We live in a time of great change, an increasingly global society, driven by the exponential growth of new knowledge and knitted together by rapidly evolving information and communication technologies. It is a time of challenge and contradiction, as an ever-increasing human population threatens global sustainability; a global, knowledge-driven economy places a new premium on technological workforce skills through phenomena such as out-sourcing and off-shoring; governments place increasing confidence in market forces to reflect public priorities even as new paradigms such as open-source software and open-content knowledge and learning challenge conventional free-market philosophies; and shifting geopolitical tensions are driven by the great disparity in wealth and power about the globe, manifested in the current threat to homeland security by terrorism. Yet it is also a time of unusual opportunity and optimism as new technologies not only improve the human condition but also enable the creation and flourishing of new communities and social institutions more capable of addressing the needs of our society.|
The Millennium Project is a research center concerned with the impact of technology on our society, our communities, our institutions, and our planet. Among the topics under active study are the following:
Looking back over history, one can identify certain abrupt changes, discontinuities in the nature, the fabric, of our civilization. Clearly we live in just such a time of very rapid and profound social transformation, a transition from a century in which the dominant human activity was transportation to one in which communication technology has become paramount, from economies based upon cars, planes, and trains to one dependent upon computers and networks. We are shifting from an emphasis on creating and transporting physical objects such as materials and energy to knowledge itself; from atoms to bits; from societies based upon the geopolitics of the nation-state to those based on diverse cultures and local traditions; and from a dependence on government policy to an increasing confidence in the marketplace to establish public priorities.|
We are evolving rapidly into a post-industrial, knowledge-based society, a shift in culture and technology as profound as the shift that took place a century ago when our agrarian societies evolved into industrial nations. Industrial production is steadily shifting from material- and labor-intensive products and processes to knowledge-intensive products and services. A radically new system for creating wealth has evolved that depends upon the creation and application of new knowledge and hence upon educated people and their ideas and institutions such as research universities, corporate R&D laboratories, and national research agencies where advanced education, research, innovation, and entrepreneurial energy are found.
In a very real sense, we are entering a new age, an age of knowledge, in which the key strategic resource necessary for prosperity has become knowledge itself?educated people and their ideas. Unlike natural resources, such as iron and oil, which have driven earlier economic transformations, knowledge is inexhaustible. The more it is used, the more it multiplies and expands. But knowledge can be created, absorbed, and applied only by the educated mind. The knowledge economy is demanding new types of learners and creators and new forms of learning and education.
Whether through travel and communication, the arts and culture, or the internationalization of commerce, capital, and labor, both our nation and our state are becoming increasingly linked with the global community. The world and our place in it have changed?with globalization determining not only regional prosperity but also national and homeland security. A truly domestic United States economy has ceased to exist. It is no longer relevant to speak of the health of regional economies or the competitiveness of American industry, because we are no longer self-sufficient or self-sustaining. Our economy and many of our companies are international, spanning the globe and interdependent with other nations and other peoples Worldwide communication networks have created an international market, not only for conventional products, but also for knowledge professionals, research, and educational services. |
As the recent report of the National Intelligence Council?s 2020 Project has concluded, ?The very magnitude and speed of change resulting from a globalizing world?apart from its precise character?will be a defining feature of the world out to 2020. During this period, China?s GNP will exceed that of all other Western economic powers except for the United States, with a projected population of 1.4 billion. India and Brazil will also likely surpass most of the European nations. Globalization?growing interconnectedness reflected in the expanded flows of information, technology, capital, goods, services, and people throughout the world?will become an overarching mega-trend, a force so ubiquitous that it will substantially shape all other major trends in the world of 2020.? (National Intelligence Council, 2004)
As Friedman notes, some three billion people who were excluded from the pre-Internet economy have now walked out onto a level playing field, from China, India, Russia, Eastern Europe, Latin American, and Central Asia. ?It is this convergence of new players, on a new playing field, developing new processes for horizontal collaboration, that I believe is he most important force shaping global economics and politics in the early 21st century.? Or as Craig Barrett, CEO of Intel, puts it: ?You don?t bring three billion people into the world economy overnight without huge consequences, especially from three societies like India, China, and Russia, with rich educational heritages.? (Friedman, 2005) In such a global economy, it is critical that regions not only have global reach into markets abroad, but also have the capacity to harvest new ideas and innovation and to attract talent from around the world.
