Interview with Bryan Alexander

From adopting a subscription model to ensuring heterogenous conversations

Bryan Alexander is an internationally known futurist, researcher, writer, speaker, consultant, and teacher, working in the field of how technology transforms education. He completed his English language and literature PhD at the University of Michigan in 1997, with a dissertation on doppelgangers in Romantic-era fiction and poetry.

He publishes the Future Trends in Technology and Education (FTTE), a monthly report, which covers changes in education driven by technology, with the goal of helping educators, policy-makers, and the public think about the future of teaching, learning, research, and institutions.

In November of last year, Alexander changed the business model for FTTE from free to paid subscriptions, with Patreon and institutional options along with individual subscriptions.

Alexander fits a model I admire — humanities majors who bring their cultural knowledge and critical thinking chops to technology. I always look to hire people like this, and Bryan exemplifies why this makes sense.

The following interview covers a wide variety of topics, including the inception of FTTE, academia in crisis, the move to subscriptions from free, and concerns about our ability to work across divides to solve problems.


Q: I’ve seen a lot of people who earn humanities degrees leverage them into technology, with a lot of success. You’ve parlayed a PhD in English language and literature into a career as a futurist and technology expert. Take me through how your humanities training has helped you move into a thought-leadership role in technology. Is this a trend you also have seen?

Alexander: My training was in literature and critical theory.  The former taught me careful attention to language and communication, so - in theory - I should be skilled in creating and understanding documents that make up a great deal of academic work.  The latter helped me grasp the power dynamics, social contexts, and emerging trends within academia.  Critical theory as applied to lit also showed me how to integrate micro with macro analyses.

After grad school I worked as a faculty member at a liberal arts college. This gave me the additional license to explore interdisciplinary thinking. That prepared me well for futures work, which is deeply transdisciplinary. For example, in a given day my research takes me to macroeconomics, demographics, technology, pedagogy, and institutional history. Years of classroom teaching in an environment that deeply cared about student learning taught me how to carefully support group conversations and development.

Additionally, both grad school at a major research university and teaching at a small liberal arts college gave me useful case studies in how academia responds to technologies.

Q: You have a lot of online initiatives around cultivating community and educational goals. Can you walk me through how these evolved? Which ones are working the best in your opinion? Why?

Alexander: Each has had a different kind of success.

The Future Trends Forum is a weekly videoconference discussion about the future of education. For three years we’ve hosted conversations with faculty members, librarians, journalists, government officials, start-up founders, college presidents, nonprofit leaders, and technologists. Thousands of people have participated, partly because of the content, but also because of the unusual level of interaction the Forum hosts. There’s nothing quite like it in the world.

On a different level my blog (on the future of education) engages many people. Their responses occur on site, through comments, as well as by their own blog posts, comments on Twitter, emails to me, and so on.

I also run an online book club, which reads into the future of higher education. That’s included a range of nonfiction (sociology, media studies, economics, history, pedagogy) plus some near-future science fiction.

There’s more coming up in 2019.

Taken together, I call this the Future of Education Observatory (http://futureofeducation.us/).  As you can see, discussion, not just presentation, is key.  Having multiple voices from diverse backgrounds and perspectives improves our understanding of where education is headed.  Also, it seems especially important now, in a very contentious time, to be able to support such conversation.

Q: The Future Trends in Technology and Education monthly report is one of the more prominent things you do. How did this get started? What’s the story here?

Alexander: It began as a publication for a nonprofit I used to work with. It was a gazetteer of present day trends thoroughly grounded in documented evidence that, taken together and extrapolated, offered intelligence about the possible futures of higher education.

Next, I launched FTTE under my own banner about 7 years ago, and it ultimately reached an audience of thousands. Each monthly report tracks nearly 90 trends, every instance backed by at least one footnote. Over time the project developed a sense of the relative strength of each trend, improving our picture of the future.

It’s very much a community project, as people share stories for FTTE nearly daily.

In 2018, FTTE switched from being free to requiring a subscription (individual, through Patreon, or institutional), and is rapidly approaching the point of being self-sustaining.

Q: You have a four-part structure of “mega-categories” for the FTTE, with the overarching one being “The Higher Education Crisis.” Why is this a framing concept for the FTTE?

Alexander: For many people within American higher ed as well as for observers, it seems obvious that academia is in crisis mode. Many state institutions are struggling with the massive decrease in public funding (as Chris Newfield documents so well). Some private campuses wrestle with changing student expectations for majors, geography, careers, and institutional type. Overall, total enrollment has dropped every semester for the past six years.  

Not every campus is struggling, obviously. Elite colleges and universities, buoyed by reputation and/or endowments, continue to move from strength to strength. But enough have been challenged that a broader categorization of crisis is apt.

There are many trends feeding into this crisis.  The demographics of a developed society — i.e., an aging population — stress institutions depending on traditional-age undergraduates — i.e., teenagers (cf Nathan Grawe's excellent work). The economics of financializing tuition — a/k/a the enormous expansion of student debt — have also driven public anxiety. Geopolitics plays a role, notably as the Trump Administration has triggered a sudden downtick in international enrollment. And so on. It’s a multi-faceted, complex, hugely challenging crisis that marks a new era in the history of American higher ed.

