Rich DeMillo spoke at the American University Library Digital Futures Forum last week  The subject was the transformational power of media and how digital literacy is changing higher education.  Rich’s talk focused on the speed with which incumbents can be swept aside in the face of social, economic and political changes: traditional universities have been slow to recognize that change.  Rich used Massive Open Online Courses as a metaphor for mentoring and peer-to-peer learning when online technologies are used intelligently.  His conclusion?  There is actually nothing very radical about a MOOC, and existing technologies are already being deployed widely.

Watch the video here.

The session concluded with a panel discussion.

  • Laura DeNardis, Associate Professor, School of Communication
  • Jill Klein, Information Technology Executive in Residence, Kogod School of Business
  • Christopher Simpson, Professor of Journalism, School of Communication
  • Moderator: Alex Hodges, Assistant Director for Library Instruction, University Library


In a few days I will publish a short comment on the difference between Big Fixes in higher education and Small Fixes. Big fixes are things like policy changes at the federal and state level. When Big Fixes go wrong, there is no way to predict how systems will fail.  No Child Left Behind was a Big Fix, and the damages are still unfolding.

Technology innovations are Small Fixes. I’m not talking about new technology that force-fits a 16th century educational system into a hyper-techno contraption.  I’m talking about innovative things that are not obvious and may not even have an obvious application to education. Most iPad apps are Small Fixes for some bigger problem. Small Fixes are important precisely because you can assemble a lot of them and stand back while some invisible hand fishes out the ones that actually add value. Blogging is a Small Fix for higher education.

I was preparing for a class on nanotechnology a few years ago, and I needed an example to illustrate how much heat would be generated by a wide scale deployment of cell-sized nano-computers.  I wanted the class to calculate the energy dissipation of a film of these little computers on all paved roads in the US. But how many miles of paved roads are there?

I looked through atlases, online maps and more websites for departments of transportation than I care to remember.  In the end I took a stab at it:  2 million miles more or less. It was a case of misplaced priorities.  No one but me really cared what the right number was (or even if there was a right number).  I was anticipating that some wiseguy graduate student would want to know where the number came from.  That never happened.  It was a waste of time.

I was reminded at some point in this literal journey through the back roads of America that my old friend and colleague Alan Perlis had the knack of pulling computational examples like this out of thin air. “How many bricks are there in New York City?” he would ask during an oral exam, and then he would sit back and watch the gears turn. Well-oiled gears would tune in quickly to an interesting line of reasoning.  That was the point.  Not-so-well-oiled gears would cause of a lot of embarrassed thrashing.

I vaguely remember wondering, “What would be the value of being able to create and re-create many examples with a sort of search engine for computational knowledge?” I thought nothing more about it until I stumbled upon WolframAlpha, a “computational knowledge engine” from the company that distributes Mathematica. WolframAlpha is a website, and the first thing you should do when you land there is to type in a question.  So I asked how many miles of paved roads there are in the U.S. You can see the result above. In addition to the answer itself, you get a plausible chain of reasoning that leads you to that answer.

Here is what Stephen Wolfram says about WolframAlpha:

Realistically, though, we haven’t been “discovered” yet in even a small fraction of the areas we cover. We don’t know the whole process by which that happens (and it would make a fascinating study), but somehow, gradually, different areas of Wolfram|Alpha functionality do seem to be “discovered”, and progressively build up larger and larger followings.

This is really the essence of a Small Fix.  Wolfram points out that an engine like this has been the dream of philosophers for centuries.  An “assistant” who assembles knowledge in context. Leibniz’s idea was to accelerate the pace of inquiry. As one of the comments on Wolfram’s blog says:

Every once in a while I can’t help but think that Liebniz must be having a party in his grave!

What impact might WolframAlpha have on education?  Maybe none, but there’s almost no cost to finding out. I can’t help but think that Leibniz would have found a way to say, “Cool!”

