Hyperconnected Education

I: Connect / Disconnect

Recently, I had the opportunity to teach a lecture at the University of Sydney.  I always consider teaching a two-way street: there’s an opportunity to learn as much from my students as they learn from me.  Sometime I simply watch what they do, learning from that what new behaviors are spreading across the culture.  Other times I take advantage of a captive audience to run an ethnographic survey.  With eighty eager students ready to do my bidding, I worked up a few questions about mobile usage patterns within their age group.

First, I ascertained their ages – ranging mostly between eighteen and twenty-two, with a cluster around nineteen and twenty.  Then I asked them, “How old were you when you first got a mobile of your own?”  One student got her first mobile at nine years of age, while the oldest waited until they were nineteen.  An analysis of the data shows that half of the students owned a mobile at around eleven and a half years old.

When I shared this result with some colleagues on Twitter, they responded, “That seems a bit old.”  And it does – precisely because these students are, on average, eight and a half years older than when they got their first mobile.  This survey looks back into 2003 – the year that I arrived in Australia – rather than at the present moment.

Another survey, conducted last year, shows how much has changed, so quickly.  Thirty-seven percent of children between Kindergarten and Year 2 have their own mobile (of some sort), with one fifth having access to a smartphone.  By Year 8, that figure has risen to eighty-five percent, with fully one-third using smartphones.

Since the introduction of the mobile, thirty years ago, the average age of first ownership has steadily dropped.  For many years the device was simply too expensive to be given to any except children from the wealthiest families.  Today, an Android smartphone can be purchased outright for little more than a hundred dollars, and thirty dollars a months in carriage.  With the exception of the poorest Australians, price is no longer a barrier to mobile ownership.  As the price barrier dropped, the age of first mobile ownership has also tumbled, from eleven years old in 2003, to something closer to eight today.

The resistance to mobile ownership in the sub-eight-year-old set will only be overcome as the devices themselves become more appropriate to children with less developed cognitive skills.  Below age eight, the mobile morphs from a general-purpose communications device to a type of networked tether, allowing the parent and the child to remain in a constant high state of situational awareness about each other’s comings and goings.  Only a few mobiles have been designed to serve the needs of the young child.  The market has not been mature enough to support a broad array of child-friendly devices, nor have the carriers developed plans which make mobile ownership in that age group an attractive option.  This will inevitably happen, and from the statistics, that day can not be very far off: the resistance to the mobile in this age group will be designed away.

There is no real end in sight.  The younger the child, the more the mobile assumes the role of the benevolent watcher, a sensor continually reporting the condition of the child to the parent.  We already use radio-frequency baby monitors to listen to our children as they fuss in their cribs; a mobile provides the same capability by different means.  This sensor will also track the child’s heartbeat, temperature, and other vital statistics, will grow smaller and less-power hungry, until – at some point in the next fifteen years, a child have receive their first mobile moments after they pop out of the womb.  That mobile will be integrated into the hospital tag slipped around their foot.

It is an absolute inevitability that sometime within the next decade, every single child entering primary school will come bearing their own mobile.  They will join the rest of us in being hyperconnected – directly and immediately connected to everyone of importance to them.  Why should Australian children be any different than any of the rest of us?  Mobile subscription rates in Australia exceed 120% – more than one per person, even counting all those currently too young or too old to use a mobile.  Within a generation, being human and being connected will be seen to be synonymous.

The next years are an interregnum, the few heartbeats between the ‘before time’ – when none of us were connected – and a thoroughly hyperconnected afterward.  This is the moment when we must make the necessary pedagogical and institutional adjustments to a pervasively connected culture.  That survey from last year found that even at Kindergarten level, two-thirds of parents were willing to buy a mobile for their children – if schools integrated the device into their pedagogy.  But the survey also pointed to opposition within the schools themselves:

“When we asked administrators about the likelihood of them allowing their students to use their own mobile devices for instructional purposes at school this year, a resounding 65% of principals said “no way!”

School administrators overwhelmingly hold the comforting belief that the transition into hyperconnectivity can be prevented, forestalled, or simply banned.  A decade ago most schools banned the mobile; within the last few years, mobiles have been permitted with specific restrictions around how and when they can be used.  A few years from now, there will be no effective way to silence the mobile, anywhere (except in specific instances I will speak to later), because so much of our children’s lives will have become contingent upon the continuous connection it affords.

Like King Canute, we can not hold back the tide.  We must prepare for the rising waters.  We must learn to swim within the sea of connectivity.  Or we will drown.

II: Share / Overshare

When people connect, they begin to share.  This happens automatically, an expression of the instinctive human desire to communicate matters of importance.  Give someone an open channel and they’ll transmit everything they see that they think could be of any interest to anyone else.  At the beginning, this sharing can look quite unfocused – bad jokes and cute kittens – but as time passes, we teach one another those things we consider important enough to share, by sharing them.  Sharing, driven by need, amplified by technology, reaches every one of us, through our network of connections.  We both give and receive: from each according to their knowledge, to each, according to their need.

