I. Get Off My Lawn!
To say that we’re living in a time of accelerated change is a truism. What we forget – because it would scare the hell out of us – is exactly how much change we’ve seen. I moved to Australia 4 ½ years ago. When I got here there was no YouTube, no podcasting, no BitTorrent, no Wikipedia (in a practical sense). And no MySpace, FaceBook, Bebo, or Twitter.
These are things that I, in my daily life, take for granted. But they’re absolutely brand new. I’m not quite sure how we manage to fool ourselves into believing this is all perfectly normal.
Of course, there is one group of people for whom this is perfectly normal, because they’ve never known anything else – those wacky kids. Consider: I had my very first tour of the World Wide Web at SIGGRAPH, the big computer graphics conference, in Anaheim, California, back in July, 1993. I moused around the recently-released NCSA Mosaic on a hundred-thousand dollar graphics workstation.
I already knew what hypertext was. I had already written a Macintosh-based hypertext system, just before Hypercard made it completely irrelevant. I knew what I was looking at. And I wasn’t very impressed. Sure, it was hypertext, but there were only a handful of sites to visit.
Eventually, the penny dropped. A few months later I bought a used, huge and heavy SPARCStation, set it up in my lounge room, strung a phone cable across my flat, SLIPped into the Internet, launched NSCA Mosaic, and started surfing. Every night when I got home from work, I surfed some more. And, at the end of that very enjoyable week in mid-October 1993, I was done. I had surfed the entire Web.
If you said that today – that you’d surfed the entire web of a hundred million discrete domains and a hundred and fifty million individual blogs and – who knows? – maybe twenty billion pages – people would either believe you a liar or mad as a cut snake.
And yet, a child, born in July 1993, when I first clicked on a Web link, would just be coming up to her 15th birthday. Probably in the middle of year 10.
For that fifteen year-old, change is the only constant she’s known. All the world has changed. All of culture and human behavior have changed – in some ways we are unrecognizable. Because we are embedded in this change, we only feel the acceleration. To someone whose baseline experience, their entire lifetime, has been this continuous acceleration, there is no sensation at all.
People talk about digital immigrants and digital natives. But that’s too simple. It’s an injustice to the truth of the matter – a truth which is important for us to understand.
In the late 1990s, I’d gotten a sense of what was going on, and wrote a book to usher parents into the world of their children: The Playful World: How Technology is Transforming Our Imagination took a look at three areas – intelligence, activity and presence. For each of these domains of human experience, I selected a toy – the Furby, Lego’s MINDSTORMS, and the Sony PlayStation2, respectively – as the starting point for an explanation of this startling shift in the inner lives of children.
Let me be clear: I am a strict Constructivist. I believe that children learn through interactions with their environment. I had come to realize that the environment for a child born at the turn of the millennium looked nothing like the world of 1962, the year I was born.
The world is intelligent. The world responds. The world allows us to extend our senses globally – as with Google Earth – or down to the nanoscopic. All of this – all of it – was already showing up in children’s toys! Not in fancy labs, but in toys. And it’s still going on today. The Nintendo Wii is a better bit of virtual reality than anything ever created by NASA.
How can a kid who plays tennis with a virtual racket, or bowls with a virtual ball, ever hope to have the same cognitive relationship to the world of things that I do?
We’re not even on the same planet.
And we forget this. Or rather, we refuse to see it. But we can’t avoid it any longer, because all this tech has turned this sub-15 generation into mutants with strange new powers.
Let’s come back to that 15 year-old, who, of course, owns a mobile phone. What does she do with it? Those of you with teenage children already know the answer: she texts. Continuously.
Mizuko Ito, a Japanese researcher, studied teenagers in Japan a few years ago, and found that these kids – from the moment they wake up in the morning, until they drop off to sleep at night – are enaged in a continuous and mostly trival conversation with, on average, five other friends. They might be in the flat next door, or on the other side of Tokyo. Proximity doesn’t matter. What does matter is the constant connection. Ito named this phenomenon “co-presence”. It seemed a bit too science-fiction wacky-technophile Japanese, at the time.
