The Curt Bonk Wall of Sound: now in print!

If you have an interest in e-learning or blended learning then the chances are that you have come across my friend Curt Bonk at some point in your career. If you haven't been to one of his remarkable presentations, you should find the time to do so. It's not hard as he is in great demand as a keynote and invited speaker and he has been known to average one every couple of days for years on end. You might not immediately recognise him from his picture as, chances are, he'll be dressed as a wizard, a Jedi knight, Darth Vader, one of the Borg or any one of a number of ingenious (if conspicuous) disguises. He'll probably be throwing things (nice things) at you while displaying a multimedia extravaganza of densely packed information in a slide show behind him while talking with remarkable coherence and speed about stuff you really ought to care about. You'll probably be called upon to participate, if only as part of a crowd. I have called this Curt Bonk's Wall of Sound in the past because of its massively parallel layers of rapidly presented information with barely a pause that you feel more than absorb. I've also called him a human hypertext because there is so much information there that you tend to pick out snippets and link them with others that come seconds or minutes later rather than following the linear narrative that runs too fast to completely absorb. It's not that he flits from here to there: it's just that Curt bombards you with so much stuff that you tend to construct your own path through his talks. They don't quite capture the atmosphere, but there are videos of some of Curt's talks  on his site.

If you're interested in e-learning and you've missed the presentations then there's still a very good chance you've read some of his work – Curt's output in a year is roughly equivalent to what most people in this area produce in a whole career. It's mostly high quality academic stuff, generally flawless, always interesting, generally fitting the mould that all of us academics tend to follow. But now Curt has produced something different, something that is the textual equivalent of his presentations, a set of stories and ideas that burst from the page with all of Curt's customary zeal that drives his presentations.

The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education is (explicitly) in the same kind of territory as Friedman's The World is Flat, but applied in an educational (in the loosest sense) context. Like Curt's talks, it is dense with fantastic stuff, stories, research findings, hey-wow statistics, examples and ideas. Like Curt's talks, it travels at a furious pace, packing a mass of knowledge into a small space and, given that the book is pretty long and Curt is remarkably well-informed, that's a hell of a lot of knowledge.

This is not a view from the edge: Curt is right in the thick of the revolution and makes an extremely persuasive point that the changes wrought by technologies that emerged just a few years ago are not something to think about tomorrow, but that affect and profoundly influence what's happening today. For the mass of educators stuck in a model of teaching and learning that has barely changed since the nineteenth century, this should be a wake-up call. The world of learning has radically changed and, as Curt rightly says, it is open and accessible to all (well… at least, most people in developed nations and a massively growing number elsewhere).This is a very detailed snapshot of the world of learning and education on the cusp of change and a guidemap for those who have either not realised that things are different now or who see the changes but are confused about what to do.

It took me a while to get into the swing of the book, partly because I was reading it like an academic (it's not an academic book and doesn't pretend to be) and partly because Curt is talking about things that I'm pretty familiar with. I agree with pretty much everything he has to say on the subject. He's preaching to the converted here but, after a while, I was swept along with it anyway and, as is the nature of such things, there's plenty in it that was unfamiliar to me. However, the real joy of the book is that it reminds me at every turn of the page of why I love this job of teaching, how the things we do can really make a difference, how big change is possible, how amazing it all is. It's refreshing and revitalising. This is a cornucopia of ideas, examples, inspirations and explanations about how to help everyone learn more, learn better, learn more enjoyably. Curt is a fantastic teacher and researcher himself and is about as much of an expert in the field as anyone can be so none of this is wild speculation or fantasy. Just because he foregoes the academic niceties on this occasion doesn't mean that it is not backed up by a firm foundation of sound pedagogy and very solid research.

