A Big Change for Tom

What a glorious new beginning!

Back in 2014 I wrote a similar post at a time of transition. Today opens a new chapter in the unfolding story of how a high school English teacher from California morphs into a Web-based educator and contributor to the next era of education.  To re-cap, earlier parts of the journey included a fellowship at San Diego State University where we developed the WebQuest model, then a move to Australia and time as a Web developer and Ed Tech consultant with plenty of writing, software design and keynoting…  until I “got my first real job” since teaching when I joined Hobsons in 2014.  Although I explored positions in school leadership and returning to consulting, it was clear that the exact job didn’t matter so long as I was:

  • using all my skills
  • working on a great team
  • making a difference in education

Things clicked when I met the leadership team at Hobsons Edumate:

From Edumate …

For the past 2 + years I’ve really loved working with the great team at Hobsons’ Edumate.  As much as I’ve enjoyed this shift from the sometimes lonely life of an independent consultant, that fact that the Edumate suite also includes modules for attendance, enrolment, finance, and calendaring means that my passion for improving teaching and learning must be balanced with the overall needs of Edumate’s clients. I got and fully supported this. Those times I was able to harness the development team to work on the curriculum aspects of the software, I felt as though I was contributing – yet while other development needs rightly took precedence, I sometimes felt I wasn’t having the impact I hoped for. Recently the name “Literatu” began popping up with both current and prospective schools, so we decided to meet up…

To Literatu!

What I saw so impressed me that my curiosity was piqued and before long we’d kicked around ideas and found that my obsession with richer teaching and learning matched nicely with the powerful analytical insights provided within a very slick and user-friendly platform.  However, more than the software, I was very impressed with the Literatu leadership – Mark Stanley and Lidija Loridon. They definitely understand assessment, analytics, user interface and what schools need to turn data into insights.  Because this is only the first day on the job, of course there is a lot I don’t know (yet look forward to learning — which is a big part of the excitement!).  In the coming months (and years) I will share more about the power of this technology to humanise teaching and learning as I dig into it and we evolve it.  In particular I am (delightfully) tasked with helping schools and their teachers get early wins analysing their data and then build a plan where they nurture a culture of continuous improvement informed by their own unique goals and processes coupled with powerful data analytics. Look for more posts, Webinars and professional learning and consulting to support this journey into the future.  

“Buy Focals”

File Under: You Heard it Here First

Over the years I’ve come up with a few “clever coinings” for phrases that capture some new aspect of our technology-enmeshed world. I swear I was the first person I knew to use the term “linkrot” to describe the broken links that invade Web pages. This was back in 1994, but by the time I got around to searching it, many people had been using the term. Most likely this was just the amplification of many minds engaged in a similar online reality so it’s no miracle that more than a few people more-or-less synchronously come up with the same idea. Sort of the typing monkeys coming up with Hamlet’s “To be” sollioquy – given enough monkeys…

Linkrot was followed by a few concepts:

A New 3Rs: instead of Reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic – learning in the Web era should be “Real, Rich and Relevant.”

The New WWW – Whatever, Whenever, Wherever: This is the mobile Web, but with a particular understanding. I published an article on it in Educational Leadership in 2005. The main point being that such pervasive access of immediate gratification – especially for children and teenagers – was that the “Whatever” aspect was not voiced in amazement, but the apathetic “whatever” so often heard by teens and immortalized in the Nirvana lyric: “Oh well, whatever, nevermind.”

Along these lines I also spoke sometimes about “Jiminy Click-it” that little voice of conscience that can’t be heard over the siren song of the New WWW.

Around the era of the invasion of Iraq, mobile phones were becoming more ubiquitous and I referred to them as the most lethal WMD – Weapon of Mass Distraction. And for the past couple years I have posed the question about youth and their digitally connected gadgets: “What do we expect when they are left to their own devices?”

Which brings us to the point of this post (no, it’s not for you to pity my monkey-mind obsession with coining new phrases). I want to (finally) go down on record as the first one to refer to Google Glasses as “Buy Focals.”

The Google Glass Project video points out how utterly helpful these cool specs will be, but, of course, their real intent is to support ubiquitous consumption and know what you want before you do.

