Scott McLeod’s CALI Keynote

I’m at UNLV attending the 17th CALI Conference on law school computing, which is being attended by lots of library and IT types, with a few faculty members scattered into the mix. (More an “info” conference than a “law” conference, but there are a number of scheduled panel discussions and presentations that aim to bridge the gap.) The morning’s keynote was delivered by Prof. Scott McLeod of the University of Minnesota, author of the Dangerously Irrelevant blog and a good advocate for increasing the profile of technology in education of all sorts. After the break, I’ll post a summary of my notes from his keynote, entitled “The Times They Are A-Changin’.”

Here’s a sampling of McLeod’s main points.

The internet is now virtually indispensable to all of us, to a degree that was inconceivable 15 years ago

  • YouTube is rapidly becoming the most visited web site in the world
  • Distributed computing initiatives harness collective computing capacity of otherwise idle home computers — many medical & hard sciences applications
  • Wikipedia boasts 1.8 million entries in English alone, 4x as much as the Britannica, and Wikipedia updates & corrects itself almost immediately.
  • Global “ideagoras” offer cash prizes to scientists who solve difficult problems posted on the sites — e.g., InnoCentive
  • Many business models now expressly based on value that will be added by consumers — Flickr, Second Life, /., Amazon user reviews, Digg,, etc. Era of passive consumer is over.
  • Online collaboration tools allow scholars to access not only each other’s completed work, but each other’s data

All that in the last 10 years. Makes it effectively impossible to imagine what 10 more years will bring. Societal change at a seismic pace, unsettling to some.

What skills will American students need in the 21st-century economy? Government & corporate organizations are flooding us with reports. Common theme: our schools aren’t up to the task. TIME cover story: “how to build a student for the 21st century”: nation is not having a big public conversation about education that it desperately needs to have.

Richard Florida (Rise of the Creative Class) notes demographic changes in the workforce between 1945-2005. All sectors of the work force are now declining except creative class, which has more than doubled in last 60 years. Creative class: Complex problem-solving requiring high levels of education & human capital. 30% of work force today, but accounts for over 50% of total wage income in the U.S. (These are the jobs you want your kids (& grandkids) to have).

Many working-class jobs are going overseas, and service-class jobs are beginning to follow them.

  • jobs most vulnerable are those involving routine work — highly susceptible to automation. (E.g., tax preparation software replacing tax accountants; will preparation software replacing lawyers).

If all goes well, in 10 years U.S. economy will be dominated by creative work (R&D, design, marketing & sales, global supply chain management). Routine work will be done predominantly in less developed countries and/or by machines.

How to transform schools to meet needs of this new era?

  • increase understanding. 98% of school districts have yet to have conversation about what is necessary to prepare kids for the 21st century.
    • if leaders don’t get it, it’s not going to happen — not enough to train educators & students
  • don’t just scare them. Categories: digital natives (grew up with tech) vs. digital immigrants (most of us); some of us are “bridges” (connecting natives & immigrants), others are “refugees” (avoid technology)
    • Web 2.0 — interconnected, collaborative, personalized, autonomous, freewheeling, empowering.
    • power in hands of users (disintermediation) — people can reach other people bypassing traditional entities (publishers, movie studios, etc.)
    • computing is about people, not machines — have to engage students or they will tune out/write you off as irrelevant.
    • video games as personalized learning experiences, not just rotting brains. Not so hard kids give up, not so easy that it’s boring — push kids to continue developing, that’s what makes them addictive — the next goal is always in sight & achievable
    • do schools make kids active creators/participators/producers? No — we still have an industrial-era transmission paradigm, students as passive receptors/collectors of information.
    • we need to change faster — making small incremental improvements won’t do it. “No one jumps a 20-foot chasm in two 10-foot jumps.” — Miguel Guhlin
  • invest in smart infrastructure
    • OLPC project is going to leapfrog poor nations right over big gaps in tech infrastructure.
    • But here in the U.S., we still devote zero federal dollars annually to K-12 educational tech
    • meaningless to measure how many teachers have internet access at school — more relevant metric is how many school classrooms have wireless internet that students can use
  • conquer fear
  • avoid death by risk aversion/committee/bureaucracy

Can we continue treating technology as optional? Is it really OK to allow instructors to decide whether or not to incorporate modern technologies into their instruction? Are we doing what’s best for our students, or just what’s most convenient for us?

