My closing keynote from eLearning08, the primary event on the NSW Australian Flexible Learning Framework calendar.
I want today to tell you a story. Like many stories, our hero is a young girl. She will face challenges and adversity. But she will also achieve great things. She might even find herself a humorous sidekick.
So who is this girl? And what is her journey? She is girl on the verge of the journey into adulthood. A journey that will take her through high school and perhaps to university or vocational training of some sort.
That girl is my daughter, Hannah. She is 11 years old. She is about to finish 5th Grade. In 2010, Hannah will enter high school. It will be the six years she spends there that are perhaps the most important years of her time in formal education, for they will establish the foundation of the skills she will need to carry into further education, into the world of work and beyond into her career and any additional education she might choose to undertake.
As Hannah’s parent, as a business person with more than 20 years of work experience, and as a potential employer, I am only too aware of a number of issues surrounding her education and the working world she will ultimately join that concern me greatly.
Not least of those issues is how the education system and governments in Australia — Federal and State — are dealing, or indeed not dealing, with the increasing need for students of today to have an education that is connected. An education that focuses on the tectonic shift in the nature of society transformed by the emergence of the World Wide Web. An education that understands that the global economy and work were transformed fundamentally in the late 20th Century from an economy of making things to an economy of knowing things. An economy of conversation, collaboration and community.
Society is now connected in a way that changes the game. The village is truly global and even in the Third World hyperconnectedness is making waves. More than this, the classroom and the material taught there is losing relevance as students everywhere, from primary through to post-graduate and vocational education take control of their own learning experiences, collaborating with each other and in social networks that foster creativity, innovation, big thinking and independence of viewpoint.
Educators and education policymakers risk increased marginalisation and further irrelevance if they fail to move quickly. To adapt and adopt to a world that is streaking away from them as the connected — from primary school students to Indian Ocean fishermen — follow the links and learn from each other in a true global village that empowers and permits them to be as productive and innovative as they can and forgives or even ignores the notion of being wrong in favor of the idea of failing fast, cheap and often.
At Kansas State University, Professor Michael Wesch runs a digital ethnography program that explores the changes being wrought upon our culture by the Internet. Let’s take a look at something he and his students made about a year ago.
The quote from Marshall McLuhan at the start of the video is particularly relevant. Let’s look at it.
“Today’s child is bewildered when he enters the 19th Century environment that still characterizes the educational establishment where information is scarce but ordered and structured by fragmented, classified patterns, subjects and schedules.“
Marshall McLuhan, 1967
1967… That’s the year before I was born. So what’s going wrong and what’s happening now?
When Hannah went into class this morning, the environment she entered was fundamentally little different to that which my grandfather experienced in his first day of school in Wellington, nearly 100 years ago. Or that of my father in Devonport 60 years ago. Or mine, in 1974. Chairs, desks, silence, the tools that keep you connected turned off or at best scarce, the teacher in front of the class.
It was then and is now a largely disjointed, form-and-function driven environment where at best, only the very finest teaching draws a few of the virtually countless contextual threads together. It’s an environment designed to produce compliant, 19th Century factory workers. Workers who were a part of a model where one held the same job for life, where creative and lateral thinking were discouraged and where you were expected to simply do and follow orders.
But the world doesn’t work that way any more.
Today, Hannah’s learning environment is the entire world. Arguably it’s larger than that. More specifically, it’s this — Hannah’s learning environment is the hyperconnected world she finds herself a part of on a constant basis. She’s connected continually to experiences and groups from which she learns and contextualizes. Most of those are not mediated in a classroom environment, and many of them are amongst her peers. This will become more so as her ability to socialise and collaborate with her peers increases in complexity and becomes more refined.
As a group they, and others like them, are entirely collaborative, conversational and community focused. She’s connected into these learning experiences on a constant basis through mobile phones, her iPod, the tools she uses like wikis, blogs, online bookmarking and social networks, and any one of the several ‘Net-connected devices she encounters during the course of her day. Often, those experiences are massively parallel — IM and text, while reading or editing something online and listening to something else or conversing with the group in the room. Hannah and her peers are a part of an environment beyond the classroom that empowers them and puts them in control. That allows them to follow the white rabbit down the hole of connectedness until their curiosity is sated. This form of learning is also multi-directional. Hannah teaches as much as she learns. The network responds to her as much as she to it. They are, as Don Tapscott puts it, “the ‘Net Generation”.
Arguably, her learning experiences in the classroom are becoming progressively more irrelevant as the learning experiences she undertakes beyond the class — deliberately or coincidentally — more directly prepare her and equip her with the skills she will need to successfully tackle the 21st Century. She is more connected to, and more contextually so, to what digital ethnographer Kevin Kelly termed “The One” than any generation before her. In generations to come, this will be seen as natural. Right now, it presents an enormous challenge to many educators and education policymakers in the political arena as they struggle to keep up with those wacky kids.
