Where are the learners?

I tend to browse around Flickr a lot, and came across this image:

Empty classroom

So what’s missing here? Well, it would seem obvious… except to many technical book authors. See, for most folks, the obvious answer here is, “There are no students!”

But for the average technical book author — and to be clear, I’m one of that crowd, so I’m speaking personally and from experience — we would all, loudly, cry out, “There’s no teacher!”

What a fundamental disconnect.

See, those of us who write do that writing alone (or, in some cases, relatively alone. That’s author-speak for, “at my local Starbucks with earphones”). And yet, we’ll quickly call ourselves “teachers.” But what other type of teacher functions without a group of people in front of them, or at least in mind?

Can you imagine a new math teacher walking into a classroom, and gaping at all the kids seated in the room? “What are all these kids doing in here?” We’d very politely usher that teacher back out into unemployment (or perhaps into further training).

Take a short step away from the empty classroom, and consider the dying technical book market. Yes, it’s dying. Sales are plummeting for traditional technical books. We’re having to examine other markets, other formats, other approaches…

And we’re back to the empty classroom. Right? Because we’re building screencasts with an anonymous teacher speaking into a microphone in an empty room. Or we’re writing iPhone apps that are beautiful… and do little more than highlight the teacher’s knowledge.

But what if… what if we looked at that picture above, and realized that what’s missing is the student. Better, the learner.

Socrates suggested that learning is remembering (I’m simplifying, I know, but I’ve already written longer than I should have). And the beautiful part of his picture of learning was suggesting that he was less a teacher than a midwife. He basically didn’t teach; he instead aided the learner in learning. He was a facilitator, little more.

So one of the things you’re going to see over these next few weeks — from me and from O’Reilly — is a renewed focus on the learner. We’re going to write and ask questions about how to facilitate, rather than lecture. We’re going to push out some new and engaging products and ideas (some for-pay, some for-free), and we’re going to put the focus on the learner.

I hate writing a declaratory piece like this, because it doesn’t encourage interaction as much as I’d prefer. In a sense, I’ve broken my own rules, and become lecturer instead of facilitator. I haven’t been a good midwife. I’m hoping you see that I’m trying to do a little stage-setting, for a lot of facilitation.

Maybe you’ve got comments, ideas, and thoughts. How do you do this? How do you keep your focus off your own “brilliance” and on your learner’s needs? What are you doing to keep the focus on where it belongs?

  • Steve G.

    Actually, there’s nothing missing from the picture. Look at the clock: it’s 3:10. School’s out for the day. Plus, it’s summer vacation. :-)

    And learning for free is cool. All I need is the time…

  • Clint B

    Brett. Some of your language here reminds me of person-centered therapy.


    As I studied it, a main rule of thumb was that the facilitator/counselor never gives advice or psycho-analyzes, but instead facilitates, asks engaging questions, and is him/herself centered while working through the process with the client.

    Perhaps something can be learned from studying Carl Rogers, the founder of pct.

  • When you cut out the teacher-learner blather you are in the same boat as every other informational (as in bits) product provider. Content is much more available than before, access is easier, prices are falling to zero.

    What to do? Esther Dyson layed this all out back in the early 1990’s – stop charging for packaged content, charge for intangibles instead. As an author, you need to create the intangibles that only you can deliver, probably in person, and reading your books cannot. O’Reilly Media does events, what will you do as part of that or something different?

    The age of artificial scarcity is over in this space. Either determine what your value proposition is, or find something else to do.

  • But for the average technical book author […] we would all, loudly, cry out, “There’s no teacher!”
    Citation needed. Nice article all the same.

  • An obvious danger here is that you are worried about fixing the form and function of your offerings when, really, the problem might be a structural drop in demand for the content. That is, supposing all available and potential “learners” are buying from you as fast and as much as ever, if the number of learners is plummeting because there’s decreased value in the learning – you’re still screwed. You can slow the descent but a bigger share of a rapidly shrinking pie is cold comfort.