Today, it’s the standard operating procedure for all teenagers everywhere in the developed world.
That typical 15 year-old will blow her prepay budget on texts, up to a hundred a day – which works out to about 6 every waking hour – and then, as the credit runs out, and the flow of messages stops, friends will check MySpace, where the 15 year-old has gone, to message for free, and so the flow of co-presence continues.
In some ways, this looks like a new thing, but in reality, it isn’t. It’s an old thing – a very old thing – expressed in an entirely new way.
All of this comes down to what we really are: social animals. That means we live to communicate, and we appear to be better at communication than any other species on the planet.
What we’ve done is given those wacky kids the tools to free this communication, so that it is no longer bound in space and time. We’ve accelerated communication to the speed of light. And all of this is perfectly natural to them.
This much we know.
It’s the unintended, unexpected, unpredictable consequences of all this “hyperconnectivity” which are really putting the screws to us. This is the new stuff. The things that are coming at us from our blind spot.
Consider: 11 December 2005, Cronulla Beach, and every Anglo-Celtic White Supremacist in New South Wales has a text message in hand, forwarded from fellow traveler to fellow traveler, asking them to lend a hand in the beat-down of the Lebs.
That’s what happens when you connect everyone together.
Consider: Also in December 2005, Nature published a peer-reviewed article which stated that Wikipedia, the peer-produced encyclopedia made possible by the fact that half a billion people can connect to it and contribute to it (and, through it, to each others’ thoughts and expertise), is very nearly as accurate as that gold-standard reference work, Encyclopedia Britannica.
Twist the dials one way, you get Cronulla. Twist them another, and you get Wikipedia.
And we’ve given those wacky kids the dial.
II: Those Well-Meaning Adults
These “hyperconnected” and ever-more wacky kids get up in the morning, put on their uniforms and go to school. When they get there, they’ve got to turn off their mobiles, put away their iPods, close the chat windows, unplug themselves from the webs of co-presence which shape their social experiences, sit still and listen to teacher.
And they’ve got to do this inside of an environment – the classroom – which is so thoroughly disconnected from the rest of life as they have always known it that it must, deep in their co-present souls, resemble nothing so much as a medieval torture chamber. An isolation tank. Solitary confinement.
It’s not just that school is a pain in the ass. It’s that it looks – to them – like a completely unrealistic pain in the ass, one which is out of step with the world beyond the classroom walls. It’s as if, every morning, these kids are marched into a time machine which transports them back to 1955.
It’s always important to recognize the hidden elements in any curriculum. The modern school was created not only to produce a literate workforce, but one which understood schedules and timelines, essential elements in the industrial era. Bells and periods trained students in the implicit curriculum. They learned to be timely and orderly, while they explicitly learned their letters and numbers. These curricula – explicit and implicit – fit the needs of the industrial age, and so were highly successful.
So, kids today, stripped of their hyperconnectivity as they walk through the school house door, learn that while timeliness is important, the ability to communicate, to collaborate, share and participate – across time and distance – are not. Oh, we can have practice exercises and whatnot which help to encourage those capabilities, but the hidden curriculum of our schools implicitly denies the value of this experience –the greater part of life experience for those wacky kids.
The trouble with this state of affairs is that it directly contradicts the world these kids have always lived in. In the industrial age, they saw their fathers leave home in time for the morning shift, and return home when that shift was completed. Their experience of regimented time within school perfectly agreed with life at home.
These days, those two worlds have almost nothing in common. Parents work flextime, they telecommute, work all hours of the day or night, across nations, across time zones, across disciplines. Work has changed. Home life has changed. School has not.
This is a very dangerous state of affairs, because in this subtle and invisible argument between school and life as it is really lived, life is always going to win.
