Does the Web make experts dumb? Part 2: Who’s The Teacher?

I try and make a point of looking for the good in people; I try and make a point of looking for the good in situations; I try and make a point of looking for the good in outlook and expectation.

Those traits in me make some people believe that I’m a wild-eyed optimist, whatever the truth might be; this is particularly true of people who tend to believe that two and two make five, who are quick to draw conclusions on superficial evidence.

Against this backdrop, factor in the following: I was born in the ’50s, grew up in the ’60s and early ’70s. I cite Jerry Garcia, Stewart Brand and Lewis Hyde as early influences (people did read in the ’60s and ’70s); I learnt to dance to Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen (it’s harder than it sounds); I love spending time in San Francisco; and I call myself a retired hippie.

So some people think I’m a pinko lefty treehugging wild-eyed optimist. In short, a Utopian.  And you can’t blame them.

Which is why, when I make assertions like I did last night: suggesting that the Web actually reduces barriers to entry when it comes to “expertise”, and that traditional experts (myself included) are becoming less scarce, less distinctive, less “valuable”: I need to back up the assertions with some concrete evidence rather than just theory.

Which is what I intend to do tonight.

I want to point you towards evidence of the Great Leveller status of the internet. Some evidence I found intriguing at first, compelling as I got into it, and finally inspiring.

Sugata Mitra: courtesy of the TED Blog

So let me tell you the story of Sugata Mitra, polymath, professor, chief scientist emeritus. A man with an incredible vision and the willingness to do something about it. He speaks English and Bengali, a little German, spent time in Calcutta, works with computers and is passionate about education. So maybe I’m a little biased. Bear with me.

Professor Mitra is responsible for introducing me (and a gazillion others) to the concept of Minimally Invasive Education or MIE. In simple terms, over a decade ago, he ran an experiment called Hole In the Wall which took PCs and stuck them in walls in slums, with no explanation or instruction. And watched as children learnt.

Some of you must be thinking, he must have gotten lucky, a flash in the pan. Yes. Eleven years later. Nine countries later. 300 Holes-In-The-Wall later. 300,000 students later. You could say he got lucky.

I prefer to think he called it right. I was privileged to hear Professor Mitra at TED, and to shake his hand. I have had an instinctive and long-seated belief in the incredible potential of humanity, and hearing his story reinforced my belief. You can find his TED talks here and here.

One of my favourite practitioners and writers on leadership, Max De Pree, characterised leaders as people who do just two things: set strategy and direction and say thank you. In between those two things, he said leaders are servants and debtors. Since reading some of his works in the late 1980s, I’ve considered “getting out of the way” to be an essential component of good leadership.

If you ever wanted rebuttals to abominations like the Bell Curve; if you ever wanted refutations to arguments about the web making us dumber; if you ever wanted evidence to challenge assertions about the cult of the amateur; then look no further than Sugata Mitra’s research. Thank you Professor Mitra. And thank you TED, particularly Chris Anderson and Bruno Guissani for bringing Professor Mitra to my attention and then giving me the chance to meet him.

All teachers are learners. All learners are teachers. Teachers and learners are not just passionately curious a la Einstein; they want to see everyone discover their potential, achieve it and improve upon it.

Stories like Sugata Mitra’s inspire me. They make me believe that battles to ensure ubiquitous affordable connectivity are worth while; they make me believe that wars to eradicate inappropriate IPR are worth while; they make me believe that the Digital Divide can be avoided.

They remind me of the incredible potential every child represents. The incredible responsibility every parent, every teacher, every human has towards generations to come. The critical value of education in that context.

So if people want to believe the internet dumbs people down, fine. That’s their choice, and I don’t have to agree with them. It will not stop me wanting to use the internet to level the playing field, to help ensure that access to information, to knowledge, to wisdom is not the birthright of the privileged few alone.

Another data point. Last year I spent some time in Italy with my family (it was our 25th wedding anniversary, and we took the children to Sorrento, where we’d honeymooned in 1984). And we went to Pompeii. Where we met a fantastic guide called Mario. Who was 65 years old, a real expert. And he was stopping working for a while. Going back to school. Because the web had reduced the value of his expertise.

The problem, the weakening of the value of “expertise”, is instructive. His response, to go back to school at 65, is even more instructive. You can read all about it here, in a post I wrote at the time.

[By the way, thanks for your comments yesterday. I will wait for further comments tonight and tomorrow, and then try and round things off in a final post later this week.]

11 thoughts on “Does the Web make experts dumb? Part 2: Who’s The Teacher?”

