Using the Network for Business Success

I.  My, How Things Have Changed

When I came to Australia six years ago, to seek my fame and fortune, business communications had remained largely unchanged for nearly a century.  You could engage in face-to-face conversation – something humans have been doing since we learned to speak, countless thousands of years ago – or, if distance made that impossible, you could drop a letter into the post.  Australia Post is an excellent organization, and seems to get all of the mail delivered within a day or two – quite an accomplishment in a country as dispersed and diffuse as ours.

In the twentieth century, the telephone became the dominant form of business communication; Australia Post wired the nation up, and let us talk to one another.  Conversation, mediated by the telephone, became the dominant mode of communication.  About twenty years ago the facsimile machine dropped in price dramatically, and we could now send images over phone lines.

The facsimile translates images into data and back into images again.  That’s when the critical threshold was crossed: from that point on, our communications have always centered on data.  The Internet arrived in 1995, and broadband in 2001.  In the first years of Internet usage, electronic mail was both the ‘killer app’ and the thing that began to supplant the telephone for business correspondence.  Electronic mail is asynchronous – you can always pick it up later.  Email is non-local, particularly when used through a service such as Hotmail or Gmail – you can get it anywhere.  Until mobiles started to become pervasive for business uses, the telephone was always a hit-or-miss affair.  Electronic mail is a hit, every time.

Such was the business landscape when I arrived in Australia.  The Web had arrived, and businesses eagerly used it as a publishing medium – a cheap way of getting information to their clients and customers.  But the Web was changing.  It had taken nearly a decade of working with the Web, day-to-day, before we discovered that the Web could become a fully-fledged two-way medium: the Web could listen as well as talk.  That insight changed everything.  The Web morphed into a new beast, christened ‘Web 2.0’, and everywhere the Web invited us to interact, to share, to respond, to play, to become involved.  This transition has fundamentally changed business communication, and it’s my goal this morning to outline the dimensions of that transformation.

This transformation unfolds in several dimensions.  The first of these – and arguably the most noticeable – is how well-connected we are these days.  So long as we’re in range of a cellular radio signal, we can be reached.  The number of ways we can be reached is growing almost geometrically.  Five years ago we might have had a single email address.  Now we have several – certainly one for business, and one for personal use – together with an account on Facebook (nearly eight million of the 22 million Australians have Facebook accounts), perhaps another account on MySpace, another on Twitter, another on YouTube, another on Flickr.  We can get a message or maintain contact with someone through any of these connections.  Some individuals have migrated to Facebook for the majority of their communications – there’s no spam, and they’re assured the message will be delivered.  Among under-25s, electronic mail is seen as a technology of the ‘older generation’, something that one might use for work, but has no other practical value.  Text messaging and messaging-via-Facebook have replaced electronic mail.

This increased connectivity hasn’t come for free.  Each of us are now under a burden to maintain all of the various connections we’ve opened.  At the most basic level, we must at least monitor all of these channels for incoming messages.  That can easily get overwhelming, as each channel clamors for attention.

But wait.  We’ve dropped Facebook and Twitter into the conversation before I even explained what they are and how they work.  We just take them as a fact of life these days, but they’re brand new.  Facebook was unknown just three years ago, and Twitter didn’t zoom into prominence until eighteen months ago.  Let’s step back and take a look at what social networks are.  In a very real way, we’ve always known exactly what a social network is: since we were very small we’ve been reaching out to other people and establishing social relationships with them.  In the beginning that meant our mothers and fathers, sisters and brothers.  As we grew older that list might grow to include some of the kids in the neighborhood, or at pre-kindy, and then our school friends.  By the time we make it to university, that list of social relationships is actually quite long.  But our brains have limited space to store all those relationships – it’s actually the most difficult thing we do, the most cognitively all-encompassing task.  Forget physics – relationship are harder, and take more brainpower.

Nature has set a limit of about one hundred and fifty on the social relationships we can manage in our heads.  That’s not a static number – it’s not as though as soon as you reach 150, you’re done, full.  Rather, it’s a sign of how many relationships of importance you can manage at any one time.  None of us, not even the most socially adept, can go very much beyond that number.  We just don’t have the grey matter for it.

Hence, fifty years ago mankind invented the Rolodex – a way of keeping track of all the information we really should remember but can’t possibly begin to absorb.  A real, living Rolodex (and there are few of them, these days) are a wonder to behold, with notes scribbled in the margins, business cards stapled to the backs of the Rolodex cards, and a glorious mess of information, all alphabetically organized.  The Rolodex was mankind’s first real version of the modern, digital, social network.  But a Rolodex doesn’t think for itself; a Rolodex can not draw out the connections between the different cards.  A Rolodex does not make explicit what we know – we live in a very interconnected world, and many of our friends and associates are also friends and associates with our friends and associates.

That is precisely what Facebook gives us.  It makes those implicit connections explicit.  It allows those connections to become conduits for ever-greater-levels of connection.  Once those connections are made, once they become a regular feature of our life, we can grow beyond the natural limit of 150.  That doesn’t mean you can manage any of these relationships well – far from it.  But it does mean that you can keep the channels of communication open.  That’s really what all of these social networks are: turbocharged Rolodexes, which allow you to maintain far more relationships than ever before possible.

