The Digital Shift

old tvIn 1963, when I was born…

Television was delivered over the airwaves. In black and white. We had four channels to choose from and we had to get out of our seat to change them. And we hardly ever heard a swear word.

Radio was only available using an AM signal. In mono. If you didn’t like the song that was on, you could switch to the other station. If you wanted to listen to music on the go, you had a small transistor radio with a tinny speaker or a single earpiece. And if you wanted to hear “your show”, you had to listen while it was being broadcast.

Newspapers were printed on paper and printed every 24 hours. The time between a story happening and us finding out about it was often several days. Which stories made it into the newspaper was decided by an editor somewhere. The text on the page was made by rolling ink across the tops of slugs of lead in shape of letters, assembled to make sentences, and then pressing those inked letters against paper. The paper was then folded, cut, bundled onto trucks and delivered to your local newsagent where you had to go to buy it.

Photography required the use of film, a long strip of plastic covered in a silver emulsion. You could take either 12, 24 or 36 photos at a time. Once you’d taken all the photos that would fit on the roll (and only then), you had to send them away to be developed. This usually took about 2 weeks.

Moviemaking also required film. It was a continuous strip of 8mm wide plastic and required a dark room and a projector to view it. Each reel went for 3 minutes. They were expensive to process, and hardly anyone ever bothered to edit them. Having sound was an expensive luxury.

Music was stored on round black disks called records, which had long spiral grooves etched into them that mirrored the soundwaves that described the music. It was, quite literally, an analog of the waveform. Later, you could get audio cassettes that could hold either 60 or 90 minutes of music. You had to flip them over halfway through, usually in the middle of a song. Solving technical problems with cassettes required the use of a pencil. The audio quality, in hindsight, was awful.

oldphoneTelephone calls were made from home, sitting next to the phone. If it was a long distance call you had to think in three minute blocks of time. You only called long distance on special occasions like Christmas or birthdays, and you had an egg timer sitting next to the phone. Telephones were made for making telephone calls. That’s all.

It’s now 2013.

In those 50 years that have passed, most people would agree that some of these things have undergone a few changes, and those changes have occurred mostly because they went digital.

Television went digital. It is now far more likely to be delivered over a cable In full high definition colour and 3D, with 5.1 surround sound. If you don’t like what’s on, you can choose from hundreds of other channels. If you want to watch something else entirely, you can stream on demand via YouTube or some other web-based video service.  Oh, and there probably will be swearing. Lots of swearing.

Radio went digital. You now have dozens and dozens of high quality FM transmissions to choose from. You can take your listening mobile in your car, or go portable on your MP3 player or phone. You can timeshift your listening by storing your favourite radio shows as podcasts and listen whenever it’s convenient. Or listen to stuff that you find interesting that would never make it on the radio.  All for free.

News went digital. Multiple streams of news, based on your interests, can be delivered to you almost as it happens. You can choose your sources; global, local, hyperlocal. You can contribute to the stream if you choose. You can comment, argue, debate. You can participate. Twitter redefines what we mean by news, and can help start revolutions in the process. We can find out about anything, anytime, anywhere. For free.

Photography went digital. You can now take as many photos as you want, in massively high resolution. You can see them immediately after you take them. You don’t have to wait. You can enhance them, fix them, or delete them if you don’t want to keep them. You can share them instantly with anyone, anywhere in the world. Immediately. For free.

Moviemaking went digital. You can now shoot movies in ultra high definition. With sound. You can view them immediately, edit them in ways that only professional studios could once do, share them easily with your family and friends. You can send them to any device you like, to watch right away. For free.

Music went digital. The processes for creating, storing, distributing and sharing music are dramatically different. Using services like iTunes, Pandora or Spotify, you can listen to any music you like, whenever you like, however you like, on whatever device you like. It’s delivered in high quality stereo. It’s editable and remixable. You can swap and share music with others, anywhere in the world. For free.

