« Quality Time at High Speed (Service innovation workshop, Breda, The Netherlands, 2000) | Main | Rules of engagement between design and new technology »

September 22, 2000

New geographies of learning

How technology is altering the terrain of teaching. I rashly agreed to give a lecture to several hundred university teachers in Amsterdam....

I am most grateful - and not a little intimidated - by your invitation to give this talk to you today. I say intimidated because I am an outsider speaking to a room full of experts. At a rough guess, I'd say that you probably have about 5,000 years of educational experience between you in this room! If we add in your time as childhood learners, then your aggregate experience doubles to probably 10,000 years!

Now this may surprise you, but I am not here promote the internet as the answer to every educational question we face. On the contrary. I am sceptical about the claims being made for web-based learning. Most of it strikes me as 'old wine in new bottles'. The potential of the internet is not understood - let alone exploited - by much of the 'virtual', 'distant' or 'online' education that's out there now.

But I am not a technophobe. I do not criticise today's e-learning products because they use the internet, but because they don't use it enough. The internet contains amazing examples of what I call 'net effects' that can enhance learning in spectacular ways. But these net effects are being developed in different contexts, and for different activities, than for education and learning.

The main point of my story today is this: we should use these 'net effect' tools for learning, whether or not they were intended for that. My talk today has three parts. First, I will explain why I don't much like or trust most of the internet-based learning that's on offer now. Secondly, I'll show you some of the 'net effects' that we should hijack for our own purposes. In the final part of my talk, I'll tell you about a forthcoming event - OroOro: teacherslab - which has been designed to help us take this kind of initiative.


(PICT)001 e-learning myths

My critique of today's e-learning is this: it focusses on just one aspect of the learning process - the delivery of text or media from one place to another. This scenario is often accompanied by fantasy images of privileged individuals surrounded by all the world's knowledge. 'Streaming learning' for the hi-tech elite. There are two problems with this picture. First, it is technically not yet feasible. The tools and infrastructure for multi-channel broadband communications on a large scale are simply not there yet. The second much bigger problem: any service that restricts itself to the delivery of pre-packaged content, ignores the social and collaborative nature of learning, and cultural qualities of time and place that add depth and texture to the process. I call these key ingredients the geographies of learning.

I am sure nobody here would seriously aspire to replace schools and universities with websites or cable channels. But there are powerful interests out there who do. A couple of years ago, a former Dutch economic affairs minister told me that, with the internet, "we can stream lectures from the best ten per cent of teachers to classrooms, and do without the other 90 per cent ". I also visited Japan with a European delegation; there, we were proudly shown vast halls filled with hundreds of personal omputers - facing forward to the teacher, in neat rows. This, we were told, was a school of the future. To use the language of my childhood comic Dandy: "Yikes!"

Fantasies of a technological fix for education are highly attractive to some politicians. Faced with large-scale skill shortages, they are receptive to scenarios that 'penetrate the schools' with new technology and thus, as if by magic, multiply the production of well-trained students. This rosy vision is clouded only by the possibility that grown-ups might stand in the way; I have read in several policy documents that 'teachers are the main impediment' to technological modernisation. Some developers are just as bad, boasting of their 'teacher-proof technology'.

As Gore Vidal once said, even paranoids have enemies. So if any of you have been suspicious about the motives of people promoting new technology in education - you were right! At least in part. Such visions of a vast, semi-automated learning machine remind me of the joke about the factory of the future: It will have only two employees, a man and a dog. The man will be there to feed the dog - the dog will be there to stop the man touching the equipment. Technology push is not a new feature of the learning world.

Throughout the 100 year history of distance education, which began with the correspondence course, ambitious claims have been made for the capacity of technology to improve the way we learn. First there was radio, then television, then video - a whole series of 'Next Big Things' even before the internet came along. None of those earlier technologies lived up to the claims made for them. Neither will the internet - unless we change the things we are asking it to do.

(PICT)002 pervasive computing

We need to be vigilant, creative and proactive - right now - because technology push is intensifying. The internet is only one aspect of this. My picture of a cityscape (borrowed from Autodesk) neatly suggests that almost everything man-made, and quite a lot made by nature, will soon combine hardware and software.

So-called pervasive computing spreads intelligence and connnectivity to everything around us: ships, aircraft, cars, bridges, tunnels, machines, refrigerators, door handles, walls, lighting fixtures, shoes, hats, packaging. You name it and somone, rather soon, will put a chip in it. The world is already filled with between eight and thirty computer chips for every man, woman and child on the planet. (The number depends on who you ask). Within a few years - say, the amount of time a child who is four years old today will spend in junior school - that number will rise to thousands of chips per person. A majority of these chips will communicate with networks. Many will sense their environment in rudimentary but effective ways.

