Personal Story: Bryan Alexander

Bryan Alexander

If you want to learn about the best ways to apply digital media to learning, catch a glimpse of where educational institutions are going, and hear it all from someone who walks his talk — and talks with eyes-wide passion — you want to encounter Dr. Bryan Alexander.

Disclaimer regarding this profile: I knew and became enthralled by Alexander’s ideas and his compelling presentation of them years before I started teaching myself. I’ve followed his career and collaborated with him since the late 1990s. I will never forget our first meeting. I was speaking at DePauw University and went out with a few faculty members and students for a drink after my talk. It was hard not to pay attention to Alexander, who looks like an Old Testament prophet — and can talk like one when you get him going. I invited him to join a private virtual community for eclectic thinkers and he later helped me consult with organizations — educational and otherwise — that were trying to figure out how to make use of virtual communities (which weren’t yet known as “social media”). When I started teaching college students about social media, using social media in the process, he was one of my first mentors.

Like the rest of him, Dr. Alexander’s career path has been unorthodox. He began in a traditional way, with a Ph.D. in the humanities and a professorship at a liberal arts college in Louisiana. “In retrospect,” Alexander told me, “it was unusual to win a tenure-track position so easily. Those positions are dwindling. From 1997 to 2002, I did that job. On one face, it looked like a very normal position. I worked the three legs of academic work: I taught classes, conducted research and published, and did service — committee work and helping redesign the curriculum for an English department, then creating a new academic minor in information technology studies.” IT studies were not the usual fare in 2002, and neither were Alexander’s research and teaching interests. His Ph.D. and research was on Gothic literature. Then, he started researching the nascent cyberculture, including publishing an early interview with Larry Lessig.

Alexander was teaching “classic stuff” — 18th-century literature, history of the novel, introductory literature, “but I started teaching 21st-century style even before the 21st century began.” He taught a multimedia literature class, half of which was face-to-face, half online and (in 1999) a “multi-campus, interdisciplinary, computer mediated” course on the war in Vietnam. “We came up with a syllabus that focused on the American experience. So, we had a very brief introduction to basically all the Vietnamese history up through the 1950s and, then, the end of the class followed Vietnam and Americans after the war. That’s on the Vietnamese diaspora in the U.S., the changes and the Vietnamese political structure and economy following the unification. But, the bulk of the class was about the American experience from the adviser period in the ’50s to the U.S. withdrawal in the ’70s. And, because we were an interdisciplinary group, I was the literature guy, there was a historian and a political scientist so, we were able to address this from multiple points of view. We had detailed historical work. I introduced fiction and nonfiction. We had political analysis. In a sense, this was a literature of war class, of which there are many, literature of World War I for example. But, what was unusual is that it was occurring in three different locations, two different time zones and, so, the students and the faculty got to interact with each other, even though they didn’t see each other. We used a listserv, we used web pages, a web-based discussion forum. We used an early form of video conferencing, Microsoft NetMeeting.”

Remember when Microsoft acquired “Groove?” Alexander experimented with that. Then, he and his students built a political science game to simulate the Johnson Administration’s decision to escalate the war in Vietnam. “So I built a web interface for that and a web-based newspaper where the participants could see the results of their actions. That was a very exciting and rich course that I could not have done without network technology.” At the same time that Alexander was pursuing a traditional professorial career path, he was creating an emerging professor that we now would call a “connected professor.”

“Academics have always networked, since the time of Aristotle. But, things changed when these social networks went online, working with librarians across the South, working with researchers and scholars around the world, I started expanding what I could learn and do. In the humanities, this was dizzying because the humanities at that time was fairly cloistered and also under enormous economic stress.” This brought Alexander to the attention of a non-profit organization, The National Institute for Technology in Education (NITLE), that was helping small college work with emerging technologies. Alexander worked with NITLE, which had 25 staff members distributed across the U.S., from 2002 to 2014.

My experience with large institutions such as Stanford and smaller, less brand-famous institutions such as the University of Mary Washington, led me to the same conclusion as Alexander: “Some of these private, undergraduate-focused, smaller institutions punch above their weight when it comes to technology innovation. We worked closely with these schools and experimented with variety of tools and pedagogies — GIS mapping, social media on mobile devices, digital story-telling. We used technologies to talk about how to use technologies — video conferencing to help explain video conferencing. Social media. I built and ran a prediction market game for a few years. Since 2014, Alexander has struck out on his own as a “consulting futurist” for educators.

I asked Alexander what his “consulting futurist” advice entails: “I ask people to think about education from a multidimensional perspective. In part, American education is pretty multi-faceted. We’re famous worldwide for our extremely diverse institutional set, everything from historically black colleges and universities, to liberal arts colleges, to military academies, to research universities, to state schools. We have an extraordinary diversity and it’s really hard to grasp all of that and there are all kinds of biases. People all think in mindsets that were largely formed by the institutions they came up in. If they work in an institution, that’s a very tight lens to see things through. But also, the media coverage is often really strange. So, media coverage really emphasizes New England. There’s a lot more about research universities than there is about community colleges. So, within that framework, then I try and get people to slice it along a multidimensional axis. They get to think in terms of economics. How are the finances of higher education changing? So, you think about tuition increases. You think about loans. You think about discount rates. There’s all that and that’s embedded within the larger system of how the American economy is changing. For example, in the ’90s, we thought we were preparing for a knowledge economy and the idea was to rejigger curriculum for that. So, out with shop class, in with IT class. Problem is, yes, our economy moved into a knowledge economy in a major, major way in terms of capital, but in terms of jobs, they’re very few. The biggest sector in employment is service.

