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emerging technologies

Higher ‘Professional’ Ed, Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed, Quantified Self, and Libraries

***  This post was originally published in ACRL TechConnect on March 23, 2014. ***

The 2014 Horizon Report is mostly a report on emerging technologies. Many academic librarians carefully read its Higher Ed edition issued every year to learn about the upcoming technology trends. But this year’s Horizon Report Higher Ed edition was interesting to me more in terms of how the current state of higher education is being reflected on the report than in terms of the technologies on the near-term (one-to-five year) horizon of adoption. Let’s take a look.

A. Higher Ed or Higher Professional Ed?

To me, the most useful section of this year’s Horizon Report was ‘Wicked Challenges.’ The significant backdrop behind the first challenge “Expanding Access” is the fact that the knowledge economy is making higher education more and more closely and directly serve the needs of the labor market. The report says, “a postsecondary education is becoming less of an option and more of an economic imperative. Universities that were once bastions for the elite need to re-examine their trajectories in light of these issues of access, and the concept of a credit-based degree is currently in question.” (p.30)

Many of today’s students enter colleges and universities with a clear goal, i.e. obtaining a competitive edge and a better earning potential in the labor market. The result that is already familiar to many of us is the grade and the degree inflation and the emergence of higher ed institutions that pursue profit over even education itself. When the acquisition of skills takes precedence to the intellectual inquiry for its own sake, higher education comes to resemble higher professional education or intensive vocational training. As the economy almost forces people to take up the practice of lifelong learning to simply stay employed, the friction between the traditional goal of higher education – intellectual pursuit for its own sake – and the changing expectation of higher education — creative, adaptable, and flexible workforce – will only become more prominent.

Naturally, this socioeconomic background behind the expansion of postsecondary education raises the question of where its value lies. This is the second wicked challenge listed in the report, i.e. “Keeping Education Relevant.” The report says, “As online learning and free educational content become more pervasive, institutional stakeholders must address the question of what universities can provide that other approaches cannot, and rethink the value of higher education from a student’s perspective.” (p.32)

B. Lifelong Learning to Stay Employed

Today’s economy and labor market strongly prefer employees who can be hired, retooled, or let go at the same pace with the changes in technology as technology becomes one of the greatest driving force of economy. Workers are expected to enter the job market with more complex skills than in the past, to be able to adjust themselves quickly as important skills at workplaces change, and increasingly to take the role of a creator/producer/entrepreneur in their thinking and work practices. Credit-based degree programs fall short in this regard. It is no surprise that the report selected “Agile Approaches to Change” and “Shift from Students as Consumers to Students as Creators” as two of the long-range and the mid-range key trends in the report.

A strong focus on creativity, productivity, entrepreneurship, and lifelong learning, however, puts a heavier burden on both sides of education, i.e. instructors and students (full-time, part-time, and professional). While positive in emphasizing students’ active learning, the Flipped Classroom model selected as one of the key trends in the Horizon report often means additional work for instructors. In this model, instructors not only have to prepare the study materials for students to go over before the class, such as lecture videos, but also need to plan active learning activities for students during the class time. The Flipped Classroom model also assumes that students should be able to invest enough time outside the classroom to study.

The unfortunate side effect or consequence of this is that those who cannot afford to do so – for example, those who have to work on multiple jobs or have many family obligations, etc. – will suffer and fall behind. Today’s students and workers are now being asked to demonstrate their competencies with what they can produce beyond simply presenting the credit hours that they spent in the classroom. Probably as a result of this, a clear demarcation between work, learning, and personal life seems to be disappearing. “The E-Learning Predictions for 2014 Report” from EdTech Europe predicts that ‘Learning Record Stores’, which track, record, and quantify an individual’s experiences and progress in both formal and informal learning, will be emerging in step with the need for continuous learning required for today’s job market. EdTech Europe also points out that learning is now being embedded in daily tasks and that we will see a significant increase in the availability and use of casual and informal learning apps both in education but also in the workplace.

C. Quantified Self and Learning Analytics

Among the six emerging technologies in the 2014 Horizon Report Higher Education edition, ‘Quantified Self’ is by far the most interesting new trend. (Other technologies should be pretty familiar to those who have been following the Horizon Report every year, except maybe the 4D printing mentioned in the 3D printing section. If you are looking for the emerging technologies that are on a farther horizon of adoption, check out this article from the World Economic Forum’s Global Agenda Council on Emerging Technologies, which lists technologies such as screenless display and brain-computer interfaces.)

