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So What’s Different? — Some Answers

Yesterday, a coupled with a comment from Eric Langhorst a request for some ideas about what exactly has changed in our world that demands new technologies in our classrooms. The request sparked some valuable conversation, but not exactly what I was after.

Singularity, by Ray KurzweilIt seems to me that in order to shape the application of new technologies, we need a mold to shape it around, and that mold needs to be new as well. One of our problems has been that we have tried to shape the technology around out-dated notions of what schooling is about, rather than reshaping our notions to reflect new world conditions.

So here is my basic list. Here’s what has changed, what is different.

  1. The Information is different
    • It’s Networked — Information is increasingly coming to us through networks, initially radio and TV, but today it comes to us over the Internet from nearly anywhere, from nearly anyone, and for nearly any reason
    • It’s Digital — Information is now made of ones and zeros, and as a result, information can be reshaped in a wide variety of ways, using increasingly ubiquitous tools. We are starting to think of information as a raw material, not merely as a product to be consumed.
    • It’s Overwhelming — Information is increasingly increasing. This is important because the messages that we wish to deliver to help us accomplish our goals, must compete for attention among all the other messages out there.
    • It Doesn’t Need a Container — information is shaped differently. It can not be contained nor controlled in the traditional sense. We must depend less on central gatekeepers to assure the information and more on our own skills and highly developed sense of ethics when accessing, using, and producing information.

    Each of these aspects of information leads to a dramatic expansion of what it means to be literate, the new BASICS of school curriculum.

  2. Content is Different — The answers to today’s questions will not be their answers tomorrow. Science, health, culture, politics, economics, and even history are all changing. In a rapidly changing world, it becomes much less valuable to be able to memorize the answer, and much more valuable to be able to find and even invent the answers.
  3. Our Tools are Changing — Technology is changing at dizzying rates, which is part of the reason for the preceding elements of change, but also a good reason why we should be focused on the information and not the technology. We can’t keep up with making the technology the curriculum. All we can do is prepare our students to teach themselves. It’s the only way to keep up.
  4. The Singularity — This is a concept that I occasionally share in my talks. It is the belief by many notable scientists that some advance in technology or discovery is so going to rock the world that we will sit at a moment were we can not clearly describe our future. Some of the ideas that are talked about include:
    • When computers become smarter than we are (access to super-human intelligence)
    • When computers becoming self-aware (new notions of what life is) [I know, really weird]
    • The ability to stop aging — (what are the implications on population?)
    • Nano Replicators that can produce almost anything on command

    Consider nano manufacturing. Consider suddenly finding that only 2% of the worlds population could produce 100% of our material needs. No need for jobs — in the next 20 years? How would we handle that? How would it work? Are we teaching our children to answer these questions? Should we be including science fiction as required reading along with William Shakespeare.

So that’s the short list and exactly 2¢ worth.


  • http://dehavilland.typepad.com BrettPawlowski

    If you’re looking for a new mold, or a new metaphor, one option is that of the tradesman. Go back a few hundred years, and consider how children were prepared to become functioning members of society. They went through apprenticeships (at least the lucky ones did) that taught them the skills they needed to join a profession like carpentry or blacksmithing.

    I think we’ve gone full circle in a way, except the natural resources those tradesmen used – wood, iron – have been replaced with information, which is so prevalent that it is essentially a commodity or natural resource as well. 50 years ago, when information was scarce and segmented, our educational goal was to provide as much of this scarce resource to children as possible. Now, with information everywhere, we need to move from a product mentality to focus on process.

    Like the blacksmith of old, our students need to be able to take the natural resources (ie, information) available to them and be able to make a myriad of things with them. They need to be able to judge the quality of those raw materials, since a good product built with bad materials will be a bad product. And they need to understand how and when to use all the tools available to them as determined by what they’re trying to make. And finally, they need to be able to look at the finished product – theirs or others’ – with a critical eye to see whether it was done with craftsmanship.

    Note that this does not assume any relative value for finished product: one blacksmith may make swords, another may make plowshares, and both are relevant to some portion of the market. The key is instilling the skills and sense of crafstmanship that will allow them to create the things they want to create using the resources and tools at hand.

  • http://www.k12converge.com Jim Heynderickx

    The strange thing is that the best defense for “status quo” education is to keep it as traditional as possible for as long as possible– more standardized tests, more workbooks, and more required curriculum… If the educational experiences are literally designed to exclude the unique needs or involvement of the students, the students themselves consider school as an “it” to be endured, like a bad job. As the wheels grind forward, it doesn’t matter how distanced from reality education becomes, since the students know they don’t have a plaform from which to argue for change. We see this already within the wide disparity between student personal computer use and in-school computer use (note the Pew Internet Family Life Reports).

    So, all this rolls forward until “escape hatches” appear. Online schools. Home schooling. Hybrids. Car schooling. Tutors in India. Alternatives that may be weaker in many regards, but value the strengths, interests and abilities of the students to a greater extent.

