“Flat classrooms” and “The World is Flat” are catchy titles, but what do they actually mean? Also, we all know that technology is changing all the time, but what does that mean?
I think it’s important to read books like The World is Flat and Flat, Hot and Crowded, but I also think that books can seem a bit a remote from everyday experience. I think that’s especially true if you haven’t lived long enough to see or be fully aware of incredible changes in the way we live our lives.
So what I’d like to do is spend just a few minutes talking about what the changes have meant to me personally. The changes are real, not just something that someone decided to write a book about. While you’re reading this, you might like to reflect on how future changes in technology might affect your own life. Don’t worry if you find it hard to predict the future – we all do!
I’m going to talk about three time periods: when I was 5, when I was 25, and now. And then I’m going to give you a few tips on how to do really well in this project – especially if I’m going to be helping out with the judging! Finally, I’m going to talk about the skills that people need in order to survive in the 21st century, and where the Flat Classrooms project fits in.
And when the end credits come up, don’t just switch off, because I’m going to be putting details there of a survey about collaboration you might like to contribute to. In fact, why not hit the Pause button right now while you grab a pencil and some paper?
Now, in those days, most letters went by train and ship, not by air. It isn’t that we didn’t have air travel – I’m not that old! – but that it was a lot more expensive than it is now.
Letters would take around 6 weeks to arrive. So, we’d write a letter saying “What’s the weather like where you are?”, and then 3 months later we’d get a reply like “Raining”. Then we’d write back and say “Oh really? The weather’s fine here.” And then 3 months later we’d get a letter saying “Oh, that’s nice.”
Well, we did actually write a bit more than that, but it did take a long time to carry on a conversation. It certainly wasn’t exactly instant messaging.
But think what that sort of time delay would mean for businesses. You’d send an invoice, and if the company you’d sent it to decided to pay right away, you’d receive the money 3 months later. So think about how that contrasts with the situation nowadays, when you can receive money instantly through PayPal. OK, it may take a few days for the money to actually clear, but that’s still a big difference: a week or so, as opposed to a quarter of a year!
I run my own business, and if it took 3 months for me to get paid life would be very hard indeed.
But communications still weren’t good enough for business purposes, as I was to discover a few years later.
When I was about 30, a friend and I decided to start a business together. Now this was quite challenging. I know that all new businesses are challenging, but this was even more challenging than usual because I was living in England, a few miles outside London, and he was living in Los Angeles.
Now, this was a few years before the web and before email was widespread, so the only way to communicate quickly was by phone. Unfortunately, that was so expensive it could only be very sparingly.
“How much did it cost?”, you might ask. But if I told you I don’t think it would mean very much. The trouble with comparing prices over time is that it’s pretty meaningless, for all sorts of reasons. A much better approach is to use a measurement called “work time”, which is how long it would take you to earn enough money to buy the item in question.
To give you an idea of how powerful this can be, here’s an example. Around the time I was involved in that international business venture, I had a girlfriend who lived in Devon.
A map of England
The route from London to Devon
OK, so back to business. My business, in fact. In England, we have something known as the legal minimum wage, which is the lowest amount that an employer is allowed to pay someone for each hour they work. Back in 1988, if I had been earning the minimum wage, it would have taken me 20 minutes to earn enough money to pay for a one minute phone call to Los Angeles. In fact, it would have taken me longer, because I’d have needed to earn enough money to be able to pay income tax, but let’s keep nit simple.
If you think about it, for me to say “Hello, how are you?” and then get a quick conversation about how the business was going, I’d have easily have had to work for an hour to pay for just a few minutes’ conversation.
These days, even assuming I used a landline and not something like Skype, which is free, it would only take me just under two minutes to earn the money for a one minute conversation, and maybe 10 minutes to earn enough to have a proper conversation.
Hopefully, you’re starting to see not just a pattern here, but some of the implications of that pattern. But for me, there is a big difference between communicating now, and communicating in the past, which is this:
The way things are now, and the way I work, international communication is not just costless; it’s not just instant; it’s embedded. What do I mean by that?
Well, just for a start, let’s take my website.
It’s hosted by a company based in England. The articles on it are managed by a product from a company based in the United States. There’s a newsletter that you can subscribe to, and the software for that was provided by a company in Russia.
Looking at it from the other side, you can see from the Clustr Map that the website gets visits from people all over the world.
But there’s more. As I’m writing this script, there are people in my personal network popping up in Skype and Twitter. In the last 15 minutes, I’ve chatted with people from the USA, Canada, England, Scotland, Wales, Australia, New Zealand and China. I’m having conversations with them, and giving information to them, and receiving some back.
For example, when I was preparing for an interview a couple of months ago, I couldn’t remember a couple of statistics I thought would be useful, so I asked a couple of people via Skype. I had the answers I needed within 5 minutes – from someone in Canada and someone in America.
In terms of work, this has made a tremendous difference. I do a lot of writing, and for many years have written for magazines in other countries. Whereas a lot of the work used to be done by email, much of it is now done through wikis, Google Docs, Skype and even video.
So what does all this mean for you, and this project?
Well, I’d like to invite you to think about this project not as a project at all, but a real piece of work. I’ve shared with you how changes in communications technology and economics has completely changed the nature of my work. I think I’ve also made it pretty clear that there have been profound changes in what’s possible in terms of running a business with someone thousands of miles away. So what I’m interested in hearing from you is what you think could be the effects of “flatness” on education, politics, and so on.
Last year I was invited to be a meta judge on this project, meaning that I got to make the final decision about who came into the top three from the shortlist produced by the other judges. So let me give you a few suggestions based on that experience – just in case I’m invited to be a judge again!
First, you have to make a video based on the content of your wiki. Therefore it stands to reason that you need to make the content of your wiki as good as possible. After all, if the video is technically brilliant, but the content of the wiki is rubbish, then your video will be rubbish.
Second, the wiki is only an online representation of collaboration, not the collaboration itself. You have to really collaborate, which means not deleting other people’s thoughts just because you don’t agree with them. If they do say or suggest something you don’t agree with, that’s an opportunity for discussion.
Third, if all you do is reproduce a shortened version of what’s in the book, that’s of limited value to me. I want to be able to watch your video and say “Wow, I didn’t know that” or “Gosh, I’d never looked at it like that before.” It’s also of limited value to you. You have a unique opportunity to work with people the other side of the world; what a shame if all you did was say what Thomas Friedman has said anyway.
That brings me on to the fourth point. Young people always have a tendency to say what they think the teacher wants to hear, in order to get the best marks possible. Well, in this project, there is no point in doing that because your teachers don’t know any more answers than you do. What we want to know is your thoughts, based on your discussions and your research – not just in books or on Wikipedia, because I can read all that for myself. Why not carry out some original research by talking to your friends, neighbours, family and teachers?
What are the benefits to you of doing all this? Well, an award would be nice, but in many respects is unimportant. What this project is helping you develop is a set of skills that will help you throughout your life. These are skills like being able to collaborate with others, carry out research, manage your own time, work as part of a team and think creatively.
Research carried out in Great Britain and elsewhere shows that these are also the skills now being valued by employers.
I think what’s good about this particular project is that it has been set up as a vehicle for acquiring and developing these skills, not as a sort of fill-in exercise that is designed to tick a few boxes.
I’m sure you’ll have a great time taking part in this project, and I look forward to watching the results.
I’m interested to learn your opinions and views about taking part in this collaborative project. I invite you to take part in a survey, which will only take a few minutes to complete. You can do so anonymously if you prefer. The URL is:
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