Davidson, C and Goldberg, D. (2010) The Future of Thinking: Learning Institutions in a Digital Age Chicago: The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

The book itself is an attempt at collaborative, digital publishing, with early drafts made public for comment and suggestions, using ‘a new digital tool, called CommentPress, [that] allowed readers to open a comment box for any paragraph of the text and to type in a response, and then allowed subsequent readers to add additional comments’.

The authors (academics from Duke University and the University of California at Irvine) state (p.49) that:

This book advocates institutional change because our current formal educational institutions are not taking enough advantage of the modes of digital and participatory learning available to students today. 

The book is organized as follows:

1   Introduction and Overview: The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age

2    Customized and Participatory Learning

3    Our Digital Age: Implications for Learning and Its (Online) Institutions

4    FLIDA 101: A Pedagogical Allegory

5   Institutions as Mobilizing Networks

6    HASTAC: A Case Study of a Virtual Learning Institution as a Mobilizing Network

7    (In)Conclusive: Thinking the Future of Digital Thinking

Over the first three chapters the authors make a powerful argument as to why digital technology requires fundamental shifts in post-secondary teaching and institutional organization. They dissect the weakness of the current dominant paradigm of learning based on ‘lockstep national standards and standardized testing,’ and argue for learning based on collaboration, networking, and self-learning.

Chapter 4 presents a fictional scenario of a collaborative, cross-institutional, inter-disciplinary program on – guess what – ‘The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age’, delivered via Second Life, and then proceed to demonstrate why it would be impossible to implement this program in the current university context.

In Chapter 5, the authors provide a new perspective on institutions which they define as follows:

Institutions are mobilizing networks. They aggregate, coordinate, disperse, balance, and adjudicate complex flows of resources. Institutions are also social, political, and economic structures prompting a culture of their own. They embody protocols of governance and varying degrees of control over their members. Institutions validate and impose norms, practices, and beliefs, seeking to ensure orderly interchange through normative interactions…..Institutions may occupy a primary site and exercise jurisdiction over constituents. Institutional sites may be concrete or virtual, and jurisdiction may be legal or social and ideological… This working definition has been especially useful in thinking through the full implications of what a peer-to-peer institution might look like. Of key importance is its motivational premise pointing to the institution’s role as a mobilizing network.

They then give some examples of such ‘mobilizing networks’: the Urban Education Institute (a partnership between the Chicago public school system and the University of Chicago); the Sustainable South Bronx project in New York City; the Waag Society in Amsterdam, the Hayden planetarium of New York’s Museum of Natural History, plus a whole chapter on HASTAC  (the Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory.) ‘In all of these institutional instances, a form of learning radiates outward from traditional institutions and inward from other less-usual kinds, mobilizing and invigorating both in such creative ways that it is difficult to define the borders of one or another.’ 

The book ends with 10 principles for the future of learning organizations:

  • self-learning
  • horizontal structures
  • from presumed authority to collective credibility
  • a decentered pedagogy
  • networked learning
  • open source and open accessed education
  • learning as connectivity and interactivity
  • lifelong learning
  • learning institutions as mobilizing networks


This is a publication that I approached with enormous anticipation. Indeed it does have a number of strengths, but also some very serious weaknesses.

The publication is almost a bible or primer on the importance and necessity of digital learning. There are interesting discussions around authorship, intellectual property, the dominant educational paradigm and its unsuitability for a digital age, and many other issues that are the consequence of the digital age.

None of their arguments I would disagree with, but like many such treatises, it does go on and on (200 pages of it). There is an enormous amount of repetition and preaching to the converted. At times it reads more like a political pamphlet for the net generation.  In particular, it is very verbose, which I hate to say is the likely result of the additional comments and contributions from many different sources resulting from ‘opening up’ the draft for general comment.

While I would support the authors’ arguments in general, I can’t see this publication being read by those who don’t see the need for change, and if they do read it, it’s unlikely to convince them. What isn’t tackled in this publication is the difficult issue of the difference between academic knowledge and everyday knowledge. Unless that challenge is accepted, traditional academics are unlikely to buy into the forms of learning that are often associated with social media and other aspects of digital learning. (I’m not arguing that social media are inappropriate for academic learning, but the case wasn’t made here.)

What was most disappointing for me was the failure to take the ideas of digital learning and show how institutions we know as universities or colleges could change. Allegories are all very well, but not when the authors admit they would be impossible to implement in today’s university. The issue is never really addressed as to whether something we would still recognize as a university could be organized, restructured or re-designed to not just accommodate but be the very essence of digital learning. All the examples given are really partnerships between traditional institutions and non-traditional institutions. These are valuable in their own right, but do not define at least a higher education institution in the digital age. In the end, I felt the authors couldn’t really let go of the traditional institution.

In summary then, the authors provide a framework or philosophy for digital learning, which in itself is valuable, but not the architecture or the engineering that would enable institutions fully to embrace digital learning. But then, that would be a daunting task for anyone (or network).



  1. Thanks so much for this. It is a very helpful review. I appreciate the summary and the candor. But one critique you raise is actually unfounded: it is readable, definitely not by the general public but by administrators and policy makers. It has been downloaded thousands of times, including by deans, provosts, presidents, and even whole faculties. It is making a difference.

    You were astute with the comment that repetition comes from incorporating all the participatory comments. It does. On the other hand, for the un-converted, we find that the repetition actually helps to make points that we think have been made over and over but that most people (i.e. the unconverted) still don’t understand at all. I don’t disagree with you, just want to assure you that our target audience was, among others, change makers within higher ed and, for them, the slowness seems to be working.

    The “allegory” is because we found, in our many focus groups that built up the book, that people who are not “converted” don’t even see the problem unless you walk through it step by step. The allegory was to allow people to see the ways their own institutions preclude change without major, determined, structural restructuring. We also wanted to give people inspiration that, as “mobilizing networks,” those who are dedicated to change within institutions can explain the problem and help colleagues to find answers. Is this a whole solution? Not at all. But there isn’t one. Every institution (thus the allegory) has specific problems. Mine at a private university like Duke are different than David’s at a huge state university so we hoped the specificity would help change at a range of universities. People have to work from the place they live in, not some abstract space.

    Needless to say, all the work we do with P2PU and other after school programs are “nontraditional” but the point of this book was to spur education within traditional settings. Tune in at dmlcentral for lots of research and information that happen in other places.

    I also have a trade book, Now You See It: How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn that is for a more general audience. I’m on book tour now. Together, these other sources might address some of the wise and right concerns you raise but that are outside the scope of the book.

    • Hi, Cathy

      Many thanks for this comment – much appreciated.

      I too am anxious to bring about change in traditional settings, and am very aware of the barriers to change (we took a proposal for the first online masters program in my research university through 27 committee meetings before it got approval – it is now the flagship program in the school.) But that’s my point. There are examples of change in even traditional universities. The problem is getting the change to spread throughout the whole institution, and to learn from that in terms of needed structural change. I guess this is what I was perhaps unreasonably looking for in your book: successful examples or models of institutional change.

      On the other hand, I think your book is terrific in laying out why institutions should change, and how that will manifest itself in terms of teaching and learning.

      I am participating in the #Change 11 MOOC next week and will be asking participants to read your book, especially the chapter on institutions – if you want to see their reaction, just follow the blog next week.

      Best regards


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