Sharing has amplified the scope of our awareness.  We can find and connect to others who share our interests, increasing our awareness of those interests.  The parent-child bond is the most essential of all our interests, so parents are loading their children up with the technologies of connection, gaining a constant ‘situational awareness’ of a depth which makes them the envy of ASIO.  The mobile tether becomes eyes and ears and capability, both lifeline and surrogate.  The child uses the mobile to share experiences – both actively and passively – and the parent, wherever they may be, ‘hovers’, watching and guiding.

This ‘helicopter parenting’ was difficult to put into practice before hyperconnectivity, because vigilance required presence.  The mobile has cut the cord, allowing parental hypervigilance to become a pervasive feature of the educational environment.  As the techniques for this electronic hypervigilance become less expensive and easier to use, they will become the accepted practice for child raising.

Intel Fellow and anthropologist Dr. Genevieve Bell spent a day in a South Korean classroom a few years ago, interviewing children whose parents had given them mobiles with GPS tracking capabilities – so those parents always knew the precise location of their child.  When Bell asked the students if they found this constant monitoring threatening, one set of students pointed to another student, who didn’t have a tracking mobile, saying,  “Her parents don’t love her enough to care where she is.”  In the context of the parent-child bond, something that appears Orwellian transforms into the ultimate security blanket.

A friend in Sydney has a child in Kindergarten, a precocious boy who finds the classroom environment alternately boring and confronting.  She’s been called in to speak with the teacher a few times, because of his disruptive behavior – behavior he links to bullying by another classmate.  The teacher hasn’t seen the behaviour, or perhaps thinks it doesn’t merit her attention, leaving the boy increasingly frustrated, dreading every day at school.

In conversation with my friend, I realized that her child felt alone and undefended in the classroom.  How might that change?  Imagine that before he left for school, his mother affixes a small button to his school uniform, perhaps on the collar.  This button would have a camera, microphone and mobile transmitter within it, continuously recording and transmitting a live stream directly from the child’s collar to the parent’s mobile – all day long.  The child wouldn’t have to set it up, or do anything at all.  It would simply work – and my friend would have eyes and ears wherever her child went.  If there was trouble – bullying, or anything else – my friend would see it as it happened, and would be able to send a recording along to her son’s teacher.

This is not science fiction.  It is not even far way.  Every smartphone has all of the technology needed to make this happen.  Although a bit bulkier than I’ve described, it could all be done today.  Not long ago, I purchased a $50 toy ‘spy watch’, which records 20 minutes of video.  My friend could equip her son with that toy asking him to record anything he thought important.  Shrinking it down to the size of a button and adding mobile capability will come in time.  When such a device hits the market, parents will find it irresistible – because it finally gives them eyes in the back of their head.

We need to ask ourselves whether this technological tethering is good for either parent or child.  Psychologist Sherry Turkel, who has explored the topic of children and technology longer than anyone else, believes that this constant close connectivity keeps the child from exploring their own boundaries, artificially extending the helplessness of childhood by amplifying the connection between parent and child.  Connection has consequence: to be connected is to be affected by that connection.  A small child might gain a sense of freedom with an electronic tether, but an adolescent might have a dependency on that connection that could interfere with their adult development.  Because hyperconnectivity is such a recent condition, we don’t have the answers to these questions.  But these questions need to be asked.

This connection has broad consequences for educators.  Two years ago I heard a teacher in Victoria relate the following story: In a secondary school classroom, one student had failed to turn in their assignment.  This wasn’t the first time it had happened, so the teacher had a bit of a go at the student.  As the teacher harangued the student, he reached into his knapsack, pulled out his mobile, and punched a few buttons.  When the connection was made, he said, “You listen to the bitch,” and held the phone away from his face, toward his teacher.

Connection and sharing rewire and short-circuit the relationships we have grown accustomed to within the classroom.  How can a teacher maintain discipline while constantly being trumped by a child tethered to a hypervigilant parent?  How can a child gain independence while so tethered?  How can a parent gain any peace of mind while constantly monitoring the activities of their child?  All of these new dynamics are persistent features of the 21st-century classroom.  All are already present, but none are as yet pervasive.  We have some time to think about our response to hyperconnectivity.

III: Learn / You, Me, and Everyone We Know

A few years ago, both Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (my alma mater) made the revolutionary decision to publicly post all of lesson plans, homework assignments, and recordings of lectures for all classes offered at their schools.  Why, some wondered aloud, would anyone pay the $40,000 a year in tuition and fees, when you could get the content for nothing?  This question betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of education in the 21st century: knowledge is freely available, but the mentoring which makes that knowledge apprehensible and useful remains a precious resource.  It’s wonderful to have a lesson plan, but it’s essential to be able to work with someone who has a deep understanding of the material.