Communication went digital. Telephones have morphed into mobile “devices” that can be carried anywhere, making you contactable wherever you are. Voice signals now travel the world over thin glass threads at the speed of light. VOIP software like Skype or Google Voice let you talk to anyone, anywhere, for as long as you like, with multiple people. With video too if you want it. For free.

And the best part of all? Because all of these things share the same digital heritage of zeros and ones, they can be easily mixed and mashed, and can live on the same clever device, bringing us true digital convergence.

So think about it. Think about just how much the rules have changed.  In a mere 50 years – barely a blink really – we have gone from a world where things that were hard to do have become easy, things that were time consuming to do have become instant, things that offered few options now come with seemingly unlimited choice, things that were expensive have become virtually free, things that were once scarce are now abundant.

Think about what that does to the world. What happens to economics when scarcity swaps places with abundance and expensive things become free? What happens to the human experience when time-consuming things become instant and difficult things become easy?  What happens to society when things that once required special training and special equipment are now within the reach of anyone who wants to do them?

In less than 50 years we have essentially shifted from an analog world to a digital world. The implications of that change have affected virtually every field you can think of. It’s difficult to imagine how an industry like banking or travel could possibly have ever functioned without the use of digital information and communication technologies. Like it or not, this digital genie is never going back into the bottle.

So, what are your survival strategies for a digital world?
What sorts of things do you do to feel at ease in a digital world?
What are the essential skills, mindsets and attitudes that one needs for a digital world?
What moral and ethical stances make sense in a digital world?
How do you become a productive, responsible citizen in a digital world?
How do you stay safe in a digital world?
How do you decide what is public and what is private in a digital world?
How much do you share in a digital world?
What defines appropriate in a digital world?

These are the sorts of questions we should be asking ourselves as we aim to be productive members of a society gone digital. Ironically, while some of these things require a serious rethink, many of the answers may simply be an evolution of those that applied in the analog world. The question is, which ones?

And once you figure it out, how do you help children figure it out? Because for them, this is the only world they’ve even known.

Coincidence or Connection?

One of the things that my American friends are always very proud of is that they claim to live in a country where dreams can come true and where everyone has an equal opportunity of success. They call it “The American Dream” and all over America young children are told that anyone – even them – has the opportunity to grow up and become president one day.

Of course, if you’re a young American, the reality is that while anyone can potentially become president, the probability of it actually happening to you is somewhere around 1 in 307,006,550 (which is roughly the number of people living in the USA at the moment). So while you possibly could become president, it’s far, far, far more likely that you won’t be!

If you did happen to somehow end up as the President of the United States, the odds get even more staggeringly unlikely that your son or daughter will also become president. Mathematically, the chances of two people from the same family both becoming President of the USA are around 1 in 9.42530217 × 1016, or, as my math teacher friend Darren Kuropatwa likes to call it, zero. While both people may have the same opportunity as anyone else, the statistical likelihood that two people from the same family will both end up holding the office of president starts to become so unlikely that you might as well call it impossible.

Yet, we all know that this has indeed happened in the past. George Bush Sr held the top US job between 1989 and 1993, and then his son George W Bush held the same position from 2001 to 2009. The odds of two people from the same family both reaching the office of President are very, very unlikely, yet it happened.

And this is not the first time it’s happened. Back in 1797, John Adams earned the US presidency and then his son John Quincy Adams took on the same position in 1825. And let’s also not forget William Henry Harrison, who became president in 1841, and then 41 years later so did his grandson Benjamin Harrison. What’s going on here? How can something so unlikely keep happening multiple times?

It’s not just politics either, it happens in other fields of endeavour as well. In sports, the Williams sisters, Venus and Serena, have done a similar thing, with both of them being ranked as the number one female tennis player in the world at various times. The statistical likelihood of getting to be the world’s best at anything may seem unlikely, but the chance of two from the same family should be nearly impossible.