Once these relationships are established, something beings to happen quite naturally: people begin to share.  What they share is often driven by the nature of the relationship – though we’ve all seen examples where individuals ‘over-share’ inappropriately, confusing business and social channels of communication.  That sort of thing is very easy to do with social networks such as Facebook, because it doesn’t provide an easy method to send messages out to different groups of friends.  We might want a social network where business friends might get something very formal, while close friends might that that photo of you doing tequila shots at last weekend’s birthday party.  It’s a great idea, isn’t it?  But it can’t be done.  Not on Facebook, not on Twitter.  Your friends are all lumped together into one undifferentiated whole.  That’s one way that those social networks are very different from the ones inside our heads.  And it’s something to be constantly aware of when sharing through social networks.

That said, this social sharing has become an incredibly potent force.  More videos are uploaded to YouTube every day than all television networks all over the world produce in a year.  It may not be material of the same quality, but that doesn’t matter – most of those videos are only meant to be seen among a small group of family or friends.  We send pictures around, we send links around, we send music around (though that’s been cause for a bit of trouble), we share things because we care about them, and because we care about the people we’re sharing with.  Every act of sharing, business or personal, brings the sharer and the recipient closer together.  It truly is better to give than receive.  On the other hand, we’re also drowning in shared material.  There’s so much, coming from every corner, through every one of these social networks, there’s no possible way to keep up.  So, most of us don’t.  We cherry-pick, listening to our closest friends and associates: the things they share with us are the most meaningful.  We filter the noise and hope that we’re not missing anything very important.  (We usually are.)

In certain very specific situations, sharing can produce something greater than the sum of its parts.  A community can get together and decide to pool what it knows about a particular domain of knowledge, can ‘wise up’ by sharing freely.  This idea of ‘collective intelligence’ producing a shared storehouse of knowledge is the engine that drives sites like Wikipedia.  We all know Wikipedia, we all know how it works – anyone can edit anything in any article within it – but the wonder of Wikipedia is that it works so well.  It’s not perfectly accurate – nothing ever is  – but it is good enough to be useful nearly all the time.  Here’s the thing: you can come to Wikipedia ignorant and leave it knowing something.  You can put that knowledge to work to make better decisions than you would have in your state of ignorance.  Wikipedia can help you wise up.

Wikipedia isn’t the only example of shared knowledge.  A decade ago a site named TeacherRatings.com went online, inviting university students to provide ratings of their professors, lecturers and instructors.  Today it’s named RateMyProfessor.com, is owned by MTV Networks, and has over ten million ratings of one million instructors.  This font of shared knowledge has become so potent that students regularly consult the site before deciding which classes they’ll take next semester at university.  Universities can no longer saddle student with poor teachers (who may also be fantastic researchers).  There are bidding wars taking place for the lecturers who get the highest ratings on the site.  This sharing of knowledge has reversed the power relationship between a university and its students which stretches back nearly a thousand years.

Substitute the word ‘business’ for university and ‘customers’ for students and you see why this is so significant.  In an era where we’re hyperconnected, where people share, and share knowledge, things are going to work a lot differently than they did before.  These all-important relationships between businesses and their customers (potential and actual) have been completely rewritten.  Let’s talk about that.

II.  Breaking In

The most important thing you need to know about the new relationship between yourselves and your customers is that your customers are constantly engaging in a conversation about you.  At this point, you don’t know where those customers are, and what they’re saying.  They could be saying something via a text message, or a Facebook post, or an email, or on Twitter.  Any and all of these conversations about you are going on right now.  But you don’t know, so there’s no way you can participate in them.

I’ll give you an example I used my column in NETT magazine.  My mate John Allsopp (a big-time Web developer, working on the next generation of Web technologies) travels a lot for business.  Back in June, on a trip the US, he decided to give VAustralia’s Premium Economy class a try.  He was so pleased about the service – and the sleep he got – he immediately sent out a tweet: “At LAX waiting for flight to Denver. Best flight ever on VAustralia Premium Economy. Fantastic seat, service, and sleep. Hooked.”  That message went out to twelve hundred of John’s Twitter followers – many of whom are Australians.  It was quickly answered by a tweet from Cheryl Gledhill: “isn’t VAustralia the bomb!! My favourite airline at the moment… so roomy, and great entertainment, nice hosties, etc.”  That message went to Cheryl’s 250 followers.  I chimed in, too: “Precisely how I felt after my VA flights last month: hooked. Got 7 hours sleep each way. Worth the price.”  That message went out to fifty-two hundred of my followers – who are disproportionately Australian.

Just between the three of us, we might have reached as many as seven thousand people – individuals who are like ourselves – because like connects to like in social networks.  That means these are individuals who are likely to take advantage of VAustralia the next time they fly the transpacific route.  But here’s the sad thing: VAustralia had no idea this wonderful and loving conversation about their product was going on.  No idea at all.  You know what they were involved in?  An ad-agency dreamed-up ‘4320SYD’ campaign, which flew four mates to Los Angeles for three days, promising them free round-the-world flights on the various Virgin airlines if they sent at least two thousand tweets during their trip.  VAustralia – or rather, VAustralia’s ad agency – presumed that people with busy lives would spend some of their precious time and attention following four blokes spewing out line after line of inane chatter.  Naturally, the campaign disappeared without a trace.

If VAustralia had asked its agency to monitor Twitter, to keep its finger to the pulse of what was being said online, things could have turned out very differently.  Perhaps a VAustralia rep would have contacted John Allsopp directly, thanked him for his kind words, and offered him a $100 coupon for his next flight on V Australia Premium Economy.  VAustralia would have made a customer for life – and for a lot less than they spent on the ‘4320SYD’ campaign.