Regions face numerous challenges in positioning themselves for prosperity in the global economy, among them changing demographics, limited resources, and cultural constraints. The populations of most developed nations in North America, Europe, and Asia are aging rapidly where over the next decade the percentage of the population over 60 will grow to over 30% to 40%. Half of the world?s population today lives in countries where fertility rates are not sufficient to replace their current populations, e.g. the average fertility rate in EU has dropped to 1.45, below the 2.1 necessary for a stable population. Aging populations, out-migration, and shrinking workforces are having an important impact, particularly in Europe, Russia, and some Asian nations such as Japan, South Korea, and Singapore. |
In sharp contrast, developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are characterized by young and growing populations in which the average age is less than 20. Here the demand for education is staggering since in a knowledge economy, it is clear to all that this is the key to one?s future security. Unless developed nations step forward and help address this crisis, billions of people in coming generations will be denied the education so necessary to compete in, and survive in, the knowledge economy. The resulting despair and hopelessness among the young will feed the terrorism that so threatens our world today.
Today we see a serious imbalance between educational need and educational capacity?in a sense, many of our universities are in the wrong place, where populations are aging and perhaps even declining rather than young and growing. This has already triggered some market response, with the entry of for-profit providers of higher education (e.g., Laureate, Apollo) into providing higher education services on a global basis through acquisitions of existing institutions or distance learning technologies. It also is driving the interest in new paradigms such as the Open Education Resources movement. (Atkins, 2007) Yet, even if market forces or international development efforts are successful in addressing the urgent educational needs of the developing world, there are also concerns about whether there will be enough jobs to respond to a growing population of college graduates in many of these regions.
Growing disparities in wealth and economic opportunity, frequently intensified by regional conflict, continue to drive population migration. The flow of workers across the global economy seeking prosperity and security presents further challenges to many nations. The burden of refugees and the complexity of absorbing immigrant cultures are particularly apparent in Europe and North America. In the United States, immigration from Latin America and Asia is now the dominant factor driving population growth (53%), with the U.S. population projected to rise from 300 million to over 450 million by 2050. (National Information Center, 2006) While such immigrants bring to America incredible energy, talents, and hope, and continue to diversify the ethnic character of our nation, this increasing diversity is complicated by social, political, and economic factors. The full participation of immigrants and other underrepresented ethnic groups continues to be hindered by the segregation and non-assimilation of minority cultures and backlash against long-accepted programs designed to achieve social equity (e.g., affirmative action in college admissions). Furthermore, since most current immigrants are arriving from developing regions with weak educational capacity, new pressures have been placed on U.S. educational systems for the remedial education of large numbers of non-English speaking students.
The new technologies driving such profound changes in our world–technologies such as information technology, biotechnology, and nanotechnology–are characterized by exponential growth. When applied to microprocessor chips, this remarkable property, known as Moore’s Law, implies that every 18 months, computing power for a given price doubles. And for other elements of digital technology, such as memory and bandwidth, the doubling time is even shorter–currently 9 to 12 months. Scientists and engineers today believe that the exponential evolution of these microscopic technologies is not only likely to continue for the conceivable future, but may actually be accelerating.|
Put another way, digital technology is characterized by an exponential pace of evolution in which characteristics such as computing speed, memory, and network transmission speeds for a given price increase by a factor of 100 to 1000 every decade. Over the two decades, we will evolve from “giga” technology (in terms of computer operations per second, storage, or data transmission rates) to “tera” to “peta” and perhaps even “exa” technology (one billion-billion or 1018). To illustrate with an extreme example, if information technology continues to evolve at its present rate, by the year 2020, the thousand-dollar notebook computer will have a data processing speed and memory capacity roughly comparable to the human brain (Kurzweil, 1999). Furthermore, it will be so tiny as to be almost invisible, and it will communicate with billions of other computers through wireless technology.
