Education 2.0: The importance of ownership

I’ve been teaching adults for almost twenty years. First as a lecturer, then as a professor and for the last ten years as a coach and facilitator for large organizations all over the world. I love technology and the possibility that it represents but I believe that technology can only ever enable educational success. It rarely drives. As technology becomes more pervasive we must shift our focus to the driving factors. I would argue that a key driver for educational success is the internal sense of ownership each student has for his or her own development. If they have this, they will find a way to succeed. If they don’t, the technology enables ever greater levels of complacency.

For example, companies offer more and better educational content to their employees each year via technology. The delivery mechanisms become more sophisticated, the market analysis and demographic segmentation become more precise. The richness of the experience and the connectedness of the learning with the world beyond the classroom becomes ever-broader. Do employees learn more today than they did in 1970? In 1900? I’m not sure. I’ve seen no compelling evidence either way. The ones who really want to learn, learn more. The self-starters learn more. The employees of the best companies learn at a breathtaking pace but that has more to do with these company’s ability to attract those who are committed to their own self development than it does with the quality of the educational technology. Students who own their own development use new technology well – it serves as an accelerant to their educational success. But the accelerant is not the spark.

This is the case for adults – employees in the world’s largest and richest organizations. Is it the case for children? I don’t know. Probably.

I was hiking with my son yesterday. It was a long hike for a boy his age and he asked me, “Dad, do your feet hurt?” I turned my head as we walked and said, “Yeah. They hurt. But not all hurting is bad and you wanted to get to the top of the hill. Do you want to stop?” He thought about it for a long while, ten, maybe twenty steps and said, “no, but my feet hurt too. I’ll be glad when we get to the top.” Ed 2.0 won’t make our feet not hurt. We’ll just be hiking to more wonderous places.

Ed 2.0 won’t be a kinder and gentler place, free from conflict and strife. It will be a hard place. A place where trolls and naysayers and those who would discourage others have the same loud microphone as anyone else. For each online Gandhi, an online bully. It will be a confusing place. A painful place. It will also be a wonderful place, a place where real liberation and intellectual progress will be possible in ways and on a scale we have never seen in human history.

Ed 2.0 isn’t only or even primarily about technology. It is about arming students with the tools and the fierce determination they will need to learn with and through that technology. It is about encouraging intellectual entrepreneurship – creating of our students hundreds of millions of one-person startups, kludging their way to happiness and success.

Ed 2.0 is about encouraging ownership – genuine heartfelt ownership of one’s own educational destiny. The institutions will transform faster than we can keep pace. Between the cracks of our existing educational infrastructure will grow varied species of educational delivery the likes of which we have never seen and cannot possibly forecast. What our students will need is a love of learning but we should not mistake this for an easy love affair. A love of learning is a hard relationship. Learning hurts sometimes. Learning is scary most of the time. It’s impact is all-too-often proportional to its agony. As Benjamin Franklin described it, “Those things that hurt, instruct.”

To paraphrase MLK, we must teach our students that suffering is redemptive and that that redemption takes the form of learning. Ed 2.0 is teaching a student what to do when the system doesn’t work, when the teacher is bad, when the school is failing, when the district is broke. The answer in each case is to rise above the failure and to use the power of technology to surmount each barrier. That’s the real model of liberation with technology – it’s not the gleaming cities of glass, it’s the kluge with wires poking out, too much Cat 5 cable, and the fuses in your house always on the edge of tripping because you’re downloading too much information. It’s turning on the fire hose. It’s taking the spark that is the desire to learn and building into an unquenchable fire.

  • Regan Hughes

    Interesting perspective – I pretty much agree with everything you say. I wonder if Education 2.0 might also provide learning opportunities that make learning much easier than it previously was? Perhaps more interactive, intuitive and engaging – maybe even fun sometimes? I suspect that in the end, as you say, it will always be difficult to avoid the pain involved in learning new things.

    • Regan,
      I think there are many things that we can do to make learning more engaging, fun, enjoyable, even easy, in its early stages. For me, I try never to forget that this fun works like the catapult on an aircraft carrier — its job is to get the plane up to speed so it can take off from a very short runway. But the engines belong to the students and they are what will drive success “in the air.” There’s much we can do to help people develop good engines but these things may or not be fun: expecting and demanding passion, dedication, and a willingness to endure sacrifice on the way to a goal. Setting the expectation of creativity under difficult circumstances. Modeling durable and unshakeable tenacity. With the best intentions I too often focus on the catapult and less on the engines.

