I’m becoming a Futurist!
This fall, at the University of California-Berkeley (UCB), I was selected to participate in the first cohort of Research, Teaching, and Learning staff to learn future thinking skills. This involves taking Coursera’s online Futures Thinking Specialization certificate program with the general public, reading three books selected by our team leaders, practicing the skills, discussing signals and drivers of the future, and reflecting with others in our cohort. The program is offered by the Institute For the Future (IFTF) and taught by Jane McGonigal. The curriculum covers the following areas:
- Introduction to futures thinking,
- Forecasting skills,
- Simulation skills,
- Collaborative foresight, and
- How to turn foresight into action.
Futures thinking involves looking for current unique signals and their drivers to create future scenarios for the next decade or more. It’s not a prediction but rather an informed and creative way of combining various signals to uncover future possibilities.
Each of us has identified an area of focus—mine is the future of online learning in higher education with an emphasis on transformational contexts. I want to avoid technology solutionism. Jon Bashor, a UCB science writer, stated that “…it can perpetuate social issues and has a long history of being used for oppression (July, 2021).” Technology alone is not the answer to our problems. It is, however, playing a large part in what we can and cannot do these days. I also want to avoid short-termism, which Fisher (2019) stated is the greatest threat to humanity. The problem with combining technology solutionism and short-termism is partly explained in Amara’s Law; the overestimation of the effect of technology in the short-term and underestimation of its effect in the long-term.
On the bright side, my participation in the course and future forward corresponding activities with my cohort have diminished my bleak outlook of our future reality. In my opinion, these are the general benefits of future thinking:
- Garner a positive outlook on future because you gain agency in monitoring the future,
- Gain interdisciplinary insights in review of all types of signals and drivers,
- Overtly search for signals and drivers to create forecasts to avoid future failure, and
- Learn from other futurists in your collaborative efforts to tap into a broader knowledge base (e.g., collective intelligence).
My Novice Efforts
Here are some of my artifacts from the coursework. Generally, I focus on learning trends that I know nothing about. For example, the use of Discord is popular for class questions, some being officially linked to the course and others closed/secret. One assignment taught us the importance of looking back—way back—to past iterations of related objects and practices. For this assignment, I searched for the possible origins of backchannels. See my homework on this Jamboard: Revisit History to Reveal Future Trends on Backchannels.
Another assignment asked us to interrelate our topic (e.g., digital learning in higher ed) with that from an article about the future of smart clothing. It’s a mashup of sorts. Here’s my forecast.
“A problem that I care about is providing transformative online education to students in higher education. Based on the smart clothing driver article, I propose collegiate t-shirts that could provide more of a sense of engagement and belonging. They’d provide the sense of being on campus based on the time of day and our actions in the online course. For example, we might hear the clock tower ring, smell the campus flora, or feel a hug when we meet friends via zoom. We might even see our campus colors or mascot on the sleeve when we complete an important task online.”
Here’s my other forecast that interrelates the use of self-driving cars with digital learning in higher education. This time, I focused on proctored exams.
“I forecast that autonomous vehicles could be used for academic integrity safeguards during assessments. This could replace testing centers or other in-person monitors. What might become common are testing center drive-ins with car hop type food service and amusement park like culmination sites to blow off steam and enjoy yourself. The vehicle could also be used to provide a solitary space to learn for those students in need of quiet. This would reduce the use of libraries and coffee shops, as places of study. What might become common is food bar and workout equipment within the cars. Conversely, the vehicle could bring in other students in a hybrid situation with some riding along while others are there virtually for group work. This could replace physical study halls and cubicles. What might become common are COVID rapid tests or other health checks to ensure safety of riders when grouped together.”
Here’s a cursory list of resources related to futures thinking to monitor for signals and drivers of the future for education and beyond:
- 2022 Educause Horizon Report – Teaching and Learning Edition
- UC Berkeley Center for Studies in Higher Education
- Any Black Swan talks—learn about this concept within this context from Ruben Puentedura: Binoculars for Black Swan Watchers: Where Audubon Meets the Search for E.I.
- Bryan Alexander, Futurist on Higher Education
- The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine provide free PDF reports on recent academic studies. Here’s one on Resilience for Compounding and Cascading Events.
- The UN Sustainable Development Goals for education.
- The Long Now Foundation fosters long-term thinking.
- The Internet Archive, aka the WayBack Machine, will help you look backward to look forward.
- TechCrunch or Wired for startup and technology news
What are your go-to sources for new information? Please post those in the comments section. How are you preparing for the future in your field of work?
Bashor, J. (July, 2021). Workshop focuses on adding human contexts to data science classes. https://data.berkeley.edu/news/workshop-focuses-adding-human-contexts-data-science-classes
Fisher, Richard. (January, 2019). The perils of short-terminism: Civilization’s greatest threat. https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20190109-the-perils-of-short-termism-civilisations-greatest-threat