For planning purposes, we can assume that on the timescale of decades we will have available infinite bandwidth and infinite processing power (at least compared to current capabilities). We will denominate the number of computer servers in the billions, digital sensors in the tens of billions, and software agents in the trillions. The number of people linked together by digital technology will grow from millions to billions. We will evolve from “e-commerce” and “e-government” and “e-learning” to “e-everything,” since digital devices will increasingly become predominant interfaces not only with our environment but with other people, groups, and social institutions.
The information and communications technologies enabling the global knowledge economy–so-called cyberinfrastructure (the current term used to describe hardware, software, people, organizations, and policies) evolve exponentially, doubling in power for a given cost every year or so, amounting to a staggering increase in capacity of 100 to 1,000 fold every decade. It is becoming increasingly clear that we are approaching an inflection point in the potential of these technologies to radically transform knowledge work. To quote Arden Bement, director of the National Science Foundation, “We are entering a second revolution in information technology, one that may well usher in a new technological age that will dwarf, in sheer transformational scope and power, anything we have yet experienced in the current information age” (Bement, 2007).
Beyond acknowledging the extraordinary and unrelenting pace of such exponentially evolving technologies, it is equally important to recognize that they are disruptive in nature. Their impact on social institutions such as corporations, governments, and learning institutions is profound, rapid, and quite unpredictable. As Clayton Christensen explains in The Innovator’s Dilemma, while many of these new technologies are at first inadequate to displace today’s technology in existing applications, they later explosively displace the application as they enable a new way of satisfying the underlying need (Christensen, 1997). If change is gradual, there will be time to adapt gracefully, but that is not the history of disruptive technologies. Hence organizations (including governments) must work to anticipate these forces, develop appropriate strategies, and make adequate investments if they are to prosper–indeed, survive–such a period. Procrastination and inaction (not to mention ignorance and denial) are the most dangerous of all courses during a time of rapid technological change.
In its National Innovation Initiative, the Council on Competitiveness, a group of business and university leaders, highlight innovation as the single most important factor in determining America’s success throughout the 21st century. “American’s challenge is to unleash its innovation capacity to drive productivity, standard of living, and leadership in global markets. At a time when macro-economic forces and financial constraints make innovation-driven growth a more urgent imperative than ever before, American businesses, government, workers, and universities face an unprecedented acceleration of global change, relentless pressure for short-term results, and fierce competition from countries that seek an innovation-driven future for themselves. For the past 25 years we have optimized our organizations for efficiency and quality. Over the next quarter century, we must optimize our entire society for innovation” (Council on Competitiveness, 2005).|
Of course innovation is more than simply new technologies. It involves how business processes are integrated and managed, how services are delivered, how public policies are formulated, and how markets and more broadly society benefit (Lynn, 2007). However it is also the case that in a global, knowledge-driven economy, technological innovation–the transformation of new knowledge into products, processes, and services of value to society–is critical to competitiveness, long-term productivity growth, and an improved quality of life. The National Intelligence Council’s 2020 Project concludes, “the greatest benefits of globalization will accrue to countries and groups that can access and adopt new technologies” (National Intelligence Council, 2004). This study notes that China and India are well positioned to become technology leaders, and even the poorest countries will be able to leverage prolific, cheap technologies to fuel–although at a slower rate–their own development. It also warns that this transition will not be painless and will hit the middle classes of the developed world in particular, bringing more rapid job turnover and requiring professional retooling. Moreover, future technology trends will be marked not only by accelerating advancements in individual technologies but also by a force-multiplying convergence of the technologies–information, biological, materials, and nanotechnologies–that have the potential to revolutionize all dimensions of life.