Nothing wrong with that – who wants lame search results? But the developed world’s penchant for purchasing could be questioned on an individual basis. Will this happen? How quickly have “smart” phones become pervasive? And isn’t 24/7 access to Facebook and Angry Birds what makes phones so amazing? Such “must haves?”

Then again, I’m the weirdo with no TV or game console in the house (but tons of favorite Web sites, podcasts and apps). Alvin Tofler in Future Shock said that one of the hallmarks of the future (read: “where we are now”) would be that anything would be available for us to choose from – I don’t think he expected us to want it all!


Engaged! EtherPad to Wordle

Real-time Collaborative Brainstorming – What Fun! What Good Learning!

When students have access to computers or personal devices (Netbooks or iPad3+) you can easily create a real-time collaborative writing page that will also generate a word cloud to show the dominant terms students wrote. Here are the steps.

1. Go to PrimaryPad (click on the link or the image below) and then click on the “Create New Pad” button. 2. Copy the URL / WebAddress that is automatically generated for your page.

3. Paste the URL into your Blog post so students can all access the same page.

4. Edit the PrimaryPad page to include any instructions / prompts you want students to respond to.  Then turn off the Authorship Colors so that only students’ writing is colored.

 5. Now you are ready to engage the students in an activity such as this by Year 11 English students who analyzed two scenes from Rebel Without a Cause.  Have students enter their names in the Author Icon so everyone can see who is writing in which color.

6. Once students have completed the writing, you can have them read through it, edit or select the most insightful passages, etc.

7. Now let’s get a snapshot of the group’s thinking by having EtherPad / PrimaryPad create a word cloud including the most used terms. First click on the Timeslider icon. Once the contents of the page reloads, you can run the slider backwards to see how the composition evolved.  It’s cool.  But we want to use the “Import/Export” icon, so click on the two arrows. Next, click on the Wordle export. Depending on your computer’s speed, the browser you’re using and how well Java loads, you should see a word cloud appear in the next screen thanks to the Web site Wordle.net You can click on the Randomize button to change the look of the font, layout and colors. You might want to save the image. If you are comfortable taking and using a screen capture go ahead, but you can also use Wordle’s built-in online gallery to host your word cloud.  Simply click on the Save to Public Gallery button. Go ahead and provide authorship details and description: If you want to include a thumbnail image and link to the full-size image, you can copy the embed code provided at the bottom of the page. Now go back to you own blog post and switch to the HTML view of the Text Editor and paste the embed code. To see what it looks like, just flip back to the Visual Text Editor:

That’s it!  Well done!

Highlights – May 2012

Below are a few Look to Learn activities that might suit the students / courses identified below. You do not have to limit yourself to those at your Grade Level / KLA, but these groupings are meant to save you time as you trial this approach for promoting Visible Thinking.

Early Years

Upper Primary

Performing Arts

English / Humanities

Science / Maths / Technology / PDH

Schizophrenic Ed

File this post in the “It would be funny if it weren’t so sad” category.  Today’s ASCD’s email “SmartBrief” inadvertently juxtaposes two articles that highlight for me exactly what drives me crazy:

Here are the links:

The real question is whether we are working to prop-up Assembly Lines Schools or support individual student learning.  For me the answer is found in today’s date: 19?? or 2012? Nothing more needs to be said.


Tumblr: New home for Look to Learn

From “All Rights Reserved” to “ReBlog?”


When I first heard about Tumblr, I had little interest because I thought, “why do I need a more limited version of WordPress (of which I am a long time fan and user)?  Read this as “slow to get” emerging technologies or cautious in frittering away my and other educators’ limited time.  I’m hardly a “bandwagon” figure in the Ed Tech arena and am often a voice in the wilderness or ICT Cassandra sitting in my little Australian corner of the world (see The New WWW – Whatever, Whenever, Wherever).  But when I see a new tool or platform make teachers’ jobs easier and their students’ learning better – I can get pretty vociferous.  And now I “get” Tumblr – so WATCH OUT!

To get started use the detailed Tumblr Tutorial, but read on to see why this is so great.

