Are recent inventions/discoveries changing the way we learn?

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.”

Some of us (including me) recall a time when TV was just black and white, and there were only 3 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 via 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-checker” 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 comic Dick Tracy. 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 an 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, on-line 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,