In summary, the 2020 Project warns that “A nation’s or region’s level of technological achievement generally will be defined in terms of its investment in integrating and applying the new globally available technologies–whether the technologies are acquired through a country’s own basic research or from technology leaders. Nations that remain behind in adopting technologies are likely to be those that have failed to pursue policies that support application of new technologies–such as good governance, universal education, and market reforms–and not solely because they are poor.”
This has been reinforced by a recent study by the National Academy of Engineering that concludes, “American success has been based on the creativity, ingenuity, and courage of innovators, and innovation that will continue to be critical to American success in the twenty-first century. As a world superpower with the largest and richest market, the United States has consistently set the standard for technological advances, both creating innovations and absorbing innovations created elsewhere” (Duderstadt, 2005).
Many nations are investing heavily in the foundations of modern innovation systems, including research facilities and infrastructure and a strong technical workforce. Unfortunately, the United States has failed to give such investments the priority they deserve in recent years. The changing nature of the international economy, characterized by intense competition coexisting with broad-based collaboration and global supply chains and manifested in unprecedented U.S. trade deficits, underscores long-standing weaknesses in the nation’s investment in the key ingredients of technological innovation: new knowledge (research), human capital (education), and infrastructure (educational institutions, laboratories, cyberinfrastructure). Well-documented and disturbing trends include: skewing of the nation’s research priorities away from engineering and physical sciences and toward the life sciences; erosion of the engineering research infrastructure; a relative decline in the interest and aptitude of American students for pursuing education and training in engineering and other technical fields; and growing uncertainty about our ability to attract and retain gifted science and engineering students from abroad at a time when foreign nationals constitute a large and productive fraction of the U.S. R&D workforce.
There is compelling evidence that the growing population and invasive activities of humankind are now altering the fragile balance of our planet. The concerns are both multiplying in number and intensifying in severity: the destruction of forests, wetlands, and other natural habitats by human activities leading to the extinction of millions of biological species and the loss of biodiversity; the buildup of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide and their possible impact on global climates; the pollution of our air, water, and land. It could well be that coming to grips with the impact of our species on our planet, learning to live in a sustainable fashion on Spaceship Earth, will become the greatest challenge of all to our generation. We must find new ways to provide for a human society that presently has outstripped the limits of global sustainability. This will be particularly difficult for the United States, a nation that has difficulty in looking more than a generation ahead, encumbered by a political process that generally functions on an election-by-election basis, as the current debate over global change makes all too apparent.|
Evidence of global warming is now incontrovertible–increasing global surface and air temperatures, receding glaciers and polar ice caps, rising sea levels, and increasingly powerful weather disruptions, all confirm that unless the utilization of fossil fuels is sharply curtailed, humankind could be seriously threatened. The recent Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change concluded that: “Global atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide have increased markedly as a result of human activities since 1750 and now far exceed pre-industrial values. The global increases in carbon dioxide concentration are due primarily to fossil fuel use and land-use change.” (IPCC, 2007) Although there continues to be disagreement over particular strategies to slow global climate change–whether through regulation that restricts the use of fossil fuels or through market pressures (e.g., “cap and trade” strategies)–there is little doubt that energy utilization simply must shift away from fossil fuels toward non-hydrocarbon energy sources. Yet as John Holdren, president of the AAAS, puts it, “We are not talking any more about what climate models say might happen in the future. We are experiencing dangerous disruption of the global climate, and we are going to experience more. Yet we are not starting to address climate change with the technology we have in hand, and we are not accelerating our investment in energy technology R&D.” (Holdren, 2007)
But global sustainability faces other challenges. The United Nations now projects the Earth’s population in the year 2050 as 9.1 billion, 50% larger than today. Which of course raises the logical question: Can we sustain a population of that magnitude on Spaceship Earth? In fact, the basic premise of the United States free market system, which relies on steady growth in productivity and profits, based in part on similar growth in consumption and population, must be challenged by the very serious problems that will result from a ballooning global population, such as energy shortages, global climate change, and dwindling resources. The stark fact is that our planet simply cannot sustain a projected population of 8 to 10 billion with a lifestyle characterizing the United States and other developed nations with consumption-dominated economies.
