David Warlick Ryann Warlick Martin Warlick
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What’s Left for the Classroom

I’ve been holding out on this one, because I still do not have my mind wrapped around it. But because of an article I ran across in Digg yesterday, I decided it was time to let loose. I am reading a book right now, one that was recommended to me by Doug Johnson. The book, called The Diamond Age, by Neal Stephenson (author of Snow Crash, Cryptonomicon, and other cyberpunk works) also sports a subtitle, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer — Doug suggested the book during a discussion of digital textbooks.

Near future engineers (living in a retro-victorian culture), have invented a book to provide an education for privileged children, that circumvents the prevailing education system of their time — evidently not that much has changed in the classroom.

Nell, a disadvantaged girl in the story, has surreptitiously gained access to one of the primer books. Here is an excerpt from Diamond Age, Nell’s first experience with her primer.

The book spoke in a lovely contralto, with an accent like the very finest Vickys. The voice was like a real person’s though not like anyone Nell had ever met. It rose and fell like slow surf on a warm beach, and when Nell closed her eyes, it swept her out into an ocean of feelings.

Once upon a time there was a little Princess named Nell who was imprisoned in a tall dark castle on an island in the middle of a giant sea, with a little boy named Harv, who was her friend and protector. She also had four special friends named Dinosaur, Duck, Peter Rabbit, and Purple.
Princess Nell and Harv could not leave the Dark Castle, but from time to time a raven would come to visit them.

“What’s a raven?” Nell said

The illustration was a colorful painting of the island seen from up in the sky. The island rotated downward and out of the picture, becoming a view toward the ocean horizon. In the middle was a black dot. The pictute zoomed in on the black dot, and it turned out to be a bird. Big letters appeared beneath. “R A V E N,” the book said. “Raven. now, say it with me.”


“Very good! Nell, you are a clever girl, and you have much talent with words. Can you spell raven?”

Nell hesitated. She was still blushing from the praise. After a few seconds, the first of the letters began to blink. Nell prodded it.
The letter grew until it had pushed all the other letters and pictures off the edges of the page. The loop on top shrank and became a head, while the lines sticking out the bottom developed into legs and began to scissor. “R is for Run,” the book said. The picture kept on changing until it was a picture of Nell. Then something fuzzy and red appeared beneath her feet. “Nell Runs on the Red Rug,” the book said, and as it spoke, new words appeared.

“Why is she running?”

“Because an Angry Alligator Appeared,” the book said, and panned back qulte some distance to show an alligator, waddling along ridiculously, no threat to the fleet Nell. The alligator became frustrated and curled itself into a circle, which became a small letter. “A is for Alligator. The Very Vast alligator Vainly Viewed Nell’s Valiant Velocity” 1

The book is an interactive (n), not a tutorial. The progression to reading is not pre-packaged. Instead, it interacts with the reader, generating learning experiences within the telling of the story, one involving the reader. The fact of the matter is that we are not far from computer technology that is this powerful, and the precedent is certainly there, that the hottest personal computer technology goes to the kids. Well, not for education, but for game-playing. But that’s another issue.

Yesterday, I took a precious ten minutes at the end of the workday (4:30 AM – 7:00PM) to scan through some Digg articles. I ran across one referring to this Associated Press story, E-Tutoring Broadens Bounds of Outsourcing. I’d heard of this going on, but this article (Oct 22) was the first published report. Here is an excerpt:

COCHIN, India – A few stars are still twinkling in the inky pre-dawn sky when Koyampurath Namitha arrives for work in a quiet suburb of this south Indian city. It’s barely 4:30 a.m. when she grabs a cup of coffee and joins more than two dozen colleagues, each settling into a cubicle with a computer and earphones.

More than 7,000 miles away, in Glenview, Ill., outside Chicago, it’s the evening of the previous day and 14-year-old Princeton John sits at his computer, barefoot and ready for his hourlong geometry lesson. The high school freshman puts on a headset with a microphone and clicks on computer software that will link him through the Internet to his tutor, Namitha, many time zones away.

It’s called e-tutoring — yet another example of how modern communications, and an abundance of educated, low-wage Asians, are broadening the boundaries of outsourcing and working their way into the minutiae of American life, from replacing your lost credit card through reading your CAT scan to helping you revive your crashed computer.2

I bring these two items to your attention to suggest that education in the (near) future may be more radically different than my romantic notions of the classroom have allowed. Is it possible that a fully interactive book could teach children to read and perform mathematics. Is it possible that tutoring of advanced math and science across a dozen time-zones might be more effective than a teacher in a classroom of 30?

