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Mark DeFusco

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My son: The 22nd century scholar

It is that time of year when children extort candy from nice old people. With a joy that comes with brisk clear skies, I watch my young children at this harvest ritual. My daughter is resplendent as an ice princess. My son is startling as a prematurely bearded pirate. This festival where we celebrate the spirits that would frighten us and conjure images of popular culture leads one to wonder why among all these sorted characters of this night, why no one wants to be a professor.

There are cowboys and mutant ninja turtles. I see ogres and Disney princesses. There were zombies (see the CDC warning). Vampires are popular (thanks to HBO) and I even saw Barack Obama with an extra large bag hoping to help with the candy deficit. Still, I dream my five-year-old son is quickly cured of his looting obsession and considers the family business.

If he does, he would be among the first of the 22nd Century Scholars. When Bill started this blog, I imagine he wanted to push the limits of future thinking. Education in general, and higher education specifically, look more like the 18th century than it does the 22nd century. It leads me to question why there are no real futurists in education.

When I was first studying, our scholarly endeavor was not only focused on the past but also involved predicting the future. The 1970s and 1980s were preoccupied with Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock and John Naisbitt’s Megatrends. USC had its own resident expert in the future of business with Burt Nanus (the author of the business blockbuster Leaders: Strategies for Taking Charge with Warren Bennis and the founder of the Center for Futures research—now emeritus at Marshall).

Education has had its own visionaries. It was about a century ago when John Dewey was inventing public education in the US (his seminal Democracy and Education was published in 1916). Before him, Jefferson envisioned a country with universal education for its citizens and lent his library as the first source for American scholars. Giants of the 18th century envisioned education—both Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin founded some of the United States’ first great universities (University of Virginia and University of Pennsylvania respectively).

As a young nation, Americans have always revered dreamers, be they Buckminster Fuller whose architecture considered cosmology; Carl Sagan, an astronomer whose knowledge of the cosmos led to predictions of new requirements; Walt Disney who told us if we could dream it we could build it; or Gene Roddenberry, whose Star Trek leads us to go where no man has gone before. What child of my age was not at least familiar with the worlds imagined by Jules Verne and H.G. Wells, a world that anticipated flying machines and adventures under the sea and into space.

But what of the future of education? If my son Dominic goes into the family business, what world will he see for education and educators? Who will be the dreamers who envision the next wave of changes? One hundred years ago, the world was very different—there were far more horses than automobiles; while we had first flight in 1903, we did not have commercial flights until 1914; we had phones, but the first transcontinental call was not until 1915; we didn’t have mimeographs (or xerography) or standardized testing or middle schools, or any number of now cherished traditions of the academy.

Here are 20 large issues that he might want to consider:

  1. How will education be funded? Property taxes cause all kinds of ineffective consequences.
  2. What becomes of publishers? Does the standardized three-year adoption cycle make any sense when we live in a digital age?
  3. How will we be able to tell “truths” from myths as the individuality promulgated by the internet increases?
  4. Will we rely on regional decisions in education or will “big box” solutions make better sense for efficiencies. Why do we have math experts in rural Alabama when we can utilize the best in the world with just a few keystrokes?
  5. How will we define an educated person? Why do we continue to count course credits and what is so magical about 120 units? Are all units created equally?
  6. Will education be seen as the farm team for future employment or will it mean more than making a living (perhaps making a life)?
  7. Will there be a better way to judge the quality of any institution than U.S. News and World Report?
  8. What is the proper role of the federal government as opposed to state and local governments in deciding the process and results of education?
  9. There has always been distance education, be it “Sunrise Semester” or the rural farm cooperative. Will the future of distance education be used to deliver “college light” at cheaper rates to ease the overcrowding at stressed public institutions, or will we be able to build personalized, self-paced learning modules that look at students’ progress and delivers material where there are learning gaps?
  10. There are “rock stars” in sports, entertainment, media, and government opinion. Will there ever be rock star teachers and professors whose ability to convey knowledge is only limited by their distribution channels?
  11. Will advanced technology profoundly redefine the learning process as it has redefined other industries?  How will ideas like Aakash (a $35 tablet computer developed by Datawind and intended to be delivered to 10 million Indian college students) or the K–12 equivalent Pocket School (a brilliant hand-held device that can deliver the entire California approved curriculum developed by our friend Paul Kim at Stanford) change our notion of access and give the power of content to millions of geniuses who were wasted with no educational possibilities?
  12. Speaking of our friend Paul Kim, will we be able to change professional training to prevent mistakes with products like “virtual emergency room” where we can see and judge interns’ decisions before they are turned loose on an unknowing public?
  13. We have built the information superhighway in most of our educational institutions (K–12 and higher education). Will someone now build the equivalent of cars so that we have robust applications to fill the now expanded pipeline (sorry for the mixed metaphors)?
  14. Will we ever stop teaching to departments and consider “Just in Time” education? As the notion of life’s work changes to multiple careers and life’s works, can the Academy prepare people without their having to stop and focus just on learning? Will this change the rhythms of the Academy?
  15. Will the teaching profession be professionalized? One hundred years ago, the best minds in America were in the classroom because women really didn’t have the option of other professions (there was also an artificial boost to nursing as well—the other option). How do we get great minds back into the classroom?
  16. My children love gaming. Will educational gaming catch up with warfare, sports, and imaginary worlds?
  17. Will we ever lose the agrarian cycle that gives students three months off in the summers (when children were needed for planting and harvesting)?
  18. How do we support great research, rather than a press for citation? How will one judge great research moving forward?
  19. Who will we build universities for? The faculty—who require university infrastructure for labs and scholarly resources? The students—who don’t really care about research but want to learn? The community—who depends on universities as a place to think new ideas? The state —that depends on universities to provide updates of knowledge to keep current in the world?
  20. How can universities be real feeders of new ideas? If we look at the regions where most of the innovation has developed over the last century, great universities were close by [Silicon Valley, Research Triangle, Boston Corridor, Rochester (photography)]. Can there be a more direct link between great universities and commercialization of ideas?

The famous scholar, Yogi Berra, was once quoted as saying, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Education lacks futurists because we admire and honor past traditions and see the Academy as the last place to protect ages of knowledge. However, if we fail to dream the future, we will be left with nothing but our past. The innovation of the last century demands scholars who dream—the dreams will create a reality that the future demands. I hope that Dominic and his friends become the futurists—the designers of education’s future. It is a far cry better than becoming a zombie.

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