It is a challenge for which they seem ill-prepared and ill-equipped. Consequently, we are seeing significant resistance amongst some educators and politicians to the paradigm shift that must take place in order to build the education system we need. Just this week, we saw further evidence from government and educators of the chasm of misunderstanding of the new paradigm for learning.
With new funding approved, the NSW Government is only too happy to give a laptop to every child in years 7 to 12, taking advantage of the Federal Government’s laughably misnamed Education Revolution. But what is NSW Education Minister Verity Firth crowing about? She’s crowing about the fact that these machines will, in effect, be crippled by preventing the students who have them from connecting to their peers and social groups — where they do the vast majority of their learning. She took singular delight in noting:
“We don’t want these kids to be using these computers for the not-so-wholesome things that can be on the net. And they won’t be able to because essentially the whole server is coming through the Department of Education.”
How wrong Ms Firth is. And how deliciously ill-informed.
Of course, this will fail. The blocking systems will be subject to Gilmore’s Law within days, if not hours. The kids will figure out a way to route around the damage so that they remain connected. And what about when they are in cafés, or at home, or public institutions beyond school walls?
And people like me? We’ll encourage and help the kids break the security. Why? Because it’s when we are connected to each other that we are at our best as a species. When we are engaged in a conversation with our communities, our collaborators, that we are able to most actively seed fertile minds. To reach into the hidden spaces and draw forth the intangible and form it like clay into ideas, and innovations, and the next big thing.
Let’s look to our young hero, Hannah, again for a moment. Hannah began using the Internet at two years of age. She has had her own email address, unchecked by me or her mother, since she was eight. She has administrator level access to the network at home and unfiltered connection to the Internet. And she knows how to use that access.
Contrary to the rantings of Stephen Conroy, of the views of moral stormtroopers like Clive Hamilton, former Executive Director of The Australia Institute, or of Minister Firth, Hannah has never encountered any of this “not-so-wholesome” content on the Internet. She has never downloaded a virus, encountered an unwanted person, viewed porn inadvertently or deliberately. Yet she uses the Internet every day, so by the estimation of some, she should be repeatedly traumatised by inappropriate material, be stalked by a veritable crowd of unsuitable individuals and be someone who is incapable of coherent thought, of spelling or stringing a sentence together and of engaging with others in face-to-face situations.
Of course, this is demonstrably not the case. Hannah is an engaging young person, able to hold her own in conversation with adults and her peers alike. She speaks, spells and writes and does math above her grade level. She enjoys socialising — online and off. Her ability to do most of these things has less to do with her classroom (although many of the fundamentals were taught there) and more to do with her natural affinity, like many people of her generation, to engage with each other in a more human, more village-centric style of conversation, collaboration and community.
Of course, this engagement is mediated via a different tool set than it was before the Industrial Revolution, when humans last really engaged this way. Back then, it was the mead hall or the village green. Now, it’s a much larger place — the Internet.
It’s my view that, generally speaking, the education system is falling a long way behind in terms of providing learners of any age with the type of education they need. I’d like to look specifically at a number of the issues I believe need resolution.
Connected and unfiltered.
From the time the World Wide Web became a public reality rather than a cool toy of the military research establishment, education has become progressively more connected. Yes, our schools are largely online, but the interpretation of online used in education is pretty much a joke.
When our kids walk into the class, what do we do? We tell them to disconnect! We make them turn off their mobile phones and give them limited access to a network that is so tightly filtered it verges on censorship. We force them into a structure that no longer reflects the way society operates. This approach fails to use the way students today learn to enhance the learning process. Rather, it disconnects and decontextualizes the experience.
We take away that which defines our students and the way they live — their hyperconnectedness. Legitimate resources are blocked because they contain words referring to genitalia, or are blocked because they fail to pass someone’s appropriateness filter. What if I want to study the ethnography of White Supremacists? What if I need to research sexual health issues?
Educators often seem to find themselves behind the 8-ball. It appears that there is a serious lack of the right sort of teacher training in using online resources. I don’t believe this is deliberate; more a matter of knowledge, time and understanding. But it is an issue of note.
It’s often the case that the kids are ahead of the teachers in their skill level at finding and exploiting online resources. This was driven home to me this year when it was made apparent at parent-teacher interviews by Hannah’s teacher that she was far and away amongst the most online– and tech-savvy students in the school. None of those skills were learned in class.
