Back to the Future of Edtech:

A Meditation

John O’Brien

My relationship with technology has been a lifelong love affair, one that probably started when I took apart appliances in the basement or when my brother and I invented our own radio shows on a cassette recorder in the early 1970s. Being a digital immigrant is usually understood to be a deficit, a lack of fluency borne of growing up in the dark time before computers became ubiquitous. And yet. Never knowing a time without computers or the Internet also means missing out on the powerful wave of excitement and optimism as we experienced the dawning of the computer age. The sense of wonder we felt as we looked to the future was powerful and palpable. Instead of taking for granted a world that was “always on,” we painstakingly learned DOS commands, deciphered the mysteries of motherboard DIP switches, and lived these early years with our operating system on one 5¼-inch floppy disk drive and the entire archive of our digital lives on the other.


Even though science fiction writers had provided several decades’ worth of cautionary tales of robot overlords and dystopian possibilities, it was their optimism that most captured our imagination. Among other things, we imagined that technology would solve world hunger, and thanks to the Jetsons, we were pretty sure that wristwatch video phones, jetpacks, and robot servants were in our future. While we played Pong on our state-of-the-art Atari consoles, we marveled at trips to the moon, Skylab, and the exciting new space shuttle program.


Understanding the past is important, and thinking about the future is fundamentally human, but more fascinating still is the combination, the history of the future: the road pointing back to where you were, the road pointing ahead to where you’re going, and the moment at the crossroads contemplating both.


Growing up as an immigrant to this world of technology-enabled possibility filled me with a sense of endless wonder that may come less easily to natives. The tectonic technology changes of the 1960s and 1970s have left me always looking forward, glancing back—excited about the march toward the future but deeply aware of the historical journey that has brought us this far.

This crossroads where the past and future meet can be jarringly beautiful, as the digitally colorized photos of Sanna Dullaway vividly dramatize. Using the lens of the past to understand the future gives us the hope that we need not repeat our mistakes. It illuminates the past and opens our eyes to a deeper understanding of the present. Lewis Hine’s photos of child labor from a century ago are powerful in their own right, but Dullaway amplifies their power for the 21st century. When we look at Hine’s century-old images, our impression is colored by current belief in our own advancement. But somehow a splash of literal color reminds us that the 21st century may not be that advanced and that we have our own collection of shameful images of child labor happening right now. Understanding the past is important, and thinking about the future is fundamentally human, but more fascinating still is the combination, the history of the future: the road pointing back to where you were, the road pointing ahead to where you’re going, and the moment at the crossroads contemplating both.

Remarkable Paleofuture Artifacts

There is an emerging field of academic inquiry related to this line of thinking. Self-proclaimed “time capsule nerd” Matt Novak calls it paleofuture, while “ed-tech’s Cassandra” Audrey Watters calls it the history of the future. Instead of focusing exclusively on representations of the past (the work of historians) or on those of the future (the work of futurists), paleofuturists concentrate on representations of the future in the past. Since the 19th century, technology permeates so many images of the future that, in many ways, paleofuture often amounts to representations of a tech-rich future in a relatively tech-poor past.

Paleofuture artifacts are amazing in many respects. For nostalgic reasons, I’m fond of predictions from the 1950s and 1960s about life in the 21st century, such as Philco-Ford Corporation’s remarkable 1967 film Home of the Future: Year 1999 A.D. (world fairs repeatedly turned to Home of the Future exhibits). Other films from this time reveal as much about the decades they were conceived in as the one they imagine. The Monsanto House of the Future, for example, loudly sings the praises of “man-made fibers” and plastics, at one point rhetorically asking “Is everything of plastic?” and breathlessly answering: “Almost! . . . a dream of the future brought to reality by Monsanto.”