Marketers and agencies are still thinking in terms of mass markets and mass media.  While both do still exist, they don’t shape perception as they did a generation ago.  Instead, we turn to the hyperconnections we have with one another.  I can instantly ask Twitter for a review of a restaurant, a gadget, or a movie, and I do.  So do millions of others.  This is the new market, and this is the place where marketing – at least as we’ve known it – can not penetrate.

That’s one problem.  There’s another, and larger problem: what happens when you have an angry customer?  Let me tell you a story about my friend Kate Carruthers, who will be speaking with you later this morning.  On a recent trip to Queensland, she pulled out her American Express credit card to pay for a taxi fare.  Her card was declined.  Kate paid with another card and thought little of it until the next time she tried to use the card – this time to pay for something rather pricier, and more sensitive – only to find her card declined once again.

As it turned out, AMEX had cut her credit line in half, but hadn’t bothered to inform her of this until perhaps a day or two before, via post.  So here’s Kate, far away from home, with a crook credit card.  Thank goodness she had another card with her, or it could have been quite a problem.  When she contacted AMEX to discuss the credit line change – on a Friday evening – she discovered that this ‘consumer’ company kept banker’s hours in its credit division.  That, for Kate, was the last straw.  She began to post a series of messages to Twitter:

“I can’t believe how rude Amex have been to me; cut credit limit by 50% without notice; declined my card while in QLD even though acct paid”

“since Amex just treated me like total sh*t I just posted a chq for the balance of my account & will close acct on Monday”

“Amex is hardly accepted anywhere anyhow so I hardly use it now & after their recent treatment I’m outta there”

“luckily for me I have more than enough to just pay the sucker out & never use Amex again”

“have both a gold credit card & gold charge card with amex until monday when I plan to close both after their crap behaviour”

Kate is both a prolific user of Twitter and a very well connected individual.  There are over seven thousand individuals reading her tweets.  Seven thousand people who saw Kate ‘go nuclear’ over her bad treatment at the hands of AMEX.  Seven thousand people who will now think twice when an AMEX offer comes in the post, or when they pass by the tables that are ubiquitously in every airport and mall.  Everyone one of them will remember the ordeal Kate suffered – almost as if Kate were a close friend.

Does AMEX know that Kate went nuclear?  Almost certainly not.  They didn’t make any attempt to contact her after her outburst, so it’s fairly certain that this flew well underneath their radar.  But the damage to AMEX’s reputation is quantifiable: Kate is simply too hyperconnected to be ignored, or mistreated.  And that’s the world we’re all heading into.  As we all grow more and more connected, as we each individually reach thousands of others, slights against any one of us have a way of amplifying into enormous events, the kinds of mistakes that could, if repeated, bring a business to its knees.  AMEX, in its ignorant bliss, has no idea that it has shot itself in the foot.

While Kate expressed her extreme dissatisfaction with AMEX, its own marketing arm was busily cooking up a scheme to harness Twitter.  It’s Open Forum Pulse website shows you tweets from small businesses around the world.  It’s ironic, isn’t it?  AMEX builds a website to show us what others are saying on Twitter, all the while ignoring about what’s being said about it.  Just like VAustralia.  Perhaps that’s simply the way Big Business is going to play the social media revolution – like complete idiots.  You have an opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

There is a whole world out there engaging in conversation about you.  You need to be able to recognize that.  There are tools out there – like PeopleBrowsr – which make it easy for you to monitor those conversations.  You’ll need to think through a strategy which allows you to recognize and promote those positive conversations, while – perhaps more importantly – keeping an eye on the negative conversations.  An upset customer should be serviced before they go nuclear; these kinds of accidents don’t need to happen.  But you’ll need to be proactive in your listening.  Customers will no longer come to you to talk about you or your business.

III.  Breaking Out

The first step in any social media strategy for business is to embrace the medium.  Many business ban social media from their corporate networks, seeing them as a drain of time and attention.  Which is, in essence, saying that you don’t trust your own employees.  That you’re willing to infantilize them by blocking their network access.  This won’t work.  ‘Smartphones’ – that is, mobiles which have big screens, broadband connections, and full web browsers – have become increasingly popular in Australia.  Perhaps one third of all mobile handsets now qualify as smartphones.  Apple’s iPhone is simply the most visible of these devices, but they’re sold by many manufacturers, and, within a few years, they’ll be entirely pervasive: every mobile will be a smartphone.  A smartphone can access a social network just as easily – often more easily – than a desktop web browser.  Your employees have access to social networks all day long, unless you ask them to leave their mobiles at the front desk.

Just as we expect that employees won’t spend their days sending text messages to the friends, so an employer can expect that employees are sensible enough to regulate their own net usage.  A ‘net nanny’ is not required.  Mutual respect is.  Yes, the network is a powerful thing – it can be used to spread rumor and innuendo, can be used to promote or undermine – but employees understand this.  We all use the network at home.  We know what it’s good for.  Bringing it into the office requires some common sense, and perhaps a few guidelines.  The ABC recently released their own guidelines for social media, and they’re a brilliant example of the parsimony and common sense which need to underwrite all of our business efforts online.  Here they are:

•                do not mix professional and personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute,

•                do not undermine your effectiveness at work,

•                do not imply ABC endorsement of personal views, and,

•                do not disclose confidential information obtained at work.

There’s nothing hard about this list – for either employer or employee – yet it tells everyone exactly where they stand and what’s expected of them.  Employers are expected to trust their employees.  Employees are expected to reciprocate that trust by acting responsibly.  All in all, a very adult relationship.

