This is the era of sharing. When the histories of our time are written a hundred years from now, sharing is the salient feature which historians will focus upon. The entirety of culture, from 1999 forward, looks like a gigantic orgy of sharing.
This morning I want to take a look at this phenomenon in some detail, and tie it into some Australian educational ‘megatrends’ – forces which are altering the landscape throughout the nation. Sharing can be used as an engine to power these forces, but that will only happen if we understand how sharing works.
At some level, sharing is totally familiar to us – we’ve been sharing since we’ve been very small. But sharing, at least in the English language, has two slightly different meanings: we can share things, or we can share thoughts. We adults spend a lot of time teaching children the importance of sharing their things; we never need to teach them to share their thoughts. The sharing of things is a cultural behavior, valued by our civilization, whereas the sharing of thoughts is an innate behavior – probably located somewhere deep in our genes.
Fifteen years ago, Nicholas Negroponte characterized this as the divide between bits and atoms. We have to teach children to share their atoms – their toys and games – but they freely share their bits. In fact, they’re so promiscuous with their bits that this has produced its own range of problems.
It was only a decade ago that Shawn Fanning released a program which he’d written for his mates at Boston’s Northeastern University. Napster allowed anyone with a computer and a broadband internet connection to share their MP3 music files freely. Within a few months, millions of broadband-connected college students were freely trading their music collections with one another – without any thought of copyright or ownership. Let me reiterate: thoughts of copyright or piracy simply didn’t enter into their thinking. To them, this was all about sharing.
This act of sharing was a natural consequence of the ‘hyperconnectivity’ these kids had achieved via their broadband connections. When you connect people together, they will begin to share the things they care about. If you build a system that allows them to share the music they care about, they’ll share that. If you build a system that allows them to share the videos they care about, they’ll share that. If you build a system that allows them to share the links they care about, they’ll share them.
Clever web developers and entrepreneurs have built all of these systems, and many, many more. For the first time we can use technology to accelerate and amplify the innate human desire to share bits, and so, in a case of history repeating itself, we have amplified our social and sharing systems the way the steam engine amplified our physical power two hundred years ago.
In the earliest years of this sharing revolution, people shared the objects of culture: music, videos, jokes, links, photos, writing, and so on. Just this alone has had an enormous impact on business and culture: the recording industries, which were flying high a decade ago, have been humbled. Television networks have gotten in front of the Internet distribution of their own shows, to take the sting out of piracy. Newspapers, caught in the crossfire between a controlled system of distribution and a world where everyone distributes everything, have begun to disappear. And this is just the beginning.
In 2001, another experiment in sharing started in earnest: Wikipedia encouraged a small community of contributors to add their own entries to an ever-expanding encyclopedia. In this case contributors were asked to share their knowledge – however specific or particular – to a greater whole. Although it grew slowly in its earliest days, after about 2 years Wikipedia hit an inflection point and began to grow explosively.
Knowledge seems to have a gravitational quality; when enough of it is gathered together in one place, it attracts more knowledge. That’s certainly the story of Wikipedia, which has grown to encompass more than three million articles in English, on nearly every topic under the sun. Wikipedia is only the most successful of many efforts to produce a ‘collective intelligence’ out of the ‘wisdom of crowds’. There are many others – including one I’ll come to shortly.
One of the singular features of Wikipedia – one that we never think about even though it’s the reason we use Wikipedia – is simply this: Wikipedia makes us smarter. We can approach Wikipedia full of ignorance and leave it knowing a lot of facts. Facts need to be put into practice before they can be transformed into knowledge, but at least with Wikipedia we now have the opportunity to load up on the facts. And this is true globally: because of Wikipedia every single one of us now has the opportunity to work with the best possible facts. We can use these facts to make better decisions, decisions which will improve our lives. Wikipedia may seem innocuous, but it’s really quite profound.
How profound? If we peel away all of the technology behind Wikipedia, all of the servers and databases and broadband connections of the world’s sixth most popular website, what are we left with? Only this: an agreement to share what we know. It’s that agreement, and not the servers or databases or bandwidth which makes Wikipedia special, and it’s that agreement historians will be writing about in a hundred years. That agreement will endure – even if, for some bizarre reason, Wikipedia should cease to exist – because that agreement is one of the engines driving our culture forward.