To be sure, there are some signs of optimism: a slowing population growth that may stabilize during the 21st century, the degree to which extreme poverty appears to be receding both as a percentage of the population and in absolute numbers, and the rapid economic growth of developing economies in Asia and Latin America. Yet as a special report on global sustainability in Scientific American warned: “As humanity grows in size and wealth, it increasingly presses against the limits of the planet. Already we pump out carbon dioxide three times as fast as the oceans and land can absorb it; mid-century is when climatologists think global warming will really begin to bite. At the rate things are going, the world’s forests and fisheries will be exhausted even sooner. As E. O. Wilson puts it, we are about to pass through ‘the bottleneck’, a period of maximum stress on natural resources and human ingenuity” (Scientific American, 2005).
The United States faces a particular challenge and responsibility in addressing this issue. With just 4.5% of the world’s people, we control 25% of its wealth and produce 25% to 30% of its pollution. It is remarkable that the richest nation on earth is the lowest per capita donor of international development assistance of any industrialized country. As the noted biologist Peter Raven observes, “The United States is a small part of a very large, poor, and rapidly changing world, and we, along with everyone else, must do a better job. Globalization appears to have become an irresistible force, but we must make it participatory and humane to alleviate the suffering of the world’s poorest people and the effective disenfranchisement of many of its nations” (Raven, 2003).
The United States economy, our national security, and the well-being of our citizens are dependent upon the availability of clean, affordable, secure, and sustainable energy resources. Yet our current energy infrastructure, heavily dependent upon fossil fuels, is unsustainable. Global oil and gas production is expected to peak within the next several decades. While there are substantial reserves of coal and tar sands, the mining, processing, and burning of these fossil fuels poses increasingly unacceptable risk to both humankind, particularly within the context of global climate change. Furthermore, the security of our nation is threatened by an addiction to oil that has created a reliance on energy imports from politically unstable regions of the world that threatens both our national economy and security. Clearly securing reliable and sustainable energy for the nation must become among the highest priorities of the federal government if it is to meet its responsibilities for national security, economic prosperity, and social well-being.|
Unfortunately, current federal energy research strategies, policies, and investments seem woefully inadequate when measured against the urgency, complexity, and scale of the challenges in building a sustainable energy infrastructure for the nation. The severity of the looming energy crisis facing the United States, viewed within the context of the federal R&D effort characterizing other national priorities such as health care ($30 B/y) and defense ($80 B/y), would call for a federal energy R&D effort on the order of $30 to $40 B/y, roughly ten times the current federal effort. There are increasing calls for just such a federal energy R&D effort, comparable in scale to earlier national efforts such as the Manhattan Project or the Apollo program.
Such a massive effort will require a dramatic increase in federally-funded energy research activity on the part of national laboratories and industry. In addition, the unusual complexity of the nation’s energy challenges suggest the need for new research organizations capable of spanning the broad array of scientific, technological, economic, legal, and behavioral issues necessary to develop and deploy new energy technologies on the scale required by the nation.
Today our world has entered a period of rapid and profound economic, social, and political transformation based upon a emerging new system for creating wealth that depends upon the creation and application of new knowledge and hence upon educated people and their ideas. It has become increasingly apparent that the strength, prosperity, and welfare of a nation in a global knowledge economy will demand a highly educated citizenry enabled by development of a strong system of tertiary education. It will also require institutions with the ability to discover new knowledge, develop innovative applications of these discoveries, and transfer them into the marketplace through entrepreneurial activities.|
Yet the traditional institutions responsible for advanced education and research–colleges, universities, research institutes–are being challenged by the powerful forces characterizing the global economy: hypercompetitive markets, demographic change, increasing ethnic and cultural diversity, and disruptive technologies such as information, biological, and nanotechnologies. More specifically, markets characterized by the instantaneous flows of knowledge, capital, and work and unleashed by lowering trade barriers are creating global enterprises based upon business paradigms such as out-sourcing economic activity and off-shoring jobs, a shift from public to private equity investment, and declining identification with or loyalty to national or regional interests.
