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.