down as a marker in a student's path, it means that they, therefore, "leave" Northwestern.

As a result, we, and every University, goes through great expense to reengage these alumni in the alumni association.  If we get rid of false "end points" like graduation, then we no longer disrupt our sense of community and establish two separate groups.  We are Northwestern.  Whether alumni or students, faculty or staff, on campus in Evanston, Chicago or Qatar, we are Northwestern.  We are one community with many expressions, many paths and many places, but we never stop being Northwestern.  

This simple shift in perspective leads to a dramatic new branding opportunity for any University willing to step up to the challenge and paradigm change.  Northwestern, Princeton, Harvard, standing alone, captures the heart of this new thinking.  It also mean rethinking the many conversations that occur within a University community.  Almost every University home page immediately separates its visitors into students, faculty & staff, alumni & parents and prospective students.  At some levels, defining conversations in these ways is appropriate, however, in other ways, they limit our communities of learning artificially.

Conversations
Now
This perspective on Northwestern -- as community -- drives a whole series of outcomes in our conversations.  The most significant outcome is the ways in which we separate conversations that do not, by necessity, need to be separate.  It is helpful to reflect on the various conversations in which we engage as a community, first, before teasing out the possibility of change.  

Of course, the most basic conversation for a University is the one that occurs between faculty and student.  Across our campuses, these conversations unfold in our classrooms, "smart" or not.  These dialogues are the lifeblood of learning and the vibrancy of thought that defines higher education.  Each of these "classroom" conversations are wrapped in other conversations between students themselves, socially or in pursuit of learning, between fellow faculty, challenging themselves and each other, and conversations between faculty and administration, collaborating and debating resources and the future of the various academic and non-academic programs that make Northwestern. . . Northwestern.  And, there are the conversations amongst those of us that are no longer on campus but are still very much Northwestern.  Every so often, these alumni conversations cross back over the threshold between University and Alumni Association, through faculty guests for local events.

What If?
It does not have to be this way.  Just like the printing press that sparked the Renaissance, our society in this new century is blessed by the explosion of a new kind of printing press, the Web, and the Internet which allows us to connect to it.  Regretfully, though, our institutional perspective (and Northwestern is not alone) does not allow us to fully tap the implications for conversation that this new printing press affords.

I will explain one lens into the future through an example.  As an economics and political science major, I sat in many courses from 1983 to 1987 in Evanston.  While in those classes, it would have been intriguing to more fully connect to other students of those courses from previous years.  More than my year of graduation or my dormitory, my choice of coursework defines my place in the Northwestern community more than any other.  As an alumni creating new technology horizons and businesses, it would be wonderful to reach back into those same classrooms to connect with the students of today and open up a whole new realm of conversation.  The notion of a "guest speaker" takes on a whole new meaning for both students and faculty members.

Looking at the problem through LinkedIn or Facebook, unfortunately, does not move us closer to a way to harness a longitudinal relationship amongst future, current and past students.  These websites force us into the same silos, virtually, that our campuses force us into physically.  Twitter and blogs, however, are the real printing presses for the 21st Century.  They allow us to harness conversations far more fully.  Instead of a one-way experience on econ.northwestern.edu, I imagine a multi-dimensional experience through which what was once a website becomes a hub for conversation.

21st Century Printing Presses
Embedding blogs in econ.northwestern.edu would allow for professors to reach beyond the walls of their smart classroom and this quarter's course into a universe of dialogue.  Looking at blogs as technology clouds the opportunity.  When I look at the faculty page of the Department of Economics, I only see addresses, email contacts and phone numbers.  Our 21st Century printing presses allow so much more.  A blog for each professor would open the door to conversations, not just amongst faculty and student, but amongst students present and students past.  Call it a "Christmas Carol" for education...

Taking this web-based conversation of blogs another level, it is important to introduce the power of Twitter, hash tags, and tweet forums. Getting lost in the technology of twitter masks its real power, the power of global conversation and expression.  Twitter is, at its heart, a way by which to converse, that goes beyond the confines of an email address to an online identity.  Anyone can follow @garyleethompson, just like they can follow @nusports or @NU_Weinberg.  

Expand that one to many conversation construct with hashtags, and the revolution becomes clearer.  CLOUD's website is one example of blog and tweet streams in unison.  On a bigger scale, earlier this year, the White House had a conference in DC on modernizing government.  Simultaneously, a global conference was occurring in parallel, through Twitter, at #modgov.  Millions of comments in reaction to and in expansion of the White House event were occurring at #modgov.  Sometimes, these were simply comments, in others, the tweets linked to blogs, news-sites or other content.  In Iran, the protestors were not just on the streets but tweeting, exposing their conversations to all the world.

The idea of a multi-dimensional econ.northwestern.edu, along with hashtags like #nueconb01 or #effectiveceo or #orgbeh342, begins to show the shape a new future of conversation, where Northwestern as community, rather than place, is fully expressed.  Breaking down barriers could even pervade the idea of giving.  For now, these conversations define my connection to the community.  There is no reason in the world to not place a small giving tag on the new multi-dimensional economics page, so that the community can give in context.  Heck, why not text "economics" to Northwestern like people were texting Haiti?  It's a new world and a whole new conversation.

Content
Even before the advent of the printing press and its ability to mass produce information, the Egyptians and Chinese had invented paper, or papyrus, as a mechanism for storing information.  Over the many centuries since those respective inventions, we have continued to confuse content with content's various delivery platforms.  A book is not content but simply a wrapper around the content, which streamlines it for delivery and use.  Much like the physical location of Northwestern masking the essence of who we are as a community, books as a proxy for content runs the same risk of confusion.

