The Pad – Trends, drivers and a scenario from 1998

I’m still playing with the formats for this kind of post, but as my course starts next week, i thought i would get this started.

In 1998, Stephen Downes wrote a document looking into the future of technology and education. This is the first set piece that I’ve put together for the education futures course. It’s a neat document from Stephen Downes from a dozen years ago written to explain the reason for his work. It makes for compelling reading while reflecting on the last 12 years of our fields and offers us the benefit of seeing the work with the historical context. We also have the benefit of stephen having reflected on that earlier document in 2008. While it is certainly interesting reading, I’m hoping it will serve as a simple introduction to thinking about the future. It should also serve to start the process of establishing shared meanings for the words that we’ll be using.

This snippet and the audio discussion attached are meant to introduce us to the basic ideas of thinking about the future. Why should we look at trends? Why should we be thinking about the future? What is a trend? What are drivers? What’s the difference between scenario planning/futures thinking and a ‘prediction’ about the future?

To identify trends in education, perhaps the best methodology is to identify trends which work well today, whether technologically-based or not. In other words, identify the tools people actually use today, and examine how computers of the future will evolve these tools for use in the future.

And the tools most widely used in education today are remarkably simple, having remained unchanged for the last several centuries. They include books, notepads or paper, writing implements, blackboards, and teachers. Of these, obviously, the role of the teacher is the most complex and will have to be discussed in detail. The remaining tools, however, will be absorbed by the new technology in a very straightforward fashion: the PAD.

The PAD (Personal Access Device) will become the dominant tool for online education, combining the function of book, notebook, and pen. Think of the PAD as a lightweight notebook computer with touchscreen functions and high speed wireless internet access. The PAD will look like a contemporary clipboard and will weigh about as much. Its high-resolution screen will deliver easy-to-read text, video and multimedia. The PAD will accept voice commands, recognize your handwriting, or accept input via a touch-screen keyboard. From the future of online learning

I recorded this discussion with Stephen on March 17th, 2010. It starts out with a discussion of the context from which the paper was written… where he was working and why he felt the need to write the document. I’m hoping that this will help all of us to think about where we are in our own professional lives and to start asking ourselves about why we might want to think about the future of education.

Audio from The Pad Discussion with Stephen Downes

Discussion for this topic? Shared meanings of some of the initial language and to start thinking about why we as individuals may want to start thinking about the future.

Feel free to talk about the content, ways to improve the exercise or anything else that comes to mind.

The future of education – A course in futures thinking

Funny how these opportunities can present themselves sometimes. I had cleared my year to focus on some writing and, in the span of 3 days, had taken on the teaching of three courses (well… i’m teaching one of them twice). The course I’m going to be teaching twice, once f2f in Singapore next month and as an open course with George Siemens starting in mid-April, is about the future of education. It’s a strange path for me, in a sense, as I’ve always been a little wary of true prognosticating, and normally stick to my silly top ten list every year. The course description got me thinking though… and made me realize that I’ve been doing this all along, I just hadn’t called it by this name.

What is the next wave of technological change? What can educators do to prepare and anticipate trends? Using a method called “future thinking,” this course will look at a variety of trends and provide a series of potential scenarios and future directions. Participants will be actively involved in tracking critical trends, exploring their educational impact, and plan for ways to prepare for important changes. (written by George Siemens as part of emergent tech certificate at umanitoba)

I’ve been mulling over an approach for a while now, but have decided that its time to start firming things up for a course that starts its pre-amble in two weeks. I struggled with it, as it seemed to be a bit presumptuous to claim to be able to prepare people for the future. I started doing some reading… and started grounding the ideas into something a bit more practical… and now have an outline that I’d like some feedback on if you’ve a mind.

(This sketch is for the 5 day intensive course – heavily simplified for discussion purposes… there’s no way the days will be this discrete)
The hope for this course is to bring some structure to strategic thinking around the next 10-15 years of higher education when seen through the lens of the impact of technology. It is not intended as a ‘prediction’ of the future, but rather as sharpening the skills for thinking about the future, finding ways to be prepared for possible futures, and making a best effort to avoid the pitfalls of biased thinking. We’ll take a look at a specific context (in this case the participants in Singapore) and get a sense of existing challenges, thoughts, hopes etc… We’ll move on to talking about decision making and trends. And then finish out the course by some exploratory and then normative forecasting.

