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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

The Internet Breaks School Walls Down

What happens to time-worn concepts of classrooms and teaching when we can now go online and learn anything, anywhere, anytime?
Will Richardson
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Credit: David Julian

At some point last year, the Web welcomed its one billionth user. Demographers who study such things determined that this person was in all likelihood a twenty-four-year-old woman from Shanghai. As far as I know, no prizes were awarded.

The striking thing to me about that milestone is not the enormity of the number, however. More interesting, perhaps, is that the one billionth person to jump onto the Web could just as easily been an eight-year-old kid from Sweden or the South Bronx (or, for that matter, an eighty-year-old from South Africa) who sat down at a computer, opened a browser, and for the first time started connecting to the sum of human knowledge we are collectively building online. Furthermore, that eight-year-old had just as much ability to start contributing what she might know about horses or her hometown or whatever her passions might be, becoming an author in her own right, teaching the rest of us what she knows.

It's amazing in many ways that in just a few short years, we have gone from a Web that was primarily "read only" to one where creating content is almost as easy as consuming it. One where writing and publishing in the forms of blogs and wikis and podcasts and many other such tools is available to everyone. One where we can connect not just to content but to people and ideas and conversations as well.

This Read/Write Web, or Web 2.0, as some call it, is transforming the traditional structures of many of our most important institutions. How does business change when markets become lively conversations between the consumers who buy their products? What happens to politics when potentially every voter can give immediately direct feedback to elected representatives on important issues, or to journalism when anyone with a wireless camera phone can report on events both large and small? What happens to cultures when bloggers in Beirut and Haifa can connect while bombs fall around them?

And what happens to traditional concepts of classrooms and teaching when we can now learn anything, anywhere, anytime?

I find these questions particularly intriguing because my own learning and teaching have been transformed since I stumbled across a blog in spring 2001. I became a blogger that same day, and I've been writing and thinking and learning at ever since. That is where my passion for these technologies and their effects on teachers and classrooms is chronicled and archived.

Some 2,500 pieces of published writing later (with almost as many comments back from readers), I can say without hesitation that all my traditional educational experiences combined, everything from grade school to grad school, have not taught me as much about learning and being a learner as blogging has. My ability to easily consume other people's ideas, share my own in return, and communicate with other educators around the world has led me to dozens of smart, passionate teachers from whom I learn every day. It's also led me to technologies and techniques that leverage this newfound network in ways that look nothing like what's happening in traditional classrooms.

In this new interactive Web world, I have become a nomadic learner; I graze on knowledge. I find what I need when I need it. There is no linear curriculum to my learning, no formal structure other than the tools I use to connect to the people and sources that point me to what I need to know and learn, the same tools I use to then give back what I have discovered. I have become, at long last, that lifelong learner my teachers always hoped I would become. Unfortunately, it's about thirty years too late for them to see it.

The good news for all of us is that today, anyone can become a lifelong learner. (Yes, even you.) These technologies are user friendly in a way that technologies have not been in the past. You can be up and blogging in minutes, editing wikis in seconds, making podcasts in, well, less time than you'd think. It's not difficult at all to be an active contributor in this society of authorship we are building.

As usual, many of our students already know this. Kids are flocking to the Web by the millions, enthusiastically sharing music, stories, poetry, video, and pictures (some of which we'd rather not see.) They are communicating online, IMing, gaming, participating, producing. It's like using pen and paper and a printing press in digital space, and they are pushing it, stretching their imaginations, looking to us to do the same. Looking to us, as those well-documented (though still relatively rare) problems at MySpace demonstrate, to teach them how to do it well. And we educators can feel the potential.

In an environment where it's easy to publish to the globe, it feels more and more hollow to ask students to "hand in" their homework to an audience of one. When we're faced with a flattening world where collaboration is becoming the norm, forcing students to work alone seems to miss the point. And when many of our students are already building networks far beyond our classroom walls, forming communities around their passions and their talents, it's not hard to understand why rows of desks and time-constrained schedules and standardized tests are feeling more and more limiting and ineffective.

Regardless, we find this era of the maturing of the digital natives, as Marc Prensky calls them, to be a troublesome time. These technologies scare us, challenge us, and the friction between the old, closed-door classrooms and this new, open, transparent world of learning is becoming more and more apparent. Being on the Web changes things. We fear for our kids' safety, and, as educators, we struggle mightily with the way we're losing control over the content we used to own.

It feels as if the ground is shifting beneath us, and it's made us uneasy.