Australian readers will remember the Waugh brothers who played cricket for Australia back in the 90s. Like becoming president, becoming an elite athlete is hard work and requires a great deal of focus, dedication and effort. Rising to a world class level is highly competitive and although many try to get there, few actually do. And yet Mark, Steve and Dean Waugh bucked the odds when all three brothers from the same working class family in southwestern Sydney ended up representing their country in cricket. The chances of one of the brothers playing cricket at the elite level is slim, but you’d imagine that the chance of all three of the boys doing it would be near impossible.

And yet, these things do actually happens far more often than you might think. You don’t have to look too far to find plenty of examples of people from the same family, group, team, organisation or school achieving significant unlikely success together. If you just look at it from the perspective of statistical probability, getting multiple people from the same family or group or school to succeed at a high level might seem unlikely to happen, and yet it does happen with surprising frequency. So what’s going on here? Are some people just in the right place at the right time? Are they just lucky? Or is there something else going on?

When you stop and think about it, it actually makes a lot of sense. Although it may seem almost paradoxical at first, the notion that your own performance can be raised up by the associations and connections you create with those around you in the same field is really not all that surprising. When Venus improved her game, it probably spurred Serena on as well. When Serena learned to improve her serving technique she probably passed on some of that learning to Venus. Being around other people who are achieving excellence doesn’t reduce the likelihood that you’ll learn from them, it dramatically improves it!

If you know someone who has reached the top of their chosen field, and you spend a lot of time with that person, it usually makes it more likely that you will succeed, not less. You get to share their passion and their enthusiasm, which often drives your own passion and enthusiasm forward as well. You get to learn from them, which helps you avoid some of their mistakes while benefiting from their experience. You can get caught up in their competitiveness, which often drives you to be better, to try harder, to practise a little longer. Despite the apparent odds of more than one person succeeding at an elite level, it would seem that associating with like minded people who share your passions dramatically improves your own chances of success. As any sports star will tell you, the best way to improve is to regularly play with other good players.

How does this principle apply to you as an educator? What are the associations and connections you surround yourself with? Who are the people you associate with and learn from? How do you get to be part of an “all star team” that can drive your own learning and professionalism forward?

I’d suggest that the analog for committed educators is to development a strong Professional Learning Network, or PLN. I’m sure that those of us who are connected through tools like Twitter, the blogosphere, Skype, etc, can attest to the remarkable difference it makes. Not just a little bit, but an enormous amount. Being connected to the right people, being part of the right networks, sharing ideas and conversations with the right people… I would rate the idea of being a “connected educator” as the single most crucial thing you can do for your own ongoing professional development.

This all struck me as I was sitting in a meeting in Melbourne today with a group of leading Australian teachers. Many of them I consider to be some of the best educators I know. Many have enormous wisdom about teaching, about learning, about education, about schooling, about educational technology, about being an effective and fluent citizen of the 21st century. In short, these were a bunch of fine educational minds. At one point, it was noted that although many of us had never met in person before, we already shared many connections and the fact was cited that nearly all the people in the room were active members of the OzTeachers List (one of the longest running and most active educational online communities in the world).

Someone commented that it was quite a coincidence that, in a room full of leading educators, so many were all OzTeachers members. To which I would respond, it’s not a coincidence at all. In fact, it’s more likely the whole reason we were there in the first place. This was not a room full of random teachers who, surprise, surprise, all happened to belong to the same online community. Out of this “random” group of teachers, virtually everyone there could claim to be part of numerous shared networks of connection; ADEs, GCTs, Edubloggers, Classroom 2.0ers, Twitterers… The room was full of people who already knew each other from online networks. Coincidence? I think not.

This was a room of teachers who were already connected in numerous networked ways, and it was undoubtedly these connections that were the very reason they were asked to be there in the first place. It’s through being connected, belonging to shared communities of practice and being part of each other’s professional learning networks that makes leaders, not the other way around.

