Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Web Is a Becoming a Conversation

(Originally posted on the Intel Senior Trainers network.)

This summer our family vacationed on the island of Maui in Hawaii. Maui is the perfect vacation spot for us: my in-laws have a time-share condo there, we know the area well enough to relax, and there's a Costco with inexpensive food right by the airport when you arrive! 

Each day on vacation we would put on our bathing suits, take our snorkeling packs (which we'd purchase some years ago at that same Costco), and then pick a beach for the day's exploration. This year we were lucky and found several spots with groups of turtles to watch and we'd swim along with them, believing that the older and scarred ones were the wisest of earth's creatures, and the young ones had the surfer accents from "Finding Nemo." 

Then one evening, as we made our nightly trek to the beach to watch the sunset, we passed by someone who asked us if we'd seen "the dolphin" yet. We quickly walked up the ridge where a crowd of people had gathered, looked out into the water where everyone else was staring, and shortly saw the dark shadow of a dorsal fin just offshore. We looked over at the adjacent beach and there were probably another 100 people all watching the same thing. I was fascinated by the connection we all seemed to be having with this one dolphin, the fin appearing here and there, each time all us craning to catch a glimpse of it. We'd felt so lucky to have had such a great experience with the turtles, but there was no question that the mere glimpse of a dolphin gave us a feeling which was unique.

http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/thumb/0/0d/Spinner_dolphins.jpg/180px-Spinner_dolphins.jpg On our previous trips to Maui, the dolphin story would have ended there, but this year the story had a significantly different ending. As my wife and I were sitting at breakfast the next morning in a local restaurant, remarking on what a great experience the dolphin sighting had been, I wondered out loud if there might not be a website where dolphin sightings were being tracked so that we could see some more. It didn't seem likely. But it then occurred to me that were I to do a search on Flickr for photos tagged "dolphin" and "maui," and that by sorting them by the most recent posting dates, this search might actually be the equivalent of a dolphin sightings list for the island. So, on my Internet enabled phone, I did the search, and sure enough someone had posted photos of Spinner Dolphins the day before from Lanai. We asked our waitress where Lanai was, and as we were explaining our dolphin quest, a fellow at the next table leaned over and gave us the low-down. He told us that we could take a ferry to Lanai (a smaller, adjacent island) from the city of Lahaina, and that near where the ferry docks on Lanai is a beach where dolphins frequently come to swim. On my Web phone we then looked up the ferry company, checked their departure times, then called and made reservations for our family.

The next morning we woke our children up at 5:30, drove to Lahaina, and took the ferry to Lanai. Carrying our snorkeling gear, we made the five minute walk over to Hulopoe Bay where there were maybe 15 other people on the beach. We picked a shade tree, put our gear down, looked out in the water--and a sudden chill ran through us all. We could see the fins of a dozen or more dolpins out in the water. Others on the beach immediately did the same thing we did, which was to run toward the water, trying to put on sunscreen and our snorkeling gear at the same time, and then to swim out the 50 yards or so to where the dolphins were.  

We hadn't needed to hurry. Over the course of the next three hours, sometimes maybe as many as 50 dolphins were in the bay, almost teasing and playing with us, sometimes coming so close we could have touched them. Often whole groups would swim right under and around us, then some would leap out of the water spinning and twisting, dazzling in their beauty. It was like being in a surreal dream, but for my wife, it was actually the dream of a lifetime: to swim with dolphins in the wild. Sheer exhaustion was the only thing that pulled us from the water, and while we ate lunch up the hill from the beach, we continued to watch those Spinner Dolphins come in and out of the bay, swimming and jumping for close to two more hours. 

During that lunch, on what seemed (and really is) the remote and barren island of Lanai, I incredibly had almost full bars on my cell phone. So I looked up Spinner Dolpins on the Web and as a family we then read through several different websites to learn why scientist believe they jump and spin, and much more about them.

I think that part of what I love about this experience is the way in which is so encapsulates the incredible changes in our day-to-day lives that the "interactive" Web is bringing. Our exploration of the physical world was shaped and changed by a combination of technologies that are historic in their impact. Our relationship to information is changing, and this is not just some theoretical change being documented in PhD dissertations, it's a dramatic reshaping of where and how we get our information, who produces that information, and how much of it is available. The dolphin story shows not only the impact of the Web as a faster, easier, and more pervasive way to find information--it also demonstrates how significant parts of that information are now contributed by those who used to be primarily information "consumers" but who are now part producers of the larger information universe.

Just ten years ago, the information on the web was largely just an fancy electronic reflection of our experience with the mainstream media of television, radio, and the printed word. We've lived in a "broadcast" world, where a relatively tiny segment of society produced and distributed that media, and most of us were passive consumers of it. Now we face a change in our relationship to information that is quite possibly larger than the the changes brought about by the printing press. Whereas the printing press dramatically reduced the cost of publishing and made material more widely available, the Internet's two-way capability has not only brought that cost essentially to zero (I can go to a public library, and using a web browser can post for free to a blog, a wiki, or a dialog forum) and made that information literally ubiquitous; but it has also changed publishing from a largely one-way act to a shockingly vibrant world of "conversations" where those we previously called the audience are now active participants.

It is hard for us to understand the implications of a world where more content is produced on YouTube in six months than was created in all of television's history, but I think we can say with some certainty that if we do not start to help our students become part of the conversation then our educational institutions will become increasingly irrelevant--just as the monasteries did that once housed the all-important scribes. On the other hand, if we can temper the natural fears that come with change (and are sometimes reinforced by the chaos that change can produce), we can actually see a world of incredible opportunity for students: a world where the breadth of subjects to study is only matched by the breadth of subjects students can actually become contributors to. 

I believe that this is where we are headed, into a world in which information is so abundant that learning how to participate in the world's knowledge conversation becomes the primary responsibility of our educational organizations, and where students learn to contributors to society by actually contributing under the tutelage of wise mentors. If this is an accurate vision, then we need to help educators experience for themselves the these same transformative changes and opportunities. If we don't, we're just asking them to learn about one more technology fad in a parade of technological fads that were each supposed to remake education, and their interest reflect their "technology fatigue." 

I started Classroom 2.0 (www.classroom20.com) to help educators become participants in the "conversation" of the Web without requiring that they start a blog or create a wiki. Classroom 2.0 is a social network. We'll save the distinction between social networking and our perceptions of MySpace and Facebook for my next post, but suffice it to say that professional social networks allow educators to contribute even just a single sentence to a discussion, and feel the amazing change that takes place in our personal learning and motivation through that contribution and the ensuing responses. I'm excited to learn about the work that you are doing here in your own network for Intel Senior Trainers, and to hear your experiences and thoughts related to these same topics. I'll be posting again next week, and then we're scheduled to have a live web meeting. 

Here's hoping I have something valuable to add to your "conversations!"
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