(Originally published on nmc.org  April 2013)

I’ve had a lot of interesting strands come together this past week as I have been pondering the next steps in our technological evolution. For the last 20 years or more we have been obsessed with transforming the real world into virtual worlds. Books have become eBooks. Magazines have become blogs. Cocktail parties have become Facebook. Meetings have become webinars, and so on. Now, however, I’m beginning to think more and more about technology bending in on itself. Our next steps will be to bleed the virtual worlds we created back into the physical world and this will reshape how we iterate the physical world.

The virtualization of everything was a trend some embraced more than others. It brought with it new opportunities to connect (from Flickr to Facebook to Twitter). Perhaps its height was the creation of virtual worlds such as Second Life. While I agree that there are huge advantages to bringing in larger, more diverse crowds, there has always been the concern that we are sacrificing depth for breadth. Marshall David Jones expressed this sentiment in his riveting poetry slam.

Jones forcefully expresses some real contradictions inherent in living in virtual spaces. I was thinking about him while working on the Horizon Report Technology Outlook for Community Colleges, when I came across an interesting article in the Toronto Globe about a professor who is building “pet rocks” using Arduino devices to physicalize social media. Consider the implications of making virtual social spaces real again and making your community extend online as well as on very real personal levels. This has implications for how we interact in education as well.

I am working with my science faculty to create a STEM-focused campus here at Houston Community College (HCC). There has always been a certain amount of resistance from the science faculty when it comes to virtualizing aspects of their curriculum. At our level of instruction, teachers need to be able to put science in the hands of their students, not just on a screen. However, I think that their wariness of mixing the virtual in with their instruction is increasingly missing the mark. There are emerging technologies exemplified by the “pet rock” project that represent a potential tipping point. They are making the virtual real.

It doesn’t stop with “pet rocks.” There are similar things going on right now from hackerspaces to Ingress where people are taking what were formerly virtual spaces and turning them into reality. As I was contemplating the science labs in our new campus, I thought the “pet rock” professor’s would be a great model. Students would be able to virtually design items and then make them real using technologies such as 3D printers or micro-computing devices such as Adruino or Raspberry Pi to test real world physical concepts. Imagine a moderated scientific hackerspace where app development meets experimentation and 3D printing meets iteration.

The promise of iteration provides a final strand to this argument. I have been thinking a lot about how to teach both our faculty and staff to become more entrepreneurial in how they approach their present and future jobs. I am convinced that this will be a critical skill moving forward as we are forced (and blessed) by technology to reinvent our jobs and ourselves repeatedly as we move forward.

Last year I stumbled across Eric Ries and his concept of the “lean” startup.

Ries makes a critical point here. He says, “if we can reduce the time between pivots we can increase the chances of success before we run out of money.” Or, in the educational context, before we run out of time. After all, in the immortal words of Billy Crystal in Spinal Tap, “Mime is money.”

Ries argues that technology is helping us reduce the time between pivots and therefore, assuming we can pivot quickly, our chances of success in any entrepreneurial effort go up. Technology hardware is becoming cheaper and cheaper. Raspberry Pi and Arduino units go for much less than $50. You can get a 3D printer for $1000. Software is becoming more accessible too, as simple programs are easier and easier to create and implement using mobile devices or the aforementioned hardware devices.

Teaching and entrepreneurism have a lot in common. A colleague of mine likes to argue that one of the reasons that it is so hard to manage faculty is that it is like managing an organization of entrepreneurs. The problem I often run into is that faculty fail to see how technology can improve their entrepreneurial efforts in the classroom. Instead, they often see it as limiting their scope for action or as a mechanism to oversee and control how they teach. However, there are a lot of parallels between what Ries is talking about and teaching. We have a limited quantity of time with which to interact with our students. Semesters end before you know it. The question is how many times can you pivot before you lose them.

Let’s go back to the idea of scientific hackerspaces. Science is fundamentally about trial and error, and the best way to get students to understand this is by allowing them to experiment and fail. The problem is that every pivot requires an initial failure, and we don’t do a good job of rewarding failure in higher education. We are also constantly up against the clock and calendar when it comes to allowing our students to fail within the context of an academic semester. It’s much easier for the instructor to drill them on the “right” answer and enable them to “pass” some sort of evaluation. This is a tried and true method that doesn’t teach our students the key tenets of entrepreneurism that will be critical to their future success. If you have any doubt about this watch this 2007 TED talk from Alan Kay:

The solution here is to make pivots much less costly in terms of time. Let’s assume our scarcity is the amount of time given to us in a given academic term (usually 48 contact hours). How quickly can we iterate physical concepts in that time and what can we do to maximize those iterations? This is where we get back to the promise of making concrete the virtual. If students can quickly program or design physics experiments virtually and then test them in the real world, we can maximize the number of pivots they could have in any kind of course requiring experimentation (and almost all courses, science or otherwise, should require some sort of experimentation). This would also have the beneficial side effect of teaching entrepreneurial, computing, and design skills critical to many occupations in today’s world.

The problem with many traditional science labs is that the inflexibility of the equipment often steers students toward predictable outcomes. What the new technology/employment environment demands, however, is people willing to create unpredictable outcomes and to be able to assess them creatively. Fortunately, this is also a core tenet of the scientific method and therefore something that we need to encourage our students to do.

A final exciting possibility that this opens up the possibility of a completely new kind of mashup. Until recently we tended to think of mashups in terms of visual or audio media. We can now start to think of them in terms of creating physical objects. This takes the concept of mashups out of the English classroom and opens them up in new ways to STEM disciplines. Remember that all fundamental breakthroughs in science are mashups. Newton’s Principia was a mashup of the thinking of Gallileo, Kepler, and many other theorists who had been struggling with the new cosmology for a century before Newton did a mashup and added his own innovations. Shouldn’t we be creating learning spaces that enable everyone to be a Newton?

Again, imagine a science campus that is more of a hackerspace than what we traditionally imagine science labs to be. In this space students and faculty will be enabled to create, fail, and recreate. It will require close cooperation between computer science and the natural sciences, but isn’t this what we are striving for in STEM in the first place?

I would leave you with one last question that is critical to the success of this kind of model: Can we graft an entrepreneurial maker culture onto our educational processes? I think we can. I think we have to.