Community Colleges & The Deep Changes That Challenge Them

Colleges have long established the roles of those with superior,
perhaps absolute, knowledge (the teachers) and those who have much less
knowledge (the students).

But as a trustee of a community
college, I realize how often the leaders of these institutions – the
boards, the staff and faculty – are, or ought to be, learners as well.  
Especially these days, we do not have certain and broad wisdom about
what we can do well.

This was, at least, my frame of mind going
into a recent board “retreat” focusing on the college’s strategy.  
Because of my other work, I was asked to provide the lunch keynote
presentation about the changes that are happening and will happen around
us that can affect the future of colleges.

The trends are out
there to be seen, but the implications for traditional institutions are
still open to question.  Although I’ve spent much of my career in
technology, unlike various Silicon Valley folks who seem to think they
have the answers too, I really have more questions, which is ultimately
what I wanted my fellow board members to think about.  In any case,
there’s no way to get the leaders of those institutions to make changes
by lecturing to them.


Here are the trends I described and the questions they provoked.

Virtual Presence Everywhere

large numbers of people face down looking at their screens, some people
mistake texting, email and social media for real dialogue.  But
scientific research indicates otherwise – text communication is
limited.  As the saying “seeing is believing” indicates, the non-textual
part of our conversations is critical and that’s not yet part of most
everyday Internet communications.

The digital world is now at a
stage equivalent to where the telephone system was in 1920.  This is one
reason I think that online courses are still limited, since many of
them are essentially just broadcast TV (on the web) combined with text
communications.  It’s not really a virtual classroom.

But the
visual aspect is growing substantially, with FaceTime, Skype and other
ways beyond even videoconferencing to create a virtual presence
anywhere.  We’re even seeing demonstrations of conversations held using
mixed reality technology.

Google and Skype, among others, have
also made good progress in enabling us to communicate in different
languages – adding yet another dimension to being able to be a virtual
presence anywhere.

This oncoming capability to have visual
dialogues will intensify all the other the trends — although we are
still only in the early stages of its use.

So the first question I asked is:

How can we use these virtual presence technologies?  

an example, many of our students are on very tight budgets and often
are working jobs to survive, in addition to going to college.  Yet we
ask them to travel miles from where they live, often by slow public
transportation, to get to some main campus where their classes take

But many community colleges have locations aside from their
main campus which could become nodes in a virtual classroom.  And
that’s not even including those students who could find other quiet, but
well connected, locations.  Then the student could appear virtually in
the classroom, be seen and heard and participate.  And the time and
money spent on travel could be devoted to study.

Ubiquitous Technology

college leaders think of screens and keyboards when we talk of
technology.  I showed the many ways that technology and the net are now
everywhere and in many things.  Now any surface can be a keyboard, a
mouse or an interactive display.  Walls, floors, clothing, armbands,
fingernails, earrings, shoes, your eyes are all means of interacting
with the net.

Moreover, people interacting with technology is only
part of the story in a world where already more devices are connected
to the Internet than people – the “Internet of things”.

The natural question for colleges in response to this trend is to ask:

the Internet is everywhere accessible in many ways, will our college be
everywhere accessible in our region or even the world?

Artificial Intelligence, Machine Learning, Analytics & Big Data

combined these topics because as they all develop they are often
intertwined and as a combined trend they will have an impact on how
obtain and use knowledge.

The best of these efforts are invisible
to their users.  For example, speech recognition (like Siri) is an
example of machine intelligence.  There are personal translators,
software that makes art, writes stories, acts as a legal assistant, etc.

there is the increased development and use of robots, leading to
concerns about massive future unemployment.  While it seems to me there
will still be much to do after the robots have mastered the kind of work
we’ve done in the past, there is no doubt that we should be asking

How can we use these technologies?  What is it that
our students need to learn in a future world of, at least, artificially
augmented human intelligence?

Changes In The Way People Will Make A Living

noted the dramatic shift in the last hundred years or more in the
nature of employment from most Americans earning a living by making
products or food to most Americans providing services and intangible
products.  Along with this has been a disaggregation of the way that
corporations work, since they too take advantage of technologies that
enable remote collaboration.  The latter trend is also associated with
an increase in freelance employment, now said to involve one-third of
the labor force and growing.

Most colleges still think about
preparing their students for traditional jobs in large companies –
especially community colleges which are concerned about the prospects
for their continuing education adult students and even degree students
who will not go on to four year colleges.  Yet a 9 to 5 job in the same
big company, from age 25 to 65, is being replaced by earning income from
several sources in a freelance economy.