This is the magic in education, the je ne sais quois that makes it a profoundly human experience, and stubbornly resistant to automation.  We have no shortage of material: nearly four million English language articles in Wikipedia, 2500 videos on Khan Academy (started, it should be noted, by an MIT educator), tens of thousands of lessons in everything from cooking to knitting to gardening to home renovation on YouTube, and sites like SkillShare, which connect those who have specialist knowledge to those who want it.  Yet, even with this embarrassment of riches, we still yearn for the opportunity to conspire, to breathe the same air as our mentor, while they, by the fact of their presence, transmit mastery.  If this sounds a wee bit mystical, so be it: education is the most human of all our behaviors, and we do not wholly understand the why and how of it.

Who shall educate the educators?  All of the materials so far created have been affordances for students, to make their lives easier.  If it helps an educator, that’s a nice side benefit, but never the main game.  In this sense, nearly all online educational resources are profoundly populist, pointing directly to the student, ignoring both educators and educational institutions.  Hyperconnectivity has removed all of the friction which once made it difficult to connect directly to students, but has thus far ignored the teacher.  In the back of a classroom, students can tap on a mobile and correct the errors in a teacher’s lecture, but can the teacher get peer review of that same material?  Theoretically, it should be easy.  In practice, we’re still waiting.

I recently had the good fortune to be a judge at Sydney Startup Weekend, where technology entrepreneurs pitch their ideas, then spend 48 frenetic hours bringing them to life.  The winning project, ClassMate, directly addresses the Educator-to-Educator (E2E) connection.  Providing a platform for a teacher to upload and store their lesson plans, ClassMate allows teachers share those lesson plans within a school, a school system, or as broadly as desired – even charge for them.

This kind of sharing gives every teacher access to a wealth of lesson plans on a broad variety of topics.  As the National Curriculum rolls out over the next few years, the taxonomy of subject areas within it can act as an organizing taxonomy for the sharing of those lesson plans.  Searching through thousands of lesson plans would not simply be a splayed view based on keywords, like a Google search, but rather something more highly specific and focused, drawn from the arc of the National Curriculum.  With the National Curriculum as an organizing principle, the best lesson plans for any particular node within the Curriculum will quickly rise to the top.

This means that every teacher in Australia (and the world) will soon have access to the best class materials from the best teachers throughout Australia.  Teachers will be able to spend more time interacting with students as the hard slog of creating lecture materials becomes a shared burden.  Yet teachers are no different from their students; the best lesson plan is in itself insufficient.  Teachers need to work with other teachers, need to be mentored by other teachers, need to conspire with other teachers, in order to make their own pedagogical skills commensurate with the resources on offer to them.  Professional development must go hand-in-hand with an accelerated sharing of knowledge, lest this sharing only amplify the imbalances between classrooms and between schools.

Victoria’s Department of Education and Early Childhood Development has the ULTRANET, designed to facilitate the sharing of materials between teachers, students and parents.  ULTRANET is not particularly user-friendly, presenting a barrier to its widespread acceptance by a community of educators who may not be broadly comfortable with technology.  Educational sharing systems must be designed from the perspective of those who use them – teachers and students – and not from a set of KPIs on a tick sheet.  One reason why I have high hopes for ClassMate is that the designer is himself a primary school teacher in New South Wales, solving a problem he faces every day.

Sharing between educators creates a platform for a broader sharing between students and educators.  At present almost all of that sharing happens inside the classroom and is immediately lost.  We need to think about how to capture our sharing moments, making them available to students.  Consider the recording device I mentioned earlier – although it works nicely for a child in Kindergarden, it becomes even more useful for someone preparing for an HSC/VCE exam, giving them a record of the mentoring they received.  This too can be shared broadly, where relevant (and often where it isn’t relevant at all, but funny, or silly, or sad, or what have you), so that everything is captured, everywhere, and shared with everyone.

If this sounds a bit like living in a fishbowl, I can only recommend that you get used to it.  Educators will be hit particularly hard by hyperconnectivity, because they spend their days working with students who have never known anything else.  Students copy from one another, teachers borrow from teachers, administrations and departments imitate what they’ve seen working in other schools and other states.  This is how it has always been, but now that this is no longer difficult, it is accelerating wildly, transforming the idea of the classroom.