  • Marie Bjerede

    Rob, you make a great case for ownership. Learning is hard – it requires tremendously hard work and thought and perseverance. In the best schools even the best teachers can’t learn for you – the student has to do the intellectual work though a great teacher can bring the engaging challenges that makes that work feel less onerous and more satisfying. How much ownership, then, does it take to persevere when the school is depressing and the teaching is mediocre, and how does it develop in such an environment?

    • Marie,
      “How does it develop in such an environment” is a great question and I think is key to the actual role played by technology in the educational system of the future. I think there are two ways technology will enable education — directly through the thoughtful application and delivery of technology from teachers, schools and community organizations to meet student’s needs and “indirectly” — technology as educational kludge where students find and use technology as a tool of last resort. I call these the utopian and the dystopian visions of Edu 2.0. Chances are, both will come true. For the dystopian scenario, simple, “good enough” devices and systems, cheap and widely available — educational survival kits dropped throughout the world where students can find them, are something we might look to understand.

  • Ryan Palmer


    Thank you for this post. I work in higher education and what you say is right on. I’ve always believed that for true learning to occur, education must be personal and relevant to the learner. Under the old educational model, tailoring lessons to an individual’s need in a classroom of many was almost impossible to do. With technology, we will be able to interact and track our students in much more personal ways without it consuming all of our instructional time. Under the old model, the lowest achieving and the highest achieving were always easy to identify, but those in the middle generally fell through the cracks. With new technology able to reach all students more personally, we will be able to see what makes those middle students middle, and remediate/intervene more effectively. As long as we leverage the technology to answer our educational questions rather than the other way around, this is truly a win win.
    I also think much of the “pain” you correctly identify will come from instructor and administrative resistance to a more horizontally distributed education model paradigm shift. Despite opportunities for more creative lesson planning, more effective student remediation and engagement and, most importantly, cost savings for an institution (e.g. Oregon public schools adopting Google Apps the older guard seems reluctant to acknowledge much of this technology as anything more than “kid’s stuff” (in my experience, at least). It will take some visionary leaders to guide the “digital immigrant” generation into this new paradigm, as long as they still are the decision makers at institutions.

    • Good comment, Ryan. I think some very interesting things start happening when we teach students to be owners. I think they start asking for what they want and become more sophisticated in their understanding of what they need. Our role as educators shifts to the extent to which students see themselves as owners rather than passive consumers. As for pain and adversity, my hunch is that life will provide plenty of it for each student (and plenty of joy to accompany it). It will come in the form of difficult to master content, challenging institutional structures, the routine emotional maze that is socialization or a thousand other sources. Owners, though, are resilient, and can turn this adversity into exercise.

  • Matt Ledding

    Fantastic article.

    I love that you gave your son ownership over the climbing up the hill.

    The question of “owning” is also interesting as we now can “bend” tech, creating interactive whiteboards from the wiimote (check out smoothboard for win, and Uwe Schmitds java whiteboard for mac or linux.) A process that show them how they can actually use tech as producers, and save the school over a thousand dollars per classroom.

    Students use free versions of 2.0 tech to learn SKILLS rather than just be mere user/consumers of programs. Instructibles, Make Magazine, and many tools are available if we look. Open Educational Resources are offering “free” so hopefully this should help with lowering prices on textbooks, and students can “geek out” with tools like safari digital online for very reasonable prices.

    For materials, we have never been so rich.
    And as far as hurt goes, I think we can learn as much with laughter as with tears… but I think the pain suffered will be more with the teachers, and the change in style, from google proofing answers and changes in concepts of testing from “what you know” to “how can you use what you know: what can you do?”

    For teachers who are only comfortable outside of their comfort zone, there are no problems, but for those resistant to change, there will be problems. The best teachers, historically, (and here we can put Socrates, Jesus, Ghandi, Martin Luther King…) all tend to be a tad kamikaze, pitting themselves against bad ideas, rather than just being lemmings leaping off the cliffs of conformity.

    I wrote a blogpost in defense of some older educational theories that had been lost in the last century, that perhaps can sneak in again in those cracks you speak of…

    • Thanks Matt,
      I think you make a really good point about ownership and “bending” or repurposing existing or new technology. The distinction you make about graduating from the mere user/consumer to a more substantial relationship with the technology lies at the heart of what owners do — they get inside the technology and make it an extension of their goals and their desires. We’ve all had this experience with technology — where a device becomes an extension of ourselves and we tweak it or customize it to the point where it’s greatest value to us is no longer its OEM state but it the extensive modifications we’ve performed on it. As for laughter, I think we can learn from it but I think the higher end of every learning curve is _hard_. Laughter may start us down the path and there may be joy all along the way but there is real hard work and failure to be surmounted in any journey. Owners overcome this. Consumers return the product for a refund.

