To understand is to invent.
We rightly think of citizenship in terms of nations, but there’s a deeper meaning that’s especially important in our interconnected, global, digital world. The citizen is the one who enjoys the privileges and duties of freedom. Freedom, in turn, depends on agency, self-efficacy, a sense of one’s own power to make effective choices and realize one’s fullest potential. To do so in a digital age requires an expanded notion of citizenship. Becoming a digital citizen means one can experience effective agency and self-determination in one’s culture—and culture increasingly comes in the plural as time and distance are no longer barriers to free and fluid communication. Indeed, one’s “cultures” increasingly implies a significant portion of “one’s planet.” To have the freedom of this realm, one must become a digital citizen. Once the digital imagination is awakened, the goal of digital citizenship can be reached.
To get to this level, however, colleges and universities must finally abandon notions of one-size-fits-all that have dominated our notions of scaling and access for over a century. The digital age permits mass customization. The culture of a school can look much more like New York City and much less like The Mall Of America. Chris Dede of the Harvard Graduate School of Education (and formerly of a sister school to our north, George Mason University), has argued that human behaviors exist on a continuum that can be described by three points: sleeping, eating, and bonding. Sleeping is very nearly one-size-fits-all. Eating is much more varied and personal. Bonding is extraordinarily complex, personal, and almost bewilderingly varied (as any parent of a teenager in love can testify). Dede observes that we treat learning like sleeping, yet everything we know about learning suggests it is really much more like bonding. “Yet the very best of our high-end learning environments have about as much variety as a bad fast-food restaurant,” he concludes. (An expanded discussion of Dede’s point may be found here.)
To get to the variety, depth, and complexity of true learning, then, we must commit to the mass customization that the digital age makes possible. We cannot and should not do that work for our students. We should empower their awakened digital imaginations to do that work for themselves, as a powerful opportunity not only for self-expression but also for metacognitive and critical reflections on their own identities and purposes as students. We should not hand them a portfolio made up of pre-formed data buckets. We should instead challenge them to build their own personal cyberinfrastructures, iteratively developing them as their concepts deepen, their knowledge broadens, and their imaginations flourish. We should challenge them not to “manage” their learning, as the term “learning management system” implies, but boldly to lead their learning lives within their degree work and far beyond it.
We must also empower students to understand the way the global digital network operates and what it makes possible. Just as we buy our own houses without applying for permission to a state “housing management authority” (let’s ignore for the moment that a mortgage does involve an application), so we can register a domain, subscribe to a hosting service, install open-source software, and begin to publish our thoughts and dreams to the world without having to have even the FCC-third-class-license-with-broadcast-endorsement one had to have to be a disc jockey back in the day. To quote Clay Shirky, it’s as if every book came with a free printing press. Just as in the days of the printing press, there are many worries about authority, authenticity, intellectual property, and sheer volume of information. These complaints emerged within a few decades of Gutenberg’s invention. Yet we do not rely on a National Committee To Screen And Filter Books for our self-directed learning within this abundance of conversation. We educate our youth and ourselves to read and write with facility and discernment. Likewise, we must empower our students as digital citizens to make their contributions to the global conversations, and to establish the corner of the global network that will be their “Speaker’s Corner,” just like the corner in London’s Hyde Park where by tradition anyone can have their turn to speak—and thus to lead the next phase of the conversation.
It may be the case that students who are used to sitting in silence or distracting themselves with Internet snacks will be caught off guard when they are not told to put away their laptops but are instead encouraged and indeed expected to demonstrate their contributions to the digital age. They may recall that something is at stake here, and that their capacity as free men and women to create knowledge and find meaning is a privilege not lightly to be discarded. Likewise, it may be that teachers (and staff, too) who are used to captive audiences will need to realign their goals and behaviors toward the free men and women, the digital citizens, who come to study with them. The old contract in which both students and faculty pledge to leave each other
in peace in complacent stasis may become a new relationship in which both students and faculty are open and eager to building together as fellow digital citizens.
Build In The Future
Such a vision of digital leadership in our students’ and nation’s future will require strong leadership now, before we have all the knowledge we would like to have to proceed. To put that another way, the leadership Virginia Tech must demonstrate to the world depends to a large extent on the willingness of its administrators, faculty, and staff to empower each other to risk failure. We all fear anarchy, and rightly so. There must at some level be the confidence that trains will run on time, for without that confidence, our lives are ruled by fear and anxiety (and our schedules are thrown into a cocked hat). Yet an on-time train going in the wrong direction is worse than useless. Likewise, a burnished and mechanically sophisticated Titanic on the bottom of the North Atlantic is a tragedy, not a monument.