It drives me crazy when I meet teachers who continually resist the idea of belonging to online networks of like-minded educators. Like so many others in that room in Melbourne (and around the world in many other networks of connection) I know the undeniable value of being connected to others, of sharing ideas, of speaking a common language. I know what an amazing difference it makes when you expose yourself to a steady stream of innovative ideas, resources and people. Being connected to other passionate people exposes you to more good ideas in a single day than most unconnected educators will stumble across in a year. I honestly believe that being connected to others is the single best thing you can do for yourself and your own professional growth. As Steven Johnson says, “Chance favours the connected mind”.

So if you’re already a connected educator, congratulations… I’m sure you can attest to what a huge difference it makes in your own professional life. If you’re not, then maybe it’s time to finally bite the bullet and do it.

I’m sure Venus and Serena would agree.

Photo by emmettanderson

Bye Bye Facebook

As you may have noticed, Facebook has been copping a great deal of flak in the media lately for recent changes to its privacy policy.  There is growing evidence that Facebook as a company has few scruples or ethics when it comes to the way they view and use your personal data.  The company has continually “baited and switched” the privacy settings in Facebook to the point where they have become so confusing and complex that few people truly understand them.  There are something like 50 choices leading to about 170 different privacy variations possible, all needing to made in multiple locations in Facebook, with very little consistency or “expected behaviour” between them…  consequently, there could be significant parts of your personal data that is being made public without you realising. Facebook seems to be working on the principle that most users never look at the default settings or take the time to think through their options.  The most recent changes made to their privacy policy have made the sharing of your personal information “opt-out”, rather than the previous method of “opt-in”.  This means that, unless you wade through the many privacy settings to turn them off, you are probably sharing far more than you realise. Added to this is the recent change to the Facebook Privacy Policy that essentially grants Facebook the rights to give your data to third parties and advertisers in order to target marketing to you.  The infographic to the right was created by Matt McKeon, and links to his page where you can explore an interactive version which shows how the default sharing policy on Facebook has changed over time.  It’s a bit scary!

Interestingly, the Facebook Privacy Policy –which all Facebook users must agree to in order to use the service – has grown to become almost 6000 words long.  Do you know what it says?

Personally, I find this unethical behaviour completely unacceptable and, along with many others across the web, have decided to close my Facebook account.  Like many Facebook users, there have been times when I’ve found the service useful in helping me connect to friend and family, but their recent display of unethical, almost fascist, behaviour has left me with little choice but to cancel the service.  Although I had taken the time in the past to secure my Facebook account (and I was savvy enough to do so) I cannot, in principle, support a company that shows such a cavalier attitude to the privacy of their user base.

If you are a Facebook user, I would strongly encourage you to check the settings in your account to make sure they are doing what you expect.  There is a useful tool at http://www.reclaimprivacy.org/
that will actually probe your Facebook account to show you how it looks to the outside world.  I would strongly encourage you to take the time to check yours.

There is also much bigger issues about Facebook. Its disregard for open standards, its walled garden approach that continually borrows steals ideas from all over the web, its willingness to do whatever it takes to keep users within the Facebook environment… I believe in the longer term will be bad for the Internet in general. That’s a much bigger issue and beyond the scope of this particular post, but when you add it all up, I can’t in all good faith continue to support a company that continually exhibits evil motives.  Facebook might be a useful service for many, and it might offer a certain convenience factor by bringing things into one place, but there is no doubt in my mind that Facebook will bad for the open web in the longer term.

Many people in the Internet community are so outraged by the continual display of unethical behaviour of Facebook and their CEO Mark Zuckerberg that here is an official “Quit Facebook Day” organised for May 31.

If you feel strongly enough about the approach that Facebook is taking, you may also decide to close your account to send a message to the company that you are not willing to use a service that shows such scant concern for their users privacy.

Here are just a few articles (of many!) about the recent changes that you may want to read if you need more information.  It’s worth getting the full story.

