This is an email from a friend of mine who, although involved now in training, is not a qualified teacher.

I share it as I love his openness and passion for new technologies that can enhance learning and I look forward to receiving such e-mails from ‘real’ teachers who are embracing technology in such a way before we all get left behind.


Hi Ian,

How are you doing?  It seems you are doing very well judging from you website, youtube channel and Amazon profiles!  And are you living in Dubai now?

I was just reading up on augmented realities the other day, which got me thinking that it would be a great tool to get people thinking differently about things, as we did on Around Deeply.  Have you looked at “Layar”?

It is an app for smartphones, which allows you to view annotated pictures in real 3D space through the lens of your smartphone camera.  Essentially you build a “Layar” using an application like “Hoppala”  This application allows images to be uploaded to a grid in 3D space (GPS-based), with a position and an orientation.  So when the user turns on Layar on their smartphone, and points it at Buck Palace, they could see a picture of what Buck palace looked like in the war, suspended in the view like a billboard.  The pictures can also have annotation (and possibly even narration), so when you touch the image, you get an explanation.  Its like interactive 3D Google maps.

Anyway, having caught up with your online presence I immediately ordered some books.  The Google book and the Big book of thinking are excellent.  I have been thinking the same way over the past 4 or 5 years, during which I have been travelling the world teaching Earth Sciences to oil industry professionals.  I have gained something of a reputation for being a bit weird as I regularly use bag pipes and dancing in my courses!  But it gets me remembered, and more importantly the trainees will never forget the explanation of wave, oscillatory and current ripples, as explained through the medium of dance!

Speaking of Weird and seeing that you are a fan of New Scientist – did you read the article about us being WEIRD (  Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic?  It seems we are in a minority, in the Western world, which is itself a minority in global terms (1 in 8).  The individualistic, entrepreneurial, independent thinking which we advocate, seems to be a rare thing, even in western society (which is possibly why we have so many climate change deniers and MMR=autism campaigners).  Is this because it is not natural, or because we don’t teach it?  “Independent thinking” is apparently not part of the Asian psyche, they are more “collective” in their outlook.

My interest comes from the fact that I spend most of my time teaching in the Middle East, Pakistan, India, Vietnam, Korea and Malaysia.  So am I working for the enemy? 😉

What does interest me is the huge cultural differences that I see across the world, a bit like the HSBC advert. In some cultures I have encountered, if a student is not doing well, they immediately blame the course content, the trainer, the facilities etc.  Whereas just across the ocean, if a trainee is not doing well, they immediately blame themselves for not working hard enough, and promptly arrive early, work through lunch and keep me behind after class!  Very satisfying, but very taxing on the brain!  It is also very interesting teaching some Asian groups who have a range of experience.  As you can imagine, I have a number of crazy ways of engaging the audience and encouraging their participation (music, dancing, humour).  But something as simple as asking a question would result in total silence in these mixed level Asian classes.  It was explained to me that everybody is waiting for the most experienced (read senior) person in the room to answer the question, but he is unlikely to answer, because his boss has sent him on the course, possibly because he doesn’t know as much as he should.  So he keeps quiet too, for fear of making a mistake and appearing foolish!  So I am experimenting with anonymous classroom voting systems, so that everybody can answer and nobody need know who got it wrong (except me, because I can keep a log of the answers on my laptop!).

I have also got a bit of a reputation as well for starting every course, whatever subject, with a session on needing to “learn how to learn”, and how my intention is not just to give answers, but get trainees thinking how to “ask better questions”.  One of my favourite questions is to ask “who in the room is going to learn most this week?”  Everybody looks around trying to work it out, but then I put them out of their misery.  It’s probably me.  Why?  Because I have finely tuned learning skills, which I have practiced for more than 10,000 hours – I am an expert learner.  Alas I am not a virtuoso bagpiper, because I have only practiced for around 2000 hours!

I lapped up the Gladwell stuff as well (Blink, Tipping Point, Outliers) . . . . . 

One of the reasons I advocate “learning how to learn”, rather than learning facts, is the relentless pace of change means we’ll all have to learn new stuff next year just to keep up with technological advances.  As a transhumanist and great fan of Ray Kurzweil I am acutely aware of the accelerating pace of change, but the people who it is most likely to affect haven’t clicked at all!  My biggest concern is that these great opportunities will be stifled by reactionaries out of ignorance, because they have been “schooled” to think like the last generation, rather than think about now and the future.

