Chris Anderson, the curator of the TED conferences oftentimes referenced in my posts, recently wrote an interesting article titled "A Web-Empowered Revolution in Teaching". Here, he makes asserts that "throughout history, the vast majority of humans have not been the people they could have been." The obvious reference here is to the lack of resources that the majority of the population of the world has faced throughout history and how this has prevented the realization of full human potential. He argues that now, things are different, change has come, and the internet can now deliver some of the most important variables necessary for fostering human achievement. Anderson argues that it is the combination of knowledge and inspiration that shape what we do, and the cost of distribution for both of these has plummeted with the rise of ubiquitous web access.
Very much in line with Nicholas Negroponte's One Laptop Per Child Program, Anderson's argument stems from the underlying assumption that all people share an equal potential for becoming the next intellectual, political and spiritual leaders of our time. Given the right mix of knowledge and inspiration, anyone should be able to achieve anything. While I agree and hold this to require no further explanation, the reality is that many people do not share this view. In fact I would venture to say that in the United States, the majority of people do not think that everyone is born with such limitless potential. At the core of the argument is each person's view of education and the impact it can have on a child's life.
From being exposed to topics that inspire to having a mentor or role model - it is clear that being nurtured matters. More importantly, oftentimes the issue goes deeper, to the very heart of children's expectations about hard work and the resulting payoff. This is the aspect of education that seems especially damaged in the inner city's of the United States where there is often a lack of hope. Not only do most of these children lack adequate resources, but far worse they actually believe that the system is against them and that there is no reason to even bother trying.
As if the rules of the game were stacked to make them lose, many children don't even dare to pursue a topic they are passionate about. Here is the problem and this is where the internet might be able to help. If a child is interested in mathematics or writing for example, traditionally that child would have to find inspiration in his immediate surroundings. If that child lacked the encouragement or perseverance to follow their topic of interest even without encouragement (as most children tend to) then they might just move on and forget about it.
This is where the power of the web marks a significant shift from the rest of history: now a person can connect with even the most obscure of topics and find a community to particpate in, as long as they have a web enabled computer. You can tap any micro-niche in the world and begin to soak up endless amounts on that topic. Take me for example, I know nothing about calligraphy, and in under a minute I found links to all of the calligraphy institutes and online resources in the world, including online how to videos, downloadable samples, history, community and so forth. Clearly the power of the web extends to everything and anything I can imagine.
So two questions arise from this thought exercise: 1) How do we make sure children find what interests them? and 2) How do we convince these children that working hard and pursuing their interests can pay off? Chris Anderson through his TED Conference and the resulting video clips is working hard at exporting the inspiration and passion of its speakers to the web. Combe this with Negroponte's OLPC effort to get laptops out to children and initiatives such as M.I.T.'s Open Courseware program or Stanford's Engineering Everywhere initiative and children already have most of what they need to start thriving.