My answer to that question is, “Yes, it may be!” I was born and educated during the industrial age and I have very romantic notions about how things should be, and the question that this leaves me with is, “What can we do in teacher-lead classrooms, that can’t be done by interactive books and nearly seamless telecommunication. What should children be learning that they can only learn in a group lead by a teacher?

What do you think?

Digg — (http://digg.com/) Digg is an intriguing online newspaper where readers suggest stories and the stories are rated by readers. The stories with the most votes, or Diggs, surface to the top of the list. In other words, the headlines are determined not by an editorial staff, but by the readers.

1 Stephenson, Neal. The Diamond Age: Or, a Young Lady’s Illustrated Primer. New York: Bantam Books, 1995.

2 George, mirmala, Martha Irvine. “e-Tutoring Broadens Bounds of Outsourcing.” Yahoo! News 22 Oct 2005. 26 Oct 2005 <http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20051022/ap_on_hi_te/tutored_from_afar_1>


  • http://www.cndbusinessprogram.com Profgood

    I have been a Stephenson fan for some time. All of his books (both fiction and non-fiction) are good reads. Beyond that, THE DIAMOND AGE should be of particular interest to educators. For those of us who are also interested in nanotechnology the ‘technology’ aspect of the scenario he presents is quite possible in the future . . . most certainly a great deal of it will be realized by mid-century. (Anyone interested in nanotech should check out The Foresight Institute’ for up to date information re: nanotech. When I have suggest this book to students and other faculty, they tend to discount it with statements such as: ‘like William Gibson, he’s a cyberpunk author…’, as a way of discounting the technology thesis he is presenting. Another area that people interested in tech. future should explore is information about ‘The Singularity’


  • http://2cents.davidwarlick.com Dave


    Thanks for the comments. “The Singularity” is freaky stuff. I’ve had teacher faint right out of their chairs when I tried to talk about the Singularity in a session called “Riding the Edge of the Wave”. As for Stephenson and Gibson, they are first of all, exceptional writers. Gibson’s work is almost poetry. Beyond that, I think that they and other science fiction works should become required reading. In a time of rapid change, good science fictions might be just as important and valuable as Shakespeare. Did I say that out loud?

    – dave –

  • http://www.doug-johnson.com Dougj

    Hi David,

    Glad you enjoyed the book. One of my favorites and have read it a couple times.

    I thought again about The Diamond age a few weeks ago when Negroponte publicly announced his $100 laptop project which would be aimed at developing countries. While I was intially stunned by the ingenuity of the device itself on my first reading of The Diamond Age, I was equally impressed with the potential impact Stephenson suggests such a device might have politically by providing education to previously disposed members of a society – The Mouse Army of the book.

    I hope other readers of 2 Cents worth contribue suggestions for science fiction books that are worth reading. For those interested, I have a short list at: http://doug-johnson.squarespace.com/blue-skunk-blog/2005/8/31/reading-the-future-science-fiction.html

    All the best,


  • http://www.psesd.org/weblogs/edtech/ ConnMc

    Hi, David -

    I’ll definitely need to look at the book. Science fiction set in the near future is always more risky for an author, but some take the challenge in exciting ways. It also can provide an important function. Spencer Holst published an anthology of short stories called “The Language of Cats,” and one of the stories was called “The Zebra Storyteller.” In the story, a cat learns to speak fluent Zebraic, and when he approaches a zebra and begins to speak to it, the zebra is so stunned that the cat can easily kill it and eat it. At the same time, a zebra storyteller makes up a story about a cat that can speak Zebraic. When he is approached by the cat, rather than being stunned by the cat’s ability, he recognizes this as being just like he had imagined it. Instead of being stunned, he realizes the cats intentions and kills it. This, the author closes with, is the role of storytellers – to prepare us for the seemingly unimaginable.

    As to the online tutors, there have been some earlier articles, albeit from far-flung sources. A couple of good ones would be this one at The Middle East Times http://www.metimes.com/articles/normal.php?StoryID=20050829-044023-2319r%20, and this one at the Christian Science Monitor at http://www.csmonitor.com/2005/0523/p01s01-legn.html.

