Reddit, TED and Sir. Ken Robinson


In addition to my passion for travel, I’m actively exploring the professional and academic opportunities presented by virtual worlds and gaming technology.

I have written several widely popular blog posts (eg: Educating Millennials/my explanation of generational gaps). I’m also currently engaged in two major projects which you may not be as familiar with.

The first of these projects is FusionVirtual . While most of what I’m exploring through FusionVirtual isn’t public yet, I will share that I have the conceptual solution to many of the challenges facing web-based distance learning. A major component of this is the use of virtual space as an instructional tool. I am working with/seeking academic and development partners to bring the project to fruition and have recently been engaged in dialogue with a major community college, their President and upper administrative leadership. As well as members of the college’s foundation.

The second project is a book. I am a tech savvy Millennial, despite this and what common cultural dialogue would have you believe I’m not a Digital Native. I’m fresh out of a major university and the world of higher education, but also have nearly five years experience in corporate America. The sum of these experiences means that I’m a member of an incredibly small demographic. A demographic with a foot in both worlds and access to insights that would otherwise be elusive. My exploration of these insights has led me to a unique understanding of tech, education and professional issues. That understanding has helped me decode and identify the answers to issues which have baffled business and professional experts.

The Q&A

With that said, I was thrilled when I saw that two of my favorite resources and were teaming up to do a crowd-sourced Q&A session with one of my favorite TED presenters: Sir. Ken Robinson.

I submitted my question under my Reddit username (Glamdering) which was as follows:

Distance learning (web based education) is currently the new rage in education. However, the quality of the experience is at best sub par. As a recent college graduate, I cannot help but feel the three major types of online education (static html pages, pre-recorded video, power point slides with audio overlays) are missing the point. What are your thoughts on the future of distance learning, and have you seen any signs of a breakthrough that will replace the status quo, while delivering interactive, powerful, social and visually simulating learning?

After a week, during which users were able to submit and then vote questions up/down – mine made it into the top top 10. You can view the official blog post with all 10 questions and answers on HERE.

Sir. Robinson’s response was as follows:

I should just say: Distance learning isn’t the new rage in education. We’ve had it for years.

In the U.K., we’ve had the Open University, which was set up in the ’70s. I think it’s now the largest university on Earth. It’s a massive institution on a small campus. The purpose was to offer university-level education to people who were beyond conventional undergraduate aid. A lot of people in the Open University are in their 30s, 40s, 50s, 60s, right up to their 90s. It’s a brilliantly innovative organization, designed to give people a second chance — or a first chance, if they missed it. It’s based on distance learning, with some residential programs built in. But all the programs were initially put on late-night television by the BBC.

So, distance learning itself is not a new thing. It’s the web that’s new.

But I think Glamdering is right. It’s not very good. There’s been a tendency in universities to try and cash in on the interest in web-based learning. A lot of them have been dumping programs online: lecture notes, videos of talks, and so on. They’re of variable quality. Some of them are great, and some aren’t. In a way, TED is a great example of how distance learning can work well. TED doesn’t have a formal curriculum. But it has new ideas about getting ideas across in a powerful, condensed way, with high-quality visuals, and then syndicating that. TED has shown us a dramatic appetite for new ideas presented in an interesting way.

Just dumping stuff online isn’t the answer to it. But there’s a massive thirst for ideas, for this sort of content, as illustrated by the mushrooming of social networking and user-generated content. There’s another interesting commercial organization called Blackboard which is growing very quickly and has been doing work that’s really worth looking at. I mean, I don’t think they would say they’ve got this whole thing sorted at all, but they’ve started to think differently about the best way to use web-based materials and distance learning both in institutions and outside of them.

Microsoft and Apple both have interesting educational programs. They both work with schools. They have educational leadership programs. They, I think, are looking hard at how the technology that they are developing and selling can really be used for distance education. And I think the work that both are doing is really worth looking at, although they’re approaching it in different ways.

As with what I was saying before about video games: I think there’s a massive potential that we haven’t yet fully tapped into. Most schools don’t really have contact with stuff. People who are at the leading edge of thinking about it are coming in with great ideas and possibilities, but the penetration of this stuff into education is still pretty limited. But I’m sure it’s the way we have to go in the future. And for a very good reason. Because we now have the ability to put the best thinking, materials, pedagogy, resources in front of everybody. This should be seen by schools as a massive opportunity to — not to replace what they do, not to replace their own teachers and curriculum, but to enrich and enhance it. And the really good schools know that that’s the way to go. And there are some great schools that are doing it. High Tech High is an interesting one in the U.S.


Sir. Robinson spends paragraph 1 discussing the origins of distance learning. I found this part of the response helpful. It reflects generational differences in terminology. Distance learning is old – very old – Sir Robinson reaches back to the start of the Open University. One might also reference the old Sears Catalog or any number of similar services. Where I used the term distance learning, I took for granted a web-specific context. This gap may suggest the need for a more standardized alternate term. Web-based learning works, but is limiting since it discourages the inclusion of platforms that blur the line (virtual worlds, VoIP networks, combination systems, etc.).

In paragraph 2, Sir Robinson highlights TED as a quality example of how online video delivery can work for education. I agree almost completely. What’s missing, however, is interaction. TED delivers incredibly creative, informative videos and has tried to increase involvement by adding a powerful comment system. Despite this, it remains fundamentally a one-directional medium. While that’s great for knowledge sharing, it is not interactive enough. The beauty of the internet is that it allows two-way exchanges. An outlet like TED is still limited by the old one-way exchange which plagues lecture halls in Universities everywhere.