However, much older paleofuture artifacts are uniquely captivating. One of the best-known history-of-the-future collections is a series of fin de siècle cards created for cigar boxes by the illustrator Jean-Marc Côté to depict advances imagined to be ubiquitous “in the year 2000” (En L’An 2000). In 1986, Isaac Asimov discovered and published them with his commentary in the book Futuredays: A Nineteenth-Century Vision of the Year 2000. The images typically feature a technology-rich future, with technology “improving” everything, from barbering to farming.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]

It’s clear that the century that conceived of the Industrial Revolution imagined a future world in which technology would ease the burden of work and redefine leisure time.

It’s tempting at times to reduce considering images like these to a series of self-congratulatory chortles. In his commentary on the illustrations, Asimov himself notes that it would be hard to swing a mallet under water and that a wooden ball would float. It’s especially tempting to snicker because of the many, many outrageous tech-utopian historical advertisements we’ve all seen promising that new discoveries and technologies will cure all ills. There’s asthma cigarettes, cocaine toothache drops, asbestos (the “magic mineral”), and a stunning array of radium health and beauty products. The brochure for the deeply discomfiting radium suppositories of 1930 promises that “weak discouraged men” will “bubble over with joyous vitality” using the “perfectly harmless” product.

I imagine we laugh today because we have not given much thought to what people in future centuries will make of pet rocks, mood rings, acoustic couplers, fat-free potato chips, 1970s modems, early cell phones, and “portable” technologies—or what they will think of recent heady claims about edtech products that amount to “a robot tutor in the sky that can semi-read your mind.”

Accurate Predictions from 1899

On the other hand, some historical representations of the future have been stunningly accurate. The 1899 cards discovered by Asimov are often remarkable, especially considering that they were drawn 118 years ago. For example, “En L’An 2000” we are imagined to have robot assistance with household cleaning.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


“Electric Scrubbing” appliances are widely available today, of course.

[SOURCE: Syda Productions/]


And some even look human.


Moving out of the home, what about past visions for personal travel in the future? Consider this:

Clearly, these visionaries saw the Segway coming.

[SOURCE: hanohiki/]

The arts were not neglected in visions of the future. A card in the En L’An 2000 series depicts a “well-trained orchestra.” Arguably, this view doesn’t go far enough because it imagines only the orchestra as robotic, and not the singers themselves. Today, however, Auto-Tune has crossed that threshold, making singers sound better than they actually do.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


One of the most disturbing among this set of 19th-century images of the year 2000 is the one that suggests we will use personalized flying devices to raid eagle nests and steal eggs.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


Happily, in this case, the 21st century took a very different turn. In fact, according to The Hacker News, eagles are being trained to fight back.


Educational Technology Artifacts

My fascination with the paleofuture of edtech began when I first saw the well-known 1899 Jean-Marc Côté illustration At School.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


If you focus on the students in their desks and set aside the boy with the hand crank, the image from over a hundred years ago is in many ways an uncannily accurate depiction of students today.

[SOURCE: Maryland Coast Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.]


The hand crank, however, is a wonderful example of what I think of as a reverse anachronism. When representations of the past include things that came only later, we waive the anachronism flag, such as when Shakespeare has Cassius declare “the clock has stricken three" centuries before mechanical clocks were even invented. A reverse anachronism involves futuristic representations that fail to fully escape their own non-futuristic thinking. There are additional ways in which the At School illustration demonstrates this concept. For example, the students still use traditional desks (for what?) that are lined up in rows (why?), and the students, still wearing the clothes of the 19th century, remain no more visibly diverse than in the artist’s time.

This limited thinking abounds in futuristic views from the past, such as this example from another set (this one German) of turn-of-the-century postcards. Here, travel in the future is still slavishly limited by the railroad constraints of the time.

[SOURCE: Paleofuture]


Similarly, this card from the French En L’An 2000 set shows futuristic train cars made of brick. It’s strange that an artist with the audacity to imagine an electric trans-Siberian line (when the existing one wasn’t yet completed) couldn’t imagine it made of something more futuristic than bricks.

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


Student Cranking Books Into Grinder

Returning to the topic of edtech, let’s look at the fascinating hand crank in the At School illustration.

