Technology

How Colleges Should Adapt in a Networked Age

September 21, 2016

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Perhaps you’ve stood in the front of a classroom, looked out on the room full of students distractedly checking email or Facebook, and thought: They’re just not that into this.

Back when you were at their desks, you remember being tuned in, more respectful of the professor at the podium.

Joshua Cooper Ramo thinks the change is part of a bigger shift in attitudes toward college and authority figures in general.

Mr. Ramo loves zooming out to get an aerial view of problems. Maybe that comes from his time as a stunt pilot, an experience he wrote about in his first book, No Visible Horizon (Simon & Schuster, 2003). These days his job is doing intellectual flyovers of the changing world we live in. He advises companies on strategy as co-chief executive of Kissinger Associates and as a board member at Starbucks and at Federal Express.

In his new book, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks (Little, Brown), Mr. Ramo offers a framework for understanding our hypernetworked world. He argues that we’re in a time of change as significant and disruptive as the Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. Old power centers are becoming less important than new digital gatekeepers like Facebook and Google, and computer algorithms are doing things that even their designers can’t predict.

Leaders today, he says, keep making the same mistake, assuming that what worked in the old system will continue in this new, networked era. New instincts are required, he says, what he calls the "seventh sense."

What does all this mean, I wondered, for college leaders and for professors trying to prepare their students for the new world?

In this installment of The Chronicle’s Re:Learning Podcast, I sat down with Mr. Ramo for a fast-paced discussion that made me think about the changing ways that the public views college.

You can listen to the full audio here. Here is an edited and adapted transcript.

The New Education Landscape

The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Re:Learning project provides stories and analysis about this changing moment for learning.

Q. Your new book offers a broad framework to understand the big changes going on in the world today — political, social, technological. I think of the classic film The Graduate, whispering "plastics." Today the word is "networks." All kinds of networks — the computer kind, yeah, but also terrorist networks, political networks, banking networks. Why do you think "networks" is this word people will be whispering at the graduation party?

A. I think when we think of networks, we tend to think of the internet. What we really mean by networks is any set of connected points. People who live in Washington, D.C., are a network, people attending University of Chicago are a network, people who speak Chinese are a network, people who trade in Bitcoin are a network.

What we know is that when you begin to connect things together in systems, they have certain dynamics and properties that can be understood, and that are quite different from, hierarchical systems. It’s particularly true once you start to get lots of these systems. If you’re listening to this podcast and thinking about whatever your job is, the number of groups, the number of stakeholders that you have to interact with today, for sure it’s more than it was 10 years ago, and it’s going to be more in 10 years. There’s this explosion of complexity in the world, and that’s because connectivity is so easy. It’s so easy to form a new political party, it’s so easy to form an online learning course, and it’s only getting easier.

If there’s a core message in my book that comes out from my traveling around and talking to CEOs and generals and innovators and people running hedge funds, it is one thing: It is basically, you are what you are connected to. It used to be we were what our résumés said we were; this is what you studied. That was a very industrialist conception of our lives. The reality is if you’re hiring somebody today, what you really want to know is, What are they connected to? What ideas can they bring? What networks can they connect to? How robust are their connections?

We were talking earlier about our mutual friend Joi Ito, who is the head of the MIT Media Lab and doesn’t have a college degree. Fifteen years ago, that would have been unthinkable. But the reality is, there is nobody in the technology world Joi can’t send an email to and get an almost instant response. What matters about Joi is who he’s connected to. I think that’s one issue for education: How you are looking at students and saying what’s really important is what these kids are connected to, and that ability to establish connections, break connections, enrich connections. That turns out to be more important than walking them through the traditional coursework. Now, some of that traditional coursework may be essential for making those connections, but the goal has got to be not that you’ve gone through an education system and you’ve studied all the things that you’re supposed to study, but rather that you’ve got a set of skills that allow you to make these connections.

The other problem, which I think is the one that is probably at the heart of this question, is what are the educational institutions themselves doing? They’re all engineered for this idea that they’re these gatekeepers, they’re going to decide who’s in. If you’re in, you get a Harvard education; if you’re not in, you don’t get a Harvard education. The biggest problem with that actually turns out to be all these kids getting a Harvard education — that may not be the education that you need. The great line is that it’s not a surprise that some of the most valuable companies in our world have been started by people who dropped out of Harvard.

That sense that the traditional educational systems are kind of impeding in a way, the skills that you need, that they’re moving too slow, is one that, I think, presents a tremendous opportunity for them to re-engineer themselves.

Q. I want to talk about the moment when these students, who maybe are living in this world that you describe with this networks, they get it. But the professors who are coming from the old system are steeped in the old system. The whole format of class lectures creates a problem, right? The whole format has this different implied structure or power balance than the students think it should. What is it about sitting in a lecture class that makes it a very specific challenge for a lot of professors?

Swiss-Image.ch/Newscom
Joshua Cooper Ramo
A. First of all, one of the things we know is that great teaching is great teaching. I think it’s actually one of the things that may be endearingly unalterable about how the human mind learns, which is that the Socratic method, the method of getting people to figure it out in their own brains, is always the most powerful way to have people understand things.