The populations of most developed nations in North America, Europe, and Asia are aging rapidly while developing nations in Asia, Africa, and Latin America are characterized by young and growing populations. Today we see a serious imbalance between educational need and educational capacity. In a sense, many of our universities are in the wrong place, where populations are aging and perhaps even declining rather than young and growing, driving major population migration and all too frequently the clash of cultures and ethnicity.
New technologies are evolving at an exponential pace, obliterating both historical constraints such as distance and political boundaries and enabling new paradigms for learning such as open educational resources, virtual organizations, and peer-to-peer learning networks that threaten traditional approaches to learning, innovation, and economic growth.
On a broader scale, the education investments demanded by the global knowledge economy are straining the economies of both developed and developing regions. Developing nations are overwhelmed by the higher education needs of expanding young populations at a time when even secondary education is only available to a small fraction of their populations. In the developed economies of Europe, America, and Asia, the tax revenues that once supported university education only for a small elite are now being stretched thin as they are extended to fund higher education for a significant fraction of the population (i.e., massification). Yet their aging populations demand highest priority for public funding be given to health care, security, and tax relief, forcing higher education systems to become more highly dependent on the private sector (e.g., student fees, philanthropy, or intellectual property).
Over the longer term, emerging and rapidly evolving technologies are changing the fundamental paradigms for learning:|
Paradigm Shift 1: Lifelong Learning
Today the shelf life of education provided early in one's life is shrinking rapidly in face of the explosion of knowledge in many fields. Furthermore, longer life expectancy and lengthening working careers create an ongoing need to refresh one's knowledge and skills through both formal and informal learning. Hence an increasing number of nations are setting the ambitious goal of providing their citizens with ubiquitous, lifelong learning opportunities. Of course this will require not only a very considerable transformation and expansion of the existing post-secondary education enterprise but also entirely new paradigms for the conduct, organization, financing, leadership, and governance of higher education. Yet, if successful, it could also create true societies of learning, in which the sustained development of knowledge and human capital become the key paths to economic prosperity, national security, and social welfare.
Paradigm Shift 2: The Global University
There is a strong sense that higher education is in the early stages of globalization, through the efforts of an increasing number of established universities to compete in the global marketplace for students, faculty, and resources; the rapid growth in international partnerships among universities; and the appearance for-profit organizations (e.g., Apollo, Laureate) that seek to expand through mergers and acquisition into global enterprises. In fact, some suggest that we may soon see the emergence of truly global universities that not only compete in the global market place for students, faculty, and resources but are increasingly willing to define their public purpose in terms of global needs and priorities such as environmental sustainability, public health, wealth disparities, and poverty. Such “universities in the world and of the world” might form through consortia of existing institutions (e.g., the U.K.’s Open University), new paradigms, or perhaps even existing institutions that evolve beyond the public agenda or influence of their region or nation-state to assume a truly global character.
Paradigm Shift 3: Open Learning Resources
Of particular importance are efforts to adopt the philosophy of open source software development to create new opportunities for learning and scholarship for the world by putting previously restricted knowledge into the public domain and inviting others to join in both its use and development. MIT led the way with its OpenCourseWare (OCW) initiative, placing the digital assets supporting almost 1,800 courses into the public domain on the Internet for the world to use. (Vest, 2006) Today, over 400 universities have adopted the OCW paradigm to distribute their own learning assets to the world, with over 7,000 courses now available online.
Furthermore, a number of universities and corporations have joined together to develop open-source middleware to support the instructional and scholarly activities of higher education, already used by hundreds of universities around the world (e.g. Moodle, 2007 and Sakai, 2007). Others have explored new paradigms for open learning and engagement, extending the more traditional yet highly successful models provided by open universities. There are increasing efforts to open up both data collection and scholarly publication by both individual institutions and university organizations, including the European University Association and the Association of American Universities, although commercial publishers continue to resist these efforts to block this through government regulation and litigation.