So our response to this new learning landscape has not been universal joy and a rush to blogging and podcasting. In many schools and even states, it's been, rather, a movement to block and bust: no blogs, no cell phones, no IM. We take away the powerful social technologies our kids are already using to learn and, in doing so, tell them their own tools are irrelevant. Or, instead of using the complex and challenging phenomenon of a site such as Wikipedia to teach the realities of navigating information in this new world, we prohibit its use. In fact, at this writing, the U.S. legislature is in the process of deciding whether schools and libraries should have access to any of the potential of the Read/Write Web at all. When you read this, blogs and wikis and podcasts (and much more) may be things that students (and teachers) can access and create only from off-campus.

Credit: David Julian

And so they might never learn to podcast like the third and fourth graders creating the podcasts in Bob Sprankle's class at Wells Elementary School, in Wells, Maine. They might therefore never publish a local museum tour, an interview with a local celebrity, or an oral history about their town that a billion people could listen to. Nor will they ever get the chance to collaborate in a blog with U.S. soldiers in Iraq, like April Chamberlain's students at Paine Intermediate School, in Trussville, Alabama, and learn firsthand what it's like to be a Screaming Eagle. Or share stories about the places they live at, where hundreds of kids from around the world have started writing and connecting. Or teach calculus to thousands of interested readers from around the world, as do the Canadian students in Darren Kuropatwa's math class at Daniel McIntyre Collegiate Institute, in Winnipeg, Manitoba.

Nor will they fully understand what it's like to be a ubiquitous, continuous learner in a quickly changing world of information that is challenging many of the traditional structures of education. Like me, they may just have to figure that out for themselves.

Most of us now live in a world where, with access, knowledge is abundant, yet we have yet to reconsider our traditional school model, which is based on the obsolete idea that knowledge is scarce. Take a look at the more than 1,400 courses available at MIT OpenCourseWare (see the Edutopia article, "Crack the Books: Teacher, This Book's For You"), which seeks to "provide free, searchable, access to MIT's course materials for educators, students, and self-learners around the world." It's an amazing array of syllabi, readings, even video lectures from professors that is out there for any of us to tap into, free of charge. It's just one of millions of places where we can learn on the Web, yet most of our students still expect "real" learning to take place only in a classroom.

This is a world where we can easily make connections to ideas and people and build potent learning networks in the process, one where leveraging these networks and tools can yield a powerful online portfolio of ideas and artifacts. Yet we teach in classrooms limited by physical walls, contrived relationships, and mind-numbing assessments. There are a billion primary sources out there -- scientists, journalists, politicians, and the like -- who may know more than we do about whatever it is we are teaching, and, for the first time, we can easily and flexibly bring them to our students to interact and learn. I was a journalism major in college, but when Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Scott Higham, from the Washington Post, mentored one of my students by interacting with her on her blog, she learned more than I alone could have taught her. Even better, we can teach our students how to make these connections themselves, to find the sources and resources they need when they need them, instead of depending on us to provide them.

This is a world where literacy is changing, where readers need to be editors. Now that anyone can publish just about anything in a heartbeat, checking for facts and relevance often occurs after publication. If you don't believe that, go to Martin, which comes up in the top ten Google search results for King yet is published by a white-supremacist group and is intended solely to discredit his work through duplicity and falsehoods. (See the Edutopia article, "Online, on Alert: Teaching Students How to Interpret the Web.") If our students don't know how to find that out, if we ourselves don't know how to do that, I would argue that we are illiterate. Yet our curricula include little if anything that goes beyond the basic reading, writing, and computational literacies.

This is, indeed, a changed world. From the realities of war to the fears of avian flu and the global-warming crisis, these first few years of the twenty-first century have already tested us in innumerable ways, and the tests show no sign of abating in either intensity or frequency. But I wonder whether, twenty-five or fifty years from now, when four or five billion people are connecting online, the real story of these times won't be the more global tests and transformations these technologies offered. How, as educators and learners, did we respond? Did we embrace the potentials of a connected, collaborative world and put our creative imaginations to work to reenvision our classrooms? Did we use these new tools to develop passionate, fearless, lifelong learners? Did we ourselves become those learners?

Or did we cling to old ideas, old models, and old habits and drift more fully into irrelevance in our students' eyes?

Will Richardson is the author of the weblogg-ed blog, as well as learner in chief at the Connective Learning Group and the author of Blogs, Wikis, Podcasts, and Other Powerful Web Tools for Classrooms.

