The Napsterfication of Learning


by Graham Brown-Martin

April 14, 2011

By Graham Brown-Martin

I’ve recently enjoyed the honour of being invited to present keynote talks at conferences in the UK and US. I rarely give talks at my own events so it’s great to have the opportunity to attend and speak at others.

My general topic has been “Disruption, Innovation and Learning” that being the theme for LWF during 2011 and usually why I’ve been invited. However I like to customise my talks to the audience whom I’m addressing and the general themes of the events themselves plus I don’t like giving the same talk twice.

Will you choose the red pill or the blue pill?

The events I’ve attended have been well organised and well attended with interesting and many inspiring delegates so my comments here are not intended as a critique but a general observation about the teaching profession and our existing formal establishments for learning. Each event has, by their nature, attracted progressive educational thinkers, practitioners and innovators with a keen interest in deploying the kind of technologies that many young people are already using as opposed to the kind of bone-headed technology that has been forced upon many learners by less enlightened practitioners.

However, what has become clear to me during the events I have participated in as a speaker as well as the events I have hosted is that whilst the discussions are around potentially disruptive technologies such as mobile, video games and social media the real impact of these technologies, like an elephant dancing on the table, is rarely considered.

Common themes emerge such as how we might integrate these technologies into the classroom or within existing teaching practice rather than how these technologies might genuinely change or disrupt the way we teach and learn.

So are we to go through another cycle of missed opportunity as a result of trying to fit the 21st century into the 19th?

Are we really going to carry on talking about how we might use clunky learning platforms on mobile and gaming devices? How we might integrate iPads with Interactive White Boards? How the over-priced and over-maintained LMS might integrate with gaming platforms? How we might apply gaming mechanics to tired educational software? How we might enable the teacher with admin rights or other controls on a learners personal device?

I could go on ad-nausea here but I think you get my point.

compare and contrast

There’s been an on-going industrial-institutional complex at play here for at least the past 30 years that has ensured the continued irrelevance of technology to learning in the formal setting which has been a gift to those in government who would like to opt our learners out of the 21st century and return to back to basic teaching practice. This would be fine of course if our learners where joining a back to basics, 1950’s world after they leave their formal education.

You know what I’m talking about here, technology designed to replicate and support existing teaching practices and formal learning environments which quite frankly haven’t changed a great deal since the mid-20th century. As I’ve oft said the problem with this approach is that we get the same, often mediocre, results only quicker.

What do young people say?


When I retired the Handheld Learning Conference after 5 years at the height of its growth and success (2,000 international delegates) it was because I believed that the argument had been won. I just couldn’t see the point of more navel-gazing about devices. There could no longer be a question about the value of the connected learner who had near permanent access to learning via their mobile device.

Or could there?

Naively I didn’t count on the legion of practitioners or IT job-worths who were still thinking in the context of the mobile or tablet device as a laptop replacement and set about retro-fitting these modern marvels with the same garbage that didn’t work very well even on laptops. They must have missed the memo about the shift in computing that has left the desktop PC all but dead and the laptop on death-row.

So my question is what will happen when every learner has their own iPad like device, permanently connected to the internet without filtering and other controls?

What disruption might this enable?

So the analogy or even challenge that I make is what would the Napster of learning look like?

I’m referring to the original Napster that Shawn Fanning introduced in 1999 that despite being illegal changed the music industry and the way we access music forever. I’d venture to say that without this ingenious act of piracy the iPhone and iPad that we know today would not exist. As Matt Mason opined “piracy drives innovation” and as Stephen Heppell has said “technology + people, breaks cartels”.

Napster to my mind was a text book example of this.

The enabling technology for this disruption was the Internet and affordable, readily available computing that sent shock waves through the industry paving the way for legal platforms such as iTunes.

Napster effectively disintermediated our access to music, it took out the middle men, bypassed the record labels, the record retailers and connected the listeners directly to the music. It also meant that many artists, the creators of the music, didn’t get paid and even today it is estimated that 95% of all music downloads are illegal. However the savvy artists and labels who embraced the disruption used file sharing technology to launch themselves and shifted their revenue streams to live performances.

Interestingly Napster and illegal file-sharing didn’t damage the independent record labels who were innovating as much as the majors who were largely innovation-free and relied on re-releasing proven artists and old recordings in new formats.

I think we can draw some interesting parallels here to what is already happening in the world of learning.

Understanding who the client is here is easy. But who or what are the middle-men? Who are the cartels? Who are the artists and who are the new artists that will embrace this inevitable disruption? How will they get paid?

And what of the physical school or university building?

I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Addendum added August 17th 2011 – Video of talk given at the Edinburgh Interactive Festival 2011

[showhide type="references" more_text="Show References (15)" less_text="Hide References" hidden="yes"]

References allow you to track sources for this article, as well as articles that were written in response to this article.
  • A recent post by Learning Without Frontiers front man Graham Brown-Martin rightly calls for the need to escape from the present trap of automating 19th Century education and use the new ways of doing things that emerging technologies provide to develop a totally different system, fit for the 21st Century.

  • So taking into account the original article what could we possible learn from Napster and how could this apply to education? I am aware that what I am about to offer is a highly simplified view of what Napster was and also possible future outcomes in education applying some of the lessons from Napster however as a thought exercise this is still valuable.

  • What we should learn from Napster is that showing a way that is taken up by many will force changes. The way of doing like Napster is to let go of restrictions and let teachers play with the possibilities they see within their own field. That is to challenge the curriculum and show that their students are doing excellent anyway.

  • As always, it’s not how kids learn that’s the problem, it’s what we currently want them to learn? That’s what worries me about the Khan Academy – it’s using new technology to deliver old learning.

  • Related: OpenStudy
    Make the world your study group

  • The Apple iPad ushers in a new era of computing that leaves the world of offices behind, a profound paradigm shift that is difficult to appreciate until one has had the opportunity to live, play, work and learn with one

  • As much as I believed in the certainty of this change happening, I did not fully comprehend the implications of this change until I listened to Graham Brown-Martin, founder of Learning Without Frontiers and organizer-in-chief of the Handheld Learning conference in London.

  • Further discussion about this blog post in the LWF LinkedIn Group

  • Most kids have a "bottom-up" expectation of curating their own information and creating something with it. The barriers to producing content (music, art, books, etc) have all but disappeared.

  • Related: I'm a Cheater
    These tiny, yet powerful “pocketable computers” provide us with a wide array of possibilities, which, if used cleverly, can obviously contribute to more dynamic, authentic learning scenarios. This presupposes a willingness to challenge existing structures, though. If we just cram smartphones in the classroom in support of current practice, little will be achieved.

  • Put simply, if you're in the business of making discrete hardware for the classroom you are in very serious trouble. Your business is about to be replaced by a $5 download from the App Store and the rest of your company's existence will be about trying to sell a refresh to your existing installed base. That is, selling to what's left of your installed base that hasn't moved to iOS devices – and that remaining part of your base will be the part with the least money to throw around.

  • Pupils at primary schools who use educational apps on smart-phones and tablets are performing better in their lessons, a new report showed has revealed.

  • The iSchool initiative is hoping to spur a digital movement that could revolutionize the American education system.

  • So… if I can recognize that my own classroom is mobile, why am I still demanding that my students come and sit in a room to learn? Isn’t it time that educators start discussing how mobile learning devices can really change the educational experience for our students?


This entry was posted in Blog, disruption, Game Based Learning, Handheld Learning, learning, Mobile, publishing, teaching, Technology. Bookmark the permalink.