The Future of Education: Social Learning?

May 17, 2006

At 15 years old, I was missing alot of school. I was spending many a late night on my computer, and failing to get up at 6AM (if I had even gone to sleep) and be on my way. I was online, by way of a phone wire I had pulled through the heating vent in the ceiling of the basement in my parent’s home. I was savoring the relative peace and tranquility of the nights (I have 6 siblings), not to mention the superior connectivity (we shared one phone line at the time).

School, when I made it, paled in comparison to my little world on the computer. Mind you, I went to a great school by most measures, and I regard many of my teachers very highly. Yet, I found most of it uninspiring and unchallenging, and my classmates even more so. (My terrible teens weren’t a help either.) I felt like I was somewhere else. And I was.

I was tinkering with software, reading and creating, sharing and collaborating. I was forming an elite online group with an adolescent mission, then building a company and product with what was ultimately four paying customers (hey, we were profitable). I was building software with a partner I’d met online, after we discovered he was better at raw coding and I at interfaces. I was diving into Microsoft Visual Basic and the Windows API and HTML and Adobe Photoshop and Macromedia ColdFusion. I was interacting, with other engineers and my users and partners and all sorts of people, from this continent and others. Above all, I was learning.

Lo and behold, at 16 (at the end of 10th grade) I dropped out of the award winning, Jewish and private, seventy-student Northwest Yeshiva High School. I tried a “running start” college program for a number of months, aced my classes, wasn’t inspired, and stopped that, too. This was circa 1997, and we all know where things were going in this field then. Within a month I had a paid internship at a company specializing in Internet tools for healthcare, and after that summer a full-time job at a travel related startup that was eventually acquired by (then Microsoft-owned) Expedia.com. The rest is history and the subject of a book I’m living. And no, I don’t recommend that you drop out.

In looking at my life, and the uncommon path I’ve taken, I wonder where the common path would have led me. If I were to have finished high school, went abroad for a year, then to college — I guess I’d be graduating this year. It’s difficult to imagine where or who I’d be, but I feel it’s not important because I believe this is where I needed to be, who I needed to be. There were very real forces, valid reasons for choosing certain directions and not choosing others, collectively determining my fate. And I’m beginning to understand how it all relates.

Asked these days if I’m in school, I say yes. I go to the School of the Collective Mind. Maybe the School of Collaborating Minds would be more accurate. I, of course, mean the Internet, but also books, discussions, the vast web of knowledge and knowledgable people. I’m learning, I’m applying, I’m interacting, I’m exploring, I’m discovering — isn’t that school?

I guess it depends on who you ask. Education is changing, that’s for sure. I grew up with resources at my disposal that were unfathomable to a generation before. My teachers, my parents, they knew nothing of information (and people with information) instantly at your fingertips. And fact is, that phenomenon changes the rules of the game for so many aspects of our lives, absolutely including education. We’re only at the beginning of this process.

Today, I came across some excellent material (yes, by way of this same “school” I speak of) that really brings this point home, eloquently and completely. John Seely Brown, Xerox’s former Chief Scientist and research head, gave a talk at a certain Teaching with Technology Conference, speaking of the need to ask the right questions about education.

It’s not “learning about”, he says, but “learning to be” — that is, it’s not about collecting information about your field, but learning how to participate in your field, stemming from “productive inquiry”. He cites numerous examples of where this type of collaborative learning is already occuring successfully. He goes on to explore ways this mode of learning can be practiced in the classroom, even ways the classroom can literally be modified to support this. He sees technologies, particularly those that are richly collaborative (wikis, blogs, instant messaging) as being a key enabler in this trend, and proposes that we embrace these when building these new education models of the future.

If you’re interested in technology and its impact on education, or even if you’re just curious about the future of a crucial part of our lives, I heartily encourage you to spend some time with the talk and the accompanying slides. Pop open one tab with the audio, and another tab with the slides and follow along.

Then, come back here and join the conversation. I look forward to your comments. Yes, you.