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.
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
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.
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
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
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 Lynda.com 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