I realise that many people find Facebook very useful, and many will not want to take the extreme step of deleting their account, but I do hope you take the time to make sure your account is sharing what you think it is, and to even perhaps share some of this conversation with your students.

Lifelong Learners?

I got interested in computers and their potential uses in teaching and learning way back in 1982 when I was at Art School/Teachers’ College. I met a guy named Colin who worked in the media center at the art school who had taught himself how to program in AppleBasic on the original Apple IIe machines. He was doing all sort of really interesting stuff with these machines, writing his own programs for randomised poetry, creating graphics, creating maths problems, etc. Colin and I became good friends and I asked him to teach me how to program too. It was INSTANTLY obvious to me that computers and technology generally could be used to support, assist, extend and just generally make learning a whole lot more interesting, and even as a preservice teacher in the early 80s I was always trying to come up with interesting ways that computers could be used to make school more interesting.

Like most colleges at the time, the college I attended didn’t offer any computer-based courses. I went and had a chat to the Dean and asked why. I still remember the conversation… he didn’t know why, he just assumed that a computer was used for administrative stuff, keeping lists of students and managing who paid fees, etc, but hadn’t really thought about their use in education. After some fast talking, I managed to convince him to let me vary my course units for the next semester to do an off-site computer programming course and have it count towards my regular course credits. And so once a week for the semester I traveled across town to a different college to do a three hour programming course.

The following year, I managed to convince the Dean that such a course should be a standard offering for everyone planning to be a teacher. To cut a long story short, the college did start to offer a course called “The Computer and the Art Educator” held offsite at another nearby university, and counting towards our regular course credits. This course used primitive graphics tablets, graphic software and programming skills to explore how computers could extend themselves into classroom use. It was 1983. I was rather pleased that I was able to play a part in helping other people see what appeared so obvious to me.

Funnily enough, there were many of my college friends who could not see the point of computers at all, and would argue with me that they had nothing to do with what happens in a classroom. They just weren’t interested in learning about something that didn’t interest them.

Since that time, I’ve worked with a lot of teachers to help them see how much better learning can be with the wise use of technology. I’ve tried every approach I can think of, and at the end of the day, I still don’t know why some people just “get it” and some just don’t. To me, it’s so darn obvious! Having taught in a technology rich environment for over 20 years now, I have seen over and over how the use of technology can motivate, engage and inspire students to learn better and to be better. I’ve seen kids just “switch on” when they learn with computers. More than that, I’ve seen how the use of technology for learning can actually change a teacher’s practice and pedagogy for the better. I’ve seen the effects of increased student motivation and engagement, and I’ve experienced the evolution of my own teaching to take a more student focused, more choice-driven, more differentiated approach to my teaching.

Ok, so having said all that, it drives me crazy when I see other teachers who simply don’t “get it”. I’ve experienced the frustration of working with supposedly-intelligent adults who appear to be unable to move beyond the ability to cut-and-paste. I even had one colleague at a previous school admit that she had been avoiding technology for years, and I found out that she did not even know how to use basic mouse functions. How do you even function in a school these days without these skills! The frustrating thing about these situations, for me, is that part of my role in this particular school was doing technology support for the staff and despite every effort to provide support for these sorts of people, they always managed to avoid any help that was offered to them. No matter what model of technology support we tried they managed to avoid taking advantage of it.

They remind me of the people in this video clip… as soon as the external forces stop, they stop too and then seem incapable of moving forward for themselves.

So that’s at one end of the spectrum. At the other is people like you and I who probably just need a bit of guidance to get started and then we assume some responsibility for our own learning. We accept that if we want to learn something new, then taking on the task of learning it is actually up to us, not someone else.  Any assistance we get from others is seen as a bonus, not a requirement.

I will go so far as to say that those teachers who actively avoid learning about (and teaching with) technology are abdicating their basic responsibility as teachers because they are failing to model and live out the basic quality that every teacher should have – curiosity and a sense of lifelong learning.

