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How to Build a Worldwide Learning Web

by Gordon Dryden

This article has been adapted from a presentation given by the author at an international learning conference, "Education for Sustainable Development", in Beijing, China, November 2003, sponsored by Unesco and Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences

The Learning Revolution, by Gordon Dryden and Jeannette Vos, has sold 10,261,000 books in its mainland China edition. A completely new updated edition, The New Learning Revolution, is now available for downloading at Our book argues strongly that the world needs a learning revolution to match the revolution in communications and interactive technology.That communications revolution continues to soar.

We now know how to store all the world's most important information and make it available almost instantly, in almost any form, to almost anyone on earth - and certainly to every classroom. Better still, we can do that virtually free. The Internet now stores at least 500 billion documents. Internet surfers do about 500 million searches a day.

Google alone, the world's biggest search engine, can scan 3.3 billion documents in half a second, to find answers to your questions. The building blocks therefore already exist to provide access to instant information, as you want it, when you want it.

Building block No. 1: Tim Berners-Lee's World Wide Web — free to Internet users.

Building block No. 2: Linux, the core of open-source computer operating systems — free.

Building block No. 3: Netscape Navigator, the world's first web browser, providing pictures and graphics as well as written information — free.

Building block No. 4: Google, the model for web browsers — free.

Building block No. 5: The open-source software movement, with 69,000 groups now collaborating to provide software — free.

Building block No. 6: eBay, the world biggest online auction, where anyone can sell to the world — free access and low-cost fees.

Building block No. 7: The mobile wireless revolution — not free but with the potential to provide low-cost portable communications services.

These seven models have the power to transform teaching, learning, schooling and almost everything.

As Thomas Goetz put it in a Wired magazine article in November 2003, "Open Source Everywhere": "It isn't about better software. It's about better everything."

The missing building block: The world's 59 million K-12 school teachers and two billion students who, in a world of instant communications, still work mainly by themselves.

To add that last building block, we need to link those 59 million teachers and two billion students into a World Wide Learning Web of Networked intelligence and global sharing — free.

That's the brief overview. Now let's fill in the details.

For centuries, three factors have driven economies: land, labor and capital.

Now there are three new big "drivers":

· Ideas.
· Brainpower.
· Information . . . specially scientific information.

Or traditional resources for the industrial revolution have been timber, coal, oil and minerals (iron ore for iron, bauxite for aluminum)— nearly all non-renewable.

Our new natural resources are:

· Sand and silica — for microchips and fiber optics.
· Air — and wireless
· Science and creativity — including photonics, lasers and digital storage.

All are plentiful and cheap.

Most are the result of scientific breakthroughs. Once created, they can be shared, free or at minimal cost.

But we're not talking about utopian "free" as in free beer, but "free" as in freedom — just as scientists have always collaborated freely and shared their research.

It's been a long time getting here. Just look at the accelerating pace of change:

The world 4.5 billion years old
Life on earth 3.5 billion years
Humans 2 million years
Farming 12,000 years
The plow 5,000 years
The wheel 5,000 years
Steam power 250 years
Computers 40-50 years

First brains: 500 million years ago in very primitive form
Speech 35,000 to 100,000 years ago (frontal brain)
Writing 6,000 years ago
Alphabet 4,000 years ago
Printing, China 1040 AD
Printing, Europe 1451 AD

That led to the first information and communications explosion. Before Gutenberg in 1452, Europe had only 30,000 books in all the continent. By 1500 AD: 9 million.

But if Gutenberg had been able to patent the alphabet, Europe's dark ages might have continued for another 1,000 years . . . for the alphabet, with grammar, is the "source code" for most modern languages.

Instead, came the big speed-up:

1872 The first typewriter.
1876 The first phone message.
1884 The first Linotype machine
1894 Silent movies
1895 First radio signals
1922 Talking movies.
1926 Infant television.

Now: instant communications—an explosion:

By 1988 we could sent 3,000 messages at once on one fiber-optic cable.

By 1996: 1.5 million messages.

Now we can sent more information on a single optic fiber cable in a second than was sent over the entire Internet in 1997 in a month.

But has our social innovation kept up with our progress in technology?

At the start of the 20th century, Henry Ford introduced an organizational innovation that became business dogma for much of the rest of the century: the specialized production line, which in turn gave birth to cheap cars, suburban living, shopping centers and much more.

The impact on schooling was marked: standardized classrooms, standardized tests and standardized results. And a system designed to produce around 20% of graduates as "professionals and academics", 30% as trades and clerical workers, and around 50% as manual and farm laborers. That society no longer exists. But the outdated educational system still does.

