Posted & filed under In The News

Reblogged from Skip Walter’s blog, “On the Way to Somewhere Else”

The Future of Higher Education – MLA Seattle

Posted on January 6, 2012

Action driving tweets – who knew that such few characters of text could drive action that leads to engaging learning.

A few days ago, Cathy Davidson tweeted that she was headed to Seattle, WA to theModern Language Association Conference where she was participating in a panel discussion on “The Future of Higher Education.”  What a delight that I would be able to hear and experience Cathy in person, not just through her books and video snippets.  Even better, Ed Lazowska from the UW Computer Science Department would be on the panel as well. And still better, the panel session was open to the public.

This duo of synchronicity and hyper locality started by a simple tweet moved me to rearrange my schedule to attend the session.

I had high expectations for the session given the quality of the participants, and those expectations were far exceeded.  I was treated to four superb intellects sharing their passions from very different points of view across the sciences and the humanities, and yet a powerful vision of what could be emerged from the talks.

The styles of presentation were also interesting and formed a spectrum of ways to shed light on a critical topic.

Kathleen Woodward did a wonderful job presiding over the session and making all of us feel at home.

Sidonie Ann Smith started the panel talks with “Emergent Projects, Processes, and Stories.”  Clearly, this professor is a wonderful writer and her medium is text.  The few slides were all text to share her outline and to provide a few quotes.  In a more traditional lecture style, she read from her prepared paper.  She spoke at a hundred miles per hour, so fast that my traditional note taking couldn’t keep up.  She provided several wonderful turns of phrases like “the new dissertation – thinking outside the proto-book.”

Smith presented four Macro-Narratives to describe the state of higher education:

  • Macro-Narrative 1: Declining state support for public higher education.
  • Macro-Narrative 2: Redefinition of the “institution” of higher education.
  • Macro-Narrative 3: Re-conceptualization of knowledge and knowledge production.
  • Macro-Narrative 4: The emergent scholar.

Smith then followed her macro-narratives with her suggested action plan:

  1. Transform doctoral education
  2. Forge a new ethics and praxis of scholarly communication
  3. Rethink our relationship to scholarship
  4. Re-conceptualize our scholarly collaboration – faculty, students, community, world
  5. Update our narrative of the humanities – from the singular word to the expanse of Big Data

As much as I believe that I read broadly and keep up with a wide range of topics, I never thought I would hear an English professor talking about Big Data.  Did I miss that there was a harmonic convergence in Seattle this week?

Next to speak was Curtis Wong from Microsoft on the topic of “Learning Collaboratories, Now and in the Future.”  From the world of macro-narratives Curtis transported us millions of years into the universe with hisWorldWide Telescope project (WWT).   The context for Wong’s talk was the notion of a collaboratory.  His vision for WWT is a prototypical collaboratory where not only is there a visualization capability but the ability to develop curated journeys through the vast data.  Curtis shared another nice turn of a phrase – “education could be a collection of curated journeys.”

As Curtis toured us around several curated journeys, he made clear that story telling is the passport to education.  I am a little slow on the uptake, but here was the union of science and the humanities – storytelling and narrative providing a context for “big data.”  Professor Smith presented a suggestive narrative presentation primarily in words.  Wong presented a visually animated narrative of what the union of the humanities and science could be.  The power of the visual map of the sky illustrates so clearly where there is scientific work going on AND where there isn’t work going on – inviting the community at large (professional and amateur) to contribute to our knowledge of the universe – and to tell stories about their discoveries.

What I especially liked about the ability of the WWT to host meta-data, text, video and audio as a curated journey, is that there was always a smooth transition between content and context.  With a blog entry or a Vook (video book), when you follow a link you are jarred from your current context as you leap from one disparate piece of content to another.  WWT seamlessly integrates the multiple media into a single visual space.

As an innovator in the development of visual analytics capability through our work increating Attenex Patterns to exponentially increase the productivity for legal electronic discovery, I wanted to run to the podium and meet Curtis to explore how far his WWT engine could be pushed into the realm of document visualizations.

However, I calmed down and looked forward to Ed Lazowska’s presentation on big data – “It’s the Data Stupid!”Ed is one of those wonderful gifts to the computer science community and to the state of Washington.  He is a tireless advocate for the importance of research and high technology.  Whether in a public presentation or in small group meetings with Ed, I always come away smarter.  My favorite learning from Ed has affected my pedagogy ever since he advised “never answer a students question directly. Always seek first to understand the misunderstanding that caused the question to be asked in the first place.”  Forgetting this advice leads to poor mentoring on my part when interacting with students or colleagues.

