“Hey Dad, can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

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It all started with my father-in-law sending along a mummified skeleton to my son, Lowell. We were all curious about what the animal may have been, and pitched initial ideas for figuring out how to identify it. A quick image search for squirrels and chipmunks did not yield any clear answers.

At my wife’s suggestion we reached out to the Anthropology Department here at VCU for some possible assistance in faunal identification. Dr. Bernard Means, who directs the Virtual Curation Lab (VCL) here, was both supportive and enthusiastic of my son’s exploration and invited him to the lab. It was a wonderful learning experience, comparing sample skeletons, examining additional artifacts, doing some hypothesis testing and getting an introduction to 3D scanning and printing. The specimen even garnered the attention of Dr. Elizabeth Moore of the Virginia Museum of Natural History (VMNH) who was a visitor to the VCL. The skeleton was eventually positively identified as a juvenile opossum…very cool. Dr. Means expressed interest in keeping the specimen, and offered to print a scanned copy of the opossum for Lowell.

“Print a copy?” Lowell remarked…he was more than willing to let Dr. Means keep the actual skeleton…and the thought of a copy was pretty intriguing for him, and me as well.

This idea of 3D printing is something I’ve had to warm-up to over the past several years. When I initially heard of the technology a few years ago I admit I did not readily see some of the possibilities for education. But seeing this through my son’s eyes has totally changed my perspective. He has now had an experience where his “real-life” opossum skeleton, could be scanned and reproduced by a 3D printer…something I never even considered within the realm of reason. This is now a baseline perspective for my son. Mummified juvenile opossum.

He emerged with the idea that anything could be printed. This is a rather profound state of affairs for a 9 year old boy. Not only does he have the view that these “real-life” things can be printed, but that things he imagines and creates virtually could also be printed. Real can be virtual and virtual can be real. This realization completely blew the doors open for him. It is this sense of possibility, of imagining things and having the perspective and confidence that you can actually make it in real life with a 3D printer was a transformative moment for Lowell and I. I think this sense of possibility, creativity and imagination holds some profound promise for education and learning in the digital age as well. A few days ago he was showing me a recent creation he made in Minecraft. His imagination and creativity in this environment never ceases to amaze me, and this day was no different. He had made what he described as a kind of a flying fortress…complete with an enclosed garden and living space. “Very cool” I said…to which he responded…”can we get a life-sized 3D printer?”

It is a profoundly different world…

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What if your course was more like Chipotle?

I’ve been having some initial conversations with my colleagues Enoch Hale and Britt Watwood about how we conceptualize the narrative of innovation as it relates to our work in higher education. We had a wonderful conversation this morning about innovation in the business / consumer world, and used that as a way to map onto higher education (a thought I know will make some of you cringe, but bear with me here). I’m going to steal an idea from our conversation, and use that as my contribution (#3) to the 30-Day question challenge. So here goes:

Question #3: What if your course was more like Chipotle?

What has Chipotle done here that I (and others) find pretty interesting…and I’ll venture to say innovative? They took different pans of well-known taco / burrito ingredients (beans, chicken, carnitas, sofritas, corn relish, salsa, cheese, lettuce) fairly predictable stuff…and empowered their customers to [re]mix and [re]combine them in countless numbers of ways. Choices personalized! As Enoch shared in our conversation, there are exposed and known choices…and then there are the “hidden choices”…or the possibilities and options that folks envision and experience when they come into Chipotle to eat. Let’s face it, the taco / burrito is not a new consumer product. It is a known and familiar entity. But eh Taco Bell “Live Mas” pitch where they stuff the same fixins into a new and innovative wrapper “Doritos Taco Shell” just doesn’t do it for me.

I think higher education does a fair share of claiming new / innovative stuff by putting a new taco shell around old content and practices. Its not appealing…at least not to me.

So is there value in conceptualizing a Chipotle model for courses we teach? I see several potential value options…

1) Bringing imagination of new opportunities to the teaching & learning enterprise…i.e., there is common fare that can be re-conceptualized and shared in new ways.

2) There is opportunity for empowerment and choice for learners right out of the gate.

3) Learning can take on a personalized flavor (obvious pun…sorry couldn’t help it).

4) [Re]mix / [Re]combine…becomes a learning expectation for the course.

Its about option generation…

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Tinkering Toward Obsolescence…?

As a society and culture we have invested a great deal in the established flow that supports the institution of higher education – campuses and buildings, courses and programs, faculty and students, lectures and discussions, research and writing, and the awarding of degrees. The time-honored semester keeping pace like a metronome. Fundamental change is not something that comes quickly in this context, and when it does it is often a reaction to some dire conditions.

Change is coming.

The global financial meltdown and shrinking state budgets have severely impacted public colleges and universities who are struggling to support “business as usual” by eliminating services, freezing salaries, cutting faculty positions…and raising tuition. This state of affairs is not limited to the U.S. either, with universities in Europe facing similar conditions. Some fear the worst is yet to come and they are making calls for nothing short of a paradigm shift. The president of the University of New Hampshire, Mark Huddleston, recently outlined a 10-year strategic plan that he hopes will keep the flagship university from sinking. The key initiatives of greater interdisciplinary collaboration, creation of an open learning portal, broadening the definition of scholarship and supporting a learning-centered environment – seem valuable and important – but do they go far enough to bring the hoped for paradigm shifts?

Innovation is needed.

It seems that if higher education is to regain its grip on learning and remain relevant, an entirely new model for the modern university needs to be envisioned. In a recent piece in the EDUCAUSE Review, Don Tapscott and Anthony Williams provide us with ideas that move us from simply considering change to thinking about how to innovate higher education. They outline two key shifts: 1) transforming pedagogy by envisioning new practices for collaborative learning, and 2) opening up the university structure so institutions can connect with each other to create what they call the Global Network for Higher Learning. These ideas challenge long accepted values about pedagogy and the fundamental infrastructure of the university.

Where will higher education look to guide innovation? How will colleges and universities choose to engage in this conversation about change and innovation? What will be needed to encourage current faculty members to chart a new course on uncertain terrain? How can future faculty be prepared to engage with and contribute ideas to fuel innovation and create the university of the 21st century?

I’m not sure if these are the right questions, but it seems like if we ignore or pass over them we participate in planning our own obsolescence.

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