To this array of open educational resources should be added efforts to digitize massive quantities of printed material. For example, the Google Book project is currently working with a number of leading libraries (26 at last count in 35 languages) around the world to digitize a substantial portion of their holdings, making these available for full-text searches using Google's powerful internet search engines. For example, roughly 80% of the University of Michigan’s 8 million volume library has been already been digitized, with the completion of this effort projected in 2010.
More generally, Google now has digitized and made full-text searchable over 12 million books. It has recently negotiated with publishers to provide full-text access (beyond full-text searches) to the vast volume of “orphan” works, no longer in print. A number of United States universities (25 thus far) have pooled their digital collections to create the HathiTrust, adding over 400,000 books a month to form the nucleus of what could become a 21st century analog to the ancient Library of Alexandria. (“Hathi” means “elephant” in Hindi…) While there are still many copyright issues that need to be addressed, it is likely that these massive digitization efforts will be able to provide full text search access to a significant fraction of the world’s written materials to scholars and students throughout the world within a decade.
Let us add to this array of digitization and open content activities a few more elements: mobile communication, social computing, and immersive environments. We all know well the rapid propagation of mobile technology, with over 3.5 billion people today having cell-phone connectivity and 1.2 billion with broadband access. It is likely that within a decade the majority of the world’s population will have some level of cell-phone connectivity, with many using advanced 3G and 4G technologies. Today’s youth are digital natives, members of the “net generation”, comfortable with using the new technologies for building social communities–instant messaging, blogs, wiki’s, virtual worlds, FaceBook, MySpace, Wikipedia (which even their professors use). They have embraced and reshaped their lives with such highly interactive, social networking. Rather than access the vast knowledge resources provided through the open education resources movement through passive media such as books, this generation accesses knowledge and builds social communities through 3-D virtual reality environments such as Second Life, the World of Warcraft, and Croquet in which all of the senses are faithfully replicated to enable human interaction at a distance.
Paradigm Shift 4: The Future of the University? (Or something else…)
So what are the implications of these emerging technologies for the future of the university? John Seely Brown suggests that we might think of the contemporary university as an interconnected set of three core competencies: learning communities, knowledge resources, and the certification of knowledge skills. Social computing will empower and extend learning communities beyond the constraints of space and time. Open knowledge and education resources will clearly expand enormously the knowledge resources available to our institutions. And immersive environments will enable the mastery of not simply conventional academic knowledge but as well tacit knowledge, enabling our students to learn now only how “to do” but actually how “to be”–scholars, masters, professionals, whatever they wish! (Brown and Duguid, 2000)
But there is a possibility even beyond these. Imagine what might be possible if all of these elements are merged, i.e., Internet-based access to all recorded (and then digitized) human knowledge augmented by powerful search engines; open source software, open learning resources, and open learning institutions (open universities); new collaboratively developed tools (Wikipedia II, Web 2.0); and ubiquitous information and communications technology (e.g., cheap laptop computers or, more likely, advanced cell phone technology). In the near future it could be possible that anyone with even a modest Internet or cellular phone connection will have access to the recorded knowledge of our civilization along with ubiquitous learning opportunities and access to network-based communities throughout the world (perhaps even through immersive environments such as Second Life).
Imagine still further the linking together of billions of people with limitless access to knowledge and learning tools enabled by a rapidly evolving scaffolding of cyberinfrastructure, which increases in power one-hundred to one thousand-fold every decade. This hive-like culture will not only challenge existing social institutions–corporations, universities, nation states, that have depended upon the constraints of space, time, laws, and monopoly. But it will enable the spontaneous emergence of new social structures as yet unimagined–just think of the early denizens of the Internet such as Google, MySpace, Wikipedia, …and, unfortunately, Al Qaeda. In fact, we may be on the threshold of the emergence of a new form of civilization, as billions of world citizens interact together, unconstrained by today’s monopolies on knowledge or learning opportunities.