I draw attention to it in this way because few people speak of the crisis in a multi-faceted way. Fewer still actually pay attention to multiple institutional types; the more common discourse involves a single academic stratum (liberal arts colleges, the Ivies, research-I universities). I hope that this approach can help people on- and off-campus think more strategically about what we can best do to survive the time, and even to thrive.

Q: You’ve recently moved to a subscription model for the FTTE. What spurred this change?

Alexander: FTTE had grown into a significant part of my workflow. Producing each report involved daily research and writing. An average issue included between 90 and 100 end notes, stood around 5,000 words, and weighed in around 2 meg.  It connected into my other work in many ways, such as providing research for my articles, books, and speeches. Ultimately, it had to support itself. A subscription model is perhaps the clearest way to establish value.

We launched the new model last fall. Within weeks dozens of individuals and institutions signed up. Sustainability is in range.

Q: You’ve also written about adding an institutional subscription option for FTTE, which seems to be successful. Can you elaborate on how this came about and how it has gone?

Alexander: This was demand driven. We initially launched the new FTTE based on individual support, either through direct payment or by Patreon. Within days came requests by individuals who wanted to have their institutions support FTTE and give their populations access to its research. We quickly researched the theme and worked with some consultants, then generated a simple institutional model: a single annual payment yielding full access for all members without DRM or IP restriction. A dozen signed on within a week: libraries, universities, businesses, non-profits, and even a school district.

Q: You seem to have expected criticism about your move to a subscription model, but none emerged. Why did you expect to be criticized? Has the lack of criticism surprised you?

Alexander: For many years I have advocated open — open access in scholarly publication, open source software, open education resources (OER), and open teaching. I have also practiced open by sharing my work with the world. With the new FTTE subscription model, I was going against this grain, taking an open product behind a paywall. It could easily seem hypocritical.

Yet nobody has taken me to task, either publicly or privately. Several have privately expressed regret that they couldn't afford the subscription, which is understandable, but not the same.

I think several factors occur here. One is that people see FTTE as a substantial research project, one that requires support. Another is that my unusual position is understood — as an independent, not backed up by an established university, business, or nonprofit. Independents have to be extremely careful with resources, especially their own time.

Q: Now that you have paying subscribers, do you feel differently putting together the FTTE? Does the fact that you have paying customers factor into your process?

Alexander: Personally? No. I have always been dedicated to my readers.

It's possible that, down the road, enough subscriptions will come in that we have to adjust workflow — i.e., hiring a designer for a new look, an editor to triple-check copy, a database manager to plow the entire back catalog into a more searchable system.

Q: In some of your writing about the move to subscription, you naturally have looked at benchmarks for conversion activity and other factors. Did you feel well-informed about how subscriptions work before you took the plunge?

Alexander: Fairly. Most research involves publications in other domains and in other registers. Discussions of conversation from free to paid tend to focus on software instead of research. And I infer that many would rather keep this information private, either from embarrassment or as a trade secret. But I was able to build up a good sense of the process before taking the plunge.

Q: How many subscriptions do you have in your life (print/online publications, online services, streaming services, technology, etc.)?

Alexander: Some. Most are unpaid, of the sort where I give some information and endure marketing. Some of those are in print, others digital.

For the business, we subscribe to Google for apps and hosting; SurveyMonkey; Mailchimp; Adobe Creative Cloud. I tend to avoid getting into most content subscriptions, because I'm not sure where that will end, given the unusual breadth of my work, but do pay for a handful that I’ve heavily drawn on.

I support a series of fellow creators on Patreon, people making research, art, music.

I have backed some Kickstarter projects.

My family subscribes to Netflix (including the nearly forgotten yet amazing DVD service), Amazon Prime (a superb thing for living in a very rural, remote location), and a local newspaper (read online).

Do you consider Steam a subscription? [Editor’s response: Quite possibly.]

Q: Anything else you’d like to add?

Alexander: It seems more difficult than it has been to host conversations with heterogeneous populations. Politically, many prefer to remain within their affiliations.  Technologically, we are flocking to closed spaces of different degrees — Facebook, unindexed by the rest of the web; mobile apps, which often tend to keep users there; email newsletters, which evade conversation; messaging services, which are unindexed. There is a rising sense that social media was a bad idea, and the response is generally not to be social in new ways. Suspicion of hyperlinks remains, as we saw with Europe's recent “link tax.” While globalization in many ways connects more of the human race than ever before, neonationalist movements champion a return to localism.

In this environment hosting conversation is therefore more challenging than it was just a few years ago. Yet it is so, so needed. We desperately need to think through these challenges to academia together, in the open as far as we can, in order to bring our intellectual firepower to bear. We cannot risk the tunnel vision that comes from narrowly confined groupthink. Beyond academia, boxing ourselves up into homophily is not good for democracy, especially as we confront vast challenges like automation and climate change.

I am very grateful to the many people who participate in our Future of Education Observatory projects. They are both generous and thoughtful. I hope they inspire others to join the conversations.

(HT to Roger Schonfeld for introducing me to Bryan. Thanks, Roger.)