Use of online resources is limited by computer availability. Students are afforded time online or even just on a computer in a strictly limited way. In the worst of cases, there are too few computers in a school for there to be several in every class. This execrable situation is arguably the stuff that should be solved by the Federal Government’s Education Revolution. Only, with approaches like those of Stephen Conroy and Verity Firth, it doesn’t look too revolutionary to me. It’s barely evolutionary.
Putting this into perspective for Hannah, she and her peers are being denied frequent enough access to what may be the most revolutionary, most paradigm-shifting cultural change in human history — hyperconnectedness. Without adequate access to online information and connectedness between individuals and groups, they risk emerging into the workforce lacking core skills in discovering and consuming knowledge, in collaboration and in wide-ranging critical thinking.
In a world where knowledge is the stuff of most jobs — including jobs like artist, farmer, fisherman and coal miner — the ability to rapidly contextualize and draw wide-ranging conclusions about information is critical. We need to see the big picture
We must be willing to be and accept others like Alice — insatiably curious followers of the white rabbit down the hole. For it is down the rabbit hole where the bigger picture that will really build our understanding of problems lies. It is there, amongst the talking flowers, the Cheshire Cat and all the madness of the Tea Party and the Queen that the exploratory learners will see the bigger picture and draw in the diverse threads that let them discover the next big idea.
Knowledge workers in today’s world need to be fuzzy and T-shaped. That is, having a core of strong, deep skills, but having a wide ranging and insatiable thirst for more information, wider-ranging skills and more context and meaning for what they do. These skills, fundamental to the new economy of the 21st Century, aren’t being taught enough. Granted, the question of how to make a fuzzy person is a tricky one to solve, but immersive, contextual, connected education is a starting point for making it happen.
I want Hannah to be as fuzzy and T-shaped as she can be. I want her to be able to look at a problem and see the 10 other problems that define it. To try things just so she can get what a problem or person is all about. For her to be able to gather the threads together in a storm of fuzzy, apparently illogical thinking to solve problems in an innovative and creative way, unfettered by thinking either inside or outside of any theoretical box. In fact, she should throw the box away entirely as Step 1!
The classroom, tutorial or lecture theatre is still largely run on an Industrial Age model where learners are taught to behave like factory automatons. The classroom environment makes them ready for a job on the production line, or in a faceless cube farm. It’s anti-creative and busywork focused and not at all designed to equip our children for a world where bursty thinking, creative knowledge work is ever-increasingly the norm. Take a look at Sir Ken Robinson’s talk from TED 2006 if you’re not convinced.
A parallel issue with classroom engagement is that of kids who are unsuited for one reason or another to structured, classroom learning.
My friend, Harriet’s son is gifted. Not dramatically different from other kids, he is able to attend a normal school, has friends, engages with people quite normally most of the time. Yet, in a blog post she wrote responding to an early version of the thoughts in this talk, she describes a child nearly destroyed by an education system that fails to engage him or engage with him:
“The… imagination which creates such complex images, stories, songs and machines is becoming a problem. If you can’t fill in worksheets then you can’t be intelligent. As a result, the small sparkly boy escapes to more interesting places in his imagination.
He is officially becoming a ‘problem’.”
“…parents “INFORMED” that sparkly boy is eligible for gifted education — but there’s a small problem… disorganisation. It is apparently impossible to be intelligent without being super organized, being able to multi-task, track multiple subject areas, and reference officially.”
“By learning to build bridges he is able to use his intelligence and skills to connect people. The world is once again an intriguing and fascinating place. He has confidence in his ability to make a difference. He feels his own place in the world and works collaboratively on issues which he feels are important to his world and himself… His adventures and his risks are real, exciting and relate to the future he is constructing for himself.”
But it’s not just our kids, it’s us too. I began and abandoned Masters’ studies this year because the classes failed to engage me adequately. By being connected and engaged beyond the formal frame of the course, I already had more information of more relevance and more currency, direct from world-recognised subject experts, available to me than that which was being presented in class. And when I attempted to introduce the leading thinkers and their work to the class, I was met with stunned silence or an “I don’t quite get it” response.
I’m not the only one. I know several people for whom the formal education process, either at school or in tertiary study, simply wasn’t viable. They were or are too curious, too well-read, “unstructured in their thinking”, unable to complete written tests, disorganised in a classroom situation. Too fuzzy. At least one of those people is now a an internationally known academic in his field.
To quote another of my colleagues, Nathanael, who is one of the smartest web development minds I know:
“I did Year 8 to 11. [I was] home-schooled for the first seven years. [I was] mostly self-taught; microbiology, quantum mechanics, [and lots more]. My four years at school and college made me dumber, stunted my creative growth and blunted my potential.”
