November 02, 2010

The real digital divide: time zones kill truly global thinking

I've returned from an exhilarating week in South Africa with Microsoft's Innovative Education Forum showcasing hundreds of fascinating teachers and schools from across the world. The passion of the township kids in the video above sums up the passion and hospitality we were shown, and the hardest work their educators put in to bring joy and learning to them every day.

But most of those teaching in the Western world won't know or care about students cracking cancer cells through vector diagrams in India, the five Arab states that pooled their learning to create a new understanding (and scooped the main award) or the inspirational learning happening in a country where 40% of people live below the poverty line, despite it being one of the world's principal diamond exporters.

I say this based on a personal, unscientific and flawed set of stats gleaned from this site, but one I feel compelled to share. And it was in discussion with Vicki Davis, also with me in South Africa, that we both felt the impact of something outside the control of most classroom teachers and young people: time zones.

Both of us realised quickly that no-one was reading the posts we had started to share from South Africa (my South Africa insights and videos have started here with more to follow; Vicki's thoughts and videos are here).

We were posting the minute we had discovered a new tale, at anything between 10am and 5pm South African time, or 8am-3pm GMT. It was only after one day of seeing no-one was reading her posts, compared to normal, that Vicki started to repost and set new blog entries to post around midnight, to catch the US East Coast's sweet spot. The result? People started to read and watch the videos there, and the viewing spread across to the US West Coast. The same effect was visible on my own blog (and is visible whenever I post too early in the day here in Scotland).

Vicki, I hope she won't mind me saying, was perturbed by such a "rookie error" of posting outside her normal time zones, but I don't think it's that rookie at all. When we're working with young people and they publish their work there is a definite thrill in pressing that publish button and seeing it hit the web now. There is much less thrill in pressing the "Pubish on..." button and seeing it published six hours later so that an American audience can catch it and, with their retweet button, decide whether a thought from outside their timezone is spreadable or not.

And in that, you have the main reason for which I, at least, feel conversations in education have become more parochial than global in the past two years. The subject matter is often the same, but the information and experiences feeding into the conversations feel remarkably segmented by time zone. The loudest conversations at the moment are those about a documentary most of the world don't care about on a local level (and which isn't showing in most of the world's cinemas):

No cinemas showing Waiting For Superman

Why is this so? My stats would suggest it's the Twitterification of thought-creation and thought-leading.

Twitterfication - the fast food of education thinking

Twitter has, for most folk, become their aggregator of choice. No longer do blog posts have a half-life of 24 hours, happily resting in your Google Reader until you launch it in the morning (your morning). Instead, your blog post has to hit a sweet spot where the maximum number of connectors and spreaders are awake, at their machine and ready to press "Retweet". That means hitting "Publish" at a time convenient to the mass of educators on the East Coast US, with a half-life of minutes before it is lost in the stream of other thoughts, resources and locker-room banter about baseball.

The conversations have also disappeared from most of the blogs that I, at least, read from outside the US and Canada. They're maybe happening on Twitter, but are now dislocated from their origins, impossible to trace back, and even more impregnable to those coming in 24 hours late.

So, is the media literacy lesson here that we need to teach children the world over that, to make their point they have to make it at East Coast time? Or is the media literacy point here that educators and decision-makers Stateside mustn't down all their slow-food style aggregators just yet, and make a point of reading things published outside the hours of 9am-8pm East Coast?

(And, yes, I've written a provocative post at 10:39am GMT - let's see who can prove me wrong ;-) See video of the kids dancing over on my Flickr page, or below. Catch up on all my videos from schools in South Africa by subscribing to my YouTube channel)


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I have to say that I tend to be reading for about 18 hours in any day on and off so I don't fit the hypothesis you are offering. However I do think you are probably very right in what you are saying if the material is of relevance to a worldwide (AKA American) audience. Much of what I do is more parochial by nature of what I do I guess.
I am very aware these days - and it as not always the case - of the time zones of the world. i do wonder whether most people really are not that aware.
Thought provoking.