The crank is about to chew up a copy of a book on the history of France. A century ago, it would have been nearly impossible to imagine a process of digitization, and so gears would be the closest metaphor available for engineering magic following the explosive growth in the use of gears during the Industrial Revolution. According to this interpretation, the crank reveals the artist’s rudimentary understanding of the process that would convert paper books into audible format. In the illustration, the wires end near the students’ ears with some kind of listening device (headphones or “electrophones” were known as early as 1895).

On the other hand, it may be that the artist imagined something well beyond the idea of converting paper to audio. Maybe this is an example not of a reverse anachronism but of something far more futuristic. Perhaps the artist imagined that the wires carried digitized ideas, not sound. With this interpretation, the cranking mechanism goes from a precious understanding of digitization to a prescient picture of technology that—still not available in 2017—was predicted by Athelstan F. Spilhaus, dean of the University of Minnesota’s Institute of Technology, in the December 1965 strip Our New Age.

This technology may yet be coming. Memories have been mechanically planted in mice, and in recent developments in neuroprosthetics (brain implants), researchers at UC Berkeley are working to create thousands of wireless brain interfaces called “neural dust.” EMOTIV’s “brain wearable” products allow wearers to complete rudimentary tasks by thinking them. Although 2016 may have been an ambitious prediction by Spilhaus, “One Laptop Per Child” founder Nicholas Negroponte predicted a couple of years ago that in thirty years, knowledge will be chemically created so that someone could take a pill to learn English or to comprehend the entire works of Shakespeare. So the hand crank may not be as laughable as it seems, and we may be far closer to learning Matrix-style than we think.1

Why Study the History of the Future?

Ask a historian “why study history?” and you will get any number of answers, including the perennial axiom: “to avoid repeating past mistakes.” Peter N. Stearns has summarized the importance of studying history by noting that history helps us understand people and societies, contributes to moral understanding, provides identity, lays the foundation for good citizenship, and provides crucial skills and habits of mind to students. It is a compelling case for a compelling field of academic study.

Understanding the past also helps us recalibrate our thinking about the future, and studying failed and nailed predictions gives us a framework to better understand both. While Stearns says that “the past causes the present, and so the future,” Peter Bishop phrases the interconnectedness as an equation that contains the constituent parts of paleofuture studies: what was + what is + what if.

In the narrower universe of educational technology, Audrey Watters likewise insists: “We always tell stories of our past in order to situate ourselves in the present and guide ourselves into the future. But that means these stories about education and education technology─past, present, future─really matter.” Writing about the annual Horizon reports, she argues for the importance of studying the history of the future: “I’m less interested in the accuracy of the predictions about the future of education technology that the Horizon Report has made over the last decade than I am in what those predictions now might tell us about the history of ed-tech. I'm interested in the history of our imagination about education's future and the role technology—and influential ed-tech storytelling—is assigned in shaping that.”

I would add, first of all, that understanding the history of our hopes and dreams gives us a deeper and more comprehensive understanding of our current time, as we see “now” as part of a trajectory that began long before (and continues into the future). I’m convinced that we have as much to learn from the visions that have been realized as from those that have not come to pass. And perhaps there is even more to learn from the misses. Why don’t we have robot teachers? Why aren’t so many more students these days math and science geniuses like Elroy Jetson? What do these disconnections mean? What can we learn from them? Past predictions that did not come true can be as instructive as predictions that unfolded exactly as anticipated.

If there is one takeaway I would hope we can learn from the study of the history of the future, it is a sense of humility and caution. We are too quick to forget our own insignificance relative to the vast scope of human history. We are not the first generation to feel we are striding forward with unprecedented technology advances. A sense of perspective on that score would be a good thing. Lacking this sense of proportionality, we easily inflate our own specialness and assume that technology really will solve all our problems (and create no new ones!), contrary to the prescience of some paleofuture visionaries.


If there is one takeaway I would hope we can learn from the study of the history of the future, it is a sense of humility and caution. We are too quick to forget our own insignificance relative to the vast scope of human history.


Take, for example, this 1906 Punch magazine cartoon that predicts mobile communication technology with remarkable precision.

Punch Magazine Mobile Phone Image

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


Even more extraordinary than predicting cell phones well over a hundred years ago, this image anticipates the now fully realized downside of today’s cell phone connectivity, what MIT’s Sherry Turkle calls the “alone together” phenomenon in her book of the same name. The text beneath the 1907 cartoon points out that the man and woman “are not communicating with one another.” Rather, “the lady is receiving an amatory message, and the gentleman some racing results.”

In one imagined glimpse of the future, this paleofuture artifact captures the 19th century’s hopes and dreams about technology, critiques that very optimism, and accurately predicts technology-enabled social problems from sexting to online gambling. What seems to be sheer tech-utopianism simultaneously contains a seed of doubt and caution.

A Skeptical Turn

When it comes to the history of the future of educational technology, various scholars have made a compelling case for skepticism about what they consider technological utopianism. According to Kentaro Toyama, for example, technology has more of a tendency to intensify humanity’s fault lines than to correct them. In his book Geek Heresy, Toyama uses the Daedalus story as a high-tech parable to make this point. Daedalus invents advanced technology to enable humans to fly, but when he shares it with his son, he warns the young man not to fly too close to the sun. Children being children, Icarus ignores his father’s warning and “soars exuberantly.” As a result of his life-or-death user error, he plummets to his death.

[SOURCE: Wikipedia]


The moral of the story, aside from hubris and listen-to-your-parents, is that “brilliant technology is not enough to save us from ourselves.” Later in the book, Toyama observes about educational technology: “If you provide an all-purpose technology that can be used for learning and entertainment, children choose entertainment. Technology by itself doesn’t undo that inclination—it amplifies it.” Illustrating his words, when the Los Angeles Unified School District bought iPads for students in 2013, students hacked them for entertainment purposes in less than a week.

Sometimes the skepticism can be seen only from the 20/20 hindsight of the future. Who, for example, could argue that there is anything dark about this rosy vision of the future from the Jean-Marc Côté collection?

We have leisurely salon conversation among friends basking in the radiance of what looks to be a lovely fireplace—except when we note, with 21st-century horror, that those gathered are illuminated by the glow of a single piece of deadly radium.

En'LAN Radium Fireplace

[SOURCE: Public Domain Review]


Other times the skepticism seems to be an intentional part of the artifact itself. A Japanese paleofuture artifact from 1969 shows a classroom of the future (again with paperless desks lined up in a row). However, a closer look reveals that this classroom is less tech-utopia and more Lord of the Flies, with students who get the answer correct smiling or barely suppressing their glee as less-correct students are bludgeoned by vigilant “robot proctors.” 2

Robot Proctors Image

[SOURCE: Shōnen Sunday]


While the darker side of this image of the future is hard to miss, there are more subtle seeds of doubt even in some of the most breathless utopian visions of the future. A 1958 drawing by Arthur Radebaugh imagines a teacher-less classroom of the future (again with desks in a row) in which automated teaching would be accomplished by “special machines” that were “‘geared’ for each individual student so he can advance as rapidly as his abilities warranted.” The student’s work would be “kept by machine” but “would be periodically reviewed by skilled teachers, and personal help would be available when necessary.” With cosmetic updates in the language and image, this 1958 artifact summarizes key ideas frequently articulated in the discussion of personalized learning today. Yet those looking for a skeptical turn might point to the distracted student, waving to his unicopter-flying friend outside the window.

Push Button Education

[SOURCE: Gizmodo]

This image is similar to the distracted student in another Radebaugh prediction; in this case, a student learning from home does not find his technology or his “TV instructor” as engrossing as baseball with his friends.