“So, you have to wonder what are we actually doing in education. Are we over-preparing students for the wrong jobs? Or, you think about automation. Unemployment now is around 4% or 5%, which is very, very good. But, if automation starts to replace jobs without creating news ones, what happens if we have 10%, 20%, 30% unemployment structurally? What is higher education doing there? Or, you think about income inequality. To what extent does higher education contribute to the widening gap between socioeconomic classes or does education try to contract it?”

I started talking to Alexander about mobile learning — using smartphones as part of the education process — in 2004. He’s still talking about both the challenges (dealing with phones in the classroom is a challenge from elementary school to university) and the affordances (for example, it is now possible to ask any question about anything at any time, including during a lecture): “The problem of distraction is neither new nor unique to mobile devices, but distraction is definitely one of the challenges.”

What about the affordances? “If I was a student in a lecture about virtual communities, and I don’t know what the WELL is or what Minitel was, I can quickly search and share with other students and with worldwide networks through Twitter or Snapchat. I can use that capability to deepen classroom learning. Outside the classroom, I can capture audio, vidfero, location-based information. And, as consumers of information, we’re all becoming accustomed to using maps and search, news and weather in any place and time. With Pokémon Go, we’re seeing the first mass-use of augmented reality, which can enable anybody to learn about anywhere. It won’t happen automatically, but these affordances can be used in a thoughtful pedagogy.” Alexander emphasizes a broader social affordance of mobile learning — equity. “If we are seriously concerned about access to higher education and equity issues, I think it’s incumbent upon those shaping the future of educational institutions to look at how to reach underserved populations through mobile media.”

What is Dr. Alexander telling educators about what they should be doing in their institutions? His main emphasis is on openness — not only using applications and resources that are non-proprietary such as Open Education Resources, but open courses like ds106, Phonar, and Connected Courses in which the students in the physical classroom can be joined online by others online — sometimes thousands of others. “First is the social equity benefit. If you go to a library in the developing world, you’ll find them usually packed with people but lacking a lot of materials. And, one reason is because they can’t afford to ship in a lot of books and journals. They can’t afford a lot of the developed world prices. Open education resources for those libraries are a godsend. You think about the same as a learner. You’re working in Ghana, you’re 15 or maybe you’re in North Africa and you would really like to make more of your life. You have access to the world through your phone but how much of American higher education is not available that way, even when it’s in digital form? How much do we bury behind pay walls or lock in the tombs of closed, proprietary systems? So for equity reasons, for just decency reasons, we have to open our trove for the world.”

A second reason, according to Alexander, is that “sharing goes two ways:” “Back in the ’70s when you were making a mix tape for someone, one of the benefits of that was encouraging other people to make mix tapes. Now, it’s trivial to make mix tapes. They’re play lists. So, if you share more with other people, you get more back. So, you get to be smarter. You get to be more popular. I mean, one of the great things about open is you expand your audience and that’s something that academics oftentimes want. But, the other thing is, with open, academics can be a lot more creative. So, for example, I know a chemist at DePaul University, where we met. He published a textbook with McGraw-Hill on analytical chemistry and he was very excited by this. McGraw-Hill’s a big publisher. But, there was an illustration that he wanted to use that was a particular way of illustrating chemical problems that he thought was useful. McGraw-Hill said, ‘No, you can’t do that. You have to use this other illustration.’ ” And so, all right. So, he went with that. After a few years of sales, McGraw-Hill said, ‘Fine, we’re done. Have your copyright back.’ Then, he was able to put his textbook online, and add all the illustrations that he wanted to have from the start. Plus, because it was on the web, anybody could see it. He was passionate about chemistry and he wanted to improve that knowledge. So, you think if you’re a student in say Prince Edward Island or in Italy and you’d like to learn more about chemistry, here’s another opportunity. And for this chemist, he got to be creative. He got to express what he wanted. He got to do this one particular twist and because he had the copyright back, he could do whatever he wanted. He could revise all the chapters. He could add more illustrations and multimedia. Openness really is a renaissance tool that gives you a chance to be more creative. You think about the European Renaissance, and how much of it was driven by access to new texts, by being able to read more through translation and printing. What’s going to happen when we can take the entire population of Africa and unleash centuries of cutting-edge scholarship on them for free? The same is true of half of Asia. How about the parts of Latin America that can’t afford this? What a glorious opportunity, what creativity we can inspire. I think for education, I tell people embrace open. Do it now.”

Dr. Alexander uses a plethora of social media. He blogs on his main site daily, tweets daily, keeps up with LinkedIn and Google+, uses RSS readers, and mobile media. He writes in public via social media: “a couple of years ago, I had intuition that just kept bugging me, one of those thoughts that you just can’t get rid of. And, I was thinking about it, just walking around thinking about it and I started jotting some notes down. In order to flesh this out, I started tossing links and questions out through social media, primarily through Twitter, and the responses I received helped clarify things. People gave me reality checks and they gave me feedback and more stories. And so over time, I fleshed this out into a blog post and put it out there. I published another blog post developing the idea further. And, then, Inside Higher Ed, asked me if I wanted to write an article for them. So, I turned that into an article and a scholarly publisher asked if I wanted to write a book about it. So, I went from insight, to social media, to more social media, toward a book contract. For me, that’s a great example of using social media for education. Having a book contract is a win in academia of course, but also it made the idea smarter, sharpened my arguments.”

If you want to keep up with new directions in education, you would do well to follow Bryan Alexander via one or more of the many communication channels he feeds daily.

By: Howard Rheingold

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