Another example of sharing, just as relevant to educators, comes from a site which launched back in 1999 as TeacherRatings.com. Like Wikipedia, it grew slowly, and went through ownership changes, emerging finally as RateMyProfessors.com, which is owned by MTV, and which now boasts ten million ratings of one million professors, lecturers and instructors. This huge wealth of ratings came about because RateMyProfessors.com attached itself to the innate desire to share. Students want to share their experiences with their instructors, and RateMyProfessors.com gives them a forum to do just that.
Just as is the case with Wikipedia, anyone can become smarter by using RateMyProfessors.com. You can learn which instructors are good teachers, which grade easily, which will bore you to tears, and so forth. You can then put that information to work to make your life better – avoiding the professors (or schools) which have the worst teachers, taking courses from the instructors who get the highest scores.
That shared knowledge, put to work, changes the power balance within the university. For the last six hundred years, universities have been able to saddle students with lousy instructors – who might happen to be fantastic researchers – and there wasn’t much that students could do about it except grumble. Now, with RateMyProfessors.com, students can pass their hard-won knowledge down to subsequent generations of students. The university proposes, the student disposes. Worse still, the instructors receiving the highest ratings on RateMyProfessors.com have been the subjects of bidding wars, as various universities try to woo them, and add them to their faculties. All of this has given students a power they’ve never had, a power they never could have until they began to share their experiences, and translate that shared knowledge into action.
Sharing is wonderful, but sharing has consequences. We can now amplify and accelerate our sharing so that it can cross the world in a matter of moments, copied and replicated all the way. The power of the network has driven us into a new era. Sharing culture, knowledge, and power has destabilized all of our institutions. Businesses totter and collapse; universities change their practices; governments create task forces to get in front of what everyone calls ‘something-2.0’. It could be web2.0, education2.0, or government2.0. It doesn’t matter. What does matter is that something big is happening, and it’s all driven by our ability to share.
OK, so we can share. But why? How does it matter to us?
Before we can look at why sharing matters so much in this particular moment, we need to spend some time examining the three big events which will revolutionize education in Australia over the next decade. Each of them are entirely revolutionary in themselves; their confluence will result in a compressed wave of change – a concrescence – that will radically transform all educational practice.
The first of these events will affect all Australians equally. At this moment in time, Australia lives with medium-to-low-end broadband speeds, and most families have broadband connections which, because of metering, fundamentally limit their use. This is how it’s been since the widespread adoption of the Internet in the mid-1990s, and it’s nearly impossible to imagine that things could be different. The hidden lesson of the last fifteen years is that the Internet is something that needs to be rationed carefully, because there’s not enough to go around.
The Government wants us to adopt a different point of view. With the National Broadband Network (NBN), they intend to build a fibre-optic infrastructure which will deliver at least 100 megabit-per-second connections to every home, every school, and every business in Australia. Although no one has come out and said it explicitly, it’s clear that the Government wants this connection to be unmetered – the Internet will finally be freely available in Australia, as it is in most other countries.
How this will change our usage of the Internet is anyone’s guess. And this is the important point – we don’t know what will happen. We have critics of the NBN claiming that there’s no good reason for it, that Australians are already adequately served by the broadband we’ve already got, but I regularly hear stories of schools which block YouTube – not because of its potentially distracting qualities, but because they can’t handle the demand for bandwidth.
That, writ large, describes Australia in 2009. Broadband is the oxygen of the 21st century. Australia has been subjected to a slow strangulation. Once we can breathe freely, new horizons will open to us. We know this is true from history: no one really knew what we’d do with broadband once we got it. No one predicted Napster or YouTube or Skype, no one could have predicted any of them – or any of a thousand other innovations – before we had widespread access to broadband. Critics who argue there’s no need for high-speed broadband have simply failed to learn the lessons of history.
Now, before you think that I’m carrying the Government’s water, let me find fault with a few things. I believe that the Government isn’t thinking big enough – by the time the NBN is fully deployed, around 2017, a hundred megabit-per-second connection will simply be mid-range among our OECD peers. The Government should have accepted the technical challenge and gone for a gigabit network. Eventually, they will. Further, I believe the NBN will come with ‘strings attached’, specifically the filtering and regulatory regime currently being proposed by Senator Conroy’s ministry. The Government wants to provide the nation a ‘clean feed’, sanitized according to its interpretation of the law; when everyone in Australia gets their Internet service from the Commonwealth, we may have no choice in the matter.
The next event – and perhaps the most salient, in the context of this conference – is the Government’s commitment to provide a computer to every student in years 9 through 12. During the 2007 election, the Prime Minister talked about using computers for ‘math drills’ and ‘foreign language training’. The line about providing computers in the classroom was a popular one, although it is now clear that the Government’s ministers didn’t think through the profound effect of pervasive computing in the classroom.