Closer Than We Think Image

[SOURCE: Gizmodo]


Radebaugh is not the only source of paleofuture mixed messages regarding educational technology. For example, the 1967 film The Home of the Future: Year 1999 A.D. enthusiastically explains how technology improves the lives of each member of the Shore family. Often the technology predictions are right on track, such as the depiction of Internet shopping (“fingertip shopping”). It is stuck in the past, however, in its inability to escape gender stereotypes: “What the wife selects on her console will be paid by the husband on his.”4


When the film moves on to James, the eight-year-old son, we see him learning from home with the help of 1960s-imagined adaptive learning technology, “teaching machines which allow him to progress as rapidly as his awakening mind can absorb the audio-visual lesson.” When his “awakening mind” falls short of the expected competency, he is directed to watch a video on the topic, with an AI that could use a bedside manner with a bit more pedagogical patience. Though James is not happy about it, he dutifully listens to the push-button lecture for a while. Toyama insists that, given a choice, children will choose entertainment over learning, and sure enough, James Shore soon gets bored and looks around mischievously before switching to a cartoon that he enjoys, as it turns out, far more.


Efficiency and Teacher-Less Classrooms

As noted above, a few scholars—including Matt Novak and Audrey Watters—have taken up the topic of paleofuture and educational technology. Returning to Côté’s 1899 illustration At School, Watters sees it as the ultimate expression of “our worst suspicions” about the future of education: “mechanized and automated.” She urges caution, and instead of focusing on the significance of the magic digitization crank, she looks to the role of the teacher in this brave new classroom.

Far from a “sage on stage,” this teacher is reduced to the equivalent of factory work, feeding the digital book-chipper. Watters argues that this paleofuture artifact confirms her worst fears about the future of education, “that it's destined to become mechanized, automated and that it's designed based on a belief that knowledge—educational content—is something to be delivered. Students’ heads are something to be filled.”

In fact, Watters’s observation of the entire Côté set of illustrations is that they consistently depict technology automating manual labor (e.g., farmers, barbers), so when she considers the image of the classroom of the future, she wonders whether the profession of teaching (and the vocation of learning) is being represented as just another form of menial labor. The question is decidedly timely today as we contemplate personalized learning and as we imagine the role of faculty in such a future. Is this turn-of-the-century illustration the ultimate “unbundling”? Is the faculty role to be nothing more than feeding the digital book-chipper?

Edison Image

[SOURCE: Wikipedia Commons]

Watters links this illustration with the historical obsession with automation, which is linked in turn with the idea of efficiency that can be traced back to 1913 and Thomas Edison, who believed that books would “soon” be obsolete, replaced by the technology that was topping the “peak of inflated expectations” at that time: motion pictures.5 A decade later Edison would proclaim that schoolbooks of the age achieved “about two percent efficiency” while motion pictures should make “one hundred percent efficiency” possible. Watters response is immediate: “100% efficiency. Efficiency. What does that even mean? Because unexamined, this prediction, this goal for education, has become an undercurrent of so many predictions about the future of teaching and learning as enhanced by technology. Efficiency.”


These dual concerns about efficiency and automation (the teacher-less classroom) come together in many illustrations, including a comic strip from 1965, where the classroom of the future not only features a robot-teacher but comes with a prediction that students of the future will adapt to understand robot language, which is twice as fast. Efficiency.

Royal Typewriter Advertisement

[SOURCE: Source: Royal Typewriter. Reprinted with permission.]

Since 1913, there have been many more examples of high expectations about the efficiency or effectiveness of technology applied to learning. My favorite is one from 1958, which suggests a 38 percent increase in measurable outcomes from one piece of technology. Robot tutors in the sky? No, a Royal Portable typewriter.

I’ve been suggesting that a healthy dose of skepticism about our technology future is warranted, and I’ve pointed to seeds of skepticism that are embedded in even the sunniest paleofuture artifacts. Nonetheless, I’m not particularly interested in abandoning optimism. Cautionary impulses aside, I believe that many of the most recklessly optimistic imaginings of our future can be inspiring. I am genuinely excited about this particular time in the history of educational technology. Our looking to the past offers important cautionary suggestions, but it also inspires us to aim for a brighter future.