There’s two issues I would say that come to mind. The first is, one of the natures of the age that we’re living in — a core feature of it — is the collapse of the legitimacy of a lot of institutions that we once relied on. There’s almost not a single institution you can think of that is more respected than it was 10 years ago, not the media …

Q. In fact, it’s less respected.

A. Yeah, almost everything is less, right? John McCain had this line about how Congress’s approval rating was at 3 percent, so people who worked in Congress were not getting approval ratings even from their families. That’s where we are. We are in the midst of a tremendous legitimacy collapse. That is a symptom, basically, anytime you have a big revolutionary shift in power. Like the Enlightenment: There was a period where kings and popes were completely legitimate, and then after a couple hundred years they were less legitimate. The idea that professors are going to stand up here and talk to you is under as much challenge and threat as the legitimacy of the media or the Congress. It’s got to be reconstructed for a new age.

The first problem a professor has in lecturing is he’s in front of a bunch of kids who don’t trust any of the institutions in their lives, to say nothing of the university. That’s one of the reasons we’re seeing this incredible fusion of uncertainty, unrest, instability among undergraduates. We’re trying to figure out where do they fit, how does the university fit into their lives?

It’s not a surprise that among the things they’ve gone back and questioned is Woodrow Wilson, who was a president of Princeton — is that really the appropriate name to have on your school of international relations? It’s not a surprise that they’re getting at the heart of that, so that’s issue number one, the legitimacy.

“What the networks are fundamentally for is the reason that they just keep going faster and faster, even though we might wish they would slow down: We all want to do more with less.”
The second problem a professor has is, How do you actually get the ideas into the brains of these kids? We’ve moved from a world where the goal was really understanding, really deep mastery of something, to where people just want to have knowledge of how to get information.

One of the things I talk about in the book is this idea of what are the networks fundamentally for, and how to think about the information age. The great gift of the industrial age was that it compressed space. You had trains and airplanes and the ability to move stuff around, so it suddenly didn’t matter whether things were 500 miles apart or 1,000 miles apart.

The big change in this era is the compression of time itself. What the networks are fundamentally for is the reason that they just keep going faster and faster, even though we might wish they would slow down: We all want to do more with less. We particularly want to do more with less time. The networks just get faster and faster, and they’re compressing time. One of the results of that is something in the book I call skill-time compression. It used to take 10 years to learn how to do something, and now you can go online and get a video.

Q. Just-in-time education?

A. Pretty much, yeah. Whether it’s trivial, like how to make a sauce for your turkey, or how to do genetic engineering, there’s something there that can teach you to do that. The skill set that you need fundamentally is very different. I think the issue that the academic world has to come to terms with is that when that’s the kind of knowledge heuristic, what are you really trying to educate these kids to do?

There’s a mismatch between what the professors are trying to get them to do, which is really understanding, and what the kids are trying to do, which is to know it. You can’t fight history — they are moving to a world of knowing, not understanding. I think the right answer to that actually is to talk about the way in which connection changes the nature of the object. To focus on this one question for the students, that they are what they’re connected to. That the depth, the bandwidth that they have between people and ideas turns out to be what’s valuable.

It’s that skill of establishing a connection, of self-education, that is the ultimate argument for a great liberal education.

The last thing I would say is sort of a perplexing problem, which gets at the heart of what the modern university is for. You can think of human history in the following way: There was a long period of time in which we didn’t know why anything happened. Why was it raining? Why did the sun come up every morning? The great miracle of the Scientific Revolution was that it made the Aristotelian project possible.

We’re now entering an era when computational power and artificial intelligence are having a dominant effect of our lives. We’re getting to a moment when AI systems are capable of understanding problems and answering questions in ways that we can’t explain. They produce the right answers, but we don’t know why. So it’s almost like the age of reason was just sort of a blip. In most of human history, we didn’t understand why things happened. We had an enjoyable 400 years in which we could sort of understand how things were happening. And now the machines are going to be producing a set of answers and we’ll have to say, Yeah, all I know is this thing does math better than me, so if it says this is true, it’s probably true. That totally changes the educational dynamic.

Q. A lot of the new upstarts offering MOOCs, like Udacity and Coursera, are networks, right? And the dream was that they were going to make education more open. It seems like that’s really serving the haves, though, and might even be increasing the education divide, maybe by accident.

A. That’s right. That’s the issue that you’ve got to interrupt in all these systems. That’s the danger of these systems. We all thought, Jeez, these are going to be incredibly democratizing. What we know now is they are accelerants.

What’s going on in the economy is an example of this. We’ve dumped this unbelievable amount of monetary stimulants into the economy, and the upshot has not been middle-class prosperity, but the increase in the purchase of Gulfstream jets. The benefits of it accumulate to a tiny percentage of people on the top.

Networked systems, left to their own devices, do tend to create these asymmetric accumulations. That’s an important regulatory challenge.

Q. Inequality?

A. Absolutely. They are, in fact, engines for inequality, particularly when harnessed for capitalism and some of these other things. We recognize this now, and the question is, Can we redesign — because networks can be redesigned — can we redesign them in such a way that we get their benefits while also having some of the redistributive benefits we should have? That’s as true for knowledge as it is for cash.

Jeffrey R. Young writes about technology in education and leads the Re:Learning project. Follow him on Twitter @jryoung; check out his home page, jeffyoung.net; or try him by email at jeff.young@chronicle.com.


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