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

    You are far more optimistic than I. Prices are going down, though the $100 laptop was not designed for industrial countries that have the wealth to modernize their classrooms. The $100 laptop was designed for the developing world where the money is simply not there to buy $600 or $1200 laptops. In addition, that $100 price tag is based on orders in the millions.

    The problem here (in the U.S.) is not expense. It’s a lack of vision and the will to pay for it. The U.S. federal government has appropriated $500 million a year over the past few years (less this year, and only that after fierce lobbying by educators). That comes to only ten bucks and some change for each student in the U.S, and EETT funding is slated to be zeroed out next year. Pathetic!

    Again, we are not going to inspire new vision unless we can articulate the new conditions that are demanding change and how and what we teach our children.

  • http://www.artichoke.typepad.com Artichoke

    I think you have captured the telling question about technology and schools. “One of our problems has been that we have tried to shape the technology around out-dated notions of what schooling is about”

    Illich (in “Deschooling Society” and “Ivan Ilich in Conversation” 1992 Cayley)revealed how schools exercise a monopoly over how we define education. Until we unpack what this represents, any amount of re-engineering, reconstructing of the curriculum to involve technological innovation will be undermined. Schools perpetuate the myth that knowledge “must be acquired in graded and certified sequences” within age and often gender sequestered classrooms. And that the learning ritual involves the coercion of a teacher before it has value. Although I am uncertain that Illich would embrace some of the distancing of “I” and “Thou” that occurs when we embrace technology

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  • http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/ coolcatteacher

    You are insightful and innovative and the “idea generator” for me. I have implemented what I learned in your workshop at GAETC and in a few short weeks — wikispaces has named my school their site of the month. A lot of buzz is going on at my school and they are now interested in a one to one laptop initiative.

    I think with useful technologies that make classroom material relevant the parents and students ask for and want to provide laptops in the hands of the children. If the only thing students are excited about on the computer is games — parents just see the laptop as another game cube or x box.

    I believe that meaninful, academic related experiences that speak the languages of students in the “myspace-ish” method will get students excited. I’ve seen it with my own eyes.

    You can see the write up from the wikispaces people at http://coolcatteacher.blogspot.com/2005/12/westwood-named-wikispace-of-month.html.

    Thank you David! I appreciate you pushing my classroom to the edge. I believe a 1:1 initiative is in our very near future at our school. These meaningful tools have paved the way.

  • teach42

    I think that one key thing that you didn’t mention is accessibility. Nearly any nformation is accessible to just about anybody at any time. Yes, there is still a minimum technological issue that restricts access to some parts of the country/world, but once that is overcome, all people have access to that increasingly increasing body of knowledge. Information used to be filtered in so many different ways before, but the accessibility that the internet affords has broken down barriers to the sorts of information that people have the ability to get ahold of.

    Great list!

  • AdeleB

    I’ve been reading through these posts and find myself nodding my head at everyones observations. I find that we have two groups of people. Those that would like staff development to understand and work with new technologies and those who hide behind the “technology is bad” syndrome. I’ve recently accepted a position as an Instructional Technologist. This is a first for the school, and my job is to aid classroom teachers in enhancing technology into the curriculum. Easy? I never expected such apathy. Apathy is also side by side with “fear”. It is much easier to find articles and sites that speak to the “research” that technology “hasn’t improved schools”, so why should I.

    I feel as if I’m spinning my wheels on ice. Any ideas to get up and running? What can I try first? What should I try first?

  • http://autonolearner.blogspot.com/ Marco Polo

    Alvin Toffler suggested in “Future Shock” that science fiction be included as part of education for the future. That was back in 1970. For an excercise in human folly, read the chapter on Education for the Future in that book. Almost every word in it is as relevant today as it was back then. Nice going. Billions of dollars later and we’re still not one inch further forward than 30 years ago.

  • http://autonolearner.blogspot.com/ Marco Polo

    David’s questions suggest that the primary purpose of education (or school) is to prepare children for the future. When has mankind ever been ready for the future? The intriguing scenarios he poses (posed by science fiction writers for decades now) raise the question of what is the purpose of human life? Merely to chase after the future? Like Frankenstein trying catch his creation before it causes irreperable damage (to itself or others)? Or is there some other purpose there too, something that has remained the same regardless of the age or circumstances we live in? I made a similar comment on Miguel Guhlin’s blog a while back: in this brave new world, where is the place for the those like my Downs syndrome daughter? The presence of such people is a healthy reminder that man is not primarily made to chase after his own creations. It’s not all about getting ahead, staying competitive, etc., etc. I’m not saying those are not worthwhile goals; just that they’re not the only ones, and perhaps not even the most important. It’s easy to get carried away by the exciting possibilities: “people talking!” Yes, but how come that has become such a premium? How come we have allowed ourselves to create rootless gatherings of people, to dilute the power of community and family? Would the idea of people communicating and creating communities spanning the whole globe be so exciting if we were not living such isolated lives? And how did THAT come about?

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