    So what should we be doing? If books and online tutors (real or virtual) can teach kids skills, we should be focused on helping them learn to think or perform at higher levels in whatever their endeavor happens to be. I heard a teacher named David Master speak in the early 1990s (he was IBM Teacher of the Year in 1992) on the phenomenal animation program he ran at Rowland High School in east Los Angeles. They had a sixty-to-one student/teacher ratio, with more experienced students helping with younger students. Eventually, he stopped trying to keep up with the kids’ technical skills, because they were so much better than he was. Where he focused was on higher order things. He knew the difference between good animation and poor, and he knew the difference between good storytelling and poor.

    He could also inspire the kids. I suppose we aren’t that far from artificial personalities that can inspire kids (heck, my stuffed animals inspired me when I was a kid), but for the time being, people are the primary source of affecting kids’ attitudes and drive.

  • http://www.sandramcleroy.com sandramac

    Hi David
    Just before the MEMO Conference I was visiting my oldest son and grandson up in Plano, TX, near Dallas. One of the pieces on the nightly newscast was about a local middle school student. She was doing miserably in math. Her family signed her up for tutoring sessions. They were these e-tutors you mentioned. Her tutor was a high school girl from India. After just a month or so of tutoring sessions the local TX girl was leading her class! What a success story.

  • Alex

    Tutoring from India might sound crazy, but with technological advances such as VoIP and the use of electronic slates, TutorVista.com is making waves on US shores. Not with high school students either. Degreed experts in a variety of k-12 subjects, as well as masters programs. Tutoring sessions can be had for the price of a cup of coffee. My son is in 4th grade, and he studies with his Indian tutor every Sunday and Wednesday. Below are some excerpts of FAQs from their website.

    1. What is TutorVista?

    TutorVista provides world-class online tutoring and homework help for K-12 and college students. Students get live one-on-one assistance to excel at school/ college and in competitive exams. Students can use TutorVista for homework help and instant live assistance with exams, assignments and projects. It is the same as having a tutor in your home or dorm – 24×7!

    TutorVista’s online tutoring is personalized for each student. At the outset, an assessment test is given to identify the student’s strengths and needs. We also talk to you at length about what you need from TutorVista. We use your inputs and the results of the assessment test to develop a personalized learning plan. We use the exact same curriculum and textbooks used at your school or college.

    In addition to live tutoring over the Internet, you can use TutorVista’s worksheets, lessons, practice tests, question banks and even animations to master a subject. You will not need learning centers, private tutors or test-prep companies anymore- TutorVista meets all your academic needs!

    2. How much does it cost?

    Unlike private tutors or learning centers that charge $50 or more per hour, TutorVista charges only $19.99 per hour. Alternatively, you can also choose to buy an unlimited monthly package for $99.99 per month where you can use TutorVista daily – whenever you need, as often as you need live one-on-one assistance.

    3. How good are the tutors?

    TutorVista only hires experienced tutors – all have graduate degrees and teaching credentials. The tutors undergo weeks of intensive training and pass stringent certification exams. Our tutors adhere to national and state academic standards and curricula. Our competitive exam tutors for SAT, GRE, GMAT and other exams are all top scorers in that exam.

    4. What curriculum and textbooks does the tutor use?

    TutorVista adheres to national and state standards and is fully cognizant of the requirements of the local school district or student’s college. Our tutors use the same textbooks used by the student to ensure that the tutoring is relevant and useful. The tutors make it a point to be involved in the regular academic activities of the student. They monitor the progress of the student during the academic year, assist with daily homework, book reports or assignments and help students prepare for upcoming exams.

    5. What subjects and exams does TutorVista cover?

    Math: School Math, Algebra, Geometry, Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, Calculus, Statistics, Analysis, Linear Algebra, Number Theory

    Integrated Science, Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Earth Sciences, Psychology, Accounting, Economics, Finance, History, Geography

    English Grammar, Reading, Writing, Poetry, Literature, Vocabulary and assistance with essays and books reports.

    SAT, PSAT, ACT, AP, CLEP, GRE, GMAT, MCAT, LSAT, USMLE, TOEFL, DAT, NCLEX: strategies and techniques with special online tutoring programs and essay coaching from top scorers!

    Study Skills: Improve reading, writing, memory skills and boost your grades.

    Special programs for homeschoolers and distance learners.

    6. How effective is your tutoring?

    Regular one-on-one tutoring is the most effective way of learning. Don’t just take our word for it! Continuous testing, apart from the initial assessment test, measures the student’s progress over time. You will receive regular progress reports that track your progress over time. Your grades will improve measurably as will your performance on school exams and admission tests like SAT or GRE.

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