Comments (23)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

SueDunn's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I think the students will take what technology we offer them and use it to enhance their learning. The state of Maine is a leader in technology in education. All 7th and 8th graders are issued an AppleBook.

Patsy Adams's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

One of the most important things to remember as we work in this technology atmosphere I think is that learning takes place everywhere and it doesn't have to be a lecture. As a new teacher, I struggled wondering what I had taught my students and at the end of the year I was plesantly surprised to see that they could find answers to their questions by themselves. This was without much technology and now I think there is nothing they cannot learn about with this tool because they love it. The guidance is going to be more important but the idea of where do you find what you want to know is the same.

Judi Levy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

So this article by Will Richardson poses the question can one return to the type of traditional arithmetic learning environment when we have now broken down it's wall and all the students are running around learning for themselves, exponentially?
I disagree with his remark that learning is scarce. Certainly, even 42 years ago when I started college without the benefit of the Internet, it would have been difficult to consume all of the knowledge. We are really speaking of getting our own ideas read, with immediate response. I'm not quite sure I care whether all those one billion readers need to be my audience. I think I can choose well-qualified readers on my own. The Wikipedia online encylopedia is information that may be added onto by many people who have the ability to place erroneous material on the web. That is not adding to the sum total of human knowledge.
So we must be careful, but our carefullness must have elasticity. We should be wise in our Internet contacts, and teach our students to sift through the Internet's littered highway, lest we fall prey to our own eagerness to learn in our hast to become Life-Long-Learners.

Bob Collier's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Something you don't mention is that, while professional educators working within the school and college system may be scared or challenged by digital technology, the home education movement is lovin' it.

My experiences as the parent of a 22-year old conventionally schooled university graduate and a 12-year old self-educated Digital Native certainly suggest to me that, ten or twenty years from now, the desires and intentions of 'the professionals' may be of no interest at all to perhaps even a majority of 'school age kids' who know only too well what they're capable of achieving by their own motivation.

The internet has indeed broken the school walls down, but what that means may not be what educationalists generally seem to think it means.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love the 'sage on the stage' reference. As teachers we are truly facilitators of learning: creating those opportunities and the freedom of students to use the latest and most appealing technologies that lend to self learning!

Carlos's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

ChilePodcast...The First Educational Podcast from Chile.

Dear friends, I invite you to listen chilepodcast.....

As and old time dxer or short wave listener, that I have changed the SWL hobby Of International Radios on Short wave, (Dxing) by the Internet, I have the pleasure to let you know that as May 17, 2005, International Day of Communication, you can download and listen the First Podcast produced and poscasted from San Fernando Chile, to all Internet surfers of the world.

If you have time and are interested in listening these programs from San Fernando, you can visit my website, where you can download the MP3 file for a later listening on your PC or MP3 player.

This is my site:
This is my blog:

I remain for your questions, comments and suggestions about these programs.

At the same time, I'll be very thankful if you could send this mail to your Contacts, and distribute this news on your web site, in order to promote this new technology of communication.

If you want to know more about me, search on for:

Carlos Toledo Verdugo or chilepodcast

Program contents:

Both my wife and I are Christian Teachers and we would like to podcast poetry, Chilean music, the history of Dxing in Chile, Bible reading and greetings from listener.

My podcast are in Special Spanish (sometime in English) because I want reach all the people on the internet that are interested in learning my mother tongue Spanish.

Also we would like to be in touch through this technology with fellow Spanish Teachers as a Second Language and their students of Spanish language.

Sincerely, and God Bless you all.

Carlos Toledo Verdugo
Primary School Teacher
Profesor de Educacion General Basica
San Fernando - Sexta Region Chile

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought that this article was amazing. It is so cool that one billion people use the web.

alyssa's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read this and thought, wow. This is amazing, and very true. I guess I never really thought about the internet that way before. And after reading this, I am going to think about the internet in a diferent way. I really enjoyed reading this blog. :D

good job by the way :D

video's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

This all feels very new to me.. and exciting. The idea of a collaborative, exlplorative class envirionment is very interesting. The possibilites are facinating.

Jeff Rudisill's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Bob, I liked your observations of the potential for motivation outside traditional school walls. It leads me to a dilemma, however. What are the resources necessary to school the majority of children at home? You seem to have resolved any resource issues, but I wonder how many parents have those resources available to do the same. I believe our culture/society will need far more adaptive changes before the majority of children can "afford" to stay home and get a "good" education. What are your thoughts?

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