Why We’re in the Prediction Business

Blackboard Screenshot

Back when I was in high school, my barber’s name was Victor the Predictor. Victor would predict anything: stock prices, football scores, weather, even crop yields. He wasn’t right very often, but that didn’t seem to stop him from delivering each set of predictions more confidently than the last. Continued failure seemed to drive him to be even more forceful in his approach.

In some ways my job is to be a bit of a predictor as well. We have to be constantly surveying the technology landscape to separate significant technology tools and techniques from the passing fads or temporary enthusiasms. Mercifully, most of my predictions are pretty private–like when I walked out of a demo in 1999 and told anyone who would listen that this wireless stuff would never catch on; it was just too slow and insecure. (I also ridiculed YouTube, which now serves up four billion videos a day, including hundreds of channels dedicated to “serious” learning.)

Sometimes, though, we’re forced to make our predictions more public, like my recent presentation to the Board of Visitors about how the web is changing teaching and learning at William & Mary. Many of the board members are knowledgeable about how technology affects their businesses and professions. However, I think a fair number had the misconception that the technology environment at William & Mary hadn’t changed all that much. My goal in my talk was to help them “unlearn” that idea, and have a better understanding of how technology had permeated teaching, learning and service at the College.

Would a Professor from 15 Years Ago Be at Home in the Classroom of Today?

My central thesis was that a faculty member magically transported from teaching a typical class 15 years ago to teaching that same class today would be entering a foreign environment. The 19” televisions installed in the corner of each classroom were gone–replaced by a projector, two remotes and a podium filled with AV equipment. Students would come to class already having read the syllabus that was posted on the demonic entity known as “Blackboard”. Blackboard itself was filled with strange references to things like blogs and wikis and YouTubes—none of which even existed fifteen years ago. Some students would adopt a common “hashtag” to share information about their courses on Twitter; others seem to be more interested in checking something called Facebook than in listening to the lecture.

In fact, the average student or faculty member uses more technology in a typical course than even our most innovative early adopters used a generation ago. Nearly half of all faculty incorporate video content into classes using YouTube or one of Swem’s video resources. Hundreds of students have experimented in sharing their writing publicly using our WordPress multiuser platform and over a thousand have wikis on our WMWikis site. Slide projectors became obsolete long before Kodak slipped into bankruptcy, and digital images are easily incorporated into classes in almost every discipline.

My Own Prediction for the Board of Visitors

My final point was a prediction of sorts. The amount of technology that a faculty member has had to learn over the last 15 years has been substantial, but the technological changes of the next decade will make those changes appear trivial. Our digital capacity, which John Seeley Brown defines as the product of increases in storage capacity, bandwidth, computer processing power, and personal networks, will be ten times greater by the end of this decade that it is now. Today’s impossible tasks-—things like natural language processing, voice recognition, subtle simultaneous translation, and finding unique patterns in vast amounts of data–will become commonplace—for computers. Many of the capabilities that we have long considered uniquely human will be transferred to machines. The shape of that transfer will have huge impacts on institutions of higher education.

If these changes are of the magnitude I think they’ll be, William & Mary will face challenges requiring leadership from the Board of Visitors and top administration, as well as from the faculty. Historically, technology leadership has begun at the grassroots level with individual faculty members experimenting with tools and techniques that eventually are integrated into “enterprise solutions”. Over the last 300 years, William & Mary has been able to proceed with a fair amount of confidence that our core definition of a well-educated citizen of the 21st century is sound. However, the next generation of educational technology is likely to challenge at least some of those core beliefs, raising new questions about what it means to teach, to learn, to be a teacher or to be a student. Responding to those challenges will require new levels of cooperation, collaboration and conversation among all members of the community about the ways we organize to support teaching and learning.

Victor the Predictor had one advantage over me; he never really had to act on his predictions. We have to make practical decisions about what hardware and software to buy, about what new services to offer and about how to respond with new demands from students and faculty for control over their digital environments. If you’re interested learning more about those kinds of issues, this blog is a good place for you to hang out.

About Gene Roche

Gene Roche is director of Academic Information Services with responsibility for assisting faculty in using technology effectively in their teaching, learning and research. He also has an academic appointment as Executive Professor in the School of Education where he teaches courses in educational technology planning, emerging technology, and adult education and works with with students on independent study, dissertations and comprehensive exams. Current projects include working with the SOE’s Executive EdD program, co-chairing William and Mary’s Survey Center, and serving as chair of the Electronic Campus of Virginia. Gene completed his AB degree at Hamilton College and his MS and EdD degrees at Syracuse University–all in the snow belt of upstate New York. Before coming to William and Mary, he was the Director of Career Services at Hamilton and taught in graduate programs in Adult Education at Syracuse University and Elmira College.


  1. Just one quick update about the prediction business. i spent a big block of time yesterday in meetings planning classrooms for the Integrated Science Center 3. The opening of the building is scheduled for 2016. Even though that is relatively soon in geologic time, I found myself having to guess about all types of things. Will all monitors have touch screen capabilities and specialized apps. I think so. Will we have wireless speeds of multiple gigabits? Likely. Will we have a virtual computer lab that will allow any student with a laptop or iPad to log in and run the most esoteric piece of research software. Almost definitely.