  • Gerald Ardito

    I thought this was a great article.
    I am a middle school science teacher and doctoral student. In both roles I am really interested in ownership.

    I particularly appreciated the connection you made between ownership and work. And how technology could help us develop those skills.

    • Thanks Gerald,
      Learning is learning, whether it is accomplished by a 7 year-old or a CEO of a multinational organization. The delivery mechanisms for this learning have evolved in different ways but both fields of learning (work and school) have much to learn from one another! I’m excited about exploring the connections as well.

  • Manish

    We try to teach them the subjects/topics and we had varied results.

    What is the guarantee that teaching how to take ownership will be one big success story.

    What are the theories that support / explain teaching (not learning)?

    • Good questions, Manish. Our research concerns adult education and, in particular, executive edcuation in corporate contexts. In these contexts we’ve found that the highest predictor of success in a particular learning process is commitment to self-development on the part of the learner. It seems that this serves as a meta-variable to enhance educational outcomes. I think an interesting question is the extent to which this research is generalizable, but I see no reasons it would not be. As for guarantees, I’ve seen few in the context of learning. We can increase the chances of success, but time and chance happen to us all. I take the approach of maximizing the probability of success — more modest but less subject to heartache.

  • Lucy Gray

    Great post, Rob! I’m going to share this with my kids and have some conversations around the concept of our educational destinies.

    One quote particularly stands out to me, ” I love technology and the possibility that it represents but I believe that technology can only ever enable educational success. It rarely drives.” So many educators, particularly administrators, seem to be looking for technology to solve academic achievement dilemmas. If we look to technology to be that silver bullet, we are going to be sorely disappointed. If administrators reach the same level of understanding as you have, I believe that they will focus on vision, team building and the development of a school culture that empowers students.

    • Dear Lucy,
      Thanks, and I agree wholeheartedly with your comment about the silver bullet. Technology supports great teachers and great students but it can’t replace the efforts of either. Academic accomplishment is a function of the tenacity of the child, the support of teachers and parents and what you so aptly linked to as the “third teacher” — the environment in which learning takes place. This isn’t just the school — it is the cultural context — home and school and peer group in which the student forms his or her view of what is “normal.” I think helping kids to see that ownership of their educational destiny is the new “normal” is an exciting way to amplify the force of technology.

      You’re absolutely right the potential of new technology for education is unlike anything the world has ever seen. Both schools and students will have to evolve and grow to realize this potential.

  • Carl Sumner

    Great sentiments Rob. I really enjoy Reading posts where I am nodding and smiling all the way through because I can relate. I bore myself with how many times I try to get this point across to my students. I facilitate their learning – they have to put in the sweat. Technology, just like any other vehicle, used lazily, innapropriately or in a misguided way does no benefit. But the positives COULD be boundless.

  • Matt Mireles

    True dat, my friend. True dat.

    You raise a very valid point that the techno-utopians seem to always forget. Some things in life are HARD, and technology isn’t going to change that. DIY only works for those with the pre-existing discipline and drive to complete a task. These are character traits that must be instilled first.

    One of the ways you overcome pain and get people to do shit that’s hard is via peer pressure. Before becoming a web 2.0 founder/CEO, I fought forest fires on a hotshot crew in Northern California. Thinking back, I wouldn’t have accomplished or followed through on half the miserable tasks I had to do were it not for fear of humiliation and the peer pressure not to “fall out” of the group exercise. Being in the group pressed me to push my own envelope. In the same way, I bet that half of your son’s motivation for pressing on was his own fear of shame and being weak in your eyes were he to quit.

    It’s not about eliminating pain, it’s about teaching people to embrace it, overcome it and take pride in doing so.

    For your reading pleasure:

    • Thanks, Matt. Excellence is always hard. Always. If we would have our students use the power of technology to achieve excellence of any sort, we will need to help them to learn that difficult is a feature, not a bug. Really neat example from your Forest Service days — reminds me of some great research about why soldiers do brave things. They analyzed the reasons for valor and found that in almost every case soldiers did brave things not for their country or their unit but for their buddies — the guys next to them in adversity. I think that points to a really important way to help students embrace difficulty — have them share it.

  • Bryce

    I follow this blog fairly regularly, but I’ve never heard the phrase ‘Ed 2.0’ before. I can infer some meanings, but maybe an overview post would be nice.

    My impression — speaking as a non-expert — is that getting ownership from kids is hard, especially in the pre-high school years. By high school, kids know enough of the world that they can start to imagine themselves as functional members of society, and maybe they can see how some of the things they’re learning will apply.

