Digital Road - Jamie Smith Guest Blog

Digital Road - ‘Where we’re going, we don’t need roads……’

‘Roads? Where we’re going, we don't need roads’ was perhaps the most famous line from the cult classic movie ‘Back to the Future’, a film now over 30 years old. Spoken by the character Doc Brown this statement has turned out to be more prophetic than the producers could possibly have imagined. As the world becomes ever more digitally connected, physical roads are becoming less relevant when you have the digital superhighway. In the digital age we now live and work in, open, social, borderless collaboration is the new business as usual. This is fuelling unprecedented opportunities for innovation, and disruptive change.

Back in the year 2000 there was just a couple of hundred million internet users across the entire planet. That figure now stands at over three billion with some of the fastest growth happening in developing parts of the world. In the years to come we will see most of our planet connected in one form or another to the internet of things along with all of the possibilities that come with it.

As most parents will be aware technology is having a profound impact on daily family life. I recently got involved in building a den with my nine year old son. The den itself was not dissimilar to those built by generations of nine year olds before, albeit with one big difference. When I was a child my den didn't have super fast broadband. I found my son on his tablet mid-construction holding a video conference: comparing, contrasting and collaborating over den design, and how to improve it.  Following said conference call, I was made redundant as head of construction.

In the digital age, open connected collaboration is a prerequisite for success. As the English writer J R R Tolkien once observed, ‘The wide world is all about you: you can fence yourselves in but you cannot forever fence it out’. In this context disruptive change is nothing new. Back in the late nineteenth century in the UK the ‘red flag laws’, as they were known, required a person to walk in front of a car carrying a red flag to warn pedestrians of the approaching vehicle.

For a while lots of people found meaningful employment in this endeavour, until drivers found second gear.

On the digital road ahead seeing physical learning spaces as essential for learning is the modern day equivalent. Teaching can fence itself into a classroom but it cannot fence the world out. Learning is now platform agnostic, location independent, and can happen at any time. It’s open, social and borderless. New knowledge acquisition will be achieved through big wisdom, peer to peer networks sharing ideas and research irrespective of who or where they are.

Social learning is happening now. In digital learning spaces peers come together to co-create solutions to shared challenges with people who are on the same mission.

Facilities such as UDEMY have served over 12 million learners to date, the Khan Academy over 15 million and Google Apps for Education is now serving over 60 million active users worldwide and is forecast to grow to over 110 million by 2020. I believe there will always be a place for physical learning spaces but their purpose will need to be reimagined.

This change in the world around us requires leaders in education to rethink what learning is for. As my den building experience illustrated, young people are now using technology to find new and better ways of doing things through online social collaboration. Our education systems need to support, encourage and nurture this.

The classroom is shifting from the campus to the cloud and with it we will shortly see one of the biggest remaining cultural barriers on our planet, language, removed from the collaborative process. Soon we will see real time language translation within online classes enabling a learner in Beijing to take the same class as learners in New York and London. This change will lead to faster and greater innovation and the most inclusive education system the world has seen.

Education and skills are the engine of original ideas that add value. In the digital age businesses seeking to thrive and prosper need courageous, curious and creative people who are naturally positive and collaborative and who others want to work with. In this context I believe we have an unprecedented opportunity to reinvent education to be fit for the connected, open and social digital age in which we live. To achieve this we will need politicians, business leaders and those delivering education to have the courage to redefine what education is for, and why we are doing it.

Just look at my son building his den and using technology to connect to an external network of den builders, I’m optimistic about the future. I suspect that if Tolkien were alive today, his famous quote may have read as follows: “The world wide web is all about you: you can fence yourselves in but you cannot forever fence it out’.

Jamie E Smith is a Director in education, Chair of the Governing Body of an outstanding school, a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts, tech entrepreneur, international conference speaker, a published author in the field of wealth creation and is passionate about innovation in education.

Twitter @socialbusiness9

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