    I think one of the reasons that that happened is that over the past two decades the industry has systematically dialed down deep “systems software” research in favor of shallow “easy applications” research. First there was the scandal of Unix at Bell Labs and multi-media GUIS and such Xerox PARC. Then there was the scandal of Larry Augustin being the first to officially realize Sun had a problem thanks to GNU/Linux. And then there was a tidal wave of overwhelming, anti-research hype around how magic cauldrons could replace R&D. And the hype looked good up through, about, the original LAMP stack – Larry Wall had his own thing (why is everyone named “Larry” in this industry?) and I got to hand to the Apache guys for doing a bang-up job – top notch. But.. those were kind of lucky, opportunistic shots feeding off other stuff that was dying and the expectations that that kind of success would repeat unproblematically turned out to be quite suspect, no matter how cleverly certain people argued it should be otherwise. Meanwhile, the finance guys started chasing well-timed stock price and corporate paper upswings, everyone (to a first approximation) decided Jack Welch was a Super Genius (which he was, in the same sense as Wyle E. Coyote), everyone leveraged out their ass and cut to the bone.

    There are a few islands of exceptions. Tiny groups within IBM’s DB side come to mind – but they have trouble gaining a lot of traction in the new hegemony.

    On the labor side, the career advice to newbie hackers was to volunteer and “build reputation” in the open source marketing community which, quite often, wound up as the blind celebrating the visual appearance of the blind.

    Technically, you can look at the LA** stack (usually LAM*, commonly called LAMP) and puzzle out what happened here. The Apache guys put in lots of “hooks”. Thereby they created a lot of low hanging fruit to fill those hooks: new databases, new web hooks. People “dabbled” and lazily plucked that fruit and for every (even if hyped and overvalued) “success” you’d get several thousand book sales of newbs who wanted in on that action. What was missed in this process was planting new trees and meanwhile, even the ladders for the higher hanging fruit were busted up and burned for firewood.

    The students are missing because there’s nothing to teach them they don’t already know or can’t already figure out for free.

    You can test my hypothesis here by looking at how much of your sales bubble came from the LA** stack hacks.

    A sad aspect of this is that systems software research didn’t actually die: it got privatized and removed from the public sphere (hi Google!). It’s quite a mess that has been made. Reap what you sow, I guess.

    Best of luck on the new direction. I’d have put more emphasis on trying to kick-start open R&D in some monetized ways, but, that’s just my personal biases speaking.


  • Have you tried becoming a mentor? I’ve been thinking and writing about some of the same questions recently and came to a similar conclusion to yours. A very natural way to keep close to what learners need and want to learn is to teach classes, speak to audiences and best of all, mentor face-to-face.

    It’s an amazing, sometimes life changing experience becoming a part of someone else’s growth in a direct and practical way. And questions from students provide a never ending source of material for a writer.

    I guess it’s no great coincidence that we both thought of Socrates.

  • Carlos Amez

    Try this, will you? http://www.mercatest.com

    It´s quite close to your idea, I guess

  • Bob

    Hi Brett –

    While I enjoy your musings about education, I would
    suggest that perhaps if you want to help with education
    that you roll up your sleeves and get your hands a bit
    dirty. Do some field work. Become one of those second
    career math teachers and stare out into an over crowded
    classroom, especially one filled with a
    diverse population of failing students,
    ELL students, and special needs students – all in one room
    because tests scores “indicate” they are at the same level.

    If you do the math, the number of students is not zero,
    but actually far on the other end of the scale. The
    learners in classrooms are definitely not missing.

    Here is a good piece from a professor at Kansas State,
    that is fairly well known on the internet:

    What I think might be missing is a more cohesive integration
    between technology and technologists (such as yourself)
    that understand where the internet is taking us, and the
    traditional classrooms and structures that are primed to go
    through the same types of changes that corporate America
    went through during the early 90s.

    Here’s a final write up from a masters that I recently finished
    in education technology leadership.


    and the esoteric/academic big picture


    I’d be interested in hearing what the open source world that reads
    O’Reilly Radar has to think about the general concepts presented.