    But elementary school kids? F’geddaboutit. The messages educators used on me usually condensed down to, “You’ll need this for the job we expect you to perform after college.” That’s a long way off to most kids, and you can see them wondering “What’s the rush?”

    Some kids like learning for its own sake, and get satisfaction from knowing some skill or fact. Learning is easy for them, so ownership is also easy.

    But if we want all kids to own their educations, the lack of immediate incentives is a bit of a problem. When your life outside of school involves no cooking, why learn how many teaspoons in a tablespoon? When your parents do all the shopping, why learn grocery store math? If your contact with nature is minimal, what incentive is there to learn biology?

    The solution is difficult, because it requires integrating children into the adult world. Let them build, design, and publish. Make education more of a learn-by-doing endeavor, where their doing creates things that provide real value to their communities. That’s challenging. Kids haven’t yet developed the skillsets that make them capable of useful work, creating value is hard, and the adult world isn’t very kid-friendly or kid-safe.

    The other route to making rewards immediate is to make them mostly artificial. I read about Keith Devlin (H-STAR, Stanford), who wants to create a World of Mathcraft game (an MMORPG that teaches mathematics principles in a natural, immersive way). I don’t know if such an approach would be effective, but I do worry that it’s abandoning the ideal that students should be interested in the material for its own sake, rather than for external motivators.

    Even in the adult world, when I’m advising somebody who wants to learn a programming language, I don’t tell them to check out a certain book or learn a certain set of terms. I tell them to start by coming up with a project that they want to succeed, something that will motivate the effort needed to learn.

    I’ve rambled too much already, but the point is, making the rewards of mastery immediate and clear is more important than trying to make the learning materials more interesting.

    • Thanks Bryce,

      Ed 2.0 should probably be phrased Edu 2.0 to keep it consistent with the tab structure up top — my mistake.

      I think we can expect more from kids than you would think. They are capable of fierce determination and stubborn tenacity. They are capable of passion and obsessive engagement (and I say that as a compliment). They are people — as capable of excellence in their own right as you or me. What enables that excellence for you and me is ownership — taking responsibility for our own development and digging in. Experimenting. Failing. Learning. Over time we come to know that this is what real learning is and that textbooks, classrooms and teachers are aspects of this process. Two examples: I know a 10 year old boy who has a level 80 character on World of Warcraft. As anyone who has ever achieved this knows, that’s _hard_ work. Thousands of hours of hard work, not all of it fun. A tremendous portion of making Level 80 is grinding it out. Why did he do this? He owns it. It’s his character and he cares. Second example, different ten year-old: He goes to a great school and has a great teacher who doesn’t know much about technology. This ten year-old knows _a lot_ about technology. So, even though there is a school tech specialist (full time), this boy has taken on the informal but very real role of tech warden for his class. He is the first responder when networks, printers or programs don’t work. He has taken ownership of this because his teacher saw the spark and encouraged it.

      Ownership is hard. It’s hard in big companies with all the money in the world. It’s hard in cash-strapped elementary schools. It’s hard if you’re 60. It’s hard if you’re 10. The benefits, though, are worth the difficulty.

  • Glen

    Really good post. We talk a ton about the technology and not too much about the relationships that are critical to helping people achieve — especially when it is challenging and it doesn’t come easy. It might be because the technology problems are easier to solve. We at NIXTY ( believe the community/relational aspects of learning are the real challenge. The technology will iterate and get better and better, but we are already a good bit of the way there. We are nowhere near creating a real relational platform – a type of edu 2.0 network – that can leverage the technology in a way that will make it possible for people to excel. We’ve been thinking, tinkering, iterating on this problem for awhile now. Ownership is definitely key. The ability to show people what you’ve accomplished is also really important. Karma points are a part of it. More than that tho, much like any aspect of life, we need to help people develop self-efficacy on their own collaborative learning paths, so they can take more risks, learn more, and get positive feedback that helps them spiral upward.

    Again, great post. I’d love to chat more w/you on this if you are interested. Please email me at glen at nixty dot com.

    • Glen,
      NIXTY looks very interesting — I’d love to learn more. I agree wholeheartedly with your comment that “much like any aspect of life, we need to help people develop self-efficacy on their own collaborative learning paths, so they can take more risks, learn more, and get positive feedback that helps them spiral upward.” The only cautionary note I might add is that the upward spiral is rarely un-interrupted. My good friend Marie Bjerede who also posts on Edu 2.0, calls me dystopian — probably for good reason. I have an enduring suspicion that the future will be roughly as difficult as the past :). A metaphor that keeps coming to my mind as this conversation unfolds is running the four minute mile. Bannister’s efforts are well documented and what strikes me when I read about it is how hard he worked — how many times he failed before he succeeded. My conviction is that such tenacity can be taught and will make the crucial difference for many students.