According to the report, “Quantified Self describes the phenomenon of consumers being able to closely track data that is relevant to their daily activities through the use of technology.” (ACRL TechConnect has covered personal data monitoring and action analytics previously.) Quantified self is enabled by the wearable technology devices, such as Fitbit or Google Glass, and the Mobile Web. Wearable technology devices automatically collect personal data. Fitbit, for example, keeps track of one’s own sleep patterns, steps taken, and calories burned. And the Mobile Web is the platform that can store and present such personal data directly transferred from those devices. Through these devices and the resulting personal data, we get to observe our own behavior in a much more extensive and detailed manner than ever before. Instead of deciding on which part of our life to keep record of, we can now let these devices collect about almost all types of data about ourselves and then see which data would be of any use for us and whether any pattern emerges that we can perhaps utilize for the purpose of self-improvement.

Quantified Self is a notable trend not because it involves an unprecedented technology but because it gives us a glimpse of what our daily lives will be like in the near future, in which many of the emerging technologies that we are just getting used to right now – the mobile, big data, wearable technology – will come together in full bloom. Learning Analytics,’ which the Horizon Report calls “the educational application of ‘big data’” (p.38) and can be thought of as the application of Quantified Self in education, has been making a significant progress already in higher education. By collecting and analyzing the data about student behavior in online courses, learning analytics aims at improving student engagement, providing more personalized learning experience, detecting learning issues, and determining the behavior variables that are the significant indicators of student performance.

While privacy is a natural concern for Quantified Self, it is to be noted that we ourselves often willingly participate in personal data monitoring through the gamified self-tracking apps that can be offensive in other contexts. In her article, “Gamifying the Quantified Self,” Jennifer Whitson writes:

Gamified self-tracking and participatory surveillance applications are seen and embraced as play because they are entered into freely, injecting the spirit of play into otherwise monotonous activities. These gamified self-improvement apps evoke a specific agency—that of an active subject choosing to expose and disclose their otherwise secret selves, selves that can only be made penetrable via the datastreams and algorithms which pin down and make this otherwise unreachable interiority amenable to being operated on and consciously manipulated by the user and shared with others. The fact that these tools are consumer monitoring devices run by corporations that create neoliberal, responsibilized subjectivities become less salient to the user because of this freedom to quit the game at any time. These gamified applications are playthings that can be abandoned at whim, especially if they fail to pleasure, entertain and amuse. In contrast, the case of gamified workplaces exemplifies an entirely different problematic. (p.173; emphasis my own and not by the author)

If libraries and higher education institutions becomes active in monitoring and collecting students’ learning behavior, the success of an endeavor of that kind will depend on how well it creates and provides the sense of play to students for their willing participation. It will be also important for such kind of learning analytics project to offer an opt-out at any time and to keep the private data confidential and anonymous as much as possible.

D. Back to Libraries

The changed format of this year’s Horizon Report with the ‘Key Trends’ and the ‘Significant Challenges’ has shown the forces in play behind the emerging technologies to look out for in higher education much more clearly. A big take-away from this report, I believe, is that in spite of the doubt about the unique value of higher education, the demand will be increasing due to the students’ need to obtain a competitive advantage in entering or re-entering the workforce. And that higher ed institutions will endeavor to create appropriate means and tools to satisfy students’ need of acquiring and demonstrating skills and experience in a way that is appealing to future employers beyond credit-hour based degrees, such as competency-based assessments and a badge system, is another one.

Considering that the pace of change at higher education tends to be slow, this can be an opportunity for academic libraries. Both instructors and students are under constant pressure to innovate and experiment in their teaching and learning processes. Instructors designing the Flipped Classroom model may require a studio where they can record and produce their lecture videos. Students may need to compile portfolios to demonstrate their knowledge and skills for job interviews. Returning adult students may need to acquire the habitual lifelong learning practices with the help from librarians. Local employers and students may mutually benefit from a place where certain co-projects can be tried. As a neutral player on the campus with tech-savvy librarians and knowledgeable staff, libraries can create a place where the most palpable student needs that are yet to be satisfied by individual academic departments or student services are directly addressed. Maker labs, gamified learning or self-tracking modules, and a competency dashboard are all such examples. From the emerging technology trends in higher ed, we see that the learning activities in higher education and academic libraries will be more and more closely tied to the economic imperative of constant innovation.

Academic libraries may even go further and take up the role of leading the changes in higher education. In his blog post for Inside Higher Ed, Joshua Kim suggests exactly this and also nicely sums up the challenges that today’s higher education faces:

  • How do we increase postsecondary productivity while guarding against commodification?
  • How do we increase quality while increasing access?
  • How do we leverage technologies without sacrificing the human element essential for authentic learning?

How will academic libraries be able to lead the changes necessary for higher education to successfully meet these challenges? It is a question that will stay with academic libraries for many years to come.

Looking back at “What is Your Library Doing about Emerging Technologies?”

