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The 'flat' World Is 'open': How Technology Is Changing Education

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Indiana University Professor of Instructional Systems Technology Curt Bonk

Indiana University Professor of Instructional Systems Technology Curt Bonk

Credit: Indiana University

A new book by an Indiana University School of Education professor takes a comprehensive look at how Web technology is changing worldwide education. "The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education," published by Jossey-Bass/Wiley, was written by Curt Bonk, professor of instructional systems technology. It documents the many ways in which innovations have made it possible so that "anyone can learn anything from anyone else at any time."

The book is inspired by the best-selling work of The New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, "The World is Flat." In that book, published in 2005, Friedman documented 10 "flatteners" that have made economic globalization much easier.

Bonk's book provides a framework for understanding the availability of education through Web technology with his own list of 10. "With it, people can go down the list not of 'flatteners,' as Friedman talks about, but of 'openers,' as in the doors becoming open for education," Bonk said. "By having that list of 10, it is a somewhat succinct list from the potentially hundreds that could be listed, so as not to overwhelm people with the possibilities."

The 10 key trends Bonk explores include "Web searching in the world of e-books," "availability of open source and free software," and "real-time mobility and portability." The beginning letters of each trend spell "WE-ALL-LEARN."

The book documents numerous stories of e-learning, from the founding of Wikipedia to a high school student who took coursework traveling with her family at sea. Extensive interviews include a young millionaire in Tapei who made a fortune first translating Lord of the Rings books and then used that money to translate open courseware from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology into Chinese and make it available for free. Bonk also discusses a 21-year-old behind a free online book catalog who already made his mark on the Internet by helping author "Real Simple Syndication," or RSS, at age 14.

Not only is education changing in the places where the Internet is available, the resources available on the Internet are changing education even where the Internet is not available, Bonk said. People are taking knowledge to remote places. "For instance, in Western China, I talk about the '1kg Project,' where people go on the Web, volunteer their time and visit schools in Western China, and bring one kilogram of stuff with them," he said. "These kids don't have Internet access. But really, the Internet's enabling them to get education that normally wouldn't happen."

In the book, Bonk points out how the different trends have especially impacted worldwide education, particularly open courseware and open education resources on the Web. Shared online video and "wikis," online texts that readers can contribute to, are having a large influence. "The fact is that collaboration is from birth to death these days," Bonk said. "You have to do it in K-12 schools to survive, oftentimes, and also in workplaces."

Among the areas Bonk notes as cautionary areas in the future are ways to control plagiarism and handle copyright issues. More should be done to alleviate access problems for those with disabilities, he said. Bonk added that while Asians may be the predominant users of the Internet in the future, English is still the dominant language on the Web. And questions surrounding educational quality must take into account the intent of the user.

"The vast majority of people going online are not looking at it to take a course, or to get a degree," Bonk said. "They're doing it out of their own personal volition. They're doing it out of their own learning quest, if you will."

Through the testimonies of e-learners, teachers, technology leaders and others, Bonk points out that not only are the methods of instruction changing, technology is also altering the way we learn things.

"If all you have in your tests are dates and states and capitals — which you can easily have access to and put on your flash memory sticks — what have we really taught people?" Bonk said. "So we have new questions about education and about types of knowledge, levels of knowledge, types of skills, problem-solving. What should be the goals for education?"

There is an extensive Web presence accompanying the book. "I truly tried to show that the world is open by having a lot of free content," Bonk said. The site features links to resources and references from the book, some excerpts, as well as a book prequel and postscript. Bonk will soon be adding an e-book "extension" of the text. The site also links to his personal blog, TravelinEdMan, as well as discussion spaces for readers to share their own stories which can be expanded in a wiki.

Bonk said he'll keep examining the ideas explored in the book and adding to the information on the Web, and possibly in another book. The continuous development of ideas deserves further exploration, he said. He points out that many educators have used the Friedman text for retreats.

"My hope is that 'The World is Open' could be similarly used by some people to think about strategic planning for technologies within training and education," Bonk said.


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