IV: All Together Now

Let’s now turn to the curious case of David Cecil, a 25 year-old unemployed truckie from Cowra, arrested by the Australian Federal Police on a series of charges which could see him spend a decade imprisoned.  With nothing but time on his hands, and the Internet at his fingertips, Cecil found the thing he found most interesting, found the others interested in it, and listened to what they said.  The Internet became a classroom, and the people he connected to became his mentors.  Dedicated to learning, online for as much as twenty hours a day, Cecil took himself from absolute neophyte to practiced expert in just a few months, an autodidactic feat we can all admire in theory, if somewhat less in practice.  On the 27th of July, Cecil was arrested during a dawn AFP raid on his home, charged with breaking into and obtaining control over the computer systems of Internet service provider Platform Networks.

Cecil might have gotten away with it, but his ego wot dun him.  Cecil went back to the same bulletin boards and chat sites where he learned his ‘1337 skills’, and bragged about his exploits.  Given that these boards are monitored by the forces of law and order, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable arrest.  While it might seem the very apex of stupidity to publicly brag about breaking the law, the desire to share what we know – and be seen as an expert – frequently overrules our sense of self-preservation.  We are born to share what we know, and wired to learn from what others share.  That’s no less true for ourselves than for that ideal poster child for Constructivism, David Cecil.

Now that this figurative internal wiring has become external and literal, now that the connections no longer end with our family, friends and colleagues, but extend pervasively and continuously throughout the world, we have the capability, in principle, of learning anything known by anyone anywhere, of gaining the advantage of their experiences to guide us through our own.  We have for the first time the possibility of some sort of collective mind – not in a wacky science-fiction sense, but with something so mundane it barely rates a mention today – Wikipedia.

In its 3.7 million articles, Wikipedia offers up the factual core of human knowledge – not always perfectly, but what it loses in perfection it makes up for in ubiquity.  Every person with a smartphone now walks around with the collected essence of human knowledge in their hands, accessible within a few strokes of a fingertip.  This is unprecedented, and means that we now have the capability to make better decisions than ever before, because, at every step along the way, we can refer to this factual base, using it to guide us into doing the best we can at every moment.

That is the potential for this moment, but we do not yet operate in those terms.  We teach children to research, as if this were an activity distinct from the rest of our experience, when, in reality, research is the core activity of the 21st century.  We need to think about the era, just a few years hence, when everyone has a very smart and very well connected mobile in hand from birth.  We need to think about how that mobile becomes the lever which moves the child into knowledge.  We need to think about our practice and how it is both undermined and amplified by the device and the network it represents.

If we had to do this as individuals – or even within a single school administration – we would quickly be overwhelmed by the pace of events beyond the schoolhouse walls.  To be able to encounter this accelerating tsunami of connection and empowerment we must take the medicine ourselves, using the same tools as our students and their parents.  We have agency, but only when we face the future squarely, and admit that everything we once knew about the logic of the classroom – its flows of knowledge and power – has gone askew, and that our future lies within the network, not in opposition to it.

In ten years time, how many administrators will say “No way!”, when asked if the mobile has a place in their curriculum?  (By then, it will equivalent to asking if reading has a place in the curriculum.)  This is the stone that must be moved, the psychological block that dams connectivity and creates a dry, artificial island where there should instead be a continuous sea of capability.  The longer that dam remains in place, the more force builds up behind it.  Either we remove the stone ourselves, or the pressures of a hyperconnected world will simply rip through the classroom, wiping it away.

Your students are not alone on their journey into knowledge and mastery.  Beside them, educators blaze a new trail into a close connectivity, leveraging a depth of collective experience to accelerate the search for solutions.  We must search and research and share and learn and put that learning into practice.  We must do this continuously so we can stay in front of this transition, guiding it toward meaningful outcomes for both students and educators.  We must reinvent education while hyperconnectivity reinvents us.

CODA: Disconnect

Finally, let me also be a Devil’s Advocate.  Connectivity is amazing and wonderful and empowering, but so is its opposite.  In fifteen years we have moved from a completely disconnected culture into a completely connected culture.  We believe, a priori, that connection is good.  Yet connection comes with a cost.  To be connected is to be deeply involved with another, and outside one’s self.  This is fine – some of the time.  But we also need a space where we are wholly ourselves, contingent upon no one else.

Our children and our students do not know this.  The value of silence and quiet may seem obvious to us, but they have never lived in a disconnected culture.  They only know connection.  Being disconnected frightens them – both because of its unfamiliarity, and because it seems to hold within it the possibly of facing dangers without the assistance of others.  Furthermore, this generation has no positive role model of disconnection to look to.  They see their parents responding to text messages at the dinner table, answering emails from in front of the television, running for the mobile, every time it rings.  Parents have no boundaries around their connectivity; by their actions, this is what they have taught to their children.

Educators must instill some basic rules – a ‘hygiene of connectivity’ in the next generation.   We need to highlight disconnection as something to be longed for, a positive feature of life.  We need to teach them ways to manage their connectivity, so that they become the master of their connections, not servants.  And we need to be able to set the example in our own actions.  If we do that, we can give the next generation an important insight into how to be whole in a hyperconnected world.