In paragraph 3, Sir Robinson mentions Blackboard. As a recent ASU graduate I used Blackboard through the majority of my college career. Blackboard is an interesting beast. It serves as a great enabler. It replaced the horribly constructed geocities websites that leading-edge university professors were creating pre-Blackboard. Blackboard created a standardized platform that most professors have been able to use to upload notes and encourage discussion. That said, I detest Blackboard – a sentiment which most students share. While it’s changed slightly in the last two years it’s still largely the same beast. The Blackboard I used was based on an archaic forums system which was obtuse and largely irrelevant. The same can be said about the service’s chat and collaboration features. In truth, Blackboard was little more than a dumping ground for files and an awkward, outdated one at that. All that was made worse by the company’s monopoly on the industry which was illustrated in the DOJ’s recent anti-trust inquiry into the Blackboard/ANGEL merger. That said, I agree that Blackboard has laid the groundwork and helped validate an ideological shift in the way we view online interaction and collaboration.

In paragraph 4, Sir Robinson points to Microsoft’s and Apple’s education programs. Two that I’ve explored casually, but have yet to dive into completely. If anyone has more information on these projects please post it in a comment!

In paragraph 5, Sir. Robinson shares several thoughts which I was excited to see. His commentary on the wall between those at the leading edge and academic implementation is right on the money. One thing he hints at but doesn’t explore, is the resistance from old, entrenched faculty who are clinging to outdated technologies and academic structure while actively working to block new ideas and concepts which are both technological and structural. One of the biggest fears among entrenched academics is that they will be “replaced” – a point which I was thrilled to see him address. I was excited to see his mention of video games (virtual worlds) as part of the equation of the future.

His response is further affirmation of the concepts, observations and projects I’ve been exploring for the last 9 years. It’s exciting to share a vision of the future, and to stand at the vanguard of 21st century education in the company of great minds like Sir. Robinson’s.

I have the utmost respect for him and would like to thank him for taking the time to respond to my question while engaging with Reddit, TED and the community for this Q&A session.


How Would The Modern University Educate Plato?

Since the late 1770s education has made significant advances.  Matching the revolutionary changes that occurred as a result of the Industrial Revolution, education for the masses has become commonplace in industrialized nations.

The United States in particular has seen fantastic improvements in its education system over the last hundred years.  2007 statistics indicate that some 84% of Americans have completed high school and a record 27% have completed a bachelors degree.  These figures are impressive and have contributed in a significant way to America’s dominant position on the world stage.

However, there is still significantly more that we can and must do to serve the educational needs of millennials and America’s future generations.  Despite the quality and scope of education that industrial era education and the associated systems have delivered, they are quickly becoming obsolete and in some cases detrimental.

21st Century learners live in a period where technology has created a powerful window of opportunity.  Pre-industrial education was limited to the elite and focused on intimate, specialized tutor-peer lessons or direct apprenticeships.  Industrial era education has focused on doing for education what the assembly line did for auto-production.  An ideal learning environment, however, is the synergy of these two models:  Intimate education, deliverable and scalable to all of a nation’s youth.

My alma mater (Arizona State University) is a classic example of Industrial Era education.  With 67,000+ students in the Fall of 2008, ASU delivers a university education on an incredible scale.  They have also proudly labeled themselves the “New American University” and recently released a promotion video advertising how they are breaking the mold and embracing the needs of 21st century students. You can view the video [here]. Yet despite their claims that they are “changing their identity” in response to the impact of the internet and Digital Era – they have barely changed.  For ASU and most major universities, 21st Century education isn’t about improving the educational process – it’s about improving the university’s reach and presence on the global academic stage.

This is a fundamental problem within modern education.  A problem that will continue to get worse as technology advances and true ‘digital natives’ begin entering the university system.   ASU has increased its global footprint – true.  Sadly, it has also increased its class sizes.  As an undergraduate student it was not uncommon for my classes to have more than 50 students.  For many of my general education classes, class size ranged between 150-500+ students. Which brings me to the title of this post.

How would the modern University have educated the Greek philosopher Plato?

Plato’s influence upon our society has been so profound that even the most uninitiated among us have heard his name.  Plato was one of – if not the most famous – of Socrates’ students and went on to become Aristotle’s mentor.  Consider – what would have happened if instead of living and being educated in ancient Greece, Socrates had taught at a major industrial era American university.  What if – as in Ancient Greece – Plato was Socrates’ student.  One of some 499 other students whose entire scope of interaction with their professor is limited to one-directional lecture-based classes.

  • Would Socrates be able to teach using the Socratic Method?
  • Would engaging discussion and debate be possible?
  • Would close student-instructor rapport develop with such power and influence that it would still be credited nearly 2,500 years from now?
  • 2,500 years from now would we know who Plato was?
  • Would the industrial era educated Plato go on to teach and mentor Aristotle?

This question embodies many of the challenges that face 20th Century education.  A system that we are heavily entrenched in and extremely defensive of.

What’s the alternative?  What will the true “New American University” look like?    By introducing modern technology and re-defining the way we design, build and educate in our universities, effective and necessary changes can be made.    The technology now exists to deliver the powerful, focused, specialized mentor-student experience so desperately needed by tens of thousands of students.

We stand poised to embrace education in the digital era.  Yet, to accomplish this transition we need new platforms, new technology and individuals with the vision and willingness to break free from the comfortable, established rules of industrial era universities.   Through my company, FusionVirtual,  I’ve begun planning a project to tackle these questions and challenges.  I challenge each and every one to do the same.  Don’t accept the status quo.  Stop enabling the continuation of 20th Century education – an education platform that has  begun to alienate digital natives.  Emerging learners are not only capable, but ready and waiting for new educational solutions that are not based upon the control of information and limited interaction.  The old models are broken. We have reached the point where we have the technology to truly educate.

Thoughts? Observations?  Eager to share your answers to the questions above?  Please leave a comment below.