Jay Cross
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Meta-Lessons from the Net
Tuesday, February 15, 2005

The Feburary issue of Chief Learning Officer is out. Here's my column on Effectiveness. If you're not impressed with what's transpired in the last ten years on the internet, you're either slow or under 20.

Ten years ago, most business executives saw no value in the Internet beyond possibly cheaper communications. CIO magazine’s December 1994 issue sheepishly proposed “not to laud the future of electronic commerce nor to cheerlead the creation of a great national network that, like Godot, may never materialize.”

A representative skeptic said, “So far, I haven’t seen anybody use the Internet for anything that was all that worthwhile.” Another CIO chimed in, saying “There’s so much non-business stuff on the Internet that you have to wonder if people are getting their jobs done.”

Ten years, not that long ago, 38 million people had Internet access. Next year, Internet users will top a billion. The pros missed a sea change.

In January 1999, there were 23 blogs on the Web. Today, there are 4.5 million. Technorati reports that “a new weblog is created every 5.8 seconds, which means there are about 15,000 new blogs a day.”

Before the dot-com bubble burst, enthusiasts loudly proclaimed, “The Net changes everything.” They were right. It has. In fact, the Internet is such a powerful metaphor that it has shaped our expectations of response time, around-the-clock access, self-directed action, adaptive infrastructure and other aspects of learning.

Here are some pearls of wisdom or meta-lessons gleaned from the development of the Internet:

  • Everything is a work in progress. If it’s not finished, label it “draft” or “beta,” but don’t hold it up. Think of a blog: Part of its charm is its informality, the idiosyncrasies of its author and its status as an opinion, not a law. People learn more when presented with material that is controversial because uncertainty engages the mind.

  • The user chooses the package. Few learners are totally ignorant of the area they seek to learn more about. “Testing out” is absurdly time-consuming compared to simply learning the little bit one needs to know. The Net enables the learner to get “just enough” and no more. Why take a course if you can get things done with a nugget gleaned from Books 24x7 or About.com?

  • Online networks facilitate personal connections. The Net enables one to rely on the kindness of strangers. Hundreds of people I didn’t know before have helped me learn; I keep my karma account in balance by helping others learn. The Net even enables you to talk with your heroes if you’re daring enough.

  • To learn something, teach it. The Net empowers each of us to express ourselves publically. Sharing ideas is both selfish and generous. Explaining something online clarifies your thinking and reinforces your own learning.

  • It’s a small world after all. Around the world in 80 milliseconds. Wow! With Skype, you can talk with people all over the globe through Voice over IP (VoIP). For free. The world is my oyster. Why not? Fewer than one in five Internet users is based in the United States.

  • Me-learning. Dr. Google and Professor Amazon have taught me a lot more than four years of honors studies at an Ivy League college. Why? For one thing, I’ve forgotten more calculus, Wittgenstein, physics, Nietzsche and French than I’ll ever know because I was driven by someone else’s agenda rather than my own.

  • Outboard brain. You don’t need to memorize something if you know where to find it. For the past 30 years, I’ve been collecting tidbits of knowledge, frameworks for thinking and useful algorithms, at first on paper and now in bits. Most of this is on the Net. It helps me avoid reinventing the wheel. Haven’t you started building your self-help portfolio? Never mind, soon we’ll have the Library of Congress on our PDAs.

  • Self-organization. The Internet is magical. It takes care of itself. From a few standards and protocols, the Net has woven itself without a weaver. It’s a tribute to the wisdom of gaining control by giving control. The lesson? Let it be. Trust the Force, Luke. Some things are destined to happen on their own. Let them.

Jay Cross is CEO of eLearningForum, founder of Internet Time Group and a fellow of meta-learninglab.com.


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