An Optimistic Turn

Skepticism is, I believe, a sign of thriving health, and given the long-standing tradition of overselling and inflated expectations for educational technology, it serves as a critical check-and-balance. I suggested earlier that one of the values of studying paleofuture artifacts may be to help us recalibrate our contemporary assessments. Perhaps the study of the history of the future cautions us to avoid the hype that so frequently animates technology-fueled visions of the future. It’s impossible to scan the dozens of “in the year 2000” illustrations and miss the unrelenting rosiness of it all, and it’s equally impossible to avoid wondering if we are guilty of the same enthusiasms now.

And yet there is something decidedly infectious about the ebullient optimism evident in predictions of the future. In “Arthur Radebaugh’s Shiny Happy Future,” Novak calls the conviction that technology will create “a leisurely utopian world” of jetpacks, flying cars, and robot butlers a sort of “Technological Manifest Destiny.” Arthur C. Clarke’s 1974 predictions about desktop computing were spectacularly accurate.


Even earlier, in 1960, he noted: "The only thing we can be sure of about the future is that it will be absolutely fantastic."

Who wants to be the curmudgeon to deflate the hope that humanity is striding from one success to the next, always improving—often exponentially—even beyond our imagination?

My own optimistic inclinations are what led me, two decades ago, to teach myself Authorware so I could develop software that would improve my teaching. And yes, it was about efficiency, but it was about my own efficiency as a teacher trying to manage limited time to help my students most, not wigitized efficiency imposed on me. I spent an entire “summer off” creating software to allow me to give my Composition 1101 students more detailed feedback on their composition drafts than I ever could have accomplished by scrawling comments like “unclear” or “awkward” in the margins. Perhaps because my experience with technology was so early in my career and so positive, my practical, positive sensibility has persisted.

Moving from the individual to the institutional level, IT leaders like James Hilton have been a consistent voice for technology transformation and optimism about what higher education can accomplish. When Hilton, dean of libraries and vice provost for digital education and innovation at the University of Michigan, received the 2015 EDUCAUSE Leadership Award, his visionary leadership was singled out as core to his contribution to the community. His featured presentation at our annual conference and his EDUCAUSE Review interview made the case for “reclaiming audacity” in the face of powerful constraints and a context of dynamic and sometimes menacing change.

Hilton notes Elon Musk as one innovator pointing the way to audacious progress, explaining that Musk has staked out ambitious plans in several domains known for struggling with low budgets and high regulation (transportation, energy, and space travel). For Hilton, what should be reclaimed is not just the optimism that new technologies naturally bring forward but also the compelling idealism about access to higher education. Looking to the past for inspiration, he recalls a postwar period when the biologist Norman Borlaug and others were “academic heroes.” He describes the powerful vision based on the notion that “schools should be incredibly expensive for government and absolutely free of charge for its citizens, just like national defense.”

Hilton also points to space travel as an inspiring point of audacity, no doubt intentionally recalling the moonshot optimism of the early 1960s.

While most everyone has heard the most soaring excerpts from Kennedy’s moonshot speech, if you listen to all of it you clearly come away with a sense of not only the audacity but also the risk. Kennedy paints the full picture, including the uncertainty. This single, fragile, over-extended, unwieldy sentence captures the iffyness of it all most effectively:

“But if I were to say, my fellow citizens, that we shall send to the moon, 240,000 miles away from the control station in Houston, a giant rocket more than 300 feet tall, the length of this football field, made of new metal alloys, some of which have not yet been invented, capable of standing heat and stresses several times more than have ever been experienced, fitted together with a precision better than the finest watch, carrying all the equipment needed for propulsion, guidance, control, communications, food and survival, on an untried mission, to an unknown celestial body, and then return it safely to earth, re-entering the atmosphere at speeds of over 25,000 miles per hour, causing heat about half that of the temperature of the sun—almost as hot as it is here today—and do all this, and do it right, and do it first before this decade is out—then we must be bold.”