Many years ago, in the early days of the WWW, I was involved in a project called ThinkQuest, that asked students from around the world to collaboratively design and build web sites that helped others learn something. It was a competition -- and extra points were awarded to students who worked from different countries.

During one of the finals events, I was walking around and talking with students, and asked one team what their greatest barrier was -- fully expecting them to say language or culture or some other obvious constraint that would occur to a former social studies teacher. They looked at each other and then in unison said, "Time Zones." The truth of it shook me, both as a real impediment, but also that we'd come so far that time zones had become a barrier to 16 year olds.

That said, I'd have to say that I knew that you and Vicki were in South Africa working with a Microsoft project. I hadn't seen the videos -- but not because they were posted while most of us on the east coast of America were asleep and dreaming of lollypops and mid-term elections. It's because we're all simply too busy.

It sounds crass and even like a rationalization. But I think that an overwhelming barrier is an attention deficit. We can only pay attention to so much of what's happening around us. This worries me, especially in the face of our mid-term elections, because it seems that those with political power are those with the most spare attention to spend on it.

I think you're right - and that the combination is a toxic one. I've become increasingly aware of a shift in attention towards what's easily consumable. That means folk tend to be paying attention to the shortest most overview-like media, and there also tends to be an increasing number of "rinse and repeat" posts - things we've heard before. The amount of building on existing thinking is lower than it's ever been.

All this, of course, is based on gut feel, not research. I just don't have time to do the research... ;-)

After posting my comment, I got to thinking about how much of what costs the attention of teachers (and learners), folks who may well be among the most potent "global thinkers," is artificial, based on outdated notions about our jobs and our goals.

Alas, I'm wasting too much attention on my lack of attention. Got to get ready for presentations at a conference in New Jersey for the rest of the week...

It looks like the problem isn't time zones, but the fact that some many people rely on a dumbed-down service like Twitter to keep themselves informed. Stupid is as stupid does.

Ewan: Appreciating the thinking -- and provocation(s) -- behind this post (esp. in light of our September conversations in San Jose, a different time zone than either of us call home). Lots to chew on here. Going to take a swipe at one facet, said w/ as much curiosity as assumed assumption, if you will.

I would suspect -- whether time zones, ADD, or what not -- that many blogging 'experts' who have grown used to a committed audience being there when they hit 'publish' are feeling much the same thing.

Perhaps the real issue is that the halcyon days of the 'blogosphere' -- where a few individuals had vibrant audiences (and comment-heavy fans) that would eagerly await the next multi-paragraph paragraph -- are simply fading away. I wonder how much of this is based on the 'tactics' of Twitter (per se) and attention-deficit metaphors vs. the expectations of the expert w/ a digital microphone/printing press in an age where nobody is guaranteed any form of audience anymore.

That being said, there's clearly a 'default' language or time zone or Times Square of activity, as there always will be. Hardly a meritocracy or a noble blending of the tribes. Human nature doesn't default to an equal 'flat' menu of voices. It seeks the loudest, the most immediate, the most familiar, the one of a context like their context, the one that they can 'fit' into their daily ebb-n-flow at the very least.

And perhaps -- no matter how much Friedman and well-intentioned educators may want -- the world defaults to hyper-local (scaled accordingly) rather than global when it comes to conversation over time. Esp. for the average person living a life not dominated by blog feeds, international audiences, time zone dances, and air mile calculations.

What I do wonder about your post (and the voice behind it, which I also hear as I read your piece), is if the discussion about time zones is a well-intentioned red herring, when really the kids (and programs) you witnessed (and felt in awe of) should be the point of the post. --> I know that you did a wonderful piece recently on the schools themselves, so know that I'm not unaware of your collective portfolio when it comes to case studies vs. theory. Just wondering out loud here.

People fall in love w/ stories. Regardless of place. And I think that extends far beyond time zones or blog audience trend lines.

