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Weekly Column

Ozzy Knows Best: Sharon and Ozzy Osbourne are the unwitting inventors of a prototype for digital education.

Status: [CLOSED] comments (145)
By Robert X. Cringely

Why can't they be like we were, perfect in every way?
What's the matter with kids today?

-- Paul Lynde, Bye Bye Birdie

Every generation disapproves of the one that follows and barely claims to understand the generation that follows that. It's the way we are, simply because we tend to see everything in the context of our own experience -- an experience that is changed by age, the times we grew up in, and yes by technology. I'm from the Baby Boom generation and we, by our sheer numbers, have had an inordinate effect on what it means to be "perfect in every way." But our time is passing quickly just as technology explodes after 50 years of Moore's Law. The result is technology that will shortly be beyond us but not beyond the generations that follow. Our grandchildren will run a world very different from the one we ran and many institutions will simply have to adjust or die.

This is the third and, I promise, last week of my look at education and technology. In the two previous weeks we established that there is a generational transition happening that is already having a profound destabilizing effect on education. Parents who are today in their 20s -- parents of the kids who go to school with my three sons ages 6, 3 and 1 -- grew up with personal computers, mobile phones and video games. More importantly, THEIR PARENTS (our kids, except for those of dirty old men like me) did, too.

This new generation of parents lives in a digital world and has little patience with analog traditions. Where we think of bricks and books they think of electrons and photons. Where we remember what time the library opens, they wonder why it should ever close. The world will shortly be more theirs than ours and they'll be calling the shots with the result that many aspects of life, including education, will change forever. This is inevitable and can't be halted.

Nor is it even appropriate or good for it to be halted, which is one point some readers have trouble understanding. If you can't stop the tide, it is a waste of resources even to try.

This emerging world will be very different in many ways. How many of these kids expect to someday earn a pension? Surveys show that few of them expect Social Security to even survive until their retirement -- if they can ever retire at all. Where we went through a couple career changes they'll go through half a dozen or more in a life that will outlast ours by 20 years. Growing up is changing from becoming what you will be to becoming what you will be for a while, and that has a huge impact on the educational requirements placed on our society.

If you expect to start your career over half a dozen times, how do you prepare for careers 2-6?

As we learned last week from the Amish, there are very efficient educational models out there. Few would look to the Amish as role models yet they are remarkably good at what they do.

Part of any answer is figuring out what education is for. We use it for paying dues, for passing time until a certain level of maturity is reached. We use it for networking and finding mates. We use it for acting goofy at the expense of our parents. And we use it, to some extent, to learn what we need to know to get by.

The question that has so far gone unanswered in this series, then, is how will we learn in the future?

It's easy for old farts like me to assume everybody will learn the way we did, but that's unlikely simply because the underlying assumptions are changing. When I was a kid human labor was cheap and technology was expensive. Today technology is cheap and getting cheaper, while human labor is expensive and becoming more so. Yet our model of education technology is still so defined by that remembered Apple IIe in the corner of the classroom that is it difficult for many to imagine truly pervasive educational technology.

This is in large part because there is no way that Apple IIe or any PC is going to somehow expand to replace books and teachers and classrooms. For education, the personal computer is probably a dead end. It's not that we won't continue to have and use PCs in schools, but the market and intellectual momentum clearly lie elsewhere.

So forget about personal computers: the future of education probably lies with digital games.

I say "digital games" rather than "video games" or "PC games," or "handheld games," because the platform doesn't matter as much as the application. Whether it is a PC or Mac, xBox or PS3, PSP or Nintendo DS, gaming has done an excellent job of proving that the application is more important than the platform on which it runs.

Stories came out this week from the NPD Group announcing that 72 percent of Americans play PC or video games with 58 percent of those played online. Those numbers -- which apparently don't include kids, by the way -- are HUGE and explain all by themselves much of what is happening to traditional mass media like TV, magazines and newspapers.

We're spending so much time playing games that we don't have as much time for those older pursuits. Only drive-time radio thrives and that's just because we don't have a practical model for playing games while driving.

Digital games are a bigger business than Hollywood movies, than book publishing, than television, than music.

And at a time when what we're decrying is the lack of attention our children and grandchildren are paying to traditional modes of education, they are spending hundreds of hours learning to steal virtual cars and play lead air guitar.

Clearly the best instructional platform is one that already attracts users to spend countless hours in its mastery. At this point it is a relatively simple matter to bend some games to the will of education and training.

While I can describe this and even advocate it, I can't do it, myself. I'm simply too old. Studies show there are gamers and non-gamers and I am definitely one of the latter. I've been a pilot for close to 40 years and I don't even like to play Flight Simulator. But that's my problem and that of people from my generation and older. My wife, who is 15 years younger than me, plays all the time.