The bulk of the book's organisation largely follows Curt's WE-ALL-LEARN model for understanding the mass of stuff that's out there. After the introduction, the main part of the book consists of what Curt calls 'Openers' – a nice play on words that captures both the fact that these are things that are making the learning world open and that he fills the chapters with things that might start us thinking about doing things differently – rather like conversation openers, if you like. The full expansion of WE-ALL-LEARN is:

1. Web Searching in the World of e-Books
2. E-Learning and Blended Learning
3. Availability of Open Source and Free Software
4. Leveraged Resources and OpenCourseWare
5. Learning Object Repositories and Portals
6. Learner Participation in Open Information Communities
7. Electronic Collaboration and Interaction
8. Alternative Reality Learning
9. Real-Time Mobility and Portability
10. Networks of Personalized Learning

I find the acronym a little forced: WE-ALL-LEARN may be memorable but, though I've heard Curt talk about it, read the book, visited the site and more, I still can't for the life of me remember what more than one or two letters stand for and had to copy and paste the definitions into this review. It is interesting that, though they cover each aspect in turn, the chapter titles are different (and more entertaining!) than the acronym's expansion. That is perhaps reasonable as the book  is not an encyclopaedia and needs to tell a story. The framework does give a bit of structure to a very complex and evolving web of change and it keeps the book organised, so I'm fine with it.

Any review should highlight the things that the reviewer wishes were different: the book is great and all I can offer is nit-picking here:

  • Curt finds it really hard to look on the negative side of all this wonderful stuff. He pays lip-service every now and then to the possibility that this is not for everyone, that there are digital divides, that most of these technologies can be used really effectively by bad people, that the economics of Free are a bit shaky, that the crowd is not always that wise, that it is hard to sort the wheat from the chaff, that we need to rethink our attitudes to plagiarism and so on. He does spend some of the final visionary chapter, Treasures and Traps, talking about risks as well as how to overcome them but, even then, the grimy shadowy stuff is dealt with in far less detail than the good things and his heart is just not in it. While it goes against the grain for Curt to consider the Dark Side, this is in keeping with the revolutionary fervour of the book: he is on a mission to change the world, to motivate and mobilise. The bad stuff has been copiously written about elsewhere anyway.
  • I have a technical quibble with the word 'Web' in the title which, given that real-time mobility and portability is the R in WE-ALL-LEARN and the second A is for alternate reality, and many other technologies are discussed that are not even similar to the Web, is misleading for a techie like me. This is about many forms of networked technology and how they are changing things, a web (in a generic sense), not the Web that Tim Berners-Lee invented, nor its offspring. 
  • My final quibble is that there are more exclamation marks per page than my Brit sensibilities are adjusted to accommodate for. However, the exclamation marks and superlatives get a lot easier to accept after the first couple of chapters and it is hard not to get carried away with the massive energetic flow of it after a while.

This book is not aimed at me: I know where Curt is coming from, I have the t-shirt, I'm already not just a convert but an apostle like Curt (albeit of a lowlier kind). Even so, the book left me energised and enthused, excited afresh by the many extraordinary possibilities latent in technological affordances, inspired to try anew to make things different, make things better. If you are an educator who has been wondering about how to make sense of all this gushing surge of new and scary technologies that we might use in education, someone who is interested, perhaps a little sceptical but open to exploring new directions, this book is a must-read. It is packed from head to toe with inspiring ideas and very practical guidelines about how to get real and lasting value from social, open, ubiquitous, mobile, immersive and many other modern technologies, not just in the future but now. A particularly appealing aspect is that it is firmly focussed on human connections and enhancing, not replacing, interactions with real people in real places. 

If you're a lifelong learner (who isn't?) this is also a great place to start finding out about the massive range of help that is available to you. The opportunities beyond Google and Wikipedia are many and varied, and this book is full of ideas and examples of ways to learn outside the institution.

Given the stance of the book (including two pages extolling the virtues of my friend Terry Anderson's approach in creating the freely downloadable and highly rated book, The Theory and Practice of Online Learning) it is a touch ironic that this is a book that is very much in the traditional mould – not expensive, but printed on paper and certainly not free. It's a double-whammy because a few specific technologies he talks about have been superceded, changed, merged, or gone the way of all things and this is sure to get worse. The irony is not lost on Curt and he has a solution. He is, as I mentioned before, a prolific writer. In writing this book he discarded about as much as he kept, not because of quality issues but because there was just too much to print. As a consequence and in keeping with the spirit of what he is writing about, he will be releasing a similarly copious e-book for free that keeps the same structure but that has completely different content. Curt mentions this in the paper book, but it won't be available for a little while. He has promised to put it on the WE-ALL-LEARN site for anyone to download. I'm looking forward to that. If it's half as inspiring as the paper version, this will be a great bargain and maybe even more current. The WE-ALL-LEARN site is also an excellent source of up-to-date links, current information, ideas, and suggestions. It's well worth visiting even if you are not getting the book.


I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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