A bit of background in case you’re even slower than me.  In a New York Times article Tumblr’s “media evangelist,” Mark Coatney, describes it as “a space in between Twitter and Facebook”  because it promotes minimal-click uploading and sharing of images, videos, audio clips and quotes in addition to Twitter’s short text bursts.  Like Twitter, Tumblr users also “Follow” other “tumblrs” which appear in the familiar “follow quilt” of icons in a member’s sidebar.  Like Facebook, Tumblr also promotes social networking.  Neither of these are a really big deal to me.  Here’s what is: Perhaps fear of missing out on “the next big thing” – and Tumblr’s popularity with the sought-after youth market – has prompted many media giants to post all or some of their content on their own Tumblr accounts. Big Media seems to go through split personality swings of protecting their content and joining in the Web sharing fun: at present, many major media players who publish significant images on their main “All Rights Reserved” Web sites also have Tumblr sites that share the same images.  At present this list includes Reuters, Time / Life, Newsweek, Aljazeera, The Guardian, PBS NewsHour, National Public Radio and The New Yorker (see the more extensive list below).  Why this is important to us – developers of learning?  In a word, “Reblog.”  When you are logged in to Tumblr and view content from another Tumblr site, all you have to do to transfer the content of the post to your site is click the “Reblog” icon in the top right corner (as seen on this screen grab from the Time Magazine Tumblr site).  This immediately opens your Tumblr dashboard, embeds the content, links back to the original source and enables you to add further text.  For me this means a Looking Prompt in order to turn plain old engaging rich media into a creative thinking activity that can shift the entire culture of a classroom, school and student’s life of learning.   To make this process even easier, I have created a Look to Learn Tumblr site as well as the Sample Prompts page from which you can copy / paste / edit some Thinking Routines straight into your reblog. While copying prompts or visiting the Look to Learn Tumblr site for posts to reblog, also explore the “Follow Quilt” for content providers you might be interested in.  The benefit of following is that each time you go to your Tumblr site, you’re welcomed with the latest content from those you follow.  At the first instance, it makes sense to follow the Look to Learn Tumblr site because it shares everything I’ve considered valuable from those I follow and to which I’ve appended an appropriate prompt.  This way, a steady stream of potential activities arrives directly to you for use in your classroom and that you can share with colleagues in your school and professional online network.  This is a perfect example of how – in the Digital Era – we can work smarter and simultaneously help students become smarter.

In summary, every so often a new tool comes along that positively changes how we can “work the Web for education.”  Before that tool we could do the work, but it took a few clicks too many to really make it part of our daily lives.  Tumblr is such a tool because with it we now have one platform that easily sources content, posts it and enables sharing and community.  Previously, this required email or RSS feeds, a blog and a social network.  For the keen among us, working across these three platforms was no barrier because we knew the real challenges we faced before even they existed when we had to scan images, write in HTML and disseminate through email lists.  What’s great about Tumblr is that it erases the obstacles so that all every teacher can not only participate, but create!

What about WordPress?

The incredible wealth of great content and the ease with which you can both discover and create new posts may make some consider switching to Tumblr as the preferred platform.  For me, no.  There’s a lot more I like to do with a Web space (see ClassPortals and WebQuests to name 2), but the advantages offered by Tumblr have prompted me to switch to it as the medium for the main Look to Learn Web site.  In just the past week I’ve increased my creation of new “L2L”s tenfold so the decision was easy.  I look forward to sharing this approach with participants in upcoming workshops.

Tumblr Archives (all of which allow Reblogging)

The list below are my favorite “Big Media” content providers with Tumblr accounts.  This means that every one of them allows – even encourages you – to embed their content in your own Tumblr stream.  Amazing how quickly things can change from “All Rights Reserved” to “Reblog.”

For Content on Current Events & What’s Buzzing Virally

The first link for each site goes to the account’s “archive” page that lets you see a thumbnail of their recent posts.  This way you can tell if you find the content valuable.  If you do, go to the “stream” and “Follow” the site once you are logged-in to your own Tumblr account.

For Fun

We’ll chat about how Pinterest figures in shortly.

As always, let me know what you think.