It is easy to imagine how the PC and video game industries could teach us many things other than how to blast our opponents into infinity. If you play a Beowulf game for 20 hours and it includes all the characters and narrative of the book, will you have mastered the material well enough to pass a test? Probably.

I am not saying schools will disappear. I AM saying that new modes of instruction will emerge and they will inevitably involve processing power and context. We took our kids to Washington, D.C. for Spring Break and I would have loved to outfit them with MP3 players loaded with age-appropriate descriptions of what we saw. That's just scratching the surface.

The success of the Nintendo Wii game system is important to this emerging change in education because the Wii is the first game system based on an extremely flexible user experience. It's not an especially powerful game platform compared with the PS3 or xBox 360, but it is adaptable and user friendly. People want to do new stuff with their Wii's, so why not use them to learn?

Add to this mobile data and communication and we're back to what John Scully of Apple called so many years ago a Personal Digital Assistant. Scully was 15 years ahead of his time and didn't know it. But the PDA that actually works, if I've done my Moore's Law calculation correctly, will be at least 1,024 times as powerful as that original Newton.

My vision for future digital education has a key difference from traditional 20th century education. A fundamental aspect of education has always been that it comes to abrupt and quite specific endpoints associated with various cultural rites of passage. We graduate. There is a first day of school and a last day of school. At some highly specific and anticipated moment we disconnect from the education mother ship and go off on our own, often never to return.


Well to make room in school for someone else, of course.


In my future model the "school" is only a PC/game machine/mobile phone/headset thingee that clues me in about everything around me and helps me learn what I need to know. Why would I ever give that up?

The truth is we won't. If we have more students, we just build more devices. Classrooms aren't absolutely necessary, nor will location even matter.

My proposed model for future education is actually based on the home life of Ozzy Osbourne. Remember The Osbournes on MTV? Who were those kids always hanging out with young Jack and Kelly Osbourne? Remember, they were slightly older and substantially smarter and better looking but not so much better looking as to be threatening. They hung out with Jack and Kelly but clearly answered to Sharon Osbourne. Why would these cooler kids even bother with Jack and Kelly? They were Osbourne employees, hand-selected playmates intended to keep dropouts Jack and Kelly safe and learning after a fashion. They were the flesh-and-blood versions of a true Personal Digital Assistant that any parent would hire if they had Ozzy's money.

Now turn that model into a Bluetooth headset. Imagine a 24/7 mobile Google with a conscience. "Do you really think this is such a good idea, Bob?"

It's your favorite teacher with you all the time but with an ON-OFF switch. "Well if you really insist on trying to fly this Huey helicopter -- AND I CERTAINLY RECOMMEND AGAINST IT -- start by putting your right hand on that lever attached to the floor, which is called a cyclic."

Comments from the Tribe

Status: [CLOSED] read all comments (145)

My 16-year-old daughter reads science fiction, as did I. She knows more about what's going on in the world because of that than many other kids (and adults) who read other stuff or don't read at all, regardless that they all rec'd the same public education. I think reading pretty much mirrors gaming. If written well, you can learn a lot, but still, some folks can't sit and read; probably some can't sit to view or interact with a screen either.

Mike Moxcey | Apr 11, 2008 | 2:00PM

After reading many comments, I'll try to pull out some of the hidden assumptions.

1. Dealing with people is _always_ better than dealing with a computer program. Totally untrue. My daughter has a class called AIM (Applications In Mentoring) where they are supposed to 'bond' with these classmates--they'll be together the entire 3 years of high school. They are idiots. I would not let her go over to many of their houses. She wouldn't want to. The type of person you bond with is as important as the actual bonding process.
2. Nothing can replace a good teacher. That is true, but even a good teacher cannot teach every student. And conversely, a good student can learn despite having a bad teacher. Here's the technological fix tho: a good teacher cannot be cloned. Teaching schools demonstrate this principal completely. A good teaching program/game however, can be cloned.
3. Deciding on a curriculum is a key component of education. What does need to be learned by everyone? I'm not sure but here's a task for the U.N.: design a history of the world text/class/knowledgebase for a one semester class that _all_ nations can use. I'll bet there will be very little in there specifically about America, Canada, Russia or even China. We ought to be looking at history textbooks from other nations and seeing what other people do with the same set of facts.

Mike Moxcey | Apr 11, 2008 | 3:25PM

As a game developer, one of the most important aspects we look into when developing games is how to train the player into using the gameplay mechanics we provide. The best modern example of this is in the game Portal (It's short, cheap and amazing). The trouble is most "educational" games come in trying to teach a lesson. A game doesn't work trying to teach lessons. It works when it provides tools to explore the world given and rewards curiosity and critical thinking. It could be done and change everything, but it will require one really good team to provide a template and really good salesman.

P.S. I have no association with Valve besides admiration.

Jonathan | Apr 15, 2008 | 3:15PM