Day 1 – Context building
Maybe the key to most learning, but certain essential to talking about the future is to establish a clear sense of the context in which we are discussing things. The difference between looking out over 5 years or 20 years, for instance, could change the focus entirely from a close attention to recent trends to casual blue sky thinking about future tech. I’m also very much hoping to get the participants considering where they work, how their institution fits into the marketplace, where there teaching is, where they hope it will go, what their students are like… Essentially create a picture of who and where they are. For this course, we’ll be doing this part online, starting a week or two before I head over. That’ll give us a chance to get to know each other, as well as allow me to do some last minute research to fill in specific context gaps in the materials we’ll be covering

I also hope that this will be a day of research as well. I’d like to see the participants pulling together info/data regarding their context. Everything from the number of students they may have, what their class size has looked like, access to technologies… whatever they consider important in terms of impact on their context. A good time, perhaps, to also list people’s resources (communities, experience, training opportunities) in order to get a better sense of what options may be available. We’re creating food to feast on over the upcoming days.

Day 2 – Decision Making
This is a day for reflecting on the process of decision making. Some of this will be premised on Gary Klein’s work… as well as things gathered from other locals. One of the frustrations for me in teaching a course that is this intensive, is that I’m wary of trying to get the students to find too much of the content. My preference is the ‘community as curriculum’ route, but given the timeframe, it’ll be tough for them to get the research in. Maybe a combination of both, it’ll depend on the make up of the students.

We’ll be talking about stories of decisions that people make, looking at article like this one by Noah Raford. He talks about a variety of ways in which bias affect group decision making which will be familiar to people who have… uh… been in groups. The ‘tyranny of the past’ ‘expectation bias’ ‘perils of too narrow thinking’ etc… all things that are useful to keep in mind when thinking about the impact of tech in education. Hopefully I’ll be able to draw examples of these out of the students as well, and get a discussion going on how people make these kinds of decisions in the education space.

I should also note that we’ll be covering technologies for communicating as a matter of course. These students are nearing the end of their work in the Emerging Technologies certificate at the university of manitoba, so they will already be familiar with a number of the technologies and have used them in practical ways before we begin.

Day 3 – Trends
We’re all familiar with the major trend publications that get released every year in our field (like, say, the horizon report). There are number of other trend watching websites, companies, and consultants who are willing to go on record on what they think we will be getting to in the future. The advantage of futures thinking and scenario planning for the kind of forcasting that we’re doing is that we don’t need to ‘agree’ or ‘decide’ to choose any of the trends that we find. We need the trends as more fuel for the scenario planning, to create relevant possibilities and think about how one would adapt to those.

If we, for instance, accept that the trend towards mobility in education is inevitable, there are a number of possibilities that can result from it. (decentralization of education, or the instructor, more collaboration) These might find their way into two or three different scenarios, but as we break down the trends into manageable pieces we might find that in each case having educators use a mobile device (maybe with a document management system supported by the university to support courses) gives the educators the literacies they need to adapt to any possible future examined as part of the process. Maybe not a very strong example, but i’m also not trying to seed the exploration process either. The point is that the trend need not be a simple “mobile good, must buy iphones” but rather a search for solutions to multiple possibilities.

Day 4 – exploratory scenarios
Given our context, decision making and trends we are ready to dive into the scenarios in earnest. The first of the two ‘kinds’ of scenarios will be the exploratory ones. These take a look at the possible futures for our context, not including what we’d like them to be, but rather what they might be. I don’t whole heartedly agree with this list, but it is a good example of the kind of thing that one might end up with. A series of six possible futures for education (in this case, not specifically mapped to tech) spanning the gamut from ‘business as usual’ to ‘system meltdown’. Imagine each of six teams developing a scenario and then playing it out for the rest of the members of the class. The respondents would then draw on their own research, scenarios (and work from first three days) to refine the scenario, critique possible conclusions and explore ways to mitigate problems and encourage advantages.

Day 5 – normative scenarios
This is the opposite side of the coin. In this case you imagine the future you would like to see and talk about ways to reach it. What future of education would you want to live in… how would the technology get you there. What would get in the way. etc…

I’ve left a bunch out… but this is the basic sketch of what i’m going to do (i think) I’m still mulling over the decision about whether to use the jargon terms or not for instance. Anyway. your feedback muchly appreciated.

note: i should add that much of the better content in this post came from george siemens’ suggestions in our discussion around this topic, the original course description is his.

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