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How I Missed the Future!

John PisapiaTwo years ago I entered my classroom and a student asked if her baby sister, a twenty two year old undergraduate student at the University of Florida (UF), could sit in the back of the room. Her reason for this request was that it was a holiday weekend and many public spaces on campus were closed.  She explained that her sister who was on break from UF would be attending a family function after class as a surprise guest.  So she needed to hide out for awhile. I said no problem; she could hide in my class since some of my own students were also hiding out; and I began class.

Later in the session I had my students involved in group discussion on a case and as I walked around the room I noticed the sister had her ear phones on and was engaged in the content on her computer; I walked over to see what captured her interest. What I saw was a person talking with a white board and overheads.  I was intrigued and asked her what she was watching.  She said she was viewing the lecture for the class that she was missing because she had to visit her family. I thought - what an interesting idea – thought nothing more about it - and went back to my class.  

Why is this story important?  I had just seen the future but missed the signal.  Two years after this encounter, the New York Times ran a feature entitled Learning in the Dorm. The piece told the story of a student who liked to sleep in rather than get to an early class even though the class was five minutes from his dorm room. It seems as though he just flipped open his laptop in his dorm room and watched the lecture which was streamed live over the campus network. Amid the clothes, backpacks, and snacks, the student took notes as the professor lectured. The article explained that in many cases E-learning was based on the simple principle of economics: 1,500 undergraduates at UF are enrolled in this delivery system and there was no need to build new buildings to hold them all. Across the USA 4.6 million students took college level courses online in fall 2008 while many of them were enrolled in face to face courses at public institutions. At UF 12 percent of student credits are online during the fall 2010 semester and it is expected to grow to 25 percent in five years.

What connects these two events?  As some of you know I am leading the Strategic Thinking protocol in my college to develop our future direction.  One of the steps in the protocol is to listen to externals describe the challenges and opportunities confronting our college.  One of those individuals was the President of our University. The protocol for our listening meetings is to allow our guest to describe their perceptions of the challenges and opportunities confronting our college. I then follow up with some probing questions and the open it up to faculty and administrators in attendance. The whole event takes 45 minutes and is video casted around our different campuses.  Faculty members provide me with their perceptions at the end of the session and I develop a summary which becomes part of the information we review as we move through the protocol.

In her remarks, the President said that the University must grow to 40,000 students to have adequate funding. This growth needed to primarily come from undergraduate programs, and that successfully attaining that growth would be beneficial to our graduate programs. The President then noted the strength of the technology infrastructure at the university and proposed that it would support an E-learning initiative. She offered that E-learning was the wave of the future and that the quality of E-learning had been established and no longer an issue, and furthermore many students preferred this mode of delivery. Of course it raises other questions such as to how much of a student’s education and academic and personal growth depends on face to face interactions with instructors and fellow students. Obviously the President did not miss the future!  She found it, recognized it, and strategically decided to position our University to take advantage of the opportunity afforded by new technological developments.

What truly connects these two events is the keystone habit of AGILITY. People who possess it can adjust to many situations and overcome rigidity of fixed mindsets which are ineffective in dealing with new situations.  What causes us to miss or recognize the future? In my case it could have been that I did not have positional responsibility and wasn’t looking for the future in the back of my classroom; or I might have been biased and preferred face to face interaction with students; or it could have been that the mental models that form my mindset were preventing me to see this future. In the President’s case she had a responsibility to know when to “jump the curve.”
                                           John Pisapia 2010

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