Are recent inventions, discoveries changing the way we learn?

Joe Nathan Column — What inventions, discoveries or other changes have had the most impact on how you learn?   A recent brief paper by KnowledgeWorks, a Cincinnati based organization, lists five factors it thinks are changing the environment for “learners, learning agents, and the learning ecosystem.”  But let’s start with you and me.

What are the two or three most influential inventions that altered the way you learn?  For me, it would be television, computers/the Internet, and “smart phones.”

Joe Nathan

Joe Nathan

Some of us (including me) recall a time when TV was just black and white, and there were only three channels: ABC, CBS and NBC.  No PBS, History, Home or Golf Channel, no HBO, etc.  But even with just three channels, we saw live takeoffs into space, American Bandstand, men walking on the moon, the “Wide World of Sports,” civil rights marches and the Vietnam War.

Then came the computer and later, the Internet.  An astonishing array of information opened up.  And composing is far easier on a  computer than writing something out long hand or using my “Smith-Corona” typewriter.  Those of you who learned to write on white or yellow lined pages will recall what it was like to correct a mistake.  Even with the best erasure, it was messy.  And there was no ”spell-check” either.

Computers started off big and bulky. Now, via smart phones, we can carry them in a purse or pocket.   Some readers will remember the Dick Tracy comic. Among other things, he wore a wristwatch that he could use like a two-way radio.  That was science fiction when I was a teenager.

Now, millions of documents are available on our smart-phones, along with individualized maps showing us how to get to our destination, games, phone and texting functions.  It’s incredible!

KnowledgeWorks extends this, talking about the possibilities of “recombination” of learners, those who provide information, and the overall learning “eco-system.”  (Their colorful six-page flyer is at

In brief, they see
•    More opportunities for individuals and small groups to get into the business of offering information and learning leading to
•    A much broader array of individuals and organizations providing education, not just traditional K-12 schools or colleges and universities.
•    An immensely greater amount of information available. This brings a growing need to find ways to sort, analyze and make sense of all this information
•    Growth of networks to which people can contribute and customize, rather than just read what others have written (i.e. Facebook, online forums, opportunities to comment on newspaper stories, etc.)
•    Communities that reorganize, increasing citizen involvement to share, learn, create and serve.

KnowledgeWorks readily acknowledges that not all change represents progress.

“If we do not effectively engage we risk letting the disruptions of the coming decade perpetuate inequities for learners… (and keeping innovations) “ largely uncoordinated, opportunistic and fragmented.”

They combine caution with optimism: “The choice is ours to make, and the future ours to shape.”   Emerging technology gives each of us the opportunity to reach and potentially influence far more people than at any other time in history.  Our challenge is to use these opportunities, individually and together, wisely and well.

Joe Nathan, formerly a Minnesota public school teacher, administrator and PTA president, directs the Center for School Change.  Reactions welcome,

  • Gary Gruber

    Joe Nathan is right there on the leading edge of learning and especially how it has to change if we expect our education of children to be relevant in this 21st century that has been bombarded with all kinds of new technology. For instance have a look at this recent news release: 17 MILLION new ones unboxed and unleashed in just a few days My hunch is that the majority were children under 18.
    What are the ramifications for your school and your community? How are the children going to be affected by our current culture (including violence) and what kind of futures can they expect to create for themselves and others? How you answer these questions may well determine what you expect to change in the next decade if we’re going to continue to succeed. Change is indeed the name of the game!

  • Eric Morrison

    Interesting monograph, thanks.

    It could be argued that the consideration of “disruptions” overly accentuates contemporary themes of marketing, consumerism, and entrepreneurialism while underemphasizing the idea of individuals contributing not just their commercial value but also critical, thoughtful governance as citizens in an informed, democratic, knowledge based society (although that is alluded to).

    My submission for inclusion as another important component of future education is accessibility to and interaction with quality primary sources of information such as essays, historical documents, and scientific journals.

    The brochure celebrates the enormous quantities of information that are relevant to surveillance and entertainment without apparently equal mention of other aspects such as quality or origin. Although much less attractive than access to “networks and systems that bring learners, resources, services, data, and learning agents together in novel value webs” that parallel “artist information, concert databases, and mobile apps,” what about learner access to information such as instructions, facts, data, equations, literature, theories, original accounts of research, and so on?

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