Every school’s prospectus I’ve ever seen talks about how they aim to produce students who are “independent, lifelong learners”, but so many teachers continue to display an embarrassingly low level of responsibility for their own ongoing learning, and are therefore poor models of what they expect from their students. I find it frustrating that so many teachers willingly accept that there are certain unavoidable parts of their job, and yet they steadfastly resist adopting the use of digital technologies and act as though they are free to pick and choose what parts of their job they are willing to enact. Why is the embracing of technology for learning still seen as so optional by so many?

The answer is probably that they don’t yet see the benefits. They haven’t seen the kids’ eyes light up when they do something truly interesting with computers or technology. They still see it as another optional add-on to their already busy day. They see technology as something that has to be “bolted on” to what they are already doing, instead of something that can help them do what they already do even better. They might have experienced failure in the past because of something that went wrong, something that didn’t work, and they don’t want to look foolish again. Perhaps they just think that if they can hold out for a few more years, this will all go away, or they might make it to retirement. (although I think age has very little to do with it)

Of course, this is not true of all teachers, and there are many, many excellent educators that embody and model all of the traits of lifelong learning that they expect from their students. A lot of teachers are very good at this, but there are still far too many that don’t.  And frankly, I think that’s unacceptable.

Image: ‘I am still learning
http://www.flickr.com/photos/47244805@N00/303567279

Steve Ballmer – Brash, Passionate, but definitely not Stupid

There was an interesting story in today’s news about Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer’s outburst at an iPhone-carrying Microsoft employee.  Apparently, Ballmer was addressing a company gathering when the employee pulled his iPhone out to take a picture of him.  Ballmer went nuts.  He grabbed the phone, ridiculed the employee publicly, then pretended to stomp on the device.  You can read the full story over on Engadget.  There is even an alleged photo taken as Ballmer reached for the device.

Ballmer is an interesting character.  Certainly there is plenty of evidence on YouTube of his over-the-top antics as he revs up Microsofties with his ranting and raving, screaming and yelling.  And who could forget his chant of “Developers! Developers! Developers!” at a gathering of software developers, as he tried to make the point that Microsoft’s success was partly due to its army of, well, developers.  It’s even spawned a remix version.

Even back on the very early days of Microsoft, Ballmer was seen dressed up as a cheesy salesperson, doing the whole “How much would you expect to pay?” spiel as he promoted Windows 1.0, throwing away dollar bills in an over-the-top display of sales showmanship.  If you don”t know much about Steve Ballmer or where he fits into the Microsoft story, I’d recommend you watch the excellent video series by Robert X Cringely, “Triumph of the Nerds“.  It’s a wonderful record of the first 20 years of the personal computer revolution, and if you call yourself a geek, you absolutely should see it.

I got thinking about Ballmer as I read through the comments on the Engadget blog.  One person made the comment that Ballmer was stupid. Another came to his defence, noting that Ballmer was overly brash and passionate, but not stupid.  The Sydney Morning Herald even ran a story with a psychologist analysing Ballmer’s crazy antics, concluding that Ballmer isn’t crazy, just an attention seeker.

I actually met Ballmer once. I was at a fairly intimate Microsoft function in Sydney for the launch of Office 2003, and I managed to sit in the very front row directly in front of Ballmer as he gave his address.  He spoke to the small crowd in a very reserved tone, talking earnestly about the development of the new software, and giving some background into the challenges and successes of getting it to market. I was actually quite impressed with Ballmer, and was struck by his obvious passion and belief in what he was doing. When he finished his talk, he asked if there were any questions, so I stuck my hand up and asked one.  To be honest, I thought it was a bit of a curly question and I was sort of hoping to stump him a little.  To the contrary, Ballmer looked right at me and fired back a detailed and well-thought out answer, explaining how Microsoft was addressing the issue I’d raised.  He outlined three aspects to his answer and confidently explained each one.  There was no fumbling or dodging the question. He knew what he was talking about and clearly had given a lot of thought to the issues I asked about. I was actually a little surprised at just how well he responded, and at the quality of his answer.