In the late 20th century came the birth of a new business paradigm: the closed-shop monopoly where the inner takes all: "Control the standard and you control the world" — with Microsoft, Intel, Oracle and Cisco as great models.

This is not to knock the brilliance of the people who pioneered these companies. But it is a model that, in my view, is unsustainable in a world where . . .

· 1 billion people lived on less than $1 a day.
· 2 billion live on less than $2 a day.
· The 500 richest own assets of $1,545 billion.
· Where software, once developed, can be pressed on a CD-rom for under 50 cents.
· But controllers of the standards charge hundreds of dollars.

Fortunately a new model is emerging. Let's expand on it:

The World Wide Web. First conceived in 1989. Started in 1991, but without pictures. By late 2003, 650 million connected. By 2007: 900 million forecast. By 2010: 2 billion connected, and free, but only if they have electricity and Internet access.

Open-source systems: In 1991, Finnish student Linus Torvalds could not afford to buy a Windows PC operating system. So he designed his own "core" or "kernel", posted it on the Web, and asked for comments. Result: the Linux open-source, where anyone can share and improve. Now free software is readily available on the Internet. And 69,000 open-source groups are collaborating around the world.

So now you can choose: Microsoft Office, for $500? Star Office for under $100? Or open Office: free?

Web browsers: In 1993, Mark Andreessen and his team of US university students designed the Mosaic browser— and added graphics to the web.

Commercial browsers: In 1994, Mark Andreessen and venture-capital pioneer Jim Clark teamed up and produced the Netscape Navigator, the first commercial web browser. The Internet exploded. And the marketing innovation was brilliant: "give it away, and sell the extras."

Google: In 1996, the Web's newest search engine, devised by Russian-born student Sergey Brin and American student Larry Page. Can now scan 3.3 billion pages, 425 million images and all the world's main news services—almost instantly, in answer to any question.

All these contribute to a new type of cooperative organization. But the new open-source model is not anti-business. IBM, HP and Red Hat are all benefiting from open-source systems. By sharing source-code, companies find tons of room to develop branded product made to ever-improving standards. And you won't be charged to fix the 200,000 bugs that were in Windows 2000 when first released!

Those other building blocks — expanded:

The wireless revolution: Mobile phones now combining, computers, videotape services, text-messaging and much more.

The Cisco networking model. The 'plumbing' of the Internet. Designed originally by two student lovers, at Stanford, so they could communicate through different systems. Now 90% of Cisco's inquiries from hi-tech customers are answered by other satisfied customers, in the same industry. Why not the same in education?

The Dell Computer model: Michael Dell's company now achieves sales of $41 billion a year, nearly all on the Internet, with buyers selecting their own components. If you can build your own PC online, why not your own curriculum?

Put all these together, and they have the power to transform the way we communicate, play, learn and work.

The concept provides a major challenge to education. Most school systems are trying, fairly hard, to introduce ICT (information and communications technology: I prefer the term "Interactive Technology"). Most are doing it wrong, simply because they are trying to graft 21st-century technology on to a 19th-century schooling system. Stepping up from OHPs to Powerpoint it NOT interactive technology!

Let me quote two examples from this week only, when I have visited two of China's best schools, each with physical facilities miles superior to my home country, New Zealand. Both schools have brilliantly-equipped computer "labs": among the best I have seen anywhere in the world. But during my visit there was not one student in them!

Yet in one of the schools, a model Middle School, next door to the main computer lab, 60 students were sitting in rows in a classroom, facing a teacher working on an old-style blackboard: a typical 19th-century classroom. The computer labs were being used only to teach "computer studies," when the need is to integrate ICT tools in integrating all study.

Let me stress here that only a fool worships his tools. I do NOT want to see children sitting passively in front of PC screens. I DO want to see children using ALL of today's tools to discover the real, rapidly changing world . . . and to create a better one.

Great alternatives are already working around the world. Great teachers are using the whole world as a classroom: and students are learning by doing.

Maria Montessori was proving it 100 years ago: create the right multisensory environment and even young children will "explode" into learning . . . they'll become enthusiastic lifelong self-learners: learning with all their senses.

Now the "right environment" must include access to the best interactive technology.

Better still, students can now create their own interactive future. In fact, we live in the first revolution where students know more about the dominant communications technology than their parents or teachers.

· Already five-year-olds can produce 3-D computer graphics.
· Seven and eight-year-olds can digitize their own photos to play any role in history or fantasy.
· Ten-year-olds can shoot and edit their own videos, easily and with very little training.