  • Bryce


    Thanks. I think we’re essentially in agreement. Certainly, kids are capable of great engagement. That’s what frustrates me about so much of the current education system: it doesn’t seem to spark that engagement, and in fact the default attitude seems to be that kids will be disengaged.

    Schools function first as a warehouse for small people, so that their parents are free to perform economic activities. Preparing kids for the future is secondary, and making the process enjoyable is a distant third.

    I remember my education — especially prior to high school — as a boring, disengaged, often excruciating affair. It didn’t have to be, and I’d like to see better for those who follow.

    Honestly, I think that some of our attitudes toward education are puritancial. It has to be difficult and boring in order to separate the virtuous from the slothful. I know I’m still a bit stuck in that mindset, which helps explain why a “Warcraft for Math” game sounds sketchy to me.

    • Agreed, Bryce — we need to do more. Some schools are really bad, most are doing what they can, and a portion of schools are spectacular. Sounds like you drew a lemon. Still, it may be that the negative experience of school helped you to rely more on your own abilities as a learner — that the challenge made you a self-starter. I think if we can jump start as many students as possible, in any way possible, we get as close as we can to success.

  • Scott Gray

    Yay! Love this post. It’s exactly the type of thing we’re trying to accomplish at the O’Reilly School of Technology.

    Ownership is the key to learning. The problem is that EXPLANATIONS generally take ownership away.

    We need more guidance and discovery in our teaching systems. Which is what I’ve been designing for 15 years now.


    • Thanks, Scott. Your comment about explanations is right on. I call it the paradox of ownership — Learning is something that takes place in the middle of a bridge. When teacher and student meet in the middle of the bridge, great things happen. If the student hangs back, though, and doesn’t meet us half way . . . our efforts not only don’t help but hurt. The further we go across the bridge the more that sets the expectations for where learning will occur in the future. Soon we can find that the student sits safely on his or her side and we are the ones walking the length of the span. I’d love to talk more about the subject — drop me a note if you have time.

  • Scott Gray

    Rob, the nice thing about combining real tools on a computer with content is that students can be guided to discover and explore without giving away the whole story.

    This is what we try to do with all of our courses in the O’Reilly School and what we’re building with Make: Mathematics.

    Actually, these techniques have been used by Netmath at the University of Illinois. The use of content written in Mathematica documents allows students to explore, discover and own content, while the teacher becomes a coach and mentor.
    Lectures are non-existent.

    (we’ve purchased that content and are going to be announcing Make: Mathematics this summer which is a online turnkey system for doing this kind of teaching).

  • @paraskaushik

    Rob, Great blog… Ed 2.0 is something that is here to stay and thrive.

    However, Ed 2.0 is something that will not benefit everyone. While ‘self-starter’ is definitely one must have quality/trait… we should not forget that there are some psychological learning styles which dictate the way we learn… and this puts the concept of ‘ownership’ in question.

    Is Ed 2.0 a panacea?
    Will Ed 2.0 + Ownership surmount each barrier?

    I am afraid, the answers are nowhere close to ‘yes’, but definitely trending towards it.

  • Maria Droujkova

    I found your discussion searching for replies to Keith Devlin’s simulation learning idea. Thank you, Rob and everybody who commented! There is a small network of math educators, “Math 2.0 Interest Group,” discussing Keith’s idea at the time and getting together questions to ask: Thank you again for your thoughts.

  • keith

    Thanks Rob – great post!
    I recently joined my daughter’s school board and as the resident “IT guy” I’m already starting to get questions on what technology the school should purchase. My first thought was “what problem are we trying to solve?” Imagine my delight to find your post here which so well describes the vision we should be working towards.

  • Bill Seitz

    I like Bryce’s point about the challenges of “creating” ownership at younger ages.

    I think that one of the points of Project-Based Learning is to create bridges between raw knowledge bits and the RealWorld so that the latter pulls the student through the former. Apprenticeships etc are of course the ultimate RealWorld context-creator, though they are better at demonstrating how a certain professional sees/thinks, vs providing a structure for detailed knowledge dissemination.

    The Sudbury and other “un-schooling” “schools” note that we spend years trying to *push* knowledge into kids, whereas if we just waited until they wanted it, they would then “catch up” with earlier-starters very quickly by *pulling* in what they want.