6 Responses to “Scott McLeod’s CALI Keynote”

  1. Certainly very interesting material, and food for thought… But I am curious, were there any “solutions” presented? It seems to me that many of the concerns raised about educating students have been raised for decades now. They don’t really sound much different than the concerns that were raised while I was in in school in the early 80s, using my Apple ][ to learn how to program (with the obvious difference then being that the questiong being asked was whether we were preparing students for the “new” 20th century). I am also quite skeptical of the claims that noone could conceive of where the web would be today 15 years ago. 15 years ago I was taking college classes on how to program in C and Fortran, and in the academic community, there was all kinds of wild speculation about the types of things that you could do, and to tell the truth, there is little I have seen that someone did not predict or at least blue sky dream about. What is unpredictable is how the community and society have used those technologies as a means of commentary and a mode of expression. Also, the claims about the OLPC project… I am also skeptical of claims that third world countries are going ot leapfrog the first world countries. The ubiquitousness of technology in first world versus third world countries will presumably still provide for a level of familiarity and comfort with technology that will not be able to be replicated by handing out crank powered laptops with no network connectivity.

    As a sidenote, I wish more speakers would tap into the undercurents of the technology community, the people who build the technology, before throwing around buzzwords like “Web 2.0”. I really can’t think of a phrase I hate more, its wrong in its implication (that somehow this is a new and upgraded “web”) and its wrong in the sense that what it usually means is that someone glued a ‘in page’ scroll bar on the edge of some content and said “woo hoo, now i am web 2.0” Not only that, but the technology involved is “nothing new” and its how developers of web applications have been going for years and years and years. Anyhow, gripe mode off.

    Look forward to hearing about any other interesting speakers or presentations you may attend…

  2. Chris, thanks for the comments (and, Tim, thanks for the post!). I did offer several ‘solutions,’ I believe, as part of my presentation.

    The first was to get people talking. Action cannot occur without awareness. The level of understanding about this stuff by most K-12 and postsecondary educators is astonishingly low. Clearly you are the exception to the rule.

    Second, instead of “a chicken in every pot,” I believe we will need “ubiquitous Internet access and a computing device in every hand.” We know the future will be more technological and more globally-connected than it already is now. We have to give students the tools, and them and their educators the training, to help them become productive digital, global citizens and workers. 24-7 Internet access is coming soon – just ask the governor of Vermont!

    Third, we have to utilize what we know. In K-12 schools, I see a lot of ineffective change occurring despite all we know about how to make effective change occur. We also have to re-examine a number of deeply-held assumptions and paradigms about education and schooling.

    A couple of other thoughts:

    1) The alarmism of today is no different in tone than that of the 1980s (and the 1950s), but the focus is different. Technology is ramping up the pace of change, so preparing students for the future is very different than before. The general consensus is that the focus needs to less on standardization and factual memorization and more on adaptiveness, creativity, innovation, collaboration: a very different set of skills than we’ve asked our students to acquire in the past. See here for some of the recent reports:

    2) I don’t think (and didn’t say) that developing nations are going to leapfrog advantaged nations. Instead, they’re going to leapfrog at least some of their own infrastructure barriers that have kept them from making progress. Think, for example, cell phones instead of running telephone cables. That’s what I believe we’re going to see with the OLPC project. Also, we don’t really know what it will mean when (as TIME magazine said) “millions of minds that would otherwise have drowned in obscurity get backhauled into the global intellectual economy.”

    3) I don’t think most people envisioned the Internet; global ideagoras; social networking; blog, wikis and podcasts; online video sharing; collaborative bookmarking; and many of the other tools and social phenomena that we have today. Maybe much of the tech world did, and a few smart folks like David Brin and Ray Kurzweil, but not most folks in most sectors of society. I agree with you that the education sector would benefit greatly from better exposure to the technology sector. Want to help me, in my capacity as director of the only university center in the country focused on the tech needs of school leaders, make that happen?