So once more to Hannah. What does engaging mean for her? I can’t think of the number of afternoon’s I’ve asked, “Tell me about school today,” only to be answered with, “Normal,” or a low-detail description of a few activities. Yet, there are also times when I get a detailed, blow-by-blow description of everything! That should be the norm. Education needs to be exciting and relevant to each and every student. In the collaborative, hyperconnected world, everything is relevant, because everything encountered and learned from is a deliberate choice.
Dynamic, diverse and passionate.
Literacy and numeracy are unarguably critical components in a well-rounded education. But it’s not enough for several reasons. The target shouldn’t be functional literacy and numeracy, it should be deep, contextualised expertise.
As well, the notion of creative and arts subjects as lesser to literacy and numeracy is madness. In all schools, the aim should be to produce graduating students that are not only appropriately educated in many subjects, but to do so in such a way as the students are invigorated and excited by the things they are taught. And taught in such a way that during and after school, they remain insatiably curious about their worlds and what their place in it could mean.
We need more Leonardos, more Isaac Newtons, more Jared Diamonds. We need to graduate more people like polymath, Ben Dunlap, President of Wofford College in the US. Ben is a man so passionate about the diversity of the experiences he has had and learned from that you can’t help but be inspired by him. His talk at TED 2007 is truly incredible and something that all educators should watch.
It’s no longer enough to graduate people from education at any level who just get through. The world today, even in business-as-usual, needs more passionate, driven, widely experienced, contextualized life-long learners to drive the agenda — politically, socially and creatively.
Hannah’s interests are diverse. Like many 11 year old girls, she’s a fan of the Veronicas, loves cats and dresses like her friends. But she’s also an emerging explorer. I see in her a growing curiosity about the world. And I actively encourage her to follow the white rabbit wherever it may lead her.
Collaborative on as many levels as possible.
The notion of truly collaborative learning — between students, between teachers and students, between classrooms, between different schools, between different countries — began to emerge when I was at school. We had the concepts, we had the ideas, but the technology was a massive hurdle. Now, the technology has caught up and exceeded those ideas. A massively collaborative, constantly hyperconnected education is a practical and technical reality.
So why isn’t education like this completely pervasive? Why are we still mostly stuck in the classroom? Why is the entire experience not a multifaceted, collaborative, global village of contextualised learning within individual institutions and across any grouping that might be worthwhile? I think it is the very concept of education as an institutionalised practice that holds us back.
It’s things like online gaming that is teaching us leadership and team building skills. It’s editing pages on Wikipedia that help us to learn to reach consensus. It’s the always-on network of text messages, email, social networks that is helping us to build a village where everyone is our immediate neighbor. The power to collaborate easily with anyone and to make it a viable and valuable cultural and learning experience is here. Now.
For Hannah, this world just is. For the rest of us, it’s sink or swim. Too many of us, too comfortable with a world where hyperconnectedness didn’t exist seem to be choosing the sink option, or we are trying to ignore a problem we hope will go away. It’s too late. Society is connected and changed already. It’s time to join in.
My final thought is that education needs to be targeted at producing graduates equipped for 21st Century society.
In Australia and many other places, there is a massive skills shortage across many industries. It’s arguable our schools, from primary school to universities, are not adequately considering the needs of society in preparing graduates for work and worthwhile, functional participation. Issues such as the shift to knowledge work in much of business, the need for creativity and innovation, the apparent schisms between worker generations are all issues I feel are at times inadequately dealt with.
As a potential employer and more importantly as a human, I am less interested in whether someone has formal training in a particular field than if they are engaged and engaging, a big thinker, excited about their world, insatiably curious and prepared to jump in and try something new. It is far better to fail and learn from the experience than to not try and play it safe.
In today’s world, willingness to take a risk in the name of learning and broadening experience is a key factor in building a successful life and business. Too many rest on their past success and hope that this will maintain them. Meantime, the hyperconnected continue to pull ever more rapidly away as our lives become an experience in constant, connected learning and personal and cultural growth.
I want Hannah to take risks. To learn and grow from them whether those risks were successful or not. She will never be told “no” by me if she wants to try something and has a well-reasoned argument for doing it (provided it’s not illegal or a risk to her health).
My view is that there is just one critical question we should be asking our educators and the politicians responsible for education policy and programs:
“What are you actually doing — now, tomorrow, next year — that will ensure our children are equipped with the best connected tools, inspired and engaged by the diversity of their education, taught by the best possible teachers and equipped with all the right skills to enter society as a valuable, contributing, collaborative member?”
For Hannah’s sake, for the future of the type of education I believe she needs to thrive, I’m not interested in policy exploration, white papers, committees and the like. I’m interested in positive, measurable action.