The questions this raises for colleges are:

our students be able to flourish in this new economy?  Are we preparing
them, indeed all of the residents of the areas we serve, for this new
work life?

The Need For Lifelong Learning

learning has been a popular catchphrase among public officials and
educators alike, although they have mostly implemented the idea in very
limited ways.

But the people outside of our institutions of
higher education realize that they need keep learning in order to make a
living in an economy based on knowledge.  This is not a matter of
taking a refresher course once every five years.  It’s a continuous


That’s part of the reason for the popularity of the many
ways that the Internet offers people knowledge – college-like websites
(like Coursera and edX) and the many other websites that teach (from
Khan Academy to to YouTube to thousands of others).  The
development of citizen science sites, like Zooniverse and Geazle even offer people the opportunity to both gain and help create knowledge.

much of college, even community college, is focused on the segment of
the population younger than 23, all the people older than that need to
continue to learn.  These “older” people are finding the best and most
cost-effective means of lifelong learning because the traditional school
system is not geared to them.  Should that be the case?

Do/can community colleges offer something to these adults that meets their continuing needs?

I said at the end of my presentation, I only scratched the surface of
the trends that are coming our way.  For example, I didn’t even discuss
the development in bio-engineering.

The overall lesson for college
leaders is clear: in addition to our everyday work of keeping the
institution going, we need to start answering these questions.  We need
to develop our strategies to figure out what this all means for

And, as part of a community of learners, community
colleges need to do research, to experiment and to analyze what works
and doesn’t work in a changing world.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


Power In The Network Age

A part of my research in graduate school included modeling a small,
but influential, network of individuals – the US Supreme Court.  I used
the mathematical models tools available.  I even represented the court’s
decisions in a Markov chain and computed characteristics like its

You can be excused if you’ve never heard about any of
this or even about Markov chains.  Nobody at the time was much
interested either.  But I suppose I should have stayed with it, with
books now being published on the impact of the Internet and network

Consider the new book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks.
It was written by Joshua Cooper Ramo, who is Vice Chairman and Co-CEO
of Kissinger Associates, and a member of the board of directors of
Starbucks and FedEx.


It emphasizes the importance of networks and
declaring that there is still a wide-open gap in the tools most of us
have for understanding these networks.

In an interview about the book, he set out his goal:

live in an age where almost everything changes because of
connectivity…  The seventh sense is the idea that some people have an
instinct for how this works that’s better, sharper than the rest of us.
The book is designed to teach people how to think about connected
systems so that they can have the same kind of edge.  The people who see
what’s coming in financial markets or in politics have that edge.  It’s
important that the rest of us develop it, too.”

However, the book
is worth reading for what it is, not what he wants it to be.  It is
unusual in probing the subtleties — both positive and negative — of our
network age, not the usual breathless or self-promoting material.

of the book describes the various ways that being connected can change
the characteristics and behavior of businesses, organizations,
governments – everything that we’ve inherited from the industrial era.

has been made in various other reviews and discussions of this book
about its the scary descriptions of security issues and other dangers in
networks.  That wasn’t news to me and shouldn’t be news to most network
users who have been paying any attention.

Some people have
complained that the book is so wide ranging and repetitive it can be
frustrating to read.  Parts go into related space, where he worries
that it’s not just the network, but artificial intelligence that is
surpassing us in ways we don’t understand.  But this isn’t a blog of
literary criticism, so I’ll skip over that and go to the substance.

his day job at Kissinger Associates, I thought the most interesting
themes had to do with the interaction between the new global technology
network and the traditional institutions of government, business and

Two themes, in particular, stand out:

  • Ramo
    notes that the transition from agricultural to industrial eras was
    accompanied by major wars, revolutions and destruction, along with
    rising wealth. He asks what similar events are likely to happen in the
    transition to a networked age.  Perhaps ISIS and this year’s disruptions
    in the American Presidential elections are only early warning signs of
    what’s to come.
  • He ends the book recalling Plato on the
    need for wisdom in rulers, after he has presented a picture of two
    inadequate sets of rulers – the engineers who control the network, but
    do not understand governance and human interactions and the traditional
    government leaders who don’t understand then network.

we all seem to be connected, Ramo writes that the Internet is really
divided into various gated communities.  He states that “gatedness is
the corollary to connectedness” and this gatedness is a potential

At one point, he worries that you will have to be among
the rulers — presumably those with the seventh sense or at least those
controlling the gates — or the ruled.  He says the network gives people
more power against the gatekeepers than in traditional institutions, but
also notes that the average person may nevertheless need to be inside
the gate to lead a satisfactory life and make a living – so there’s
really no choice after all.