Why I Love WordPress (again)

I’ve been using WordPress since 2004 and have become a broken record lauding it as an exemplar of open source software and community.  I’ve used every flavor of WordPress and still do for a variety of different applications: wordpress.com, wordpress.org, network version, softaculous installs, etc.  For this site and almost everyone I create I use my own installation, but for workshops – so that people can get started within minutes and develop content that can later be exported and imported to their own full install – I use wordpress.com.

What’s prompted this post is that I’m getting ready for a new series of workshops and wanted to see how the .com version might handle Pinterest embeds.  Those who use this version, know that embeds can be limited because nasty coding can be injected that could harm the shared hosting and servers.  But the WordPress team has been great about keeping up with the dominant trends in Web 2.0 and creates shortcodes that convert the embed into WordPress-friendly content.  All the major video sites work this way as do Google Maps.

So imagine my delight when seeking new rich media for Look to Learn posts that I learned WordPress.com already accepts Pinterest embeds:

Look to Learn

Imagine this fellows drawing board were an iPad – how might this be symbolic for our “All Fit to One’s Size” digital culture?

Source: domusweb.it via Ben on Pinterest


  1. What do you see?
  2. What do you think about that?
  3. What does it make you wonder?

Ira Glass on Creative Work

 Connect, Extend, Challenge

  1. Connect: How are ideas presented related to something you like or are interested in making?
  2. Extend: What new ideas did you get that extended or pushed your thinking in new directions?
  3. Challenge: What is still challenging or confusing for you if you were to take this advice?

You can also watch the original video that includes Ira Glass critiquing a sample of his earlier work.

13 Reasons Why Digital Learning is Better

What’s so Good about Digital Learning?

The following section moves through an extensive list of some of the main aspects that make digital learning different – and better – from what we might be used to. You may be very familiar with some of the items that follow and less so with others so the purpose here is to give us all a common foundation upon which to later draw.  Please use the comments link to add your thoughts and anything I’ve missed.

Richer Resources

The first identifiable benefit of digital learning comes from digitization itself. When media shifted from analog to digital – from movie reels and cassette tapes, books and posters, worksheets to Web sites – the very resources for learning were transformed. Like many, I was slow to pick up on the significance of this digitization. Until I experienced the World Wide Web. Even in its earliest incarnation of straight hypertext and static images, I “got” that combined with the delivery platform of the Web, digital resources opened a new era for humankind. This is no overstatement. Comparable to the Gutenberg press, the Web has continued this “flattening of the hierarchy,” putting in the hands of everyone what was once available only to the elite. An early example was the Web Museum, posted by Nicolas Pioch in 1994, which shared Wikipedia-like information and images celebrating the greats from art history. Now anyone with an interest could survey art through the ages from any Net-connected computer. Led by the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco, we have gone from a postcard-sized scan of the artwork to gain the ability to zoom into the finest of brushstrokes without losing clarity. I’ve used the visual arts as a case study to demonstrate a Gutenberg-like transformation in access from the few to the many. As previously mentioned, one principle benefit of digital learning is disintermediation, the ability of learners to connect directly with what they want. Those of us with any years behind them, can recall having to pay for a tape or transcript of an interview heard on public radio where now these and more appear free of charge via podcasts in digital audio & video splendor. From interactive Flash learning objects for primary students to online simulations and games for middle schoolers and even bridging senior students to courses and lectures at the world’s finest universities, a clear vision, appropriate for 2020, of what our students can achieve must include how access to such a wealth of resources change upgrade our expectations.

Customization & Personalization

We have already observed one key element of the Digital Era seen through the lens of the Ford Motor Company. In Henry Ford’s day, decreasing the time and cost of production enabled the “common man” to join the motoring world. Now that the world is full of cars, Ford.com empowers people to design and “build” something uniquely their own. In the same way, one of the key elements the digital learning enables is the personalization and customization of not only learning resources, but also the very experience of learning itself. In the first instance, by the time you read this, specialized search engines will be embedded in online learning systems that modify results and resources based upon individual profiles. Previous searches, reading levels and expressed interests will factor into a refined list of resources tailored to the learner.

Cognitive Tutors

More significant are the current early attempts to customize the learning experience itself. One example in this area are the cognitive tutors and interactive skill-building software that goes far beyond early software based on “Drill and Kill” for right answers. If we recall Bloom’s research showing the positive impact of one-to-one tutoring from teachers, it’s not surprising that programs could be written that emulate the best of a teacher’s ongoing modifications based on a student’s ability. A second instance of digital technology’s ability to personalize classroom learning can be demonstrated by the service offered by Wireless Generation, a company that provides a reading program for schools. Students’ performance on one day is processed overnight so the next day teachers are delivered instructional activities targeted to address specific learning gaps. More will be explored in the last section on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of the current topic, it’s clear that personalizing and differentiating learning is a core benefit available to us in the next era of school-based learning.

Engagement and Interactivity

Related to, but different from, the personalizing power of technology is its interactivity and how this increases user engagement. Little needs to be said about the contrast between passively sitting in class versus controling an experience that provides immediate feedback and leads to new options and decisions. Any hands-on, active learning that challenges students is preferable to passivity. Thanks to Web 2.0, many such experiences are available through a Web browser.  An early example familiar to everyone is Google Maps. Where once we had to wait for a new map to download everyone time we zoomed in, because Google Maps are built in AJAX (Asynchronous Javascript And XML – extensible mark-up language), additional views of the same map are loaded with the first view so that as we move and drag, the preloaded content is immediately available. Many Web sites take advantage of AJAX and Flash so that the Web is now a place to actually do work whether that means is to compose text, edit a video or use tools like Hans Rosling’s Gapminder to depict and interpret data. With such powerful tools available to every digital learner, our vision of what they can achieve needs updating from worksheets and recall to include new productions and knowledge construction or the tools remain only intriguing play things.

100% Classroom Participation

In a similar way, 1:1 digital access also affords 100% participation, because one person’s contribution does not prevent another’s as it does in such common activities as classroom discussions. Synchronous participation of every student is possible when discussions are online. Many of today’s educators can already testify to the benefit of giving everyone a voice, not only the usual handful of willing or lovingly nudged contributors. Digital participation also provides alternative modes of expression because responses can be verbal, written or figurative. Finally, online participation alters one of the most precious commodities in education: time. A five minute digital discussion means five minutes of everyone thinking and formulating responses as opposed to the round robin attempts to get as many voices heard as possible.


One complaint historically made against “computers” is that they isolate people.  I suspect this charge can be dismissed now that, literally, everyone and their grandmother is part of a social networking site. This human-to-human connection enabled by the technology also benefits digital learning. In the last example, we saw a classroom discussion blossom from just a few raised hands to 100% participation. But the benefits continue!  Not only does everyone have a voice, but these voices can communicate, challenge and confer with others at the very same time when collaboration software is used. A range of intriguing Web-based collaborative platforms allow students to build knowledge in real time. Rather than a cacophony of calling out that a teacher must frantically manage if anyone is to be truly heard, online collaboration improves when individuals lend their voice to a shared space. I see this change from the teacher-led to the student-empowered discussion along the lines of change from film to digital cameras. When each photograph consumed film and had to be developed, we attempted to limit how many photos a child took – remember all the blurry, finger-obscured images shot through windows of moving cars? But now with digital cameras, we’ve flipped completely. Take as many photos as you like, because capturing even one great candid adds to the gallery of family classics. In the same way, moderating precious classroom time so as not to waste a limited resource changes overnight to encouraging enthusiastic online chatter with the goal of finding a few epiphanies and insights. These then get shared back to the group as examples of a captured cognitive “Eureka!”

Digital Archives

This line of benefits related to online discussion, naturally leads to another. In addition to facilitating 100% participation, the content of the discussion doesn’t evaporate into the ether, but becomes part of a digital archive that can be revisited, extended and deepened. Forum software, blogs and wikis are simple ways that such discussions can be posted online. Although this facility is as old as the Web, what changes in the Digital Era is that once all students have 1:1 access, such discussions can become the norm, which means that thoughtful responses, extended wait times, threaded discussions and deeper understandings also become the norm.