First, it radically alters the power balance in the classroom. Most students have more facility with their computers than their teachers do. Some teachers are prepared to work from humility and accept instruction from their students. For other teachers, such an idea is anathema. The power balance could be righted somewhat with extensive professional development for the teachers – and time for that professional development – but schools have neither the budget nor the time to allow for this. Instead, the computers are being dumped into the classroom without any thought as to how they will affect pedagogy.
Second, these computers are being handed to students who may not be wholly aware of the potency of these devices. We’ve seen how a single text message, forwarded endlessly, can spark a riot on a Sydney beach, or how a party invitation, posted to Facebook, can lead to a crowd of five hundred and a battle with the police. Do teenagers really understand how to use the network to their advantage, how to reinforce their own privacy and protect themselves? Do they know how easy it is to ruin their own lives – or someone else’s – if they abuse the power of the network, that amplifier and accelerator of sharing?
Teachers aren’t the only ones who need some professional development. We need to provide a strong curriculum in ‘digital citizenship’; just as teenagers get instruction before they get a driver’s license, so they need instruction before they get to ‘spin the wheels’ of these ubiquitous educational computers.
This isn’t a problem that can be solved by filtering the networks at the schools. Students are surrounded by too many devices – mobiles as well as computers – which connect to the network and which require a degree of caution and education. This isn’t a job that the schools should be handling alone; this is an opportunity for all of the adult voices of culture – parents, caretakers, mentors, educators and administrators – to speak as one about the potentials and pitfalls of network culture.
Finally, what is the goal here? Right now the students and teachers are getting their computers. Next year the deployment will be nearly complete. What, in the end, is the point? Is it simply to give Kevin Rudd a tick on his ‘promises fulfilled’ list when he goes up for re-election? Or is this an opening to something greater? Is this simply more of the same or something new? I haven’t seen any educator anywhere present anything that looks at all like an integrated vision of what these laptops mean to students, teachers or the classroom. They’re bling: pretty, but an entirely useless accessory. I’m not saying that this is a bad initiative – indeed, I believe the Government should be lauded for its efforts. But everything, thus far, feels only like a beginning, the first meter around a very long course.
Now we come to the most profound of the three events on the educational horizon: the National Curriculum. Although the idea of a national curriculum has been mooted by several successive governments, it looks as though we’ll finally achieve a deliverable curriculum sometime in the early years of the Rudd Government. There’s a long way to go, of course – and a lot of tussling between the states and the various educational stakeholders – but the process is well underway. It’s expected that curricula in ‘English, Mathematics, the Sciences and History’ will be ready for implementation in the start of 2011, not very far away. As these are the core elements in any school curriculum, they will affect every school, every teacher, and every student in Australia.
A few weeks ago I got the opportunity to share the stage with Dr. Evan Arthur, the Group Manager of the Digital Education Group at the Commonwealth Department of Education, Employment and Workplace Relations. During a ‘fireside chat’, when I asked him a series of questions, the topic turned to the National Curriculum. At this point Dr. Arthur became rather thoughtful, and described the National Curriculum as a “greenfields”. He went on to describe the curriculum documents, when completed, as a set of ‘strings’ which could be handled almost as if they were a Christmas tree, ready to have content hung all over them. The National Curriculum means that every educator in Australia is, for the first time, working to the same set of ‘strings’.
That’s when I became aware that Dr. Arthur saw the National Curriculum as an enormous opportunity to redraw the possibilities for education. We are all being given an opportunity to start again – to throw out the old rule book and start over with another one. But in order to do this we’ll have to take everything we’ve covered already – about sharing, the National Broadband Network, the Digital Education Revolution and the National Curriculum, then blend them together. Together they produce a very potent mix, a nexus of possibilities which could fundamentally transform education in Australia.
III: At The Nexus
Our future is a future of sharing; we’ll be improving constantly, finding better and better ways to share with one another. To this I want to add something more subtle; not a change in technology – we have a lot of technology – but rather, a change of direction and intent. We could choose to see the National Curriculum as simply another mandate from the Federal government, something that will make the educational process even more formal, rigorous, and lifeless. That option is open to us – and, to many of us, that’s the only option visible. I want to suggest that there is another, wildly different path open before us, right next to this well-trodden and much more prosaic laneway. Rather than viewing the National Curriculum as a done deal, wouldn’t it be wiser if we consider it as an open invitation to participation and sharing?