The first thing you notice is the chaos.  There is no one in charge. No place to go to find out what to do. There was a time when Apple stores did not have blue-t-shirt greeters at the front door.  You just had to stand there, trying to make sense of the clusters of customers, gawkers, helpers, facilitators, and salesmen.  Everyone  seemed to be either milling around or hustling off someplace with a sense of purpose, while you just stood there wondering what to do next. My first experience with a MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) was like that.

I was writing the chapter on open learning in Abelard to Apple when I noticed that a group of Canadian learning technologists and innovators, led by George Siemens, Stephen Downes and David Cormier were organizing a course that was open to the world.  Here is how I described it in Abelard to Apple:

Open-ended college courses are uncommon, but not for any pedagogical reason. There is no theory that dictates how college degree programs should be chopped into courses or how many semesters there should be, except that everything should work out to be just long enough to fit the required number of credits. Many institutions offer “Maymester” terms that fit between spring and summer and last two or three weeks. Advanced material is sometimes taught in small recitation groups and is spread over several semesters because there are as of yet no textbooks in the field and therefore no natural course boundaries. The length of a college course is a number that is chosen arbitrarily, and it varies from place to place.

Attendance is also a loosely defined idea for most college courses. In Europe, where completion of course requirements is determined by final examinations, attendance has no meaning at all, and students feel free to drop in when it suits them. Even in American classrooms, instructors rarely take attendance, and the only evidence that regular attendance affects learning is purely anecdotal.

There is no scientific reason that universities have not organized their curricula around Erdös-style open-ended courses. In 2008, George Siemens, a professor at Athabasca University—the Canadian version of Britain’s Open University—and a research scientist for the Canadian National Research Council named Stephen Downes decided to offer a course on a theory of learning that they call Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, or CCK. CCK is a long tail concept, a pedagogical theory asserting that learning takes place as students discover how to navigate the interconnected networks across which knowledge is distributed. Their course was about CCK and simultaneously used CCK as the primary teaching method. It was offered again in 2009, and eventually attracted several thousand students.

I not only wandered into a MOOC, but I also was handed a blue t-shirt, one of those black id tags on a lanyard, and a mobile phone so that I can connect new arrivals to people who can actually help them. This happened last year when George sent me an email asking whether I was interested in participating in a new MOOC that he was organizing.  This one was about change in higher education. He wanted to call it, appropriately enough, “Change, Education, Learning, and Technology.”  I said, “Sure!”.

Here’s where the Change MOOC lives.  Actually, it lives lots of places.  You can find it here as well. And if you are a member of the Georgia Tech community you can also find it here. There are Twitter feeds that you can find with the hash tag #change11. There is even a virtual study group at  Change11 is just entering its 5th week, and there is already more content than I can track.  I find myself paging though FlipBook late at night just to see what’s up.

Who’s taking the course?  It’s really impossible to say because many of the thousands who have registered already never say who they are or participate in the online discussions.  But many hundreds do. They are mainly teachers, and they come from elementary and secondary schools around the world.  There are also a fair number of educational consultants, bloggers, and professors who do research in education and educational technology.  Conversational clusters self-organize. There are fights that crop up among groups that hold differing positions on important issues, and there are a few water balloons that are lobbed between groups.  There are trouble makers, and serious students, casual observers and opinion-makers.

Who’s missing? People who should be getting comfortable with the disruptive forces in higher education. There are almost no university administrators or technology managers.   EDUCAUSE is nowhere to be seen.  There are dozens of websites that devoted to studying and commenting on policy issues, but if they are aware of Change11, they are silent about it.

Is Change11 or MOOC-fication the wave of the future? Probably not.  It’s an experiment.  It is no more likely to be predictive of what the future of higher education will be like than Stanford’s open course on Artificial Intelligence. Like all experiments, success is not the important factor. One thing is certain: higher ed desperately needs innovation and the only way to innovate is to try out a lot of ideas.