Global Publication

If we expand the notion of posting one’s thoughts and the power of online collaboration, we encounter yet another benefit of digital learning: global publication. Once students use online tools to share their insights there’s nothing preventing those thoughts from joining a wider community of learners. Young students, led by enthusiastic, child-centered primary school teachers, currently enjoy using a growing range of friendly Web 2.0 applications to publish such things as Voicethreads, Glogs and Vodcasts. Tools such as these seem to appear daily so exactly what they are and do is less important than the fact that very young students already enjoy something very few previous generations of students had ever experienced: producing work for an authentic audience. This is the huge difference between “doing homework” that a teacher will “mark” and knowing that your creations will be viewed by a range of real people. A child is more powerfully motivated to clearly express, execute and polish something if they know it can be viewed and commented on by a grandparent or other students. In this way, the classroom walls dissolve so that students – from the beginning of their formal education – don’t suffer the artificiality of learning in an isolated box.

Online Learning Communities

Combining collaboration and publication naturally evolves into communities of online learners – something that has breathed new life into leading educators’ careers. Used to working in the isolation of a classroom, many teachers have discovered a new world of fellow-travelers in online learning communities. The experience often starts by joining an email list or starting a personal blog or wiki. The interactions then tend to expand to a personal learning network of sympathetic souls who willingly share their obstacles and insights. The vitality that these teachers exude is contagious and a gift to our profession. Mentored by these, students can also enjoy this feeling of connectedness – a feeling that we will see also increases intrinsic motivation.

“Serving the Net”

But motivation for what? As we will see in the section on pedagogy, contributing to something beyond your self leads to feelings of “authentic happiness.”  So the wise educator will leverage technologies’ global publishing capability and channel students’ efforts toward pursuing a meaningful goal. This is beautifully captured in a phrase from Al Rogers, one of the seminal figures facilitating global classroom learning. Al said that he didn’t want students to just “Surf the Net,” but to Serve the Net. I believe this is epitomized in the work of a teacher at Immaculata High School in Somerville, New Jersey. Quoting from the Child Slave Labor News Web site:

 “… the senior U.S. History II Honors class, taught by Miss Joann Fantina, publishes numerous newsletters throughout the year covering many aspects of child slave labor. A new group of students takes over the project each year as the previous class graduates. It is a common interest among the students and is continued enthusiastically year after year.”

Visiting the Web site immediately conveys that this is a pursuit of passion, a public service, not an exercise in Web publishing. Currently 32 student writings are listed with 10? three additional years’ worth in the archive. Although much more could be done to leverage the Web’s power, the Child Slave Labor News is compelling in its effectiveness and simplicity. No teacher could be intimidated by CSLN as it is essentially a posting of essays like those any class of students could write. Child Slave Labor News demonstrates the power of a good idea shared and developed over the years. Proof of this statement is realized by searching for the term “child slave labor.”  Regardless of the search engine used, Miss Fantina and her students’ work comes up first on the list of results. Forget international Non-Governmental Organizations or university research centers. No, a passionate teacher and a bunch of teenagers are the global “Go To” place for seeing what’s posted on the topic of child slave labor. Imagine how these students feel. This is a great touchstone for the kind of authentic learning all students can experience when they make significant contributions to the global learning community. More ideas and examples on “Serving the Net” are provided in the New Routines section.


Traditional research and essay writing are excellent skills to master and will continue as part of the next era in education. This said, a new way to gather information has emerged with the Web. When someone benefits from the accumulated contributions of (often anonymous) others, the process is referred to as “crowdsourcing.”  Examples range from massive collections like Wikipedia, The Gutenberg Project (e-Texts) and Gracenote (the database that magically supplies song titles when you import a music CD). A more recent permutation has accelerated the process. Like any new tech trend, Twitter has attracted media attention, adoration and derision. Love it or dismiss it, what can’t be ignored is that key figures with legions of “Followers” enjoy a new source of collective intelligence. When they have a question or seek input, these leaders can rely on instantaneous contributions. One such leader is David Pogue, a technology writer for the New York Times who provides an endless supply of good-natured reviews and insights. An example related to crowdsourcing was posted back in September of 2009, entitled, “Got a Burning Question? Ask the Net,” in which he says he could rely…

“on Twitter for all my obscure-question-answering needs. Often I’d ask for help on some tweaky Photoshop filter setting or a detail of some 1950’s Broadway show–and sure enough, someone or other would always know the answer.” [1]

Now it’s common for everyone from individual bloggers to international media conglomerates to track Twitter feeds to get the scoop on what’s happening from the real-time source of natural disasters, people’s rebellions and celebrity sightings. Pogue goes on to celebrate a more recent application called Aardvark (vark.com) where a more sophisticated approach facilitates connecting ordinary people who have questions with those who can answer them. Clearly crowdsourcing will continue to offers benefits that enhance digital learning and should inform a vision of students as sophisticated participants in the knowledge building process.