I've spent most of my life as a multimedia professional: in radio, newspapers, magazines and on television. Everyone in my field today learns quickly to use digital multimedia by building on professional templates: Powerpoint, Open Office, Apple iMovie, Windows Movie Maker. And of course the kind of templates used each day in the mass news media, from page layouts to weather forecasts on television. But where are the templates for the world's 59 million teachers to share the world's best lesson plans?

Let's mention just one model: the two books on multiple intelligences in the classroom, developed and written by all the teachers at the New City School, St Louis, Missouri: great guide on how to teach every subject, at every grade level, to students with strengths in each of Howard Gardner's eight "intelligences". Why confine that cooperative effort to a book sold to a few thousand teachers, when it is now possible to share that knowledge with all . . . and to build on it.

Or let's take the International Baccalaureate model curriculum. Here, in a world of often sectarian "fundamentalism", the IB's primary school curriculum revolves around six universal themes a year (the solar system, endangered species, the world's minerals or oceans, great inventions, the world' s cultures), with all other "subjects" integrated into those themes. Using a curriculum like that, it is possible to share resources from around the world. Better still, all parents and families can make sure the school study-theme is continued in out-of-school exploring.

Just one recent example. When the SARS epidemic was threatening, the Singapore Government on one Thursday announced the immediate closing of all schools. Now The Overseas Family School in Singapore is one of the first in the world to adopt the IB curriculum for all grade levels. And by the following Monday (two working days later), it had all its lessons on line for all students at home. No one missed a lesson.

But, instead of such global sharing, in most of the world 59 million teachers are each day "reinventing the wheel:" by producing their own lesson plans, to be shared with only a handful of students . . . or they are regurgitating boring old plans. I suggest that, within a decade, we will look back on this stupidity as being unbelievable.

For the developing world, the stakes are even higher. Up to now their students have largely been shut out of the communications revolution, by high-priced computers and high-priced software.

But we now know how to build computers for no more than $500, and probably much lower. China itself has shown the way. This month (November 2003), the figures have just been released: laptop sales in China in the third quarter of 2003 were up by 56% over the same quarter in 2002. The reason: most have been sold with either Linux-type open-source operating systems, or sold with no operating system—leaving the buyer to download a free Linux operating system.

This has meant that some laptops are reported to have come down in price by 90% in China. And, of course, if software is available free for instant downloading, that changes the entire "computer-network equation" for developing countries.

Significantly, the Chinese, Japanese and South Korean Government have in recent months opted to support open-source computer and software systems. Certainly in the case of China, I believe that move has been sparked by the American Government decision to invade Iraq — and the resulting desire not to be locked into US systems.

But let's work out some of the sums:

· To put one $500 computer in the world/s 59 million K-12 classrooms would cost $29.5 billion.
· For the same amount we could put three PCs each each classroom in the poorest third of the world.
· $29 billion is under 4% of this year's world "defense" budget of $800 billion (of which the US spends around $400 billion).

By an amazing coincidence, the week I am making this presentation, the US Congress has approved an additional $87 billion to spend in Iraq: mostly for the US military presence, but for some aid programs. $87 billion could provide nine $500 computers in every classroom in the poorest third of the world.

But if laptops can be produced at one-tenth the present price, than that amount of money could buy the same number of computers for each class, and also pay for electricity and Internet access as well.

So the choice is ours:

· A world where only two billion rich people share the benefits — and two billion live in poverty?

· Or a new sharing, caring world?

· A new world of cooperative enterprise and mass innovation?

My own choice is obvious, and I hope blindingly so: the new free world of cooperative enterprise, where all children are the leaders of the new free world. And where we all share the benefits of a new World Wide Learning Web.

About the Author

Gordon Dryden is the co-author of The New Learning Revolution: a completely updated new version of the book that has sold a world-record 10,261,000 copies in China and been translated into 19 languages. Gordon is a New Zealand-based multimedia producer, researcher and writer, with a long career that includes stints as a television and radio talk show host, award-winning journalist, writer and publisher. In 1990 he received a $2 million grant to produce a six one-hour prime-time documentaries for New Zealand television on the future of education. This brought him a year later to an international conference in Seattle organized by New Horizons for Learning in conjunction with the body now known as the International Alliance for Learning. There he met Jeannette Vos, of San Diego, who had just completed a seven-year research program for her doctorate in education. In swapping notes, they discovered that their research coincided, and the first edition of The Learning Revolution resulted. When he is not traveling around the world, Gordon lives in Auckland, New Zealand, with wife-of-47-years Margaret. He has recently been appointed as international consultant for the Beijing Academy of Educational Sciences in China, to advise on how to marry "the best of the west" with China's own innovations in education. The New Learning Revolution can be downloaded direct from

Author's email address:

© March 2004

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