Ed started his talk off with a wonderful hook “Let’s look at four things that happened in 1969 – man walked on the moonWoodstock happened, the Mets won the World Series, and the first data packet was sent over Arpanet (precursor to the Internet).  Forty years later, which of these four events had the most impact.”  Clearly, all of us answered the Internet.

Ed then went through the evolution of approaches to science:

  • Theory
  • Experiment
  • Observation
  • Computational Science – the world of simulation
  • Today:  eScience – the dawn of data driven science

Connecting with Wong’s talk, Ed pointed out that the Sloan Digital Sky Scanner that created the data source for the WWT collected 80 Terabytes (TB) over seven years.  This amount of data precipitated the shift to the public sharing of data which is a big leap from previous methods of hoarding data based on how expensive it was to collect and curate data.  We are seeing the democratization of science through this sharing of big data.

Current desktop gene sequencers generate 17 TB of data per day.  Imagine the amount of data that a roomful of these desktop gene sequencers create – every hour, every day, 24/7.

In his wonderfully fact based presentation style, Ed shared several observations on how these advances in big data are destroying the economics of the university.  Lazowska connected nicely with the talks from Smith and Wong by arguing convincingly for the connection of humanities to big data to aid in telling the stories buried in the data.

With three talks completed and one to go, I knew I was in the presence of a special event. Each speaker had a unique style and a unique point of view, yet they prepared and shared bridges and connections to the views of the other speakers.  As a regular attendee and presenter at academic and business conferences, it is a rare occurrence to have a group of panelists coordinate their messages so seamlessly.

Now it was Cathy’s turn to share her thoughts on “How to Crowdsource Thinking”.  Over the last month, Cathy’s books, videos and prolific tweets entered my invisible university of thought leaders.  Of course, Cathy being a professor at Duke University, my alma mater, and sharing anecdotes about Shane Battier, one of my favorite Duke basketball players, helped a lot.

Cathy’s recent book Now You See It is an inspiration at so many different levels.  At the top level, her insights give me a completely different way to see both the student/teacher relationship as well as the manager/employee relationship.  As a practitioner and teacher of human centered design, I spent the last four years trying to improve the learner centeredness of my courses in the UW HCDE Department and in the UW Foster Business School.  While I made some improvements, I was operating without a framework or theory or evidence based method for teaching AND assessment.

Through Davidson’s research and innovation in the classroom, I now have several frameworks to use to change the learning dynamics in the classroom and “in the wild.”  I loved Cathy’s description of her charter while she was Vice Provost at Duke “break things and make things.”

Cathy issued several interesting questions and observations as she began her talk:

  • If <1% of college students go on to become tenure track professors, why is an English department structured for the 1% rather than the 99%?
  • Quoting Clay Shirky “institutions tend to preserve the problem they were designed to solve,” Professor Davidson asked “why do we have to keep preserving the institution of higher learning?”
  • Why are we letting the industrial-educational complex, drive scientific labor management into scientific learning management?
  • Why do we continue to use the “A, B, C, D” grading system that even the American Meat Packing Association rejected within months of starting its use?

Why indeed?

As she described in her book, Cathy’s talk was from the union of head and heart as she did not use a prepared paper and had relatively few slides.  As an audience member, it was easy to feel that I was in a conversation, not a lecture.

The Q&A session was lively and gave the panelists an opportunity to share an even wider range of thoughts.  As I left the room, I had to chuckle at the sign on the back table.

As I walked from the Ballroom at the Seattle Sheraton back to the ferry terminal for the ride home to Bainbridge Island, I was flooded with imagery of a software application that I would really love from today’s panel discussion.  I imagined that prior to the panel discussion, all of the books, publications, videos, and reference pointers from the speakers were loaded into a visually rich environment like the Wong’s WWT engine.  And the panelist presentations and Q&A session were recorded (video and audio) and loaded into the WWT engine.  Then, after the session, each of the panelists would curate a journey through this n-dimensional media space and capture their reflections on what they took away from the event and the ideas shared by the other panelists.  After the event, all of us as participants, could start adding our reflections and relevant references to the compendium and curate our own journeys through this rich topic space.  What a conversation that would be.

This kind of tool would truly be “content with context.”

The lasting benefit of the panel discussion today is that along with Cathy and Ed, I am adding three more professors to my invisible university.

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Cathy N. Davidson

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