On the subject of keeping up with technological advances I find the Singularity Hub to be one of the best blogs around ( for keeping up to date with the GRIN technologies (Genetics, Robotics, Information and Nanotech).  Here’s one that might appeal, the Texas student who is attending lectures using a Robot: -26631″ target=”_blank” style=”color: rgb(7, 77, 143); “>

I am also something of a maverick in the classroom as well because I tell everybody at the start that I don’t know all the answers, but I know where to find them.  Hence in most courses I try to actively use Google Maps, Wikipedia, Youtube, TED and other online sources to look stuff up on the fly.  I even run field trips in Google Maps!  As Einstein said, “why clutter your brain up with facts that you can easily look up?” (or something to that effect).

Incidentally, have you tried QWIKI?  This system uses an AI to trawl the content from Wikipedia, Google, fotopedia and You Tube, then throws it back as a “learning experience” us
ing a voice synthesiser.  It also has the capacity for users to recommend improvements and corrections.  And as you rightly say, if the content is wrong, log in to wikipedia and put it right! (which I have been doing a lot recently).

Speaking of collective intelligence, are you aware of the MIT department?  These guys are doing a lot of inter-disciplinary work on how the collective is greater than the sum of the parts, supporting the idea that wikipedia works.  I am also developing knowledge management systems to try and create a “Big Brain” within organisations.  In the oil industry (as with other technology-based  industries) staff fly in, stay a short time and fly out.  The individuals may learn something, but the organisation doesn’t.  Hence the need for a corporate “Big Brain” that new staff tap into when they arrive, quickly get up to speed, contribute to and leave behind when they go.  The system also aims to capture not just “factual knowledge” but the “wisdom” of how to use it.  So I tend to talk about “wisdombases” rather than “knowledgebases”.

I am also inspired by the story of Salman Khan and The Khan Academy (  Apparently he started by doing YouTube vids to help his nephew with algebra.  Now he has 1000s of videos, funding from Bill Gates and has apparently delivered nearly 40 million lessons from his website!  So I have invested in Camtasia to help produce Videos for our distance learning courses!

And just as exciting for me are the distributed research projects.  Have you been to BOINC ( or ZoonInverse ( for example?  These are the systems that let you hook up to major research projects happening around the world.  I am currently running climate models, folding proteins, surveying the moon, classifying galaxies and looking for exoplanets, just for fun!  What a way to engage kids in science!  There is one great story about a game called FoldIt! (  which was designed to turn protein folding into a fun pastime.  The guy leading the league tables turned out to be a 13 year old in Beirut, who was immediately taken to California for his summer holidays to help the researchers, because he was so good at visualising proteins in 3D and they wanted to know how he did it.  I also have a friend who is involved in the weather history project to capture all the weather data from 20th century navy warships.  They recorded the weather every 15 minutes or so on their voyages.  This info is now being digitised by volunteers so that the researchers can model the data.  My friend is working on the data that his father collected when he served on minesweepers in the 2nd world war.  How cool is that!

I am also getting heavily involved in e-learning as well.  We have several distance learning courses using Moodle.  But the thing which catches my imagination is hooking Moodle ( into Second Life using “Sloodle” (, Simulation Linked Object Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment).  Many universities are now running elements of their courses in Second Life (as an option).  One example I particularly like is the Imperial College example where students visit the virtual hospital, speak to the patients, get tests done, get the results from the virtual lab, interpret the results, then provide a diagnosis.  The results of their “virtual ward-round” are then fed back in to the Moodle system for marking.  Much more fun!

This is the technology that enables inspiring teachers to have a greater influence on a larger number of students, from a farm in France . . . . 

There are also several virtual art galleries and science museums to go and visit in Second Life.  You can even “teleport” between the planets in the solar system and see what it is like on the surface of each planet.  We can get the kids going on field trips again, and we’re not restricted to this planet!

Your Google book is targeted at individual teachers.  Are you working with teacher training organisations?  The reason I ask is  a comment I read on a blog saying that the “independent thinkers” were not going into teaching in Germany, regardless of how much they were paid, because the teacher training college was “schooling” teachers in such a restrictive and unimaginative way.  I’ll try and track down where I saw it . . . I think it was linked to a Ken Robinson talk about teaching paradigms on TED

Also, are you going to get your books Kindled?  I am collecting up useful reference books on my Smartphone / Tablet so that I can keep them in my pocket wherever I am in the world.  Seems strange to have a book about Google, that can’t be read on a Kindle!

Must get back to work now – we’re creating a 150 hour training programme to bring Indian teachers in to the 21st century!  They are still using an much earlier version of the “schooling” approach bequeathed to them by the Empire . . . 

Hope to speak soon.  All the best.



Dr. Greg Samways – Geological Consultant