  • Technical books it seems are purposefully :) made to hard to read, which might be a good thing for students who are forced to read and learn it, in order to pass an exam, and they might indeed gain something out of the experience. However, there is a serious lack of technical books that lucidly explain the subject matter to people in other fields. This is certainly possible but very very few books address that. An example of such a book is: Mathematics: Its Content, Methods and Meaning (my post related to that http://www.hamagudi.com/2008/09/mathematics-its-content-methods-and.html)

    Also I argue for a version of technical books without the exercises: http://www.hamagudi.com/2009/06/two-types-of-technical-books.html

  • We are tackling much of the same issue over at http://www.nixty.com. I put together a video that helps illustrate the issue and the solutions. If interested, then go here: http://nixty.com/blog/index.php and click on the “catch the NIXTY vision video. Also, sign up for our beta! Our goal is for a soft launch in August.

  • DranoK

    I think scope is something to look at. Other than a select few I rarely read more than a chapter (at best) of a technical book. It’s hard to justify buying one on that basis.

    So much focus is on an area as a whole rather than on more concise information on how to do something specific. And it’s so redundant. There are hundreds of Photoshop books that have basically the exact same content in them. Tons of teach yourself perl books which are nearly interchangeable (yes, there are exceptions).

    At this point I rarely find it productive to sit down with a 900-page book to learn something new–even if it’s something I have very little experience with. Once I understand what its purpose is I’d rather start playing with it. That’s how I learn, at least.

    It’s a more productive use of my time to find a tutorial / HOWTO for a very specific task. I can then move on and learn as I go. Traditional books aren’t very good at this.

    For advanced topics or reference the situation is even worse. It’s a crap shot if the book even addresses your specific complexity. Besides, Google is faster than thumbing through a book or searching a PDF.

    I do have a suggestion, though. Something I would buy:

    Short, focused, HOWTOs and tutorials that tackle a specific topic in-depth with plenty of examples.

    I don’t want an entire book. I want a 20-page document focused on a specific issue or task in-depth. Forums provided to discuss the topic would also be nice.

  • Chris Alan

    How can you tell there’s no teacher? You can’t see the front of the room.

  • I can’t address every reply, but did want to make a few comments. First, I love that this has stirred up some discussion. That’s the idea here… to engage the conversation.

    Alex, I think you’ll find that there’s a lot more than “blather” going on here. There’s a lot more to content than just raw information. The iPhone is just one of the latest proofs of that, as is the Kindle. Put content in different formats, or in different mediums, it sells anew (or even better). The same is true with video: there are truly important decisions to be made with regard to presenting content effectively, and the learner model is one of those.

    Mike, not sure what you’re looking for in terms of a citation. I could give you practically every editorial phone call I’ve ever been on for an early-stage project, or any of a number of conferences where I’ve sat and talked with authors.

    Thomas, I think structure is part of this. The 900-page book… well, it’s just not as useful as it once was. But just going “shorter” isn’t enough. And you can’t port a book to a web page or a video. There are discussions and decisions that have to be made… and I believe at the heart of those is a focus on the learner (or a lack of one!).

    DranoK, totally with you on short-form. It’s coming.

    And Chris, finally, you noticed! I was wondering if anyone would. There’s no teacher at the front, but I’d argue that in learning this sort of material, the teacher should be among the students anyway. What good teacher doesn’t engage beyond their podium?

  • eddiec

    Hi All,

    1. A reason that the Internet is a threat to tech books is because the people who are interested in tech books are the same people who are browsing the Internet and using chat-groups etc. Therefore the Internet is a natural place for them to glean knowledge from.

    Therefore the conclusion that there is a market for online guided facilitation of knowledge acquisition seems to be at least partially correct.

    2. The type of knowledge that O’Reilly is spreading is technical and not scientific. The advancement in knowledge I have after reading an O’Reilly book is more akin to a mechanic understanding a new car than a mathematician conquering a new field. This type of practical knowledge is as easily understood from peers on the Internet who are likely to chat to you, as it is from a book, which will not.

