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.]

The Right Thing

When it comes to leadership, I’ve tended to go along with Max De Pree’s definition, paraphrased here. A leader’s first job is to provide vision and strategy; his next is to say thank you. In between those two a leader is a servant and a debtor. So yes, I guess you could say I believe in soft-hands leadership.

From an enterprise perspective, I’ve always felt that true leadership is about Doing The Right Thing, and that the role of control functions is to make sure that Things Are Done The Right Way. Choosing the Right Thing is therefore of fundamental importance, and is often to do with principles and values rather than metrics and measurements. When you start thinking about being 57% right, that’s when you land up in Another Fine Mess.

Which is one of the reasons I was so glad to see this yesterday:

At that point it didn’t look like India had enough runs on the board, and Dhoni was the last recognised batsman. And the captain. Victory was not assured, and he could have stayed on. But he Does The Right Thing. He walks.

And talking about doing the right thing, I was glad to see that the ICC reversed its decision and awarded England the “Darrell Hair” match, as was the case originally. There were no grounds to call it a draw; worse, it was a very dangerous precedent to set. So I am glad to see that the original decision has been reinstated.

Why did it take this long? How come it happened at all? Or, as friend and erstwhile colleague Dom Sayers suggested, is this the last step in the rehabilitation of Hair? And the answer to all those questions is “I don’t know”.

What I do know is this. Doing the right thing is important. And doing the right thing is a key facet of leadership. So well done Dhoni.

%d bloggers like this: