For a futurist pushing the technological boundaries of higher education, Bryan Alexander looks like he emerged from a distant, possibly fictional past. On this day, he has come from the rural backwoods of Vermont to visit his alma mater. Strolling across the University of Michigan campus in Ann Arbor, dark hair trailing past his shoulders and an impressive gray-streaked beard unfurling down his chest, he projects an aura of wisdom. Squint and you might even catch a glimpse of a shorter Rubeus Hagrid, of Harry Potter fame.
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His education futurist work emanates from a homestead in Ripton, Vermont (population 588), where he lives and works with his wife, Ceredwyn, chief operating officer of their consulting business, and two college-age children. It’s also where he frequently uses an ax to chop wood for exercise and to burn for heat.
Looking around UofM, one of the top public universities in the country, the 51-year-old sees possibilities of massive change across higher education. He believes on-demand tutors should be used instead of full-time faculty for low-level science classes and that language classes can be replaced by online tools such as Duolingo. “It’s good pedagogy, and it might save a lot of money,” he says. Alexander also promotes the use of “digital storytelling” — applying digital tools to courses to boost engagement between students and teachers. This can include the use of video gaming, online virtual reality environments, podcasting and social media to offer what is called an “immersive narrative,” as opposed to a typical lecture.
I’m optimistic about learning, but often pessimistic about educational institutions.
Sound too newfangled for the ivy-clad residence halls of your favorite university? Well, dismiss him at your peril, because he was teaching students to comment by email, rather than pen, back when many considered the internet a fad.
“Bryan Alexander is one of the very few futurists who lives up to the name,” says Howard Rheingold, a veteran digital culture forecaster and author who has followed his work ever “since [Alexander] used the internet and multimedia to teach the Vietnam War, years before educational technology became popular,” Rheingold adds. “It’s hard to keep up with him.”
At UofM, Alexander earned a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in English, along with a Ph.D. in 18th-century English literature. “I was really bored, frustrated and depressed by high school,” he says. “When I got here, it was like a giant switch flicked on in my brain. Suddenly the academics were challenging and interesting. It was like coming home.”
In the composition and literature classes he taught during his graduate and doctoral studies at UofM in the 1990s, Alexander got his first taste of the promise of technology when he had students comment on each other’s papers via email instead of using paper and pen in class — a method unheard of at the time. Surprisingly, they were more apt to address things like grammar, style and word choice. “The technology doubled their ability to write,” Alexander says.
He left for an assistant English professorship at Centenary College of Louisiana, where he spent six years teaching literature and writing classes on war, Gothic fiction, the British and multimedia. He also taught students how to make web pages and handle multimedia documents, conducted a multicampus class in technology and integrated video conferencing and computer gaming into his classes. Next, he took on a senior fellow position with the National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education in Middlebury, Vermont. For 10 years, he shared ed tech best practices with small liberal arts colleges throughout the Northeast. When more frequent requests came in to speak outside of that sector — from community colleges, research universities and military campuses — he took the plunge into self-employment in 2013.
His gig now? Researching, writing, speaking, consulting, teaching and striving to stay at the forefront of a global ed tech market that tallied $ 17.7 billion in revenue last year and is expected to grow to $ 40.9 billion by 2022 (according to Research and Markets). He leaves his ax behind and hits the road for conferences and workshops — as many as six times per month, with recent travels to Singapore, Iceland, Malta and Finland, sharing his ed tech gospel with thousands. In between, Alexander blogs prolifically, publishes a monthly newsletter, hosts a weekly online videoconferencing forum, manages an online book club and furiously responds to social media comments. He has authored two books on education, with a third in progress.
He’s lately been writing about what he refers to in chess lingo as “queen sacrifices,” the “sadly dark theme” of discontinued humanities programs and liberal arts colleges. Institutions are replacing full-time professors with part-time adjuncts to save money, he laments, but end up spending more on building upkeep and administration. Alexander is all about emerging technologies but also fights to preserve classical education, believing there’s a smarter balancing act to be had.
Whether he’s standing in front of eager educators or sitting at the keyboard, Alexander prods academic leaders to adopt and enhance data analytics, learning management systems, open education resources, mobile technologies, social media, virtual/augmented reality, artificial intelligence and digital storytelling to improve the educational experience for students. Among his 100 consulting clients are the University of Puget Sound in Washington (social media in the classroom), Colby College in Maine (learning with mobile devices), St. Michael’s College in Vermont (also mobile) and Kenyon College in Ohio (digital storytelling applications).
“I think Bryan is more institutionally focused than I am,” says Stephen Downes, a specialist in online learning technology and new media from the National Research Council Canada. Downes believes that “we need to look at these technologies with some caution as well as some hope. Overall, I think they’ll improve the lives of people, not by improving institutions, but rather by improving people’s ability to fend for themselves without having to rely on institutions.”
Alexander also has doubts about houses of higher learning. “I’m optimistic about learning, but often pessimistic about educational institutions,” he says. “This is the best time in human history to be a learner. We have so much access, but college and university business models are often straining at the seams.” Rather than seeing these online tools as a way to make money or replace traditional models, Alexander sees them as a way to supplement the brick-and-mortar campus experience. When he thinks of Transforming the University in the 21st Century — the title of his next book — Alexander sees places like his beloved Ann Arbor shifting but still standing.
Five Questions for Bryan Alexander
What is the last book you finished? To the Last Man: Spring 1918 by Lyn MacDonald.
What do you worry about? I worry about the possibility of an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) blanking out all electrical devices. It is almost unmentionable for some people because it is so frightening. I worry about the possibility of civil strife in the U.S. I worry about the consequences of sustained income inequality. I also worry that we won’t seize the advantage of the creative possibilities of our technologies in our world.
What can’t you live without? I was going to say my cats, but that’s too easy. So, a laptop.
Who is your hero? Sir Tim Berners-Lee for changing human history with one blow. I’m waiting for us to erect statues to him around the world.
One item on your bucket list? Traveling on the Trans-Siberian Railway.