What this means, in a practical sense, is that students have lost respect for the classroom, because it has no relevance to their lives. Yes, they will be polite – as they’re polite to their grandparents – but that is no substitute for a real working relationship. School will be endured, because parents and state mandate it. But it’s a waiting game.
This is not the right way to create the next generation of Australia’s leaders. This is only going to create a generation who have learned how to be patient, patronizing, and excel in the art of ass-kissing.
Australia is not alone in this. In the United States, the No Child Left Behind program, the very epitome of Industrial Age methodology, simply subjects students to assessment after meaningless assessment. Students train for tests. There are no more exploratory moments. Learning is by rote. Asia and Europe fare no better. Everywhere, everything is exactly the same — and exactly wrong.
What, then, is to be done?
It’s not as though educators and educational administrators are entirely unaware of this increasing desynchronization between the classroom and the world beyond it. Far form it. Just like those wacky kids, they live in both of these worlds, and they sense that the classroom has become an antique, a museum piece.
But they don’t know what to do about it.
That’s not to say they’re not grasping about for solutions. They are. The plan to get computers into secondary school classrooms throughout Australia is such an attempt. But no one has thought through what these computers will be used for, once they arrive on students’ desks. The Prime Minister, during the election campaign, uttered a few lines about maths drills and language exercises.
Probably Kevin Rudd should have sat and watched his own 14 year-old son as he goes online, or plays games on his Xbox, or texts his mates, to get a sense of the real value of all this hyperconnected technology.
Instead, Rudd relied on the opinions of educational experts, individuals who likely got their post-graduate degrees before there was a World Wide Web.
Hence: give the schools computers, but make them so dull, so meaningless, that the students are guaranteed to recoil in horror.
I have a better idea. Perhaps a school in Queensland can link up with a school in France, so that students learning English in France and students learning French in Australia can talk with each other, in foreign tongues. There are plenty of cheap technologies, like Skype and iChat AV, which can be used for that sort of thing.
Or, how about this: students in Victoria learning about the Eureka Stockade Rebellion might focus on a particular participant, and build a fully-researched and peer-reviewed article for Wikipedia. Teachers can go in and look at the history and discussion pages associated with the article to assess their students’ progress.
This isn’t about computers, folks. It’s about what we use computers for. And it’s about an educational administration that does not recognize that the computer, at its very best, is a window that opens up to other people. It is not a robot that drills students into submission.
All of this is light-years away from any curriculum in practice today. Yes, there are experiments – a few brave teachers and administrators sticking their necks out, tall poppies trying to make their classrooms relevant to the world outside. But these are just experiments.
Teachers are already so overworked, so time-poor, and, sometimes, so hide-bound, that technology is too frequently seen as a disruption. Actually, it’s the classroom that’s the disruption. What they see as a disruption is the outside world, clamoring to be let in.
The situation is bound to get worse before it gets better. The tabloid media are full of frightening stories of those wacky kids, inviting all their Facebook mates to come by and party, or MySpace suicide pacts, or cyber-bullying on YouTube.
And I say this knowing full well that I’m one of the pushers.
Although the schools need this technology, this window opening onto the real world, it is, at the same time, a profound threat to the comfortable, tried-and-true ways of doing business. When the computer salesman knocks on the door, they hear the rising winds of a storm that threatens to blow the classroom walls away.
So, something that should be an absolute no-brainer is turning out to be a very hard sell. People – teachers, administrators, parents and politicians – are afraid. When people are afraid, psychologists tell us, they put off making important decisions. They postpone change.
Those well-meaning adults, who really only want to get Australia’s next generation ready for a world that looks nothing like what they expected, are frozen in place, like Bambi in the headlights.
This will not do. It will not do for the kids. It will not do for the nation. And it will not do for you.
III. Breaking Through
Now, truth be told, I’m preaching to the converted. The reason you’re here in this room this morning listening to me rant and rave about those wacky kids and those well-meaning adults is because you want to be part of the solution. You’re voting with your feet. You understand that it’s important we do something – and do it quickly.