Once that adult relationship has been established around social media, you have a unique opportunity to let your employees become your eyes and ears online.  Most small to medium-sized businesses have neither the staff nor the resources to dedicate a specific individual to social media issues.  In fact, that’s not actually a good idea.  When things ‘hot up’ for your business, any single individual charged with handling all things social media will quickly overload, with too much coming in through too many channels simultaneously.  That means something will get overlooked.  Something will get dropped.  And a potential nuclear event – something that could be defused or forestalled if responded to in a timely manner – will slip through the cracks.

Social media isn’t a one-person job.  It’s a job for the entire organization.  You need to give your employees permission to be out there on Facebook, on Twitter, on the blogs and in the net’s weirder corners – wherever their searches might lead them.  You need to charge them with the responsibility of being proactive, to go out there and hunt down those conversations of importance to your and your business.  Of course, they should be polite, and only offer help where it is needed, but, if they can do that, you will increase your reach and your presence immeasurably.  And you will have done it without spending a dime.

Those of you with a background in marketing have just broken out in cold sweat.  This is nothing like what they taught you at university, nothing like what you learned on the job.  That’s the truth of it.  But what you learned on the job is what VAustralia and AMEX are now up to – that is, complete and utter failure.  But, you’re thinking, what about message discipline?  How can we have that many people speaking for the organization?  Won’t it be chaos?

The answer, in short, is yes.  It will be chaos.  But not in a bad way.  You’ll have your own army out there, working for you.  Employees will know enough to know when they can speak for the organization, and when they should be silent.  (If they don’t know, they’ll learn quickly.)  Will it be messy?  Probably.  But the world of social media is not neat.  It is not based on image and marketing and presentation.  It is based on authenticity, on relationships that are established and which develop through time.  It is not something that can be bought or sold like an ad campaign.  It is, instead, something more akin to friendship – requiring time and tending and more than a little bit of love.

This means that employees will need some time to spend online, probably a few minutes, several times a day, to keep an eye on things.  To keep watch.  To make sure a simmering pot doesn’t suddenly boil over.

That’s the half of it.  The other half is how you use social media to reach out.  Many companies set up Twitter and Facebook accounts and use them to send useless spam-like messages to anyone who cares to listen.  Please don’t do this. Social media is not about advertising.  In fact, it’s anti-advertising.  Social media is an opportunity to connect.  If you’re a furniture maker, for example, perhaps you’d like to have a public conversation with designers and homeowners about the art and business of making furniture.  Social media is precisely where you get to show off the expertise which keeps you in business – whatever that might be.  Lawyers can talk about law, accountants about accounting, and printers about printing.  Business, especially small business, is all about passion, and social media is a passion amplifier.  Let your passions show and people will respond.  Some of them will become customers.

So please, when you leave here today, setup those Facebook and Twitter accounts.  But when you’ve done that, step back and have a think.  Ask yourself, “How can I represent my business in a way that invites conversation?”  Once you’ve answered that, you’ve also answered the other important question – how do you translate that conversation into business.  Without the conversation you’ve got nothing.  But, once that conversation has begun, you have everything you need.

Those are the basics.  Everything else you’ll learn as you go along.  Social media isn’t difficult, though it takes time to master.  Just like any relationship, you’ll get out of it what you put into it.  And it isn’t going away.  It’s not a fad.  It’s the new way of doing business.  The efforts you make today will, in short order, reward you a hundred-fold.  That’s the promise of network: it will bring you success.

Digital Citizenship LIVE

Keynote for the Digital Fair of the Australian College of Educators, Geelong Grammar School, 16 April 2009. The full text of the talk is here.

Inflection Points

I: The Universal Solvent

I have to admit that I am in awe of iTunes University. It’s just amazing that so many well-respected universities – Stanford, MIT, Yale, and Uni Melbourne – are willing to put their crown jewels – their lectures – online for everyone to download. It’s outstanding when even one school provides a wealth of material, but as other schools provide their own material, then we get to see some of the virtues of crowdsourcing. First, you have a virtuous cycle: as more material is shared, more material will be made available to share. After the virtuous cycle gets going, it’s all about a flight to quality.

When you have half a dozen or have a hundred lectures on calculus, which one do you choose? The one featuring the best lecturer with the best presentation skills, the best examples, and the best math jokes – of course. This is my only complaint with iTunes University – you can’t rate the various lectures on offer. You can know which ones have been downloaded most often, but that’s not precisely the same thing as which calculus seminar or which sociology lecture is the best. So as much as I love iTunes University, I see it as halfway there. Perhaps Apple didn’t want to turn iTunes U into a popularity contest, but, without that vital bit of feedback, it’s nearly impossible for us to winnow out the wheat from the educational chaff.

This is something that has to happen inside the system; it could happen across a thousand educational blogs spread out across the Web, but then it’s too diffuse to be really helpful. The reviews have to be coordinated and collated – just as with RateMyProfessors.com.

Say, that’s an interesting point. Why not create RateMyLectures.com, a website designed to sit right alongside iTunes University? If Apple can’t or won’t rate their offerings, someone has to create the one-stop-shop for ratings. And as iTunes University gets bigger and bigger, RateMyLectures.com becomes ever more important, the ultimate guide to the ultimate source of educational multimedia on the Internet. One needs the other to be wholly useful; without ratings iTunes U is just an undifferentiated pile of possibilities. But with ratings, iTunes U becomes a highly focused and effective tool for digital education.

