Voices in Education

It’s an Amazing Time to Be a Learner
Let’s be clear: it’s an amazing time to be a learner.

Whether it’s the two billion teachers we can now connect to on the Web, the myriad of entertaining and at the same time educational video games we can play with our friends (or by ourselves), or the potential to answer almost any question we can pose through a few keystrokes on the phones in our pockets, we live at a moment of ubiquitous learning, one few of our ancestors could have imagined. It’s a moment that in many ways we ourselves are still struggling to make sense of, struggling to imagine the endless possibilities that we find ourselves swimming in.

That my daughter can come home from school one day with the desire to learn to play a new song on the piano, one she’d heard for the first time earlier that day, and two hours later be well on her way to mastering it still boggles my mind. (That it was Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believin’” was even more disorienting). Her teachers were a YouTube video created by a Journey aficionado, an illegally downloaded set of sheet music (we had “the talk” later), and her own passion to play. No other human in the room needed. In fact, if she had the Magic Piano app for the iPad, no piano needed either. It’s a story that’s being played out repeatedly every day, around the world, by kids and adults of all ages. We can learn what we want, when we want to, if we have the desire and the connection. More and more of us are finding both.

The Web and its accompanying technologies, as well as the games and mobile devices we’re all carrying around, are driving a surge in personalized learning that, ironically, most people alive at the moment still don’t even know exists. Sure, most in the developed world have at least heard of Facebook by now, and as more people get access, the idea of social networking online is growing in dramatic spurts around the world. But lost in the thrill of the social connections we can now make with friends past and present have been the opportunities to use these spaces to learn and learn deeply. We live in a world where we can literally create our own learning networks in which we pull in content and mentors and collaborators to participate with us. If we know what we’re doing, we can create our own classrooms, our own curriculum, and to some extent, fashion our own online learning portfolio for others to evaluate and assess.

All of which, by the way, poses huge challenges for those places our kids go off to each day to learn the stuff that others have deemed important for them to learn. My daughter (and my son) are both getting used to learning what they want to learn, when they want to learn it, with whom they want to learn it, and they’re wondering why they can’t do more of that in school. I’m wondering that too. That’s not to say that we should turn the kids loose and let them Google and game their way to an education on their own. Not at all. But it is to say that what they need schools to prepare them for today is much different than what schools have been preparing students for over the past 100 years or so. In this fast changing moment, my kids don’t need so much to be learned, a quality the philosopher Eric Hoffer says will render them “equipped to live in a world that no longer exists.” Instead, they need to be learners, solving real problems, creating new knowledge, and sharing and reflecting on those experiences with others. Unfortunately, that’s not what the vast majority of our current schools are about.

This blog post has been adapted from the foreword of Spotlight on Technology in Education (Harvard Education Press, 2011).

About the Author: Will Richardson is a popular speaker, blogger (webblogged.org) and author on the topic of technology and education. The third edition of his bestselling book, Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for the Classroom, was published in 2010.