  3. Gaps and omissions in my slightly fragmentary notes shouldn’t be misconstrued, of course, as flaws in Scott’s presentation. Hopefully CALI will get links to the video or podcast of Scott’s presentation up on the conference wiki in the not too distant future, and perhaps Scott will share his PowerPoint, too. 🙂 A couple of other minor thoughts and reactions:

    Chris, I think that part of the answer to your dissatisfaction is to distinguish between “Web 2.0,” the marketing buzzword, and Web 2.0, the collection of tools to (partly) automate user generation of content. I’ve been online since the days when the HTML learning curve (flat and shallow as it might be compared with learning a full-blown programming language) was nevertheless a substantial barrier to the participation of less technically inclined people in the creation and posting of content. Those barriers have been dropping for years; plenty of people now have blogs, edit wikis, etc., who don’t know a thing about markup languages. We need some name for the new generation of user-generated content tools, and Web 2.0 is as good a name as any. The problem, I think, is that that name has gone beyond its original purpose and has become marketing hype. Not much to be done about that, but it doesn’t reduce the descriptive power of the term in its original sense as a signifier of a new category of authorship-enabling web tools that really didn’t exist 5 years ago. Whether we call that “Web 2.0” or “Fred” or whatever, it’s still a very significant development.

    OLPC’s computers are networkable; indeed, a major part of their appeal is that they partly address the expensiveness of network access in the developing world. Running fiber into very remote regions of the world quickly becomes prohibitively expensive; nobody will do it because the return doesn’t justify the cast. Satellite and some other alternatives can help somewhat. It’ll be still less expensive to set up an IXP somewhere proximate to the communities to be served and then let wireless networking do the rest. The conjunction of (1) ubiquitous computing, (2) ubiquitous networking, and (3) the availability of content online, and (4) powerful authoring tools, really does have the potential to shake things up in the developing world (as, indeed, it has in the developed world — the metaphor of the internet as a disruptive force, for good or ill, still carries a lot of truth).

  4. Excellent thoughts Scott. I remain skeptical of OLPC, but time will tell. As Scott McNealy was so apt to parrot at conferences back when I started work at Sun, “the network is the computer” While there is no doubt that wireless technologies will help to solve some of the shortcomings of OLPC, its quite the bridge to gap. This is not to say it is not a worthy effort, just that there are hurdles which may be difficult to overcome.

    I absolutely agree that the focus needs to be on creative problem solving rather than on standardization or factual memorization and regurgiatation. I further agree that technology may well provide the tools to build a framework that focuses on this type of learning. I worry sometimes that technology is seen as a panacea for all that ails and I worry about the capacity of teachers to make meaningful use of the technology for a number of reasons. It was/is hard enough to stay abreast of changing technologies as software engineer, and I worry that the rapid obsolesence of technology makes the continual acquisition of new technology is too much of a burden for school systems.

    That said, I am always open to contributing any insight I may have to help develop an understanding of how technology can and can’t be used to best prepare students and foster learning. I wish I could have attended the conference to see what you had to say in person!

  5. Oh, and I do realize that OLPC machines are networkable, got a brief chance to play with some of the early prototypes, but the problem isn’t networkability but the existence (or lack thereof) of a network where they are meant to be deployed.

    And yes, my problem with Web 2.0 is really the nomenclature. I guess it comes from the experience of working for years developing means for non tech-savvy end users to publish and produce content, and this was never “2.0” it was just using the underlying technologies to enable a wider user base. And this is the same with web 2.0, the underlying technologies aren’t “new” they are the same. From a bottom up view, a web 2.0 app is no different from a web 1.0 app, but from the top down, from the end users perspective, things do look different.

  6. […] Richard FloridaTue Jun 19th 2007 at 4:15pm EDTEducation, Technology, and the Creative Class Info/Law has a very nice summary of Scott McLeod’s CALI Conference keynote on this critical  […]