Who knew that I, the second-time attendee of the ALA annual conference, would be organizing and moderating a panel of a dozen librarians? But I have. Just a few days ago. And I still find the experience amazing and hard to believe because partially I found ALA hard to be involved with initially (I wrote about that here before). It was mostly due to my ignorance that I undertook the responsibility of organizing a program and agreed to be a moderator. I had no idea how much efforts would be required and how much logistics will be involved in doing so, although I am glad I was part of this program.

This program, “What is Your Library Doing about Emerging Technologies?” has originated almost accidentally at the last ALA Annual in Chicago. The LITA Emerging Technologies Interest Group meeting attracted dozens of Emerging Technologies Librarians, many of whom were young in age (considering the median age of librarians) and also new in profession. Those librarians including me, who came to the meeting, voiced confusion and challenges in this new role/position in the library profession. Since the job title was so new, the job responsibilities were not yet clear, and there was no established procedure existing for Emerging Technologies Librarians to follow in observing, evaluating, testing, and implementing emerging technologies. Also hotly discussed topics were the fact that there was no agreed-upon clear definition of emerging technologies and the lack of a library’s clear vision and organizational effectiveness in managing emerging technologies.

The way this program was planned and its proposal was submitted was unique – at least I think it is – in that the program proposal was 100 % based upon the voice and concerns of the librarians who came to the Interest Group meeting. Many times, we find conference program topics focus on chasing after the most recent trends, the most popular topics, and the most advanced technologies of the library-land. Although these programs keep us up-to-date and give us an opportunity to peek at the shiniest new programs or technologies being implemented in the leading libraries often by the experts of the fields, we get a bitter taste in the mouth when we come back to our own beloved but less-leading library and try to somehow make the shiny new awesome programs or technologies work for us. This program was definitely not one of those programs. Someone at this year’s Emerging Technology Interest Group said that the program was “complimentary” to the widely-popular LITA Top Tech Trends program (after I said “opposite”). And I think that is a very accurate observation. We need both types of programs. One that focus on where we want to go; the other that thoroughly examines where we really are.

In organizing this program, Jacquelyn Erdman, the vice-chair of the LITA Emerging Technologies Interest Group, and I, tried to be true to its origin. Rather than soliciting several presentations on the hottest items in emerging technologies or showcasing the successful cases of emerging technologies implementations, we focused on the question of what emerging technologies mean when they are discussed in the library context and why the uses of this term could be problematic. We also wanted to cover what Emerging Technologies Librarians do in the real life and what the challenges are in both managing emerging technologies and implementing them at libraries.

This turned out to be a difficult task. Our panel has become quite large in order to ensure that the discussion would reflect the general voice of Emerging Technology Librarians; we found that the use of the term “emerging technologies” often inconsistent or even contrary to its accepted definition in other fields; many Emerging Technologies Librarians belonged to public services rather than Systems/IT/Web services as was originally assumed; the foremost challenge in managing and implementing technologies as an Emerging Technology Librarian was found to be introducing and leading changes without necessary authority in an organization that is often intolerant of risks and fears changes – which is a very sensitive topic to discuss in public.

Some of the attendees of the program criticized that the program didn’t have enough depth. That is partially correct, but it was also difficult to avoid because the intention of the program was to raise the issue that have not been discussed much before, and in order to do that it was necessary to give a broad perspective on the matter of emerging technologies in libraries. But we had some very interesting discussion in this year’s interest group meeting, and I think we will be submitting a program proposal “with depth” this time around for the next year’s Annual.

Ideally, the program would have been a big informal discussion in which both panelists and attendees sit around and very informally chat, asking difficult questions and honestly discussing the challenges and problems we face at work in managing and implementing emerging technologies. I realize now, however, this is unlikely to happen in the Annual Conference. Regardless of how much of what we intended as organizers was materialized in the actual panel discussion, the program was well-received. The room was packed, and more importantly, many librarians randomly stopped me and other panelists to remark that they enjoyed the panel discussion or that they didn’t attend but heard good things from those who did so. Both types of comments made all the program participants quite happy and we swapped stories about that among ourselves.

Although I keep thinking about a hundred different ways in which I could have improved the program in retrospect(!), I am satisfied with the fact that I was part of the program that went for something quite different from typical ALA conference programs. I also sincerely thank all the librarians who initiated this discussion about emerging technologies at the last year’s Annual and hope the program helped to clear and answer some of the confusions and questions raised in the last year’s meeting.

Lastly, thanks everyone who came to this program!
(The Twitter Archive for this program is at http://twapperkeeper.com/hashtag/emergetech?sm=6&sd=2&sy=&em=6&ed=31&ey=&o=&l=500&from_user=&text=)