Creating Academic Learning Futures: Alternative approaches

At Beyond Distance Research Alliance, creating academic learning futures is firmly grounded in the CALF project, which is making good progress, Sandra Romenska tells me, since her report on the medical students taking a course about the future of medical education – see Congratulations to the September 2010 Futurists. She’s been running more workshops this week during which people help by generating their own ideas about the future of universities while examining the university’s own Learning and Teaching Strategy.

I’ve just heard about a new search engine called Recorded Future, that claims to predict coming events by monitoring ‘buzz’ on the Internet. It has financial backing from Google and the CIA (!). Recorded Future tracks information published online to establish links between people, companies, places and events and put it on a time-scale. It uses everything from news articles to Twitter updates and employs linguistic analysis for its predictions.

So far the company, based in Boston, USA, has a few corporate clients who pay monthly subscriptions to use the tool. A consumer version may follow. Christopher Ahlberg, Recorded Future’s founder, claims: “We found that our momentum metric that indicates the strength of activity around an event or entity predicts future events that correlate with the volume of market activity”.

I asked Sandra what she thought of Recorded Future, which she hadn’t yet come across, and she replied (what a fascinating reply) as follows:

For Recorded Future’s approach to work, they need to have events for which web chatter already exists, so that they can “trend” it. That is, someone (like CALF) has already come up with the vision for what might be possible and Recorded Future will estimate whether it is also probable. It is definitely useful and very interesting, but it is missing the exciting first step in futures work – to imagine things or events which are not in existence yet.

To illustrate it, I’d paraphrase a favourite quote of mine from Donald Norman at Northwestern University that futurists shouldn’t only predict the automobile but also the traffic jam – without projects like CALF enabling people to imagine the automobile, Recorded Futures cannot predict the likelihood of traffic jams.

CALF’s approach is inclusive, in that academics, university managers and administrators and students work together to imagine a future. I would think that Recorded Future captures a rather narrower range of sources since younger people are probably more active on the web than those in full time jobs or those who don’t use technology that much.

Recorded Future’s approach  (wisdom of the crowd) works because it meets Surowiecki’s rules of a wise crowd: Diversity of opinion (yes), Independence (some opinions may be determined by others, but not everyone follows everyone else), Decentralization (yes) and Aggregation (available).

To sum up, when CALF has finished imagining a range of futures, we would be happy to see what Recorded Future can say about the likelihood of our ideas becoming reality.

What chance that Recorded Future could predict the future of British universities? Personally, I’d rather put my money on Sandra Romenska and CALF – and on Gilly Salmon in her new post, as from January, as Professor of Learning Futures at the University of Southern Queensland!

David Hawkridge

PS: Sandra says that good resources on using social media for future predictions can be found from the Hewlett-Packard research labs here  and explained here.

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