Software that Gets Smarter

If work done online creates a digital archive and individuals actively participate in sourcing and construction of knowledge, then leveraging the “data trails” our online activities generate is also a core benefit of digital learning. In addition to the deliberate data that individuals post online, the growing trove of data that accumulates through a user’s online interactions is the next benefit of digital learning. Google’s early accomplishments in this area are akin to Henry Ford’s first moving assembly line. Just as in the earlier industrial era, manufacturers already took advantage of interchangeable parts to enable mass production, but it was Ford’s idea to animate the task by bringing it to a ready line of workers that revolutionized the industry and our world. Similarly, technology companies in our era knew that the data being passively generated by online users held secrets, it wasn’t until Google applied its algorithms that the data could be assembled into meaningful information. Like the preceding benefits mentioned where digital learning provides a more personalized experience, this aspect of data trails is the underlying mechanism that will drive even greater benefits.

Some have referred to this aspect of data mining as “Web services,” “Web 3.0,” “The Semantic Web” and “The Internet of Things.”  The essence of these related concepts, and what powers Google’s success, is that the entire system continues to “get smarter” without human intervention. Web services are applications of machine-to-machine interactions that enable a new iteration of the Web that goes beyond Web 2.0’s capabilities so that appliances on the Internet share information in ways that create new knowledge – all without active human management. To make this abstraction a little more concrete consider how a Google search improves its results through use: as millions of people enter particular keywords, click on certain sites listed, spend time at some sites and interact with a few, the ranking of sites changes over time. Anyone who has spent time using the Google search engine since 2000 has witnessed these improvements.

The Internet of Things

Taking the concept further, we can see how our geographic location becomes a “machine-to-machine” variable: when we search Google Maps from our phones, the engine doesn’t look for every café in the world, but assumes we’re after one in the local area: without any input on our parts, the phone has prompted an “advanced search” and contributed data about our location. This experience is an inkling of what’s in store with the “Internet of Things” that many see in our near future. Just as we had computers in homes, schools and businesses that we then joined by the Internet, we also have a huge array of “computers” in our home electronics, personal devices, cars, “loyalty cards” and home appliances that can also be interconnected to enable object-to-object communications. A simple, only slightly sci-fi, scenario might be that your refrigerator notices you’re low on milk, your car recognizes your location at the grocery store, your loyalty card “sees” that your preferred brand is on sale and your phone suggests you pick up a carton of “Light White” – how were you to know the kids are in the midst of a cookies and milk binge while you’re out on an errand?

Consider the applications for education once learners’ digital trails combine with this “Semantic Web” where “sense” is made from data. Two very general possibilities emerge immediately. First, as already suggested, as students undertake more of their learning online, Smart Digital Environments will “get to know them” as learners. This includes offering resources and experiences increasingly tuned to a student’s abilities, prior knowledge and past successes. This has already been mentioned in the context of cognitive tutors, but in the timespan of a child’s school years, this capability for such systems to “get smarter through use” will become the norm. A second set of applications – and one that will truly alter the teachers’ responsibilities – involves taking over some of the more menial logistical tasks. Much of the time consumed in schools is focused on logistics, not learning: taking attendance, checking homework, marking assignments, compiling grades, communicating student performance to parents, classroom management techniques that keep everyone doing the same thing at the same time…  Gone. Really. What’s more, these largely computational tasks are more likely to be error-free when automated. A more complete exploration of the possibilities follows in the last section of this book on Smart Digital Environments, but for the purpose of setting a renewed vision of “2020” learning – I think we can see some of the potential digital learning makes available to school’s next era.

Water Buffalo Gift


Jazz violinist Robert Thompson was motivated by a blog post to see if he could do something real. This video is his story and that of a family in China and a community around the world.


  1. What do you see?

  2. What do you think about that?

  3. What does it make you wonder?