Now let’s cast our minds ahead a few semesters: iTunes U is bigger and better than ever, and RateMyLectures.com has benefited from the hundreds of thousands of contributed reviews. Those reviews extend beyond the content in iTunes U, out into YouTube and Google Video and Vimeo and Blip.tv and where ever people are creating lectures and putting them online. Now anyone can come by the site and discover the absolute best lecture on almost any subject they care to research. The net is now cast globally; I can search for the best lecture on Earth, so long as it’s been captured and uploaded somewhere, and someone’s rated it on RateMyLectures.com.

All of a sudden we’ve imploded the boundaries of the classroom. The lecture can come from the US, or the UK, or Canada, or New Zealand, or any other country. Location doesn’t matter – only its rating as ‘best’ matters. This means that every student, every time they sit down at a computer, already does or will soon have on available the absolute best lectures, globally. That’s just a mind-blowing fact. It grows very naturally out of our desire to share and our desire to share ratings about what we have shared. Nothing extraordinary needed to happen to produce this entirely extraordinary state of affairs.

The network is acting like a universal solvent, dissolving all of the boundaries that have kept things separate. It’s not just dissolving the boundaries of distance – though it is doing that – it’s also dissolving the boundaries of preference. Although there will always be differences in taste and delivery, some instructors are simply better lecturers – in better command of their material – than others. Those instructors will rise to the top. Just as RateMyProfessors.com has created a global market for the lecturers with the highest ratings, RateMyLectures.com will create a global market for the best performances, the best material, the best lessons.

That RateMyLectures.com is only a hypothetical shouldn’t put you off. Part of what’s happening at this inflection point is that we’re all collectively learning how to harness the network for intelligence augmentation – Engelbart’s final triumph. All we need do is identify an area which could benefit from knowledge sharing and, sooner rather than later, someone will come along with a solution. I’d actually be very surprised if a service a lot like RateMyLectures.com doesn’t already exist. It may be small and unimpressive now. But Wikipedia was once small and unimpressive. If it’s useful, it will likely grow large enough to be successful.

Of course, lectures alone do not an education make. Lectures are necessary but are only one part of the educational process. Mentoring and problem solving and answering questions: all of these take place in the very real, very physical classroom. The best lectures in the world are only part of the story. The network is also transforming the classroom, from inside out, melting it down, and forging it into something that looks quite a bit different from the classroom we’ve grown familiar with over the last 50 years.

II: Fluid Dynamics

If we take the examples of RateMyProfessors.com and RateMyLectures.com and push them out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; RateMyProfessors.com points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open” school, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructors facilitate and mentor, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial presence with the instructor, it will have a physical locale, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode, vanishing online, and explode: the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; as the network begins to destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else becomes inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: Digital Citizenship

Obviously, much of what I’ve described here in the “melting down” of the educational process applies first and foremost to university students. That’s where most of the activity is taking place. But I would argue that it only begins with university students. From there – just like Facebook – it spreads across the gap between tertiary and secondary education, and into the high schools and colleges.

This is significant an interesting because it’s at this point that we, within Australia, run headlong into the Government’s plan to provide laptops for all year 9 through year 12 students. Some schools will start earlier; there’s a general consensus among educators that year 7 is the earliest time a student should be trusted to behave responsibility with their “own” computer. Either way, the students will be fully equipped and capable to use all of the tools at hand to manage their own education.

But will they? Some of this is a simple question of discipline: will the students be disciplined enough to take an ever-more-active role in the co-production of their education? As ever, the question is neither black nor white; some students will demonstrate the qualities of discipline needed to allow them to assume responsibility for their education, while others will not.

But, somewhere along here, there’s the presumption of some magical moment during the secondary school years, when the student suddenly learns how to behave online. And we already know this isn’t happening. We see too many incidents where students make mistakes, behaving badly without fully understanding that the whole world really is watching.

In the early part of this year I did a speaking tour with the Australian Council of Educational Researchers; during the tour I did a lot of listening. One thing I heard loud and clear from the educators is that giving a year 7 student a laptop is the functional equivalent of giving them a loaded gun. And we shouldn’t be surprised, when we do this, when there are a few accidental – or volitional – shootings.

I mentioned this in a talk to TAFE educators last week, and one of the attendees suggested that we needed to teach “Digital Citizenship”. I’d never heard the phrase before, but I’ve taken quite a liking to it. Of course, by the time a student gets to TAFE, the damage is done. We shouldn’t start talking about digital citizenship in TAFE. We should be talking about it from the first days of secondary education. And it’s not something that should be confined to the school: parents are on the hook for this, too. Even when the parents are not digitally literate, they can impart the moral and ethical lessons of good behavior to their children, lessons which will transfer to online behavior.

Make no mistake, without a firm grounding in digital citizenship, a secondary student can’t hope to make sense of the incredibly rich and impossibly distracting world afforded by the network. Unless we turn down the internet connection – which always seems like the first option taken by administrators – students will find themselves overwhelmed. That’s not surprising: we’ve taught them few skills to help them harness the incredible wealth available. In part that’s because we’re only just learning those skills ourselves. But in part it’s because we would have to relinquish control. We’re reluctant to do that. A course in digital citizenship would help both students and teachers feel more at ease with one another when confronted by the noise online.

