Somewhere in a small village in some underdeveloped country there is a young boy. Let’s call him Hidarth. Like over 121 million young children worldwide (1), Hidarth cannot go to school. There is no school in the village where he lives and it would take him far too long to walk to the nearest school several villages away. His village has no phones or internet connections. However, Hidarth was recently given an XO laptop from the One Laptop Per Child project (2). While playing with the computer is fun, he has no internet connection in his village so he can only learn how to do the few things that are available to do on the laptop. Hidarth quickly gets tired of taking and drawing pictures and leaves the laptop under his bed, leaving his education behind.
One day Hidarth’s friend, Leelum, stops by for a visit. She has an XO as well and asks Hidarth why his is under the bed collecting dust. After agreeing that just playing with a computer doesn’t really get one anywhere, Leelum shows Hidarth some new software that actually teaches her whatever she wants to learn. She shows him how to transfer the software to his computer along with her entire library of educational material. Hidarth is impressed but sadly can’t really use any of the material Leelum gave him because he is far behind her in his schooling. So, Leelum shows Hidarth how to mark the topics he would like to learn about and indicate his learning level. A click of a button then makes Hidarth’s computer send Leelum’s a message requesting the content. Leelum explains that while he won’t get the content right away, the next time Leelum is in town her computer will automatically download the requested content and store it till Leelum can visit Hidarth again where the content will be automatically transferred.
Leelum doesn’t come by Hidarth’s village again for over a week, but, when she does, her computer transfers more than enough content of various learning levels for Hidarth to study for over a month. As he studies, the software keeps track of how fast Hidarth learns various types of material. Over time it learns much better exactly which type of explanation will help Hidarth understand which type of subject matter the best. This way, it can request more material that more closely matches his learning style.
This goes on for a few months and Hidarth is getting very excited about all the new things he is learning. However, Leelum doesn’t come by nearly often enough these days to keep Hidarth stocked with fresh material. So Leelum explains that Hidarth can just use one of the free thumbdrives being given away at the school and place his requests on it. He can give that thumbdrive to his father who walks into the nearest town about once a week. His father can simply walk into the schoolhouse and plug the thumbdrive into a special computer and that computer will automatically read Hidarth’s requests and place the requested content onto the thumbdrive. In this way, Hidarth can be continuously stocked with educational material that exactly meets his needs and allows him to learn all on his own without having to walk most of a day just to attend class and without needing to have direct access to an internet connection.
Meanwhile, somewhere in the United States, there is a young girl who does have a classroom to go to (they even send out a bus so she doesn’t have to walk at all) and she hates it. She spends much of her time sitting with her chin in her hands because she doesn’t understand a thing the teacher is saying most of the time. Mary is a one of the 30% (3) of sixth graders in America who doesn't know it yet, but will never graduate from high-school. She does OK on some subjects but she just doesn't understand the more technical subjects like math and science. The teacher goes too fast and Mary doesn't have time to understand what he is saying before the teacher moves on to the next subject. So Mary quickly gives up, gets bored, and decides that science is just for boys. Mary eventually drops out of high-school and gets a job at a local fast-food restaurant.
One day Mary sees an advertisement on TV about a way she can finish her high-school diploma and maybe even test out of a lot of college classes just by studying at home on her mom’s computer. She tries it out and discovers that this is nothing like the computer programs they made her work on at school. Instead of just repeating the same stuff for everybody, whether anyone understands it or not, this program has lots of different explanations for the each and every thing she needs to learn. And since all the content - contributed by people all over the world - is checked by real teachers, Mary knows that what she is learning is guaranteed to be reliable, unlike some of the stuff she finds on the internet. And now, when she doesn’t understand what the computer says, she can just click a button and get a different explanation. Pretty soon, the computer somehow knows just what explanation to give her without her even needing to ask any more.
Mary quickly works her way through all the material she needs to get her GED. She can’t believe how much she can remember either. It’s not like in school where she would just cram for the test and then forget it all the next day. The program keeps asking her different questions about the same stuff but at just the right times so her brain just naturally decides to remember it, without her really trying that hard. Soon Mary is working on testing out of college level classes in science and math, subjects that she has taken a renewed interest in now that it is so much easier to learn them.
What could possibly have helped both Hidarth and Mary learn. Two people from drastically different backgrounds and life situations? Both were using software that made use of educational content in the DEMML format. The Distributable Educational Material Markup Language™ (DEMML™) will be both a free and open XML format for marking up educational material in a highly structured yet incredibly flexible manner and a system for authenticating and distributing that content throughout the world, even to areas that have no internet connection at all. Once distributed, no internet connection is required to use the material either. This material is organized and classified to a degree never before attempted, using what turns out to be a rather simple system of encoding the hierarchical tree of all possible educational material right down to the paragraph level. This allows anyone to easily contribute any amount of material to what will quickly grow to be a vast library of vetted content for all to use. In addition the format facilitates a new level of flexibility in computer based learning by allowing educators to specify what material the student should study while still allowing the student instant access to additional material as their needs require. Multiple different explanations or presentations can exist for any one fact within any very specific topic. This allows any student at any level to quickly find just the right explanation that helps them most efficiently understand the topic at hand.
To be clear, DEMML™ is not yet another Computer Based Training (CBT) system. Nor is it yet another Wiki or lesson-plan repository. Instead, it is a way of creating a library of educational material in a standardized format which all compatible CBT systems can easily and automatically draw from, with no content editing whatsoever. Existing CBT software can be modified slightly to make use of this content or modified even further to employ the rich functionality that only DEMML™ provides. Just as hyperlinking existed long before Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web and HTML, CBT has been around a long time before DEMML™. Before HTML all hyperlinking systems were proprietary and only worked within limited confines. Similarly, current CBT systems are all either proprietary systems or are relatively unavailable to the public. DEMML™ will be to CBT what HTML and WWW have been to hyperlinking. It will open up a world of possibilities by making education easily available to everyone, everywhere.
Only when students can easily obtain and master all the material necessary for a course of study entirely on their own will they be free of the barriers that stand between them and knowledge. Only when everyone in the world has free and easy access to all the education they want or need will we be able to overcome the suffering created when the uneducated are left to fend for themselves against the unscrupulous.
People all over the world, in all walks of life, desperately need a new way to learn. They need to be able to learn at their own pace, using content that is fine tuned to their specific learning style rather than having canned content regurgitated at them by over-stressed teachers. I believe that DEMML will be that new way. I believe that DEMML will create a paradigm shift in the way people learn. Unfortunately, DEMML™ is not quite ready for prime time yet. I will be creating the first version of the XML Schema next semester and will begin forming a non-profit organization to oversee the standard soon. Would you like to play a part in ushering in this new era of education? If so, please contact me and let me know.
This post is Copyright © 2009 by Grant Sheridan Robertson.