But we’re the mutants. We’re the ones who are out-of-step with the educational establishments in the states and the Commonwealth. We watch, with mixed degrees of amusement and horror, as the educational machinery shudders along, even as it groans under the increasing weight of the world outside. And we start to wonder – seriously – when it will all just collapse.
No one likes to set a deadline on these sorts of things; all deadlines inevitably fail. But I’d say that if we aren’t well on our way to transforming education within the next few years, the tide of the times could simply whip past us, and leave the educational establishment in a backwater, an eddy, while the rest of culture and civilization zips away downstream.
But, even as I say that, I reckon such an outcome to be very unikely. There’s too much pressure, coming from too many points, for education to get off that easily. It’s too important to be ignored or cast aside. Instead, the pressure will continue to rise, as the most extraordinary and unexpected things begin to happen. In fact, this is already happening.
I’d like to tell you a story about my colleague Stephen Collins, who lives and works down in Canberra. His story is a good example of how things are changing so quickly and so unexpectedly. But, before I tell you his story, I need to tell you the story of how I know Stephen Collins, because that will tell you something about just how fast things are moving right now.
Last year I signed up for a new Web service known as “Twitter”. Twitter bills itself as a “social message service” – sort of a cross between a social network (like Facebook or MySpace) and the short message service (or SMS) that we’re all completely familiar with. When I signed up to Twitter, I could elect to “follow” certain other people – that is, my friends, and colleagues, and so forth. When ever any of these people sends a “tweet” – that is, a 140-character message – I receive it, as do all of their followers. I might receive that tweet via the Twitter website, or one of the growing number of Twitter programs, or I can even have it delivered via SMS to my mobile.
I didn’t use Twitter very much for the first several months; there weren’t that many people using it, and weren’t that many folks to follow. So I ignored it. But, just in the last six months, a lot of people in Australia have discovered Twitter – particularly those folks who, like myself, are interested in what’s up-and-coming on the Web. Nearly all of those folks use Twitter these days, and most of them follow one another. I quickly got swept up into this madness, and am now very well “hyperconnected” with a few hundred core Twitter users in Sydney and throughout the nation.
The vast majority of tweets range from the minor to the inane. It’s like cocktail party chatter – often funny, but just as often, meaningless. But, once in a while – and more frequently, these days – there’s a point to all this incessant tweeting. For example, the Sichuan earthquake of Monday 12 May was reported by Twitterers in China a full thirty minutes before it made its way into the media. The folks who felt the temblor reported and shared their reports. Through Twitter, I knew about the earthquake an hour before most other Australians knew anything about it. In that moment of tragedy, Twitter became a human early warning system.
Over the next 24 hours, I closely followed the tweets of Dedric Lam, who lives in Shanghai, and who acted as a clearing house for a wide range of news reports, articles and videos about the earthquake. As major news organizations struggled to site reporters into the earthquake zone, I received a more consistent and more consistently accurate stream of news, directly from the people affected by the earthquake, via Twitter.
That’s interesting, and more important, it was completely unexpected. The folks who created Twitter thought they were creating a “microblogging” service – something where you’d be able to post short updates about your day. What we’ve turned it into – as we learn what it’s good for – is something completely different. Science fiction writer William Gibson once wrote, “The street finds its own use for things, uses the manufacturers never intended.” Twitter is a true street technology, and every day every one of its two hundred thousand core users find new ways to put its hyperconnective capabilities to work.
Twitter is how I came to know Stephen Collins. Stephen is one of the core Twitter users in Australia, a consultant, and power user of “social media”, as we’re now starting to call all these technologies of hyperconnectivity. He’s been tweeting for a year, and has used Twitter to both extend and reinforce his commercial and personal connections. I came to know of him soon after I got sucked into the Australian “Twitteratti”, and followed him, for he’s an individual who frequently makes keen observations.