(PICT)003 "here's looking at you, too"

The way things are going, as the science fiction writer Bruce Sterling so memorably put it, "you will look at the garden, and the garden will look at you". Mind you: what the sunflower will see may not be very interesting. By 2005, nearly 100 million Europeans will be using wireless data services connected to the internet. But so far, only one service seems to have caught our imagination: paying the parking metre via mobile phone. I do not imagine our sunflower will be impressed by that!

(PICT)004 innovation dilemma

Technology push confronts us with an innovation dilemma. It is simply stated: our industries know how to make amazing things, technically. That's the top line in my chart: it heads heading manfully upwards. The line could just as easily apply to the sale of mobile devices, internet traffic, processor speeds, websites, or e-commerce. That blue line is a combination of Moore's Law (which states that processor speeds double and costs halve every 18 months or so) and Metcalfe's Law (which states that the value of a network rises in proportion to the number of people attached to it). But a new law - I have modestly named it Thackara's law - is that if you put smart technology into a pointless product, the result will be a stupid product.

We've created an industrial system that is brilliant on means, but pretty hopeless when it comes to ends. The result is a divergence - which you see on my chart - between technological intensification - the high-tech blue line heading upwards -and perceived value, the green line heading downwards.The spheroid blob in the middle is us: we are hovering uneasily between our undiminshed infatuation with technology, on the one hand, and our unease about its actual value, and possible rebound effects, on the other.

Much of today's e-learning reflects this tension between what we can do, and what we ought to do. Much of it is an answer to the wrong question. The wrong question is: "hey, we have a new communication medium called the internet! what shall we do with it?". The right questions are these: "what is it about the learning process that needs to be improved? in what ways might the internet enable those improvements?".

Our dilemma is that, although the internet and new media technologies can do some amazing things, they cannot support the soft and 'wet' aspects of learning that I believe we cannot do without. Besides, even if the technology could cope, no business model has emerged to pay for these more complex forms of learning.

(PICT)005 learning as a market

Right now, these questions are not heard amid fevered talk of an 'emerging electronic university', a 'unified global marketplace for ideas' and 'worldwide web-based knowledge exchanges'. This kind of rhetoric has started a feeding frenzy among investors. One example: the world's first trade fair for education - World Education Market - took place in Vancouver in 2000. Thousands of new players were attracted to an event which promised that education would soon be a $90 billion business - one of the biggest in the world, along with financial services and health.

(PICT)006 intellectual capital

E-learning entrepreneurs calculate that, in a knowledge-driven society, investors will place a higher value on people, than on plants and equipment. Proponents of the 'intellectual capital' concept assert that 70 per cent of a nation's wealth today is in the form of human capital, rather than physical capital. Whether or not this theory is true, hardly matters: the markets perceive it to be true - and have decided it is worth a bet. To be fair, the high priest of the intellectual capital movement, Tom Stewart, says repeatedly in his book that "smart individuals do not add up to a smart enterprise: for that, you need knowledge to flow. Sharing and transporting knowledge are what counts".

(PICT)007 learning rhetoric

In the breathless words of one new education 'portal', UNext, "the vast imbalance between the supply and demand for quality education provides an enormous, untapped global market. Countries, companies, and individuals that don't invest in knowledge are destined to fall behind". The internet, gushes Unext, "has created an unprecedented opportunity to create a global education business".

(PICT)008 hungry minds

Some new projects are so-called 'pure play' initiatives - start-up companies which aspire to be a 'learning portal' through which all types of knowledge and learning will be exchanged. One such, Hungry Minds (hungryminds.com) is - I quote - "continually combing the net to feed our growing database of 37,000 online courses". The fact that Hungry Minds is only a couple of years old may explain its preference for quantity over quality.

Another pure-play site, Corpedia.com, has enlisted the world's leading management guru, Peter Drucker, to make a series of five hour-long management programmes - "leading business strategists delivered direct to your computer". Corpedia's demo includes a wonderful demonstration in which a fictitious (I hope) employee types onto an electronic schoolbook', "I resolve to become a batter employee". The power of computing and 'learning process re-engineering' is wondrous to behold.

