A President's Reflections

Board Meeting update from Palo Alto: A Foray into the Future

Posted on September 28, 2017

TheSNHU Board of Trustees sets aside one of its three annual meetings as a “learning meeting,” traveling somewhere to learn more about some aspect of the work we do. We did D.C. a couple of years ago, doing a deep dive into higher education policy. Earlier this year we met in Palo Alto, making a foray into the future – or at least whatever good sense we could create of it. We had the help of the good folks at Singularity University and the Institute for the Future (IFTF), both intensely focused on the opportunities and challenges of a being rapidly transformed by technology.

At one point, we were asked, “Does the world feel like it is moving faster than it ever has in your life?” and everyone nodded emphatically. The follow up? “This is as slow as it will ever feel.” Yikes.

Palo Alto is ground zero for our increasingly digital world and it was nice to spend a couple of days immersed in a culture that feels so optimistic, a place that generally feels like it can solve the world’s big, thorny problems, at a time when some of those problems seem bigger and thornier than ever. Harnessing solar energy and getting us off carbon within 20 years, bio-reactors producing protein and food products that no longer require the raising and killing of animals, off-earth (yes, off earth) mining and manufacturing, autonomous cars safely ferrying around our kids and elderly parents. It felt like the stuff of science fiction, but fiction becoming reality at a rapid pace.

I subsequently made a visit to SpaceX, which is dramatically reinventing the aerospace industry. Processes that previously took legacy manufacturers 8 weeks or even 8 months are accomplished in 8 hours in the SpaceX world, where engineers can produce new parts almost instantaneously with 3D titanium printers, it’s an audacious place that reflects the genius of its founder, Elon Musk. Throw in our forays into virtual and augmented reality (we recently produced our first AR view book), machine learning for assessment in our CBE offerings, our new VR Lab on campus, the millions we are spending on reinventing our IT platform with class leading solutions, and our new early stage investment fund with Rethink Education, and it feels like we are dipping our toes well into that future world so enthusiastically envisioned in Palo Alto.

What no one is doing is keeping up with the dramatic impacts and disruptions that our technological advancements are causing. Autonomous cars and trucks have great promise for improving roadway safety, preserving mobility for those no longer able to drive, and more – but is also poised to put 3.1m truck drivers out of work (the leading middle class job for non-degreed white men in 31 states). AI and machine learning will vastly improve human performance, but might spell the end of whatever privacy to which we cling and is also given to algorithmic bias and Big Brother visions of state (or corporate) control. If the folks at Singularity U can envision a world of abundance with no need to work, how do we reimagine a society in which so much derives from the work we do – status, meaning, income, connections, and more? Philosophers and sociologists might raise existential questions of meaning and mattering.

Digital Natives, that young generation under the age of 20, who have known no world in which technology is not ubiquitous (if unevenly distributed across socio-economic class) are not waiting for us to figure it out. They don’t rush to get their license or to drive, because the device glued to their hand gives them instant access to every person they know in a way that a car never can. Indeed, one study shows that they would overwhelmingly support a ban on human driving as soon as it can be shown that autonomous cars are safer than human driven cars. They will not only navigate the world differently than we do, but that world itself will be quite different than the one we have known, for good and/or bad. Maybe that’s why when the topic of mentoring comes up, digital natives assume we want their help, not vice versa. Yet we are asked to educate them, which raises endless questions. For example, around what they need to know and how they need to know, important questions when they have a digital assistant like Siri or Alexa at their side and all the world’s information (and misinformation) instantly available. It is exciting as hell and scary as hell at the same time.

I’ve sent to our Trustees a copy of Jean Twenge’s new book, iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing Up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy – And Completely Unprepared For Adulthood. We need to understand the new wave of technology that is washing over society and education, but we need to think ever harder about its implications for the students who will be in our class. They will never log on with us, because they are never logged off. Their world is a hybrid one that blends realities – physical and digital, increasingly seamless and powerful and mysterious to us still. While a technology driven world valorizes those who code, we never needed more our ethicists, philosophers, psychologists, sociologists, and others who inhabit the Arts and Sciences.

Bob Johansen, a Senior Fellow at IFTF, says the new world in which we are entering has enormous potential for good and enormous potential for bad and the difference will be ambitious, super-connected young people who have hope versus ambitious, super-connected young people who are hopeless. Whether we are educating a recent high school graduate with her whole world ahead of her and her dreams unsullied, a working father trying to take better care of his family, or a refugee languishing in a camp and waiting for the chance to return home, we are in the business of hope. That’s why our efforts to understand the new technologies and the new learners is so important.

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