  1. thanks for that inspiration about the hole in the wall. I worked in 1984 in Bangladesh for an orphanage in Dhaka with 450 children. Years later I am still in touch with them helping with the odd donation and some web marketing…. they are Sreepur Childrens Village.
    i wanted to get them OLPC laptops for the kids becuase I believed that what Sugata Mitra found would also help these disadvantaged kids. The charity turned down my offer of fundraising to buy laptops because “We are having to fire staff right now as we dont have enough cash to pay the ayahs, and not having any computer staff in the school means we won’t be able to support the technology.”
    So I did help them fund

    But what would you do? Should I go back and offer again with a ‘hole in the wall’ mentality?

  2. One thing I did pick up from Sugata Mitras talk was how he compared education with terrorism and insurgency as self organising systems. I’m sadly much more interested in the latter than the former.

    While naturally the focus of his talk is on education, everything he mentions mirrors what I think is the future of terrorism – aquisition of values vs doctrine and dogma, addressesing remoteness while being minimally invasive.

    Indeed, if anything describes the current and next generation of terrorism and insurgency it is outdoctrination.

  3. Good food for thought again, JP. Throw anything you like at it, but the fact remains that the Internet has changed the way we have access to information, the way we actually access information, and perhaps even how we use that information. I travel significantly on business-related matters, and the fact that I can access a whole variety of information (and opinions) about a new destination I am headed to, through the Internet, before I travel is a wonderful thing. I get to know where to eat, where to stay, where not to eat or stay, how to get from the airport to my hotel, how to navigate the airport itself, what sights and sounds I should get in my schedule (if I have the time!), what common phrases I should remember in the local language, and an endless array of other information (some useful and some perhaps not so useful, but that is for me to decide). I have always wondered how it must have been for folks travelling to a new destination 20, 30, 40, 50+ years ago, particularly to a foreign country where a foreign language is spoken. I think of how my parents and grandparents travelled the world without having this vast repository of knowledge available and accessible and look at their travels (and sense of adventure I suppose) with some awe. I am privileged today that I have access to the Internet, and I hope to keep it that way.

  4. Two really interesting posts. I personally believe that the impact of the internet as a leveller has been grossly underestimated and its impact not much discussed. Where I disagree slightly is that I notice people becoming dependent on experts in completely new ways – even the most basic service we used to do for ourselves now has experts available eg. if you are moving house, “stagers” have started to emerge to help people de-clutter – have we forgotten how to tidy up? Wedding planners are a whole new industry – when I got married, planning the wedding was part of the fun of the occasion! Colour and image consultants tell us what clothes to wear – and the list goes on

  5. @rebecca I think the best thing to do is to get in touch with Sugata.He’s commented on this post, you should be able to connect.

    @DE the line between motivation, evangelism and indoctrination can sometimes look blurred. the key issue is the continuance of choice. without choice there is no volunteering, no sacrifice.

    @lisbet I think there is a difference between the “expert” of tomorrow and the one of yesterday. Anyone can become an expert tomorrow….if she works hard enough. Only a select few could become experts yesterday, hard work or no hard work.

    @sugata lovely of you to drop by. thanks for the link, I will fold it into my next post on the subject

  6. Well my view is that the jury is still out on this one. Great if everyone is using the Web to find out more about, for the sake of argument, ancient Greece, particle physics, Shakespeare, Paul Robeson or Gandhi. Not so good if everyone is sitting in a darkened room, chatting up 13-year-old girls on Facebook and sitting in their underpants for days at a time playing World of Warcraft. People in less well off circumstances have a huge incentive for self improvement so hats off to them for taking advantage of it and Sugata Mitra for providing them with the opportunity – I just wonder how many people in the developed world use their computers for this and how many are frittering away their lives away in a virtual world when they could be engaging with the real one.
    Best Wishes,
    John Gale
    Mental Health Update

  7. @john I appreciate why you think the jury’s out… there is a lot of sentiment out there suggesting that people with a second life don’t have a first life. I think the Pew Research findings suggest otherwise, that the millenials who spend time on the web are *augmenting* their analog time rather than replacing it with online time. I have children of 12, 18 and 24 and their behaviour bears the research out as well. As do the books written by John Palfrey, Urs Gasser and Don Tapscott on the subject. Don has been tracking this generation for some time now.

  8. JP. I have just Googled my blog and come across an @John comment on this site which I think refers to what I said earlier. Unfortunately I can’t find it on the site so while I am sure your comments were wise, judicious and well worth reading I can’t see them! If you could respond again (if you want to) I would be very happy to reply to you; anyway I just didn’t want people to think I had rudely ignored your comment, I am always happy to debate these things in a friendly and civilized manner.
    Best Wishes,

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