After all, the National Curriculum mandates what must be taught, but says little to nothing about how it gets taught. Teachers remain free to pursue their own pedagogical ends. That said, teachers across Australia will, for the first time, be pursing the same ends. This opens up a space and a rationale for sharing that never existed before. Everyone is pulling in the same direction; wouldn’t it make sense for teachers, students, administrators and parents to share the experience?
Let’s be realistic: whether or not we seek to formalize this sharing of experience, it will happen anyway, on BoredOfStudies.org, RateMyTeachers.com, a hundred other websites, a thousand blogs, a hundred thousand Facebook profiles, and a million tweets. But if it all happens out there, informally, we miss an enormous opportunity to let sharing power our transition to into the National Curriculum. We’d be letting our greatest and most powerful asset slip through our fingers.
So let me turn this around and project us into a future where we have decided to formalize our shared experience of the National Curriculum. What might that look like? A teacher might normally prepare their curriculum and pedagogical materials at the beginning of the school term; during that preparation process they would check into a shared space, organized around the National Curriculum (this should be done formally, through an organization such as Education.AU, but could – and would – happen informally, via Google) to find out what other educators have created and shared as curriculum materials. Educators would find extensive notes, lesson plans, probably numerous recorded podcasts, links to materials on Wikipedia and other online resources, and so forth – everything that an educator might need to create an effective learning experience. Furthermore, educators would be encourage to share and connect around any particular ‘string’ in the National Curriculum. The curriculum thus becomes a focal point for organization and coordination rather than a brute mandate of performance.
Students, already well-connected, will continue to use informal channels to communicate about their lessons; the National Curriculum gives the educational sector (and perhaps some enterprising entrepreneur) an opportunity to create a space where those curriculum ‘strings’ translate into points of contact. Students working through a particular point in the curriculum would know where they are, and would know where to gather together for help and advice. The same wealth of materials available to educators would be available to students. None of this constitutes ‘peeking at the answers’, but rather is part of an integrated effort to give students every advantage while working their way through the National Curriculum. A student in Townsville might be able to gain some advantage from a podcast of a teacher in Albany, might want to collaborate on research with students from Ballarat, might ask some questions of an educator in Lismore. The student sits in the middle of an nexus of resources designed to offer them every opportunity to succeed; if the methodology of their own classroom is a poor fit to their learning style, chances are high that they’ll find someone else, somewhere else, who makes a better match.
All of this sounds a lot like an educational utopia, but all of it is within our immediate grasp. It is because we live at the confluence of a broadly sharing culture, and within a nation which is getting ubiquitous high-speed broadband, students and educators who now have pervasive access to computers, and a National Curriculum to act as an organizing principle. It is precisely because the stars are aligned so auspiciously that we can dream big dreams. This is the moment when anything is possible.
This transition could simply reinforce the last hundred years of industrial era education, where one-size-fits-all, where the student enters ‘airplane mode’ when they walk into the classroom – all devices disconnected, eyes up and straight ahead for the boredom of a fifty-minute excursion through some meaningless and disconnected body of knowledge. Where the computer simply becomes an electronic textbook for the distribution of media, rather than a portal for the exploration of the knowledge shared by others. Where the educator finds themselves increasingly bound to a curriculum which limits their freedom to find expression and meaning in their work. And all of this will happen, unless we recognize the other path that has opened before us. Unless we change direction, and set our feet on that path. Because if we keep on as we have been, we’ll simply end up with what we have today. And that would be a big mistake.
It needn’t be this way. We can take advantage of our situation, of the concrescence of opportunities opening to us. It will take some work, some time and some money. But more than anything else it requires a change of heart. We must stop thinking of the classroom as a solitary island of peace and quiet in the midst of a stormy sea, and rather think of it as a node within a network, connected and receptive. We must stop thinking of educators as valiant but solitary warriors, and transform them into a connected and receptive army. And we must recognize that this generation of students are so well connected on every front that they outpace us in every advance. They will be teaching us how to make this transition seem effortless.
Can we do this? Can we screw our courage up and take a leap into a great unknown, into an educational future which draws from our past, but is not bound to it? With parents and politicians crying out for metrics and endless assessments, we are losing the space to experiment, to play, to explore. Next year, the National Curriculum will land like a ton of bricks, even as it presents the opportunity for a Great Escape. The next twelve months will be crucial. If we can only change the way we think about what is possible, we will change what is possible. It’s a big ask. It’s the challenge of our times. Will we rise to meet it? Can we make an agreement to share what we know and what we do? That’s all it takes. So simple and so profound.
Slides for this talk are available here.