And with that in mind, how could the very questions you're raising be re-positioned around 'sharing the stories' of these kids/programs/schools, rather than about the writer, the audience, the shifting nature of reading styles in a nuanced world of blog feeds/readers (et al)?

Can the same point be made without the kids themselves being an asterix in the story?

And with that, I head onto a plane, to skip across time zones, and day dreaming about a long-ago audience that used to leave comments on my blog.


Interesting that this post seems to have attracted the kind of comment-fest that I associate with your blog a couple of years ago. Maybe in the face of the terse ubiquity that is Twitter we have to be provocative and tag with care - as well, of course, as playing the Twitter post game to ensure that people catch up - repeating it through 24 hours if we see fit.

For me, there's definitely still a place for full-length complex sentences that stir thought as opposed to reaction - but then I would say that, huh?

Christian - I think Friedman's flattening of the world never really happened when it came to discussing issues that affect us all, including education. I think we're seeing that those who want to engage in that are vastly outnumbered by those who care more about their few square kms of the world. I think we should care more about how we can work together to solve larger problems, so find the argument that we naturally default to hyper local, while true, slightly depressing.

I've also written two blog posts about students and their schools so far. There are a ton more coming (video taking a while to edit up). This just came up today, though, because, while putting in this effort to cut stories, I was wondering whether anyone would read them / view them. Was it worth the while?

The stories of these children could come from me, but I dream of the day when their own voices can be heard, first hand on the web. I just fear no-one will be listening.

Loads of comments around this topic - Is it arrogant to expect folk to use RSS Feedreaders and pick up blog postings and tweets when it suits them in their own time zone ?

Am I going to start posting in the UK so I catch the "US East Coast's Sweet Spot" ? .. not a chance.

If folks don't realise there is a whole world of educational change out there why should we disabuse them.


Read this from my RSS reader which got seriously refined, after a period of using twitter for a while got fed up with the type of conversations that have been mentioned above.

The reason I comment rarely on blog posts (like yours for example) is that I feel that there are some 'big names' in the edu-blogo-twitter-sphere (!?) and my opinion, although valued, isn't very significant.

I tend to read blog posts in the evening btw, via Netvibes ;-)

I've been reading throughout. It doesn't really show up in the stats because I read on RSS.

If you want a spike in readership, then yeah, Twitter to your friends in the Western-Europe and U.S. mid-day time zone.

But is that really the value you are seeking here? A few extra looks by people who are so slightly interested they won't even bother if it passes by them in the p.m.?

Trying to massify your audience cheapens what you're trying to do. Write to the people who are interested, keep it honest, and oh yeah (Vicki) if you're getting a free trip to Africa paid for by Microsoft, don't pretend you're a 'journalist'.

@Stephen Downes

Oh my goodness, Stephen. I am so offended by what you said here. Microsoft flew in all sorts of media, not just me. And I don't pretend to be anything I'm not -- I'm a blogger. I'm really just a teacher and a Mom. I find your comment here highly condescending and also posted on Ewan's blog- somewhat behind my back. I've always thought better of you. I was very up front about Microsoft sending me to the conference as "media." Been very open about it but also open about the fact that I didn't "feel" like a journalist as I'm just a blogger. Many of us don't consider bloggers to be mainstream anything but I do find it highly interesting that they would do this. The first question I asked Microsoft when they contacted me was for them to understand that I write what I wish on my blog, period.

On to the other thoughts -- it isn't about a spike in Tweets or blog readership but the primary point here is that people get heard by when they post. Period.

It isn't fair. It isn't right. We were commenting how some people who need to be heard aren't being heard because of the time they post. That is not right but it is a fact.

The simple fact is that Vicki Davis posting in a time convenient for her in South Africa doesn't get read but Vicki Davis posting for North America time to be read and retweeted does. The simple fact evidenced by facts is that "sweet spots" for being read in North America exist.

Like it or not, it is the nature of the beast.

Interesting discussion and thanks Ewan for raising the issue. I'm inclined to agree with Christian about "hyper-local". While i attempt to listen to diverse voices, I admