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Online Edge

The Biggest Shift of All

Kids are using the Web to learn on own, just not in school.

One day last fall, much to my surprise, I walked in the front door and heard something that sounded amazingly like Journey's "Don't Stop Believin'" being banged out on the piano in our family room. I couldn't imagine it was my 13-year-old daughter Tess, who had been struggling with the piano for the past five years, getting by with practicing for 15 or 20 minutes just before her weekly lesson. I actually thought we had an unexpected guest.

But as I turned the corner, I saw it really was Tess, her back straight, her eyes focused on the sheet music before her, her hands smoothly running over the keys with just a few missteps. I was impressed. "Very nice," I said, and she smiled. "I didn't know you were learning that."

"I wasn't," she said. And with a tiny jerk of her head, she added, "I found it on the Internet." And that's when I saw it, her laptop open on top of the piano, a YouTube video showing someone else's hands slowly playing the chords and notes. Tess reached up, hit the play button, watched for a few seconds, paused the video, found the right spot on the sheet, put her hands on the keys, and played. "Doesn't it sound great?" she said with a smile.

Personal Learning Paths

It's not the first time one of my kids has set out on his or her own path to learning on the Web. More often than not, they come home from school and use the hour or so of free time that we give them online to find cheats for the Wii games they play or to learn how to make friendship bracelets or do flips on the trampoline or whatever else they're motivated to do. (It's seldom homework, by the way.) Tucker, my 11-year-old son, has even taken my laptop out to the driveway from time to time to check his free throw form or practice a new soccer dribble. As more and more of these examples pile up, it's hard for me not to think, "Man, if only I'd been able to do that when I was their age."

Even more, however, these days I think, "Man, if only they'd be able to do that at school." They can't, of course. The school systems they're in have their learning all laid out for them. In fact, it wouldn't be too much work for me to tell you what each of them will be doing in school on the third Tuesday in January 2013, give or take a week. If only life were so predictable.

Obviously, it's not, especially when it comes to our learning. To most, this on-demand education that my kids are creating for themselves may not seem like much of a big deal right now, but I assure you it is. It's an education that goes far beyond piano riffs and sports moves. It's one that can take advantage of 2 billion people (read: teachers) online and the sum of human knowledge along with it. Schools, however, continue to act as if nothing has changed. I fear it will spell their doom.

Creating Our Education

Stephen Downes, a researcher for Canada's National Research Council, recently wrote, "We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for us." Amen. My kids are growing tired of the one-size-fits-all education that we're providing for them, and so am I, especially now that there's an increasingly relevant alternative. I'm not saying we just switch on YouTube and let them have at it—not at all. But what I am saying, and what I think Downes is saying, is that the role of schools and our roles as individual leaders and teachers need to change right now.

Here's the question we need to be asking: How are we helping our kids create an education for themselves? If we're just about delivering the curriculum, we're giving them what we want, not what they need.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at