I was impressed not only by the clarity and detail of his answers, but also by the fact that, as CEO of Microsoft, the intricacies of how the software works and a detailed answer to the question I asked (which was related to how Microsoft was addressing the issues faced by software training providers and how it was coming up with ways of making it easier for users to learn to use new software versions) were not typically the sorts of things you’d expect the CEO of the company to be so close to.  Ballmer is a hands-on kind of guy and he’s clearly passionate about Microsoft. And he knows his stuff.  As the Engadget commenter remarked, he may be brash and passionate, but he is clearly not stupid.

I’ve seen the thoughtful, intelligent and focussed side of Steve Ballmer, and I’ve seen the outrageous, wild and crazy side of Steve Ballmer.  Perhaps the yelling and screaming, the running around the stage like a sweaty crazy person, the (pretend) iPhone smashing behaviour, the silly comments about the iPhone, the blunt denigration of anything non-Microsoft, is all a bit distracting from just how intelligent Ballmer can really be.

Most people who read this blog will know that I’m not much of a Microsoft fan, but as the Engadget commenter says, “You know, I like Ballmer – he’s brash and in your face but he believes in what he does and has the guts to be passionate about it. I respect that.”

Me too.  Stay crazy Steve.

Cutting out the Middleman

One of the side effects of the new web is greatly increased disintermediation, or cutting out the middleman.  It seems that everywhere you look, entire industries are being turned upside down because the web makes it so easy for people to completely bypass the traditional “middlemen” that we all used to rely on so heavily.  Musicians are bypassing record labels and releasing their music directly to their fans.  Authors are bypassing publishers and using services like lulu.com to self publish. Homebuyers often know just as much about the real estate markets as the agents.  Ordinary people can buy and sell shares without the need to go though expensive stockbrokers.  In all of these processes (and many others like them) unless the middlemen add real value along the way, they face eventual extinction.  Why would you continue to pay someone to do something that you can just as easily do yourself?

This disintermediation seems to be obvious in three main areas… creation, distribution and promotion.

When it comes to creation, there are plenty of software tools now available that allow average people to create content in ways that were simply not even remotely possible 20, 10, even 5 years ago.  When I think back to some of the image manipulation processes that I had to master back in art school – I’m thinking of something like doing a four-colour separation of a photographic image – it was hugely expensive, time consuming and required highly specialised equipment.  Today, it’s a menu choice in Photoshop.

Same thing with making music.  Back in my younger years I played bass in a band, and to get studio time to even record a simple demo tape was horrendously expensive – hundreds of dollars an hour. The tape machines required to do multi track recording were huge beasts of things that cost many thousands of dollars to buy.  Today, I could get just as good quality using GarageBand, a program that comes free on every Macintosh computer.

Think about the changes involved in creating content for the web… not so long ago you needed a funny hat with a propeller on it just to make a website.  You needed to know about html coding, javascript, FTP servers, file types and naming conventions, plus a whole lot of other techno-geekery if you had any hope of putting a decent website online.  It was tricky, and the average person really struggled to do it.  But look what the new web, the read-write web, web 2.0 – call it what you will – has done to this process.  Blogs and wikis have changed things so dramatically that your 75 year old mum can now run a website using some free tool like Blogger or WordPress.  No need to hire an expensive web designer, or buy a lot of expensive gear.  Just sign up for a free account, click edit and start creating stuff. It’s a total turnaround.

The creation of nearly all media has undergone these same basic shifts.  Photographs, music, video, animations, text, page layout…  you name it, and the tools to produce it have gone digital and had their costs reduced so far as to be virtually zero.  Not all that many years ago, I can remember paying someone about $70 to use a desktop publishing program and a laser printer to design an A4 certificate… these days you wouldn’t even consider paying someone to do that. I wonder what that person is doing to make money these days?  I doubt he is still able to charge $70 to knock up a simple A4 document! Why?  Because most people can now do this sort of thing for themselves.  If you have the willingness to learn how to make something, the tools you need to create it are probably available at almost no cost.  Barrier one gone.

