Sunday, 12 December 2004

Post PC?

my Guardian column for the 2005 BETT show

Recently I was lucky enough to be visiting the Sahara Desert. Just my luck it coincided with the moment when the one day a year's rain fell! But the rain didn't dampen the enthusiasm I saw all around me for learning and for new technology. Less than 10% of the world's population have ever seen the Internet but there's more to new technology than the Internet. Standing in an apparently very poor village, no networks or computers at all, two things stood out like beacons: firstly, as I tried inconspicuously to check my mobile phone for a new message (the cell never dropped, even amongst the dunes), an villager nearby pointed at my tiny K700i and said excitedly "nouvelle Sony", which was precisely what it was and we spent a little time exploring the features together. He loved the video and the MP3 ring-tones. We took a few pictures. Tunisia is a very phone aware place, like many developing nations. My 4x4 driver stayed in touch with his extended family on his mobile throughout our trek, TXTing as he drove. Tunisia also has a huge infrastructure of motorised satellite dishes, visible on even the most basic of houses. During last summer I spent time exploring the future of broadcasting and it confirmed my view that the additional functionality of the box that was formally your TV, with the addition of some great new tools for selection, annotation and contribution, promises a whole new potential for broadcasting and TV. And of course it is abundantly clear that, in today's peer to peer world of interleaved communities and personalisation, phones and "new" television (eTV?) have probably more to offer learners than even computers. The second feature that stood out in Tunisia, as it does in many emerging nations globally, was their absolute faith, and investment, in education. Everywhere there I met with optimism, humility and new schools. New schools, new paint, new investment, new future. The school leaving age is raised, university participation rates are climbing and learning is about aspiration, national and individual.

Rushing back home to Europe, and straight to the OnLine Educa conference in Berlin, it was hard not to be hit by the contrast between the European "learning industry" seeking to "deliver solutions" and the bottom up, people powered, wireless world that was Tunisia. The conference was full of friendly, well intentioned folk, many good friends, delivering some interesting papers, but the many ambitious commercial stands there spoke rather dismally, and too often, of "portals", "managed solutions", "content", "delivery" and so on. It was clear that a world where people are embracing the opportunity to do things themselves, to be creative and to exchange their ingenuity with others, within communities, was simply not on their radar at all. The Berlin stands reminded me too often of e-commerce stands I saw just before the bubble of the dot com revolution burst at the end of the last millennium. Readers might make some assumptions at this point.

Whilst in Berlin, I was faced with remotely opening a conference in Woolongong, Australia, during our night. Luckily OnLine Educa had a wireless network running. I had plenty of laptop battery life and my trusty i-Sight camera, so after midnight I wandered around the deserted stands getting connected to Australia. As I did so I was aware of a small gang of German night security guards following me, fascinated. I called them over and we spent a few happy moments playing and chatting to the conference hosts in Australia. As we sat having fun, 18,000 miles apart, I stopped being depressed about the lack of vision of the Berlin stands. It doesn't matter what the marketing people try to tell us, the future of all this will be about people, it will be about communities, it will be peer to peer, it will be phone-savvy and dish-connected, and above all else it will be enormously enjoyable.

It's just that some of the ambitious emerging countries might realise this first, might avoid the marketing hype and the "solutions" they are offered, might learn from our mistakes and hesitations, and might just get there ahead of us.


© Stephen Heppell 2005

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