Another new entrant, Fathom (fathom.com), has spent many millions of dollars building an alpha version of its portal, which has not even been launched as I speak. Fathom has partnered with an impressive roster of blue-chip universities and institutions, including the London School of Economics, Columbia and Chicago Universities, Rand Corporation, and New York Public Library. The Nobel Prize-winning professors and heads of state who studied at these august institutions take pride of place on the home pages of sites like UNext and Fathom.

Other institutions are going it alone. Harvard Business School has invested millions of dollars a year in its website since the mid-1990s; the site features sophisticated interactive software that adds zest to the tonnage of business case studies. Penn State University has thrown all modesty to the winds with its so-called "World Campus". And at the Wharton Business School, its private-sector neighbour, you can spend $50,000 on a four month e-business course. There are more than 1,600 accredited distant learning courses, many of them web-enabled, in California alone. So there's a lot happening out there, and big money is flying around.

But I suspect some of these projects miss the point. In many of these ventures learning is understood - if it is understood at all - as a one-way, 'point-to-mass' distribution system. My line is this: even if there are ten Nobel Prize-wimnning professors sitting at that 'point', delivering content down a pipe, like water, this is not teaching. And 'receiving' content - like an empty bucket under a tap - is not learning. Put another way: I'd be very surprised indeed if these Nobel Prize-winning eminences would have made such a big contribution of they'd done all their teaching and research on net.

The English writer Charles Hapmden Turner has put it better than I can: "knowledge is becoming too complex to be carried in the individual heads of itinerant experts. Knowledge as it grows and grows is necessarily social, the shared property of extended groups and networks".

(PICT)009 geographies of learning

The 'distribute-then-learn' model cannot embrace the more complex geographies of learning that I mentioned earlier. I like the way David Hargraves put it in a Demos pamphlet: "schools" he wrote, "are still modelled on a curious mixture of the factory, the asylum, and the prison". Unless we think about learning as a process that depends on place, time, and context - the internet will not enhance learning. It will probably make it worse. I will briefly take you through these 'geographical' qualities to explain what I mean.

(PICT)010 learning (words on screen)

Learning is social, learning is asynchronous, learning is local, learning is organisational, learning is sharing, learning is searching, learning is play, learning is social.

An important new book, The Social Life of Information, by Paul Duguid and John Seely Brown, reminds us that we learn not only by the acquisition of facts and rules, but also through participation in collaborative human activities. The most valuable learning takes place among social networks, not at the end of a pipe filled with pre-packaged 'content'. (The fact that one author of this book, Seely Brown, is Chief Scientist of Xerox, suggests that big companies companies may be changing the way they innovate away from a technology-led approach).

(PICT)011 learning is asynchronous

New technology has worked best when helping people interact across time, rather than across space. When students and teachers can access web documents at different times, they can escape the temporal confines of the classroom, say experts like John Seely Brown. The best of such internet tools are usually an extension of - not a replacement for - face to face exchanges.

(PICT)012 learning is local

The concept of a 'death of distance' made great headlines a couple of years ago. Its grandchild is the concept of 'anytime, anywhere learning'.The idea sounds attractive and uncontroversial. But when based on a point-to-mass distribution model, it overlooks the significance of place and local knowledge. A lot of what we learn is remarkably local: History. Agriculture. Politics. Art. Geology. Viticulture. Forestry. Conservation. And local does not just mean local nature. The city of Paris, (shown here on a photograph) is also replete with 'local' knowledge. Cities are unique learning ecologies. The danger we face is a combination of 'death of distance'ideology and the sheer pressure of money and technology behind 'global' e-learning scenarios that could marginalise local forms of knowledge, regardless of their importance.

(PICT)013 learning is organisational

A lot of learning takes place in offices, research labs, hospitals, design offices, web studios - anywhere, indeed, that people gather together to work. The way we organise education - or for that matter work - hinders integration between the two communities. The Internet makes it easier to connect parts together in a technical sense - but breaking down the walls between 'school' and 'work' and 'home' will involve cultural and institutional connections that will be harder to achieve.

(PICT)014 learning is sharing

The prominence given to the presence of Nobel Laureates in the rhetoric of portal sites like UNext and Fathom suggests that they are wedded to a Great Minds theory of learning. But teacher-to-student education is only one side of the story. Student-to-student learning (or peer-to-peer learning outside formal educational contexts) is just as important. And let us not forget student-to-elder teaching! At a time of rapid technical change, so-called 'upward mentoring' is coming into play because 'students' often have a fresher understanding of specialised technical domains. The founder of MediaLab, Nicholas Negroponte, tells a great story about upward mentoring. "I never used to understand why people had difficulty with their video recorder remote control " he says. "Until, that is, my own remote control - my son - went off to college. From that moment on, I've been unable to use my video at all."