Make no mistake, this inflection point in education is going inevitably going to cross the gap between tertiary and secondary school and students. Students will be able to do for themselves in ways that were never possible before. None of this means that the teacher or even the administrator has necessarily become obsolete. But the secondary school of the mid-21st century may look a lot more like a website than campus. The classroom will have a fluid look, driven by the teacher, the students and the subject material.

Have we prepared students for this world? Have we given them the ability to make wise decisions about their own education? Or are we like those university administrators who mutter about how RateMyProfessors.com has ruined all their carefully-laid plans? The world where students were simply the passive consumers of an educational product is coming to an end. There are other products out there, clamoring for attention – you can thank Apple for that. And YouTube.

Once we get through this inflection point in the digital revolution in education, we arrive in a landscape that’s literally mind-blowing. We will each have access to educational resources far beyond anything on offer at any other time in human history. The dream of life-long learning will be simply a few clicks away for most of the billion people on the Internet, and many of the four billion who use mobiles. It will not be an easy transition, nor will it be perfect on the other side. But it will be incredible, a validation of everything Douglas Engelbart demonstrated forty years ago, and an opportunity to create a truly global educational culture, focused on excellence, and dedicated to serving all students, everywhere.

Fluid Learning

I: Out of Control

Our greatest fear, in bringing computers into the classroom, is that we teachers and instructors and lecturers will lose control of the classroom, lose touch with the students, lose the ability to make a difference. The computer is ultimately disruptive. It offers greater authority than any instructor, greater resources than any lecturer, and greater reach than any teacher. The computer is not perfect, but it is indefatigable. The computer is not omniscient, but it is comprehensive. The computer is not instantaneous, but it is faster than any other tool we’ve ever used.

All of this puts the human being at a disadvantage; in a classroom full of machines, the human factor in education is bound to be overlooked. Even though we know that everyone learns more effectively when there’s a teacher or mentor present, we want to believe that everything can be done with the computer. We want the machines to distract, and we hope that in that distraction some education might happen. But distraction is not enough. There must be a point to the exercise, some reason that makes all the technology worthwhile. That search for a point – a search we are still mostly engaged in – will determine whether these computers are meaningful to the educational process, or if they are an impediment to learning.

It’s all about control.

What’s most interesting about the computer is how it puts paid to all of our cherished fantasies of control. The computer – or, most specifically, the global Internet connected to it – is ultimately disruptive, not just to the classroom learning experience, but to the entire rationale of the classroom, the school, the institution of learning. And if you believe this to be hyperbolic, this story will help to convince you.

In May of 1999, Silicon Valley software engineer John Swapceinski started a website called “Teacher Ratings.” Individuals could visit the site and fill in a brief form with details about their school, and their teacher. That done, they could rate the teacher’s capabilities as an instructor. The site started slowly, but, as is always the case with these sorts of “crowdsourced” ventures, as more ratings were added to the site, it became more useful to people, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, which meant it became even more useful, which meant more visitors, which meant more ratings, etc. Somewhere in the middle of this virtuous cycle the site changed its name to “Rate My Professors.com” and changed hands twice. For the last two years, RateMyProfessors.com has been owned by MTV, which knows a thing or two about youth markets, and can see one in a site that has nine million reviews of one million teachers, professors and instructors in the US, Canada and the UK.

Although the individual action of sharing some information about an instructor seems innocuous enough, in aggregate the effect is entirely revolutionary. A student about to attend university in the United States can check out all of her potential instructors before she signs up for a single class. She can choose to take classes only with those instructors who have received the best ratings – or, rather more perversely, only with those instructors known to be easy graders. The student is now wholly in control of her educational opportunities, going in eyes wide open, fully cognizant of what to expect before the first day of class.

Although RateMyProfessors.com has enlightened students, it has made the work of educational administrators exponentially more difficult. Students now talk, up and down the years, via the recorded ratings on the site. It isn’t possible for an institution of higher education to disguise an individual who happens to be a world-class researcher but a rather ordinary lecturer. In earlier times, schools could foist these instructors on students, who’d be stuck for a semester. This no longer happens, because RateMyProfessors.com effectively warns students away from the poor-quality teachers.

This one site has undone all of the neat work of tenure boards and department chairs throughout the entire world of academia. A bad lecturer is no longer a department’s private little secret, but publicly available information. And a great lecturer is no longer a carefully hoarded treasure, but a hot commodity on a very public market. The instructors with the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com find themselves in demand, receiving outstanding offers (with tenure) from other universities. All of this plotting, which used to be hidden from view, is now fully revealed. The battle for control over who stands in front of the classroom has now been decisively lost by the administration in favor of the students.

This is not something that anyone expected; it certainly wasn’t what John Swapceinski had in mind when founded Teacher Ratings. He wasn’t trying to overturn the prerogatives of heads of school around the world. He was simply offering up a place for people to pool their knowledge. That knowledge, once pooled, takes on a life of its own, and finds itself in places where it has uses that its makers never intended.

This rating system serves as an archetype for what it is about to happen to education in general. If we are smart enough, we can learn a lesson here and now that we will eventually learn – rather more expensively – if we wait. The lesson is simple: control is over. This is not about control anymore. This is about finding a way to survive and thrive in chaos.

The chaos is not something we should be afraid of. Like King Canute, we can’t roll back the tide of chaos that’s rolling over us. We can’t roll back the clock to an earlier age without computers, without Internet, without the subtle but profound distraction of text messaging. The school is of its time, not out it. Which means we must play the hand we’ve been dealt. That’s actually a good thing, because we hold a lot of powerful cards, or can, if we choose to face the chaos head on.