The moonshot metaphor has been picked up more recently in education and edtech circles. The Google for Education “Moonshot Summit” was held in Amsterdam in July 2015, inviting participants to design their “flight plan” for dramatically improving education. The metaphor has been used for higher education more broadly and for community colleges. An example in edtech circles is the book Moonshots in Education: Launching Blended Learning in the Classroom, published in December 2014. Clearly rooted in the past, the moonshot is a compelling metaphor for the future.

Moonshots in Education Book Cover

Clearly rooted in the past, the moonshot is a compelling metaphor for the future.

[SOURCE: Google Books]


Hilton’s enthusiasm can be found in many paleofuture artifacts. For example, the December 1901 issue of Ladies’ Home Journal published predictions from John Elfreth Watkins Jr. for the year 2000. Watkins exhibits a similarly irrepressible optimism:

“A university education will be free to every man and woman. . . . Poor students will be given free board, free clothing and free books if ambitious and actually unable to meet their school and college expenses. Medical inspectors regularly visiting the public schools will furnish poor children free eyeglasses, free dentistry and free medical attention of every kind. . . . In vacation time, poor children will be taken on trips to various parts of the world.”

In this example and elsewhere, optimism often singles out higher education when showing the way toward a brighter future, even in this Arthur Radebaugh picture from 1959 imagining the technology-rich home library of the future.

Library of the Future

[SOURCE: Gizmodo]


Though this illustration seems to have nothing to do with higher education, the library technology makes it possible to read books that are projected onto, of all things, the ceiling. In this case, the text on the ceiling says: “College training can be had by anybody who truly wants it and can qualify academically. Money need not be a problem if a spirit of sacrifice is accepted. Other obstacles too can be overcome by real determination.” Given the depressing quality of many contemporary characterizations of the value of higher education, this level of unabashed enthusiasm and confidence in the value of a college education is energizing.


It’s true that the border between audacity and hype may be in the eyes of a beholder, but as frustrating as unquestioned hype can be, it’s impossible to ignore the tremendous promise of education technology tools when it comes to advancing critical areas like student success.


What Hilton encourages these days is audacity in our willingness to work together and think big about technology. It’s true that the border between audacity and hype may be in the eyes of a beholder, but as frustrating as unquestioned hype can be, it’s impossible to ignore the tremendous promise of education technology tools when it comes to advancing critical areas like student success. In fact, the 2017 EDUCAUSE Top 10 IT Issues list underscores the critical traction that technology offers in this high-priority area. Integrated planning and advising tools, adaptive learning, and other elements of personalization may fall short of the hype they tend to generate, but at the same time they offer unprecedented promise when it comes to moving hard-to-move needles like graduation and retention rates.

Hilton acknowledges that higher education is not typically lauded for its audacity or its turning radius. Looking to the past, Hilton marvels at the audacity of the rag-tag group of American colonists who rebelled against the global superpower of the day, and he muses whether the Declaration of Independence would ever have been written had it been up to a college or university committee.6

A Meditation

I don’t intend this collection of reflections and ideas to be either a withering critique or a rousing call to action. I mean instead simply to offer a meditation during turbulent times of dynamic change. Pressed on the subject, I would admit that, in the end, I want to have it both ways. I want to acknowledge and encourage a healthy skepticism when our edtech reach exceeds our grasp and when our excitement about the future gets out of control. But I also want us to think big—and dream even bigger.

After all, our current generation is now creating paleofuture artifacts that will be explored in the distant future.

[SOURCE: Christopher Locke, Heartless Machine]


Star Trek Predicting the Future

[SOURCE: Tech E Blog]

Although today there is no Authur Radebaugh offering syndicated reminders of how exciting the future will be, perhaps the science fiction genre has stepped into this role. For example, I am hardly the first to point out the degree to which the Star Trek franchise has accurately predicted technology futures.

