I’m back from a challenging and invigorating and even relaxing 2 weeks in Europe, where I spoke at the JISC CETIS edutechs conference in UK and the Mozilla Drumbeat Festival in Barcelona.

I’ll be chronicling some of my take-homes from the conferences and the state of higher ed in Europe, but right now I wanted to get up a little post about 11/9, when I Skyped in from my hotel room in Almeria, an extremely charming city on the Mediterranean in Spain’s Costa del Sol, to John Maeda‘s monthly meeting of executives at RISD. Here is a picture John shot of the scene.

John Maeda is this incredibly visionary and playful thinker across a host of disciplines–design, art, technology–who finds himself in the unusual role of an academic administrator. No disrespect, but I get the sense it’s a little bit like having Willy Wonka in charge of some civil service bureaucracy. Nevertheless he has an extremely strong team around him, clearly, with a range of strengths, and they had all read the book and we traded some interesting observations.

First of all, John was at MIT when the Open Courseware program got started, and he pointed out to me something crucial that I neglected to mention when discussing the program, namely, that professors were paid directly, a few thousand bucks, for the work of putting their classes up on the web. Incentives are good when you’re persuading people to try new technologies!

Second, they asked me what I thought about how an old-school institution like RISD should adapt to these new possibilities for technologies in teaching, learning, and interacting.

I said I thought the most important thing was to figure out how every student can get their work out onto the open web to join the global community of practice of designers, to begin to learn how to use the web to collaborate, to innovate and improve their techniques, get feedback and of course to build a portfolio for jobs. That this should not be the exceptional achievement of a few students but it should be the basic expectation of every student. But this is not something that RISD administrators and faculty should figure out how to do on their own. They should involve their students in the process of figuring out the best way to do this, the best tools to use, the best practices to adopt. Assignment can be open ended; create a digital portfolio and get 100 people to interact with it. You can use a wiki, Blogger, Flickr, Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, Behance, LinkedIn, on and on…Students are the digital natives and should lead the way.

Secondly, RISD should think about adopting technologies in ways that are congruent with their mission. When it comes to faculty, faculty are like anyone else–they use technology when it helps THEM do something they want to do BETTER. When it makes teaching easier, not harder. When it makes it easier to connect with their students. When they can hold virtual office hours and spend more time at home with their families, or when they can put together a 500-image slideshow from crowdsourced images in a matter of minutes and have more time to prepare their lectures, or when students view TED Talks at home on their own time and come prepared for a livelier class discussion in small groups instead of teachers having to lecture for 50 minutes.

Many of us–and John laughed when I said this–are fanboys and fangirls. We get obsessed with the gadget, the app, the widget itself for its own sake. But that’s not a recipe for a lasting broad adoption of technology.

That technology when it really succeeds becomes like electricity. It disappears. You don’t think, “I am now connecting to the national electric grid, wow, cool!!” You just flip the switch, and it works.

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