I was attracted to the MOOC concept because it illustrated a narrative that I was constructing for my book, but I was drawn into the idea of the course by the Greeters who assured me that the whole point of being there was to navigate  concepts and discussions that were meaningful to me.

So now I find myself greeting new arrivals with: “Hi, I’m Rich. Can I help you find what you need?”

If you are lost already — if you feel like you have jumped into the middle of a conversation — then let me suggest that you click on the video above.

TechBurst Competition 2011

Share what you know…


: ( noun ‘tek’berst ) a short, sharable video that explains a single topic or concept in a particularly entertaining and compelling way. The best TechBursts are viewed thousands of times.

TechBurst Competition 2011

:help to populate the TechBurst library and to recognize the most creative Yellow Jacket mentors. If you worked hard to understand a difficult concept and have a novel way of explaining it to your classmates, share what you know in the 2011 TechBurst Competition. Participants will produce their own videos and leave them behind for future Yellow Jackets. The best videos will be viral Internet hits. Winners will receive $5,000 in cash prizes and gifts.

The Rules of TechBursts

:there are only four rules of TechBursts

  1. They are short (no more than 10 minutes)
  2. They are creative (nobody will watch boring TechBursts)
  3. They are self-contained (your classmates will put them together in unpredictable ways)
  4. They are meant to be shared (you are leaving a legacy to make life a little better for those who follow

Where to Find Examples of TechBursts

:there are no TechBursts today. Soon there will be hundreds of them, and yours will be the examples that other students use. For examples of bursts that people in other parts of the world are creating, try visiting Kahn Academy ( or The RSA (

How to Create TechBursts

:you will probably invent your own approach to creating TechBursts. Technology is important, but you can get started with simple tools that are freely available on the web (see


:current Georgia Tech undergraduate or graduate students can enter individually or in teams. A student can be a part of as many individual or team submissions as he or she wants.

Expressing Interest, Intent to Compete & Registration

:individual students and student teams must complete one TechBurst Topic Registration Form per submission. These forms can be completed between October 1 and October 30, 2011.

Register here

How the Competition Works

:semi-finalists will be selected on the basis of creativity and clarity. Semifinalists will submit rough videos to a panel of judges who will select a group of finalists. Finalist videos will be uploaded to a TechBurst YouTube channel for the world to see. Winning videos will be determined by combining crowd sourced reviews and ratings with the reviews of an expert panel. Winners will be announced at the 2012 C21U Presidential Forum.

Production Assistance

:individuals and teams are free to use any technology at their disposal to produce their TechBurst video. In fact, the more creative, the better. Finalists will have access to the Georgia Tech’s Distance Learning and Professional Education studios and facilities. If you think you will need access to production assistance please indicate on the registration form. The Georgia Tech Library also has facilities that are open to all students that may be helpful.


  • $2,500 – First Place
  • $1,000 – Second Place
  • $500   – Third Place
  • $1,000 – People’s Choice Award for Innovation
  • * prizes divided up equally to members of ad hoc teams


In “Dancing with the Stars” I talked about what a classroom with 10,000 students might be like. The transformation of higher education has begun, and the pace of that change is accelerating.

Dick Lipton’s blog Godel’s Lost Letter has since attracted tens of thousands more.  It is a virtual seminar that, for example, coordinated a global effort to referee an important paper in the theory of algorithms.  At times, the number of viewers topped 100,000. Now Stanford’s Peter Norvig and Sebastian Thrun are offering an online course in artificial intelligence that will enroll 58,000 students.

On September 12, I will join with 60 or so colleagues to offer a MOOC for tens of thousands of students.  Georgia Tech  students will get credit, and others will get badges that could be convertible to credit if they ever enroll at Tech.  Other institutions will announce their approaches to certifying achievement in the course. A MOOC is a Massive Open Online Course, a style of college-level teaching that was pioneered by George Siemens and Stephen Downes. The first MOOC, offered in 2008 by George and Stephen was devoted to the subject of their research, a style of learning called connected connectivism. It attracted 10,000 students.