II: Do It Ourselves

If we take the example of RateMyProfessors.com and push it out a little bit, we can see the shape of things to come. But there are some other trends which are also becoming visible. The first and most significant of these is the trend toward sharing lecture material online, so that it reaches a very large audience. Spearheaded by Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, both of which have placed their entire set of lectures online through iTunes University, these educational institutions assert that the lectures themselves aren’t the real reason students spend $50,000 a year to attend these schools; the lectures only have full value in context. This is true, in some sense, but it discounts the possibility that some individuals or group of individuals might create their own context around the lectures. And this is where the future seems to be pointing.

When broken down to its atomic components, the classroom is an agreement between an instructor and a set of students. The instructor agrees to offer expertise and mentorship, while the students offer their attention and dedication. The question now becomes what role, if any, the educational institution plays in coordinating any of these components. Students can share their ratings online – why wouldn’t they also share their educational goals? Once they’ve pooled their goals, what keeps them from recruiting their own instructor, booking their own classroom, indeed, just doing it all themselves?

At the moment the educational institution has an advantage over the singular student, in that it exists to coordinate the various functions of education. The student doesn’t have access to the same facilities or coordination tools. But we already see that this is changing; RateMyProfessors.com points the way. Why not create a new kind of “Open University”, a website that offers nothing but the kinds of scheduling and coordination tools students might need to organize their own courses? I’m sure that if this hasn’t been invented already someone is currently working on it – it’s the natural outgrowth of all the efforts toward student empowerment we’ve seen over the last several years.

In this near future world, students are the administrators. All of the administrative functions have been “pushed down” into a substrate of software. Education has evolved into something like a marketplace, where instructors “bid” to work with students. Now since most education is funded by the government, there will obviously be other forces at play; it may be that “administration”, such as it is, represents the government oversight function which ensures standards are being met. In any case, this does not look much like the educational institution of the 20th century – though it does look quite a bit like the university of the 13th century, where students would find and hire instructors to teach them subjects.

The role of the instructor has changed as well; as recently as a few years ago the lecturer was the font of wisdom and source of all knowledge – perhaps with a companion textbook. In an age of Wikipedia, YouTube and Twitter this no longer the case. The lecturer now helps the students find the material available online, and helps them to make sense of it, contextualizing and informing their understanding. even as the students continue to work their way through the ever-growing set of information. The instructor can not know everything available online on any subject, but will be aware of the best (or at least, favorite) resources, and will pass along these resources as a key outcome of the educational process. The instructor facilitates and mentors, as they have always done, but they are no longer the gatekeepers, because there are no gatekeepers, anywhere.

The administration has gone, the instructor’s role has evolved, now what happens to the classroom itself? In the context of a larger school facility, it may or may not be relevant. A classroom is clearly relevant if someone is learning engine repair, but perhaps not if learning calculus. The classroom in this fungible future of student administrators and evolved lecturers is any place where learning happens. If it can happen entirely online, that will be the classroom. If it requires substantial darshan with the instructor, it will have a physical local, which may or may not be a building dedicated to education. (It could, in many cases, simply be a field outdoors, again harkening back to 13th-century university practices.) At one end of the scale, students will be able work online with each other and with an lecturer to master material; at the other end, students will work closely with a mentor in a specialist classroom. This entire range of possibilities can be accommodated without much of the infrastructure we presently associate with educational institutions. The classroom will both implode – vanishing online – and explode – the world will become the classroom.

This, then, can already be predicted from current trends; once RateMyProfessors.com succeeded in destabilizing the institutional hierarchies in education, everything else became inevitable. Because this transformation lies mostly in the future, it is possible to shape these trends with actions taken in the present. In the worst case scenario, our educational institutions to not adjust to the pressures placed upon them by this new generation of students, and are simply swept aside by these students as they rise into self-empowerment. But the worst case need not be the only case. There are concrete steps which institutions can take to ease the transition from our highly formal present into our wildly informal future. In order to roll with the punches delivered by these newly-empowered students, educational institutions must become more fluid, more open, more atomic, and less interested the hallowed traditions of education than in outcomes.

III: All and Everything

Flexibility and fluidity are the hallmark qualities of the 21st century educational institution. An analysis of the atomic features of the educational process shows that the course is a series of readings, assignments and lectures that happen in a given room on a given schedule over a specific duration. In our drive to flexibility how can we reduce the class into to essential, indivisible elements? How can we capture those elements? Once captured, how can we get these elements to the students? And how can the students share elements which they’ve found in their own studies?

Recommendation #1: Capture Everything

I am constantly amazed that we simply do not record almost everything that occurs in public forums as a matter of course. This talk is being recorded for a later podcast – and so it should be. Not because my words are particularly worthy of preservation, but rather because this should now be standard operating procedure for education at all levels, for all subject areas. It simply makes no sense to waste my words – literally, pouring them away – when with very little infrastructure an audio recording can be made, and, with just a bit more infrastructure, a video recording can be made.

This is the basic idea that’s guiding Stanford and MIT: recording is cheap, lecturers are expensive, and students are forgetful. Somewhere in the middle these three trends meet around recorded media. Yes, a student at Stanford who misses a lecture can download and watch it later, and that’s a good thing. But it also means that any student, anywhere, can download the same lecture.

Yes, recording everything means you end up with a wealth of media that must be tracked, stored, archived, referenced and so forth. But that’s all to the good. Every one of these recordings has value, and the more recordings you have, the larger the horde you’re sitting upon. If you think of it like that – banking your work – the logic of capturing everything becomes immediately clear.