While the 19th century may have invented technology-rich science fiction (Jules Verne, H. G. Wells), the 20th and 21st centuries have seen it flourish. Regrettably, much of the technology imagination seems focused on dystopian visions of weapons and wars, but there are some using science fiction as a way to imagine how technology might take hold in education, such as the holodeck, Vulcan adaptive learning, or the virtual education environment in the novel Ready Player One, which offers a thoughtful and elaborate view of what this world could look like. Project Hieroglyph, at Arizona State University’s Center for Science and the Imagination, is an impressive effort to be more intentional about encouraging futuristic meditation: “What science fiction stories—and the symbols that they engender—can do better than almost anything else is to provide not just an idea for some specific technical innovation, but also to supply a coherent picture of that innovation being integrated into a society, into an economy, and into people’s lives. Often, this is the missing element that scientists, mathematicians, engineers, and entrepreneurs need in order to actually take the first real steps towards realizing some novel idea.”

Finally, if you are intrigued by this meditation, you may want to explore a movement called Teach the Future, which encourages teachers and professors to incorporate futurism across the curriculum. Thinking speculatively about the future encourages a more comprehensive understanding of concepts that academia typically teaches with a focus only on the past and the present.7

Ultimately, as I position myself at the crossroads between the past and the future, reflecting on how the future has been imagined in the past, I can’t help but hope for some kind of middle way. I imagine that it is possible that artificial intelligence developments in the years ahead might well improve learning without turning the keys to the kingdom over to Tay, the Microsoft chatbot who went from “humans are super cool” to holocaust-denying racist in a day. I imagine it is possible that personalized and adaptive learning could well preserve that which is sacred in the faculty-student relationship, freeing faculty to focus on what matters most. After all, what I cherish most about the colleges and universities I have attended are the human connections.

I have always believed that we learn the most by asking questions. Understanding our current world by exploring how it was imagined in the past is a thoroughly insightful endeavor because we find ourselves thinking about questions we typically would never ask. Paleofuture artifacts yield up volumes of information about the age that created them and also about the age that interprets them—offering insights that span decades, generations, and even centuries, deepening our understanding of the past, present, and future.


1. For more Matrix ideas apparently in reach, see “Matrix Learning.” Note that in 1960, Arthur C. Clarke also predicted: “We may develop a machine for recording information directly onto the brain as today we can record a symphony on tape. So we may one day be able to become instant experts learning Chinese overnight, for example.” See Clarke, “1960: A Vision of the Future”.

2. This futuristic picture is itself an homage to the distant past. A Western historian looking at this image might instantly recognize that the staves used on these children recall 17th-century “tithing men” in Puritan New England who enforced order with a “church stick” that had a knob at one end for children and a feather on the other end for adults.

3. Another interesting comprehensive view of a family’s experience in the future was published in the LA Times in 1988.

4. The inclination to imagine a distant future still firmly weighed down by gender stereotypes is not hard to miss. A wonderful 1930s video imagines the man of the future, with what now looks like a ridiculous outfit with a phone and radio embedded in his clothing, as well as a utility belt of sorts with a container specifically for “coins, keys, and candy for cuties.”

5. Edison created some of the first films, and he thought they held great promise. In the parlance of our current decade, he might have even considered them “disruptive.”

6. Regrettably, I have some data on that. I was in the audience of the inauguration of the current president of the University of Minnesota, and I heard then-new President Eric Kaler tell the story of how it took a dozen years to settle on the 33 words inscribed on Northrop Auditorium when it was built in the 1920s. If this is the speed of higher education, we can answer Hilton’s rhetorical question: It would have taken 486 years to write the Declaration of Independence.

7. Former EDUCAUSE Vice President Richard N. Katz, in his EDU@2025 vision, demonstrates this kind of speculation, moving seamlessly from past, to present, to future.



© 2017 John O'Brien. The text of this article is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.
EDUCAUSE Review, April 10, 2017