    3. In justification of the above, an interesting thing about knowledge in the IT arena is that IT salaries do not seem to be commensurate to scientific IT knowledge. If you look at the top jobs on any job board you will see what they are looking for above all is experience and probably managerial skills.

    That means that for people who are in the technical arena, career progression does not depend on advancing intellectually but rather depends on breadth of knowledge and experience. It is also very difficult to prove who has good engineering skills without seeing a portfolio of accomplishments, there is no exam that can prove this.

    Put a different way;
    If I have a PhD in Chemistry, I am likely to be a good candidate for a general manager of a chemical plant and respected in my profession. If I have a PhD in IT I would probably invoke more interest than respect / dollars.

    4. A general comment: These observations to a different question, which is, how scientific are we being all together regarding the development of IT? Are we missing out because IT has adopted a different paradigm to other fields of human knowledge? Although we harness massive unified energies of people across the globe are we really progressing forwards? Are we building pyramids of knowledge or sprawling town houses?


    eddiec :-)

  • “There’s a lot more to content than just raw information. The iPhone is just one of the latest proofs of that, as is the Kindle. Put content in different formats, or in different mediums, it sells anew (or even better).”

    Brett, I think you are missing the point. You are talking about packaging and presentation. Of course you can do that, but all you can do is reposition your offering in a declining market. The reason the technical book market is declining is because the information needed is available in many places, often for free. Much as I like O’Reilly books, I don’t think of them as “educational”, just packages of useful information to navigate my own education. The best was the “In a Nutshell” series – concise, fairly portable references.

    But anything you do to change the packaging will be subject to the same inexorable forces. (Video teaching? – been done and looking like shovel ware). Think about this. Is there anything you can do that could even approach the information and help that one gets from developer communities? That’s the very power of “collective intelligence” that Tim espouses. Can you harness that in some way and shape it? Maybe, but I won’t hold my breath. I would posit that the best you can hope to do is decline less quickly than the industry by being innovative. But I wouldn’t kid yourself that you can remake your offerings as a thriving new business.

    Maybe you will prove me wrong. I’ll look forward to what you say over the next few months.

  • Learning is a time/space based activity that happens in real time. A classroom teacher can tell you that the process is one of watching, waiting and trying to be able to leverage the “teachable moment.”

    From what I’ve seen, on line education delivery, whether on the screen, the mobile or in a book, don’t have the ability to create and then leverage that teachable moment which happpens at different times for different students.

    The most promising is in the paradigm of games. The teachable moment is created by “what to do next.” It works the same for other learning conditions.

    If the issue is learning, I think a Clay Christensen’s latest : Disrupting Class is a must read.

  • I have an off topic question. Do you have an easy, automated way to add the Flickr info to the bottom of the picture? I’d love to be able to create something like that as easily as I download pictures. Thanks!

  • eddiec

    Michael J – comes out that the best way of proceeding would be to develop the educational content as is currently done in book writing but then to put it on line, not just as an on-line book, but as an interactive site where you can chat to others reading the book, learning that skill, engage in competitions and group projects, etc.

    Perhaps throw in a constantly available O’Reilly tutor.

    A cross between structured form and the interactive excitement and group learning experience that is loved by the browsers of the Internet.


    eddiec :-)

  • Strange, last I checked, O’Reilly already has a program that engages a learner in this learning style that it charges for, known as the O’Reilly School of Technology (School’s teach, if you want to focus on teaching a learner, clearly the focus should be on beefing up that division).

    Have you considered taking one of the courses to see how similar in style it is to the Socratic method you’re lauding?

  • EGADS, I assumed the teacher was not missing at all. I figured that the teacher was the one taking the photo, but, I am curious as to WHY the teacher needed to photograph the empty class. Perhaps this is the view that brings relaxation to an otherwise hectic day. May as well freeze it in time!

    On another note, It has been quite a while since I’ve been impressed by an elementary teacher. (ho-hum).