Recommendation #2: Share Everything

While education definitely has value – teachers are paid for the work – that does not mean that resources, once captured, should be tightly restricted to authorized users only. In fact, the opposite is the case: the resources you capture should be shared as broadly as can possibly be managed. More than just posting them onto a website (or YouTube or iTunes), you should trumpet their existence from the highest tower. These resources are your calling card, these resources are your recruiting tool. If someone comes across one of your lectures (or other resources) and is favorably impressed by it, how much more likely will they be to attend a class?

The center of this argument is simple, though subtle: the more something is shared, the more valuable it becomes. You extend your brand with every resource you share. You extend the knowledge of your institution throughout the Internet. Whatever you have – if it’s good enough – will bring people to your front door, first virtually, then physically.

If universities as illustrious (and expensive) as Stanford and MIT could both share their full courseware online, without worrying that it would dilute the value of the education they offer, how can any other institution hope to refute their example? Both voted with their feet, and both show a different way to value education – as experience. You can’t download experience. You can’t bottle it. Experience has to be lived, and that requires a teacher.

Recommendation #3: Open Everything

You will be approached by many vendors promising all sorts of wonderful things that will make the educational processes seamless and nearly magical for both educators and students. Don’t believe a word of it. (If I had a dollar for every gripe I’ve heard about Blackboard and WebCT, I’d be a very wealthy man.) There is no off-the-shelf tool that is perfectly equipped for every situation. Each tool tries to shoehorn an infinity of possibilities into a rather limited palette.

Rather than going for a commercial solution, I would advise you to look at the open-source solutions. Rather than buying a solution, use Moodle, the open-source, Australian answer to digital courseware. Going open means that as your needs change, the software can change to meet those needs. Given the extraordinary pressures education will be under over the next few years, openness is a necessary component of flexibility.

Openness is also about achieving a certain level of device-independence. Education happens everywhere, not just with your nose down in a book, or stuck into a computer screen. There are many screens today, and while the laptop screen may be the most familiar to educators, the mobile handset has a screen which is, in many ways, more vital. Many students will never be very computer literate, but every single one of them has a mobile handset, and every single one of them sends text messages. It’s the big of computer technology we nearly always overlook – because it is so commonplace. Consider every screen when you capture, and when you share; dealing with them all as equals will help you work find audiences you never suspected you’d have.

There is a third aspect of openness: open networks. Educators of every stripe throughout Australia are under enormous pressure to “clean” the network feeds available to students. This is as true for adult students as it is for educators who have a duty-of-care relationship with their students. Age makes no difference, apparently. The Web is big, bad, evil and must be tamed.

Yet net filtering throws the baby out with the bathwater. Services like Twitter get filtered out because they could potentially be disruptive, cutting students off from the amazing learning potential of social messaging. Facebook and MySpace are seen as time-wasters, rather than tools for organizing busy schedules. The list goes on: media sites are blocked because the schools don’t have enough bandwidth to support them; Wikipedia is blocked because teachers don’t want students cheating.

All of this has got to stop. The classroom does not exist in isolation, nor can it continue to exist in opposition to the Internet. Filtering, while providing a stopgap, only leaves students painfully aware of how disconnected the classroom is from the real world. Filtering makes the classroom less flexible and less responsive. Filtering is lazy.

Recommendation #4: Only Connect

Mind the maxim of the 21st century: connection is king. Students must be free to connect with instructors, almost at whim. This becomes difficult for instructors to manage, but it is vital. Mentorship has exploded out of the classroom and, through connectivity, entered everyday life. Students should also be able to freely connect with educational administration; a fruitful relationship will keep students actively engaged in the mechanics of their education.

Finally, students must be free to (and encouraged to) connect with their peers. Part of the reason we worry about lecturers being overburdened by all this connectivity is because we have yet to realize that this is a multi-lateral, multi-way affair. It’s not as though all questions and issues immediately rise to the instructor’s attention. This should happen if and only if another student can’t be found to address the issue. Students can instruct one another, can mentor one another, can teach one another. All of this happens already in every classroom; it’s long past time to provide the tools to accelerate this natural and effective form of education. Again, look to RateMyProfessors.com – it shows the value of “crowdsourced” learning.

Connection is expensive, not in dollars, but in time. But for all its drawbacks, connection enriches us enormously. It allows us to multiply our reach, and learn from the best. The challenge of connectivity is nowhere near as daunting as the capabilities it delivers. Yet we know already that everyone will be looking to maintain control and stability, even as everything everywhere becomes progressively reshaped by all this connectivity. We need to let go, we need to trust ourselves enough to recognize that what we have now, though it worked for a while, is no longer fit for the times. If we can do that, we can make this transition seamless and pleasant. So we must embrace sharing and openness and connectivity; in these there’s the fluidity we need for the future.

Interview: “The Alcove with Mark Molaro”

Recorded in New York City, 23 June 2008 – the day before I delivered “Hyperpolitics, American Style” at the Personal Democracy Forum. A wide-ranging discussion on hyperconnectivity, hyperpolitics, media, hyperdistribution, and lots of other fun things.

Many thanks to Mark for getting it up!

Collisions & Smash Repairs

My brief keynote to the ICT Roundtable of the TAFE Sydney Institute. Recorded on Wednesday, 13 August 2008. Many thanks to Trish James and Stephan Ridgway for arranging the audio recording!