Perhaps this, then, is the most exciting vision for the future of knowledge and learning organizations such as the university, no longer constrained by space, time, monopoly, or archaic laws, but rather responsive to the needs of a global, knowledge society and unleashed by technology to empower and serve all of humankind. And all of this is likely to happen during the lives of today’s students, and, in fact, during the lives of most of us in this gathering this evening. These possibilities must inform and shape the manner in which we view, support, and lead higher education. Now is not the time to back into the future.
There are other possibilities that might be considered for the longer-term future. Balancing population growth in some parts of the world might be new pandemics, such as AIDS or an avian flu virus, that appear out of nowhere to ravage our species. The growing divide between rich and poor, the developed nations and the third world, the North and South hemispheres, could drive even more serious social unrest and terrorism, perhaps armed with even more terrifying weapons. |
Then, too, the unrelenting–indeed, accelerating pace–of technology could benefit humankind, extending our lifespan and quality of life (although perhaps aggravating population growth in the process), meeting the world’s needs for food and shelter and perhaps even energy, and enabling vastly new forms of communication, transportation, and social interaction. Perhaps we will rekindle our species’ fundamental quest for exploration and expansion by resuming human spaceflight and eventually colonizing our solar system and beyond.
But technology will also present new challenges that seem almost taken from the pages of science fiction. Clearly if digital technology continues to evolve at its current pace for the next decade, creating machines a thousand, a million, a billion times more powerful that those which are so dominating our world today, then phenomena such as the emergence of machine consciousness and intelligence become very real possibilities during this century. In fact some even suggest that we could encounter a “technological singularity,” a point at which technology begins to accelerate so rapidly (for example, as intelligent machines develop even more intelligent machines) that we lose not only the ability to control but even to predict the future.
Clearly phenomena such as machine consciousness, contact with extraterrestrial intelligence, or cosmic extinction from a wandering asteroid are possibilities for our civilization, but just as clearly they should neither dominate our attention nor our near-term actions. Indeed, the most effective way to prepare for such unanticipated events is to make certain that our descendants are equipped with education and skills of the highest possible quality.
When confronted with these concerns, particularly those associated with near term challenges to national prosperity and security such as the challenge of a global, knowledge-driven economy, some suggest that these are just another one of those economic challenges that arise every decade or so to stimulate American industry to bump up its competitiveness yet another notch. Hakuna Matata, not to worry! After all, many predicted doom and gloom in the face of Japanese competition in the 1980s. American industry found a way to adapt and compete. Just look at the difficulties Japan faces today. Yet the recent collapse of the financial markets and iconic companies such as General Motors and Chrysler suggest something more is needed.
In a rapidly changing world characterized by unpredictable futures, experimentation may become more important. Perhaps more emphasis should be placed on exploring possible futures of the university through experimentation and discovery. That is, rather than continue to contemplate or debate possibilities for the future, a more productive course might be to build several prototypes of future learning institutions as working experiments. In this way we could actively explore possible paths to the future.
It is important to approach issues and decisions concerning institutional transformation not as threats but rather as opportunities. True, the status quo is no longer an option. However, once we accept that change is inevitable, we can use it as a strategic opportunity to control our destiny, while preserving the most important of our values and our traditions. Creative, visionary leaders can tap the energy created by threats such as the emerging for-profit marketplace and technology to engage their campuses and to lead their institutions in new directions that will reinforce and enhance their most important roles and values. To be sure, we should bear in mind the well-known quote of Machiavelli:
“There is no more delicate matter to take in hand, nor more dangerous to conduct, nor more doubtful of success, than to step up as a leader in the introduction of change. For he who innovates will have for his enemies all those who are well off under the existing order of things, and only lukewarm support in those who might be better off under the new.”It is sometimes difficult to act for the future when the demands of the present can be so powerful and the traditions of the past so difficult to change. Yet, perhaps this is the greatest challenge for our institutions, and the most important role of our leadership, in the years ahead as we navigate our institutions through the stormy seas of a changing world. And it is the goal of the Millennium Project to provide guidance for such efforts.