The 2011-12 MOOC is all about transforming university learning and the organizers hope it will attract a much wider global audience.  They are calling it the Mother of all MOOCS.

The course will also be a C21U experiment on self-certification, a concept I discussed in my book. Where will this all lead?  It’s far too soon to predict an outcome, but within the last year, the number of experiments in higher education has exploded.  If you believe like me that innovative change is just what traditional colleges and universities need, that’s a good thing. The way to innovate is to try out lots of ideas.

Even casual iTunes™ users know about iTunesU™, the increasingly rich video-taped course offerings from universities as great as Stanford and Oxford and as humble as the dozens of community colleges and adult education programs that make their curricula available for free downloading. I should have seen it coming in the spring of 2001 when Charles Vest – then president of MIT – paid me a visit at HP to tell me of his plans to make MIT’s entire course catalog available for download on the internet, but I was not thinking much about Higher Education as a market in those days.

Things changed in late 2002 when I started to draw a paycheck from a university and began to think hard about the fate of American colleges and universities in the 21st century.  What Chuck Vest predicted one afternoon in my Palo Alto office is now being played out in what I believe is the next economic bubble.  This is quite literally the collision of that half of the earth’s population that has in the last decade joined the free market economy with the inwardly focused world of  Americah higher education, which – unless there are some dramatic changes – is destined to be a marginalized bystander to events that it is ill-equipped to understand.  Here is the stark reality: enhanced technology means that the market for higher education now has many suppliers, and the  hundreds of millions of people who all of a sudden want a university education also find that they have abundant choices, often with lower cost and high quality.    In any market with abundant choices, the winners are inevitably those with compelling brands, price, or value.  There are about 3,500 accredited colleges and universities in the US, and, except for the handful (less than a hundred) who have global brands, most of them have not figured out how to deliver their value at an acceptable price.  In fact, an alarming large number of them cannot even articulate their value to the world that is rushing toward them.  That spells trouble. I will have much more to say about WWC and higher education in later posts.

I am working on a book on this topic so these problems are much on my mind these days, but an email message from a colleague prompted me write that there may be a series of smaller collisions rather than a single cataclysm.

There is a lot of criticism about the quality of iTunesU lectures and online courses.  Some criticism can be dismissed as an “innovator’s dilemma” confusion of the current state  — much of it admittedly primitive – of the technology with its disruptive power.  I find this criticism easy to dismiss because you can see quality of online instruction improving month by month.  Never underestimate the power of technology curves.  The more difficult question is how exactly the technology can replace a skilled human mentor who has ability to interact directly with her students.

Then two e-mails from my friend Dick Lipton showed up.  “Hit 7,000 page views today!” said the first one.  A few hours later: “We were number 20 on WordPress!”  That’s 20 out of roughly 3 million WordPress posts.  Dick is a world-class computational theorist, a member of the National Academy of Engineering and one of the best teachers I have ever known.  He is a star.  He has been blogging pure math for the last year at a website called “G̈ödel’s Lost Letter¨.  Not exactly the stuff you would expect to be in the top  .0007% of all of those posts about Michael Jackson, Death Panels, and the 2016 Olympics.  His latest series “Reasons for Believing P = NP” has been exceptionally popular, drawing hundreds of comments from experts, novices, interested amateurs, and a few cranks.  We have been collaborators for many years. Our offices used to share a common wall.  I know Dick’s voice when he is engaged with his students.  It has a distinctive rhythm and is louder when he is trying to extract a missing argument from a reluctant pupil.  It was the voice I heard when I read his blog, and as I thought about his 7,000 viewers it occurred to me that Dick’s seminar was no longer 10 or 15 graduate students crowded around a white board.  This is not an on-line lecture or an iTunes™ videos. I thought, “This is what the teacher-mentor relationship is like when the technology enables a classroom of 7,000 students.”  When there are abundant choices, students will choose this.