Aside from the problem he mentions, why is this important?

no matter their ideology and internal practices, in the past few
centuries, all governments are fundamentally in the business of
controlling a specific bordered territory — maintaining the physical
gates.  He posits that the Internet’s gatekeepers — Facebook, or Apple
iOS, etc. —are taking over that role in the cyberworld.  He says that
they are the powerful ones to watch out for in future wars between
networks and the state and between networks and other networks.

others have considered the potential of a conflict between governments
and the Internet.  Last summer, for example, the Wilson Quarterly had an
article responding to this concern, “The Nation-State: Not Dead Yet”.

I’ve also written before on this subject – “The Internet versus The Nation-State?” and “Where’s Your Mind-Time Spent?

biggest weakness in the book and others of this kind is that the lack
of nuance in the discussion of networks.  The fact that there can be a
distribution of power and gates in networks doesn’t end the story.  
Partly the problem with these books is that the question of what nodes
(and entry points) of a network are most influential isn’t one that
can’t be answered merely in words.


Pictures help convey a bit more, and – going back to my graduate school research – mathematics helps even more.

as you read Ramo’s book and his concerns, you get the sense that his
view of the network is similar to this picture of Indiana University’s
Big Red network:


But perhaps the world outside of such tightly
controlled campuses is more like the collaborative network of Oak Ridge
National Lab:


Or something different.

And although a node’s
place in a network can show its potential influence, these graphs merely
show connections, not actual influence or power.  Unfortunately, the
publicly available analysis of influence over the billions of nodes and
endpoints of the Internet is still primitive.  Moreover, to his point,
it is also changing.

This book is a bit like Jefferson’s view of
the Louisiana Purchase before the Lewis and Clark expedition.  Jefferson
had a sense it was worth buying, but needed to send out scouts to find
out the details.  While they didn’t learn everything there was to learn
about the territory, much of what they did learn was changed over time

That too will characterize our understanding of the network we explore each day.


© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved


Updates Of Earlier Reports

Some of my blog posts seem to be ahead of news reported elsewhere,
which is ok with me, but also means that it might be helpful to list
some interesting articles that continue past stories.  Here are some
recent examples:

  • My two-part series in March on the Coding Craze
    questioned the long term value of the plan by many public officials to
    teach computer coding. While the general news media continue to talk and
    write about coding as an elixir for your career, WIRED Magazine
    recently ran a cover story titled “The End of Code”.  See their web
    piece at
  • I’ve
    written several posts on one of my special interests – the related
    subjects of mixed reality, virtual reality, blended physical and digital
    spaces. I noted sports as a natural for this, including highlighting the Trilite project last year.  So it was great to read
    the announcement in the last few days that NBC and Samsung are
    collaborating to offer some of the Rio Olympics on Samsung VR gear.
  • We’re
    all inundated with talk about how “things are changing faster than ever
    before” in our 21st century world. Taking an unconventional view, in
    2011, I asked “Telegraph vs. Internet: Which Had Greater Impact?
    My argument was that the first half of the 19th century had much more
    dramatic changes, especially in speeding up communications.  In what I
    think is the first attempt to question the fastest-ever-changes meme,
    the New York Times Magazine also recently elaborated on this theme in an
    Upshot article titled “What Was the Greatest Era for Innovation? A Brief Guided Tour”.
  • In “Art and the Imitation Game”,
    March 2015, I wrote about how artificial intelligence is stepping into
    creative activities, like writing and painting. While there have been
    many articles on this subject since, one of the most intriguing was from
    the newspaper in the city with more attorneys per capita than anywhere
    else, as the Washington Post invited us to “Meet ‘Ross,’ the newly hired legal robot”.
  • I wrote about the White House Rural Telehealth meeting in April this year. The New York Times later had a report on the rollout of telehealth to the tens of millions of customers of Anthem, under the American Well label.
  • Going
    back several years and in both that post and one on “The
    Decentralization Of Health Care” about a year and a half ago, I’ve
    touched on the difficulties posed by the fee for service health care
    system in the US and instead wondered if we would be better off by
    paying health systems a yearly fee to keep us healthy – thus aligning
    our personal interests with those of the system. So it has been
    interesting to see in April that there was movement on this by the
    Center for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMMS), which is the Federal
    government’s health insurance agency.  Here are just some examples:
  1. The End of Fee For Service?  
  2. CMS launches largest-ever multi-payer initiative to improve primary care in America
  3. Obamacare [SIC] to launch new payment scheme

That’s it for now.  I’ll try to update other posts when there’s news.

© 2016 Norman Jacknis, All Rights Reserved