With the pervasive use of technology on campus, there are now many more "screens" through which content can be filtered, from desktop to notebooks to mobile computing devices.  These screens are, in a sense, virtual printing presses through which content can be repackaged, manipulated and transformed.  Once printed on a page in a book or a periodical, the content is "fixed."  By fully appreciating the transformative aspects of the Internet and the Web, we can liberate content and empower a whole new level of learning and conversation.

A Little More Background on Content versus Delivery Platform During the most recent session of the Texas legislature, an interesting debate broke out regarding budget dollars for textbooks being expanded to allow the use of these funds for electronic delivery of the same content. 

As I commented at the time on my blog, theendoflinearity.com, "Books for kids… That one is always guaranteed to create a deep and emotional response. I’m just old enough to not be a GenXer but just young enough to not be a baby boomer. Regretfully, this still means that I am old… and old enough to love a good book. There is something about the well-bound tome that is truly enjoyable. The fact that you can pick it up, sit in a comfy chair near a warm fire or out under a tree makes the book more than just words but an experience. However, having grown up in a world of rapidly evolving technology, I also realize that there are times when curling up with that book just doesn’t work for the information I need. You just can’t curl up with a Google search or tuck yourself away for hours unpacking a quick look at a Wikipedia entry. Of course, in both of these cases, I’m still reading, an art I learned from books, because that is all we had when I was in school… but not an art that only requires books in today’s age of the Internet."

"As with any argument, the motivations of the participants in the debate at the legislature and the use of certain words as proxies highlight the real contours of the conversation and the expected outcomes by various parties. The most interesting comment was the one that remarked, 'books are required to learn how to read.' This dire prognostication actually misses the point of reading. As I’ve discovered with my three children (11, 9 and 6), 'words' are necessary to learn how to read, not books. Of course, for the past couple of millenia, words have been printed on papyrus, an invention dating back to Egypt and China. But, does it really matter, if the words are printed in books? Could those words be displayed in other ways and still achieve the goals of learning how to read?"

Moving from Content to Context

As more Universities explore changes in teaching and learning as a result of evolving technologies, the distinction between context and content becomes ever more relevant.  The integration between Blackboard and Google Apps, for example, although not an end in itself, is one way to think about new pathways for content and context.  However, simply substituting electronic tools for their physical world counterparts limits an institutions' possibilities.  As noted by Jeff Mao, Learning Technology Policy Director in the State of Maine, "there is no functional change by simply using a tool as a substitute."  He continues by outlining a series of steps beyond substitution: augmentation, modification and redefinition.  Although modification "allows for significant task redesign," redefinition "allows for the creation of new tasks, previously inconceivable."  The fact that Blackboard is conceived as a "document sharing" platform traps the flow of content into previously designed silos of course and coursework.  It augments, but it does not redefine.

At the root of these challenges is the challenge of data and its connections and the resulting perspective on the nature of the learning problem. When assessment is driven more by learning management systems, course management systems and student information systems than students, a recipe for lost opportunities is at hand. There are, of course, standards for content, like Common Cartridge, and standards for student information systems, known as SIF, but the redefinition comes when the problem is perceived as one of context, rather than simply content.  Context is about connections.  Content is about one-way delivery.

Valuable learning insights are lost by the learner, school and education system alike because the information across the education value chain is not only collected inefficiently, but once collected, becomes trapped in data silos and reports. Like HIPAA in healthcare, FERPA (Federal Education Records Privacy Act), amongst other factors, plays a powerful role in keeping critical learning information disconnected.  Like the Northwestern community finding new ways to connect, it is vitally important that we strengthen connections between learner and faculty, fellow students and ultimately the connections to the content itself, and not just the content on the current syllabus.

From a strategic perspective, the vital take-away from this line of thought on content and context is for us to stop applying technology solutions to the way in which learning is delivered today and to boldly conceive of new constructs for learning.  Until we look at learning from the student out, we will continue to miss the vital connections in our learning community.  Without the printing press, the Renaissance would not have unfolded as it did, and the University would not have transformed from their medieval construct to the modern research universities of today.  Neglecting the 21st Century printing press delivered through the Internet means missing the next phase in the evolution of the University.

Research and Community

Of course, at a research institution like Northwestern or its peers, content is not only delivered but discovered.  Simply thinking about the latest server cluster or research grid limits the possibilities of the many connections between researchers and research.  Like the challenges of a document-centric model for content, viewing research from any one discipline is equally limiting.  By thinking of this aspect of a University in similar ways to the sections on community and conversation above, we can rethink how we not only resource research but create new methods for cross-disciplinary sharing of data sets and hypotheses.  Who is to say that the cure to cancer might not be found at the intersection of genetics and music?

And, expanding the notion of Northwestern -- as place -- to Northwestern -- as community -- means that not only are the walls on campus vaporized but the walls between academic research and commercialization are vaporized, too.  In the virtual world, there is no "there", so a research lab can be fully re-imagined to include any combination of facilities, dynamically recombined on the fly, by connecting content, community and conversation.

Conclusion -- Coming Full Circle
We are at the threshold of liberating Universities from place and empowered by community.  Universities. like Phoenix, have shown us one path forward.  Universities, in unison with their alumni associations, can harness change, too and create institutions where community, conversation and content are fused into one, a fusion that will accelerate the Renaissance unleashed by the 21st Century Gutenberg press.

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