The example of Google is instructive here. “Google Innovation Time Off” has become famous as a means of encouraging employee creativity and innovation (and thus leadership). 20% of the engineers’ work time can and should be spent on their own projects. Most famously, Gmail and AdSense emerged from “Innovation Time Off.” What is less well known is that Google Labs, the primary beneficiary of this innovation, courts just the kind of anarchy higher education would no doubt blanch at:
Google Labs is a playground where our more adventurous users can play around with prototypes of some of our wild and crazy ideas and offer feedback directly to the engineers who developed them. Please note that Labs is the first phase in a lengthy product development process and none of this stuff is guaranteed to make it onto Google.com. While some of our crazy ideas might grow into the next Gmail or iGoogle, others might turn out to be, well, just plain crazy.
Could we build a Google Labs for curriculum? For majors? For capstone or cornerstone courses (or projects, or experiences)? For departments? If our digital imaginations are awakened, if we have grown into the agency and self-efficacy of mature digital citizenship, and if our leaders are willing to underwrite (with political as well as financial capital) the failures and “just plain crazy” experiments that would result, perhaps Virginia Tech, like Google, would find itself the place where the most engaged and ambitious students are most eager to be. Google is not perfect by any means, but if you can imagine a digital environment in which we empower ourselves and our students to “launch their imaginations early and often,” to slightly modify another Google mantra, then you can imagine a Virginia Tech that can truly lead in a comprehensive, integrative program of digital citizenship.
You don’t have to believe in the “singularity” to see the wisdom and the caution in this Ray Kurzweil quotation: “I’m an inventor. I became interested in long-term trends because an invention has to make sense in the world in which it is finished, not the world in which it is started” (emphasis added). The wisdom is clear, the caution perhaps less so. But consider the second half of that second sentence. The best, most prescient, most effective inventions will likely not be completely understood or even understandable when they are begun. The true innovators among our digital citizens who invent the future will need the patronage and courage of leaders who are not afraid to confront their own lack of understanding and who can live with the paradoxical certainty that the “unknown unknown” is where the richest innovations will come from.
As a thought experiment, imagine explaining to a medieval king who prides himself on not needing to know how to read that a day will come when mass literacy empowers citizens worldwide. Imagine explaining to an alpha-male executive in the early 1960s that a day will come when not knowing at least the rudiments of typing will likely disqualify an applicant from obtaining an executive position. Imagine explaining Twitter, or YouTube, or blogging, to the world of 1995, a time when many people loudly insisted that no one would ever do something as foolish as enter a credit card number in a form on a Web page. Virginia Tech has a proud tradition of invention and innovation. We likely believe we would welcome the next Jeff Bezos and empower him to invent the next Amazon.com. Are we willing to provide that encouragement and those opportunities as part of our core curriculum? Can we imagine a Curriculum for Liberal Education that increases our students’ range of, and capacity for, sheer interest and curiosity, and empowers the exploration and expression of that curiosity within a digital context? If we cannot, we risk losing one of the most extraordinary educational opportunities humanity has ever encountered. Moreover, we shortchange both our students and ourselves. Not only our tagline but our very mission should steer us toward full and deep intellectual and creative engagement with the digital age.
Alas, Google Labs is no more, a casualty perhaps of Steve Job’s advice, in my opinion misguided, that Google needed to “focus” and not have so many diverse points of interest. “More wood behind fewer arrows,” they say. Maybe that’s wise. Time will tell.
Google X Lab goes on, however, and what’s been described as its “moon-shot” ambitions resonate deeply with the ethos behind what I wrote above, two years ago. There is one key difference, however. Google X Labs are “top secret” and have been compared to the CIA. Our moon program, by contrast, was a peacetime civilian program that shared many of its activities openly. Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo had their mysteries, of course, and when it comes to governments, there’s always cloak-and-dagger. But the history of humankind’s first steps on another world contains enough openness and idealism to have inspired an entire generation. I know. I was there. I watched, following along eagerly, dreaming.
We need a Google X Labs in higher education, but it must be open. The light of that inspiration, that hopeful ambition, must be shared. We do not seek a business advantage. We seek giant leaps, to encourage us to keep dreaming, to stay encouraged about our species, a species that wreaks such havoc but unites us in a family of shared aspirations and responsibilities and beautifully crafted symbols of our puzzling, extraordinary inner lives. We must work for a greater good even as we quarrel about what that is, companions through adventure and hardship.