On the same Monday that the Sichuan earthquake occurred, Stephen came to Sydney for the day, to speak at Interesting South, a local lecture series. Through Twitter, we arranged an afternoon coffee in the Strand Arcade, and chatted away amiably enough, griping about how people just aren’t “getting” social media.
Then he related an interesting story.
Stephen sends his 10 year-old daughter to Canberra’s St. Clare of Assisi Primary School, where she gets “the best education I can afford to give her,” as he wryly puts it. St. Clare of Assisi Primary is a big school – the largest private primary school in the ACT, at 730 kids. Never the passive parent, Stephen has grown progressively more involved in the affairs of St. Clare of Assisi, and found himself, this January – almost inadvertently – elected to the position of Secretary to the Board of the school.
Gah, you must be thinking: what a thankless task. Sit there and take notes at all the meetings. Dull as. And so it would have been, were Stephen a less inventive sort. Instead, during his first meeting, he had a penny-drop moment: rather than just writing up all these notes and sending out a sheaf of emails, he could type all of this information into a ‘wiki’ – that is, a user-editable website, and the technological basis for Wikipedia – so that everyone on the board could have access to his notes, make additional notes, start wiki entries on their own topics, and so on.
Wikis go hand-in-hand with hyperconnectivity: once we’re all connected together in a few dozen or few hundred million ways, we need someplace to pool our common wealth of resources, information, knowledge, and experience. Wikipedia is proof positive that everyone, everywhere, is expert in something, even something terrifically obscure – and it’s proof that someone else, somewhere else, will treasure that expertise.
When the administrators saw the PBwiki that Stephen set up, they were amazed and delighted. All of the hard yards of coordinating via emails could now be handled through a collaborative process, with a common tool accessible anywhere Internet connectivity could be had. “So now,” said the Head of School, “can we bring the staff up to speed on this? And the teachers? Can we get them to start planning their courses on this? And get the parents more involved? And what about the kids – can they use this too?”
With just one simple act – and really, an act that saved him work – Stephen introduced a new way of thinking and working to Canberra’s largest private primary school. It’s early days yet, but as they come to learn to use the wiki, discovering its strengths and weaknesses, it will begin to transform the way they teach. It is opening the way to a broader and more comprehensive revolution in education. This “accidental revolution” is a clear sign that the ground is fertile. Things are breaking through all over. All it takes is one person, in the right place, at the right time, with the right idea.
Which brings me back to all of you, here in this room, this morning. We are the change agents. All of us. We don’t have to leave here today with grand plans. Far from it. All we need to do is share with one another what we’ve learned along the way: what’s worked, what hasn’t, and why. We need to connect with one another – using all the tools at our disposal (and there’s a lot of them), and we need to put the new tools of knowledge sharing to work for us, pooling our own deep reservoirs of expertise, learning from each other as effectively as we can. If each of us can add one good idea – and I reckon each of us has at least one good idea – that means there are a lot of good ideas in this room. Just one of those can change the educational environment of a school. Stephen Collins’ story is proof of that.
For the rest of the day, I’m going to sit back and listen. Hard. I’m going to listen to all of the good ideas you folks have been working up as we all confront this huge challenge. When I hear an idea that strikes me, I’ll be blogging it – on Twitter. At the end of these four events, I’ll be able to go back and read my tweetstream, and see what really interested me. Perhaps it will interest you too. All the while, 660 other folks, all around the world, will be looking in. Some of them might get a good idea, something they want to share with us. We can and must use hyperconnectivity to increase our effectiveness. We can and must use knowledge sharing to increase our intelligence. We can crack this problem.
After all, we’ve been around the block. These wacky kids, they’re just getting started. They have the tools, but lack the wisdom to use them effectively. It’s up to us to teach them how. But first, we’ve got learn how to use them. That done, we can transform education, and transform their enormous capacity to learn. But, right now, the teachers must become students.
I’m waiting, with my pencil raised.