The second aspect is one of distribution.  Once you make something, you need to get it to people.  You only need to look at what peer-to-peer music distribution is doing to traditional models of distributing music to see that these are fundamental changes in how these things will work now and in the future. When people can consume music by downloading it, whether legally through services like iTunes or Amazon, or illegally using BitTorrenting or through sites like Pirate Bay or Kazaa, they are bypassing the old model of stamping the music onto disks, packing them in cardboard and shipping them on trucks to shops where people have to go to get them. It’s ridiculous when you think about it.  When music is digital, nothing more than a bunch of binary bits, the notion of committing them to a piece of plastic called a CD and then distributing it by trucking it all over the country is quite ludicrous.  Binary bits are digital… it makes far more sense to push them across the Internet. You don’t need to put a CDs in the mail just to give your friend a copy of a song you want them to hear, just transfer it directly to them over the web. Expand that idea out to be a band who distributes their music over the web to thousands of fans, and things take on a whole new slant. In the process of doing this of course, we potentially bypass a whole lot of middlemen – record labels, music publishers, CD producers, trucking companies, etc – unless they see the changes happening around them and respond to them quickly, these middlemen will be left high and dry, expertly servicing a market that no longer exists.  The Internet is totally reshaping whole industries, removing the friction from processes that were once held together by chains of middlemen. Barrier two gone.

The last aspect is promotion.  Telling people about stuff.  Getting the word out.  Marketing.  There was a time not so long ago that PR people wrote press releases about new information in the hope that journalists would pick up stories and help spread them. The flow of media was controlled by middlemen – journalists, newspapers, radio and TV. We heard what they wanted to tell us about. Our information was managed so that we paid attention to what the middlemen wanted us to know about, not necessarily what we were interested in. If your interests were out on the long tail, you were on your own.  Not any more.  Social media, social networks, they have allowed individuals to connect and share and converse and spread ideas far more efficiently and far faster than ever before. “Getting the word out” about something no longer requires a highly paid PR expert to write a finely honed press release just to get attention… a 15 year old kid with a webcam can be the next viral sensation on YouTube, generating millions of views at no cost with no middlemen.  Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, Youtube, blogs… these tools of the new web – tools of ordinary people – are reshaping and redefining the way we move messages around and how we share and inform each other. In many cases you don’t need middlemen to do this, just the right tools and a bit of strategy. Barrier three gone.

I got thinking about this as I booked my own flights and accommodation for a trip to San Francisco this week.  After visiting the airline websites, shopping for the best deals and booking myself a seat, I then forwarded the confirmation email to a service called TripIt, which parsed the email and generated an online itinerary for me. I forwarded on the confirmation emails from the hotels and car rentals and TripIt easily worked it all into a well structured itinerary, complete with estimated travel times, links to confirm check-in times, even Google maps giving me directions from airports to hotels.  I’m not a travel agent, but I apparently don’t need to be… there’s an app for that, as they say.  If I WAS a travel agent I’d be extremely concerned for my future, and desperately looking for other ways to add extra value to my middleman role.

The real point though, is thinking about how all of this applies to education.  So many other fields have been affected by this massive shift away from needing middlemen – travel, music, publishing, public relations, product distribution, you name it.  But what about education?  Is there such a thing as educational middlemen?  If so, who are they? How will they add value in the future? How is the Internet likely to reshape the world of education?  Are educators really susceptible to the same shifts and changes that nearly every other industry is experiencing, or are we somehow different? Immune?  I doubt it.

Just like a travel agent who suddenly realises that she has hardly any clients booking flights through her, or the book publisher who finds that the last 10 bestsellers were all self published,  at what point will educators suddenly realise that the world has seriously shifted and the old rules that once worked so well no longer apply.

Who are the educational middlemen?