(PICT)015 learning is networking

The concept of local knowledge ecologies summons up the image of education as a kind of mythical journey. A student would no longer expect her or his university career to take place in a particular place, for a pre-set period, among a pre-selected body of academics. Instead, tomorrow's student will travel, Chaucer-like, among a a network principally of his or her own making - staying at home, travelling, mixing online and off-line education, work in classes, or alone, or with mentors - and above all continuing the journey long after talking a degree.

(PICT)016 learning is play

It takes a lifetime to become the child that you should be, said Jean-Luc Godard. But vast projects to wire up classrooms to the Internet seem to be going in the opposite direction. Rather than make space for children and teachers to learn in new and playful ways, most 'wired classrooms' are more like cages filled with experimental rats. Only the rats are our children. But in The Netherlands, origin of Huizinga's Homo Ludens, we should know better. We learn by playing and by doing - not by being filled up with knowledge like a bucket. Or a hungry rat. We need playmates, too.


In the first part of my talk, I complained that a lot of Internet-based education is based on an industrial, 'distribute-then-learn' model at the expense of other qualities which are just as important - social, local, organisational, sharing, networking, and play. But I do not blame the Internet for e-learning's lack of ambition! On the contrary: away from "Learning" with a capital "L", astonishing new tools and environments are being developed. They are called "customer service technologies" or "application services." These are the focus of part two of my talk.

(PICT)018 customer service applications

Many of the buzzwords used to label these new tools will mean nothing to you. Many of them mean nothing to me, and I'm supposed to be an expert:

[Words on screen] Search Engines, Wizzards, Filters, Bots, and Agents. File Sharing, File Transfer, Intelligent Routing. Auctions and Clearing Houses. Portals, Vertical Nets, and Vortals. Games Opinion Sites; Feedback, Rating, Comparison and Recommender Systems. Groupware, Community Ware, List Servers, Moderation Support Tools. Live Voice, Real Person, Chat Spaces. Keywords: Peer-To-Peer and Open Source.

(PICT)019,020,021 new economy bibles

But before we explore what these words mean, I'd like to draw your attention to the amazing speed and scale of the innovation taking place. These technical innovations receive far less attention than e-commerce - partly because it is often hard to grasp what these applications are for. But, albeit obscurely, dozens of new applications emerge every month. For a flavour of this strange new world, read new economy magazines like Red Herring, Business 2.0, Fast Company, or Industry Standard. These new economy bibles are filled with advertisments for these obscure new applications. As a sample, only, of what I mean, allow me now to show you just four examples - from the hundreds out there - of applications that I think we can use in learning.

(PICT)022 file sharing revolution

The first is file sharing. The subject has been in the news as the conflict between Napster and the global music industry (plus a ton of lawyers). What happens is this. People who want to obtain an music file (which may have been copied from a CD and compressed into something called an 'MP3' file) can do it in one of two ways. They can download it directly from a server linked to the worldwide web. Or they can use a file-sharing service like Napster to grab the track directly from another user's computer. Listeners running Napster software use it to request a song; the programme searches the hard drives of all other Napster users who are online, and generates a list of the hard drives where the song can be found. Listeners can then download the file directly from the selected location. Sometimes this transaction can involve email exchange between the two users.

Online music sharing services like Napster provide access to millions of song files. Access, that is, to anyone with a computer, a sound card, and an Internet connection. 20 million users and rising fast. Whether or not Napster survives the legal onslaught of the music industry, other file-sharing platforms like Gnutella or Freenet are emerging too. Due to the de-centralised way they work, litigation is difficult, if not impossible. They do not use central servers that can be shut down: there is no 'there' there. Besides, these free programmes are developed by a loose coalition of young software developers who are guided by a strong sharing concept known as the Open Source movement. Open Source adds cultural energy and legitimacy to what is already a super-smart technological onslaught on centralised knowledge distribution.

(PICT)023 university as call centre

The next 'net effect' I find intriguing is so-called live person technology. You might consider it an irony that contact between real people should be trumpeted as an innovation. After all, we enjoyed unlimited personal contact before the communications revolution that began with the telephone in 1876! Tant pis: retro-fitting real people into websites is now a big trend. Channels such as CNN and BBC Online are steadily expanding services that allow viewers to interact. Live contact is a bigger priority in the business world. A lot of effort is going into customer service technologies that help companies interact with their customers in real-time with varying degrees of directness.

Such systems as LivePerson allow companies to build a shared knowledge base for 'pre-formatted responses'. (PFRs they are called in the trade). The aim is to provide at least the perception of so-called '24/7 Customer Assistance' - ultimately increasing the sites' "stickiness" and value. A live person scenario for learning is not hard to imagine. Teachers all over the world complain when students ask them the 'same old questions' over and over again. By putting answers to students' old chestnuts into a database, teachers could free up their time for direct input about new and original points of discussion.

(PICT)024 matters of epinion

Teachers may have more mixed views about my next net effect: application, opinion sites and 'recommender systems'. A well-known example is epinions.com. One million reviews have been posted on epinions since its launch a year ago - about 4,000 a day. 10,000 of the reviews posted have been reviews of the site itself - a rich source of feedback for the company's designers and managers. Such environments can dramatically increases a buyer's spectrum of available, high-quality and efficient suppliers.

Another buzzword - 'Supplier Performance Ratings' - refers to other tools that help one buy services in new ways. Open Ratings' (openratings.com) services includes the display of real-time ratings during the decision-making process. After a transaction, Open Ratings collects 'satisfaction surveys' from the buyer and supplier, then crunches the data in a way that weeds out fraudulent and retaliatory feedback. Participants can track their 'reputation performance' online. When it comes to education, caveat emptor indeed!

(PICT)025 play is big business

Finally, the net effect called games. I said earlier that play is sorely absent from most learning sites. The good news is, that away from the earnest attentions of learning entrepreneurs, children (and adults) are playing online like crazy. They spend hours on computer games which demand extraordinary feats of skill, intelligence, prediction, and motor co-ordination. All of these are aspects of high-quality learning, too. Sales of games software in America hit $3.3 billion last year, accounting for 15 per cent of all software sales. The Japanese spent $9 billion on games in 1998!

Many parents - and possibly spouses, too - worry about the shoot-and-slash storylines of games, nervous that that their loved ones' minds are being turned to mush. Seasoned experts are more optimistic, and believe that children are learning to learn in new ways. According to Douglas Rushkoff, author of Children of Chaos, the youth of today have mutated into "screenagers". The television remote-control, the videogame joystick, and the computer mouse, have irrevocably changed young people's relationship to media. In any case, the worlds of game-obsessed children, and of sophisticated business, have started to overlap.

Gaming theory in general, and visual simulation in particular, are hot topics now in business. Banks, oil companies, city planners and environmental agencies, are all using game techniques to enrich their understanding of future scenarios. So, if someone in your family appears to be zapping monsters, do not despair: the skills they are acquiring can also help them explore scenarios about the future of ecosystems.

Let me recap on my story so far. In part one, I argued that delivering content down a pipe is not teaching. New models of learning are needed that connect people to people - not people to machines. In part two, I showed you examples of 'net effects' that involve sharing, live contact, opinion giving and rating, and play. I suggested that this kind of application - and many more on the way - should be plumbed into the learning process. Now, whether we want to change or not, technology will come. Entrepreneurs will continue to innovate. Student values will carry on evolving, and their media behaviours will continue to perplex us. But we have choice: to be be passengers, as they drive a transformation of the ways we teach and the ways we learn. Or we can join them in the drivers seat - and wrest the wheel from interlopers who don't know how to drive.

Will we be the innovators in leveraging the value of what - and who - we know? Oro Oro has been organised for those of us who - yes - want to take the initiative. This unique three-day experience - part symposium, part hands-on workshop - is about new ways to teach, and to learn, in practice. The philosophy behind it is that you do not have to be under 25, and you do not have to be a nerd, to succeed in these hybrid learning situations. The objective is this: by the end of OroOro, every participant will be online, and on the net. We will acquainted with new concepts, skills and tools for the future. And we will have sampled learning interactions on the web that have their own rules, rhythms and speed.

The focus of Oro Oro is not just about technology, or online channels and tools. Its focus is on people, and on new ways to organise relationships between what - and who - we know. We are being asked to think about teaching and learning as a market. But what kind of market is it? An 'agora' in which everyone sells knowledge - and time - to everyone else? What are the different ways to be paid for what you know? The answer is that nobody knows. But if we do not like the answers being given now, it's up to us to propose alternatives. Thankyou for your attention. And I'll see you again at Oro Oro in January.

(This is the text of a speech given on September 6th, 2000, by John Thackara at the Hogeschool van Amsterdam).

Posted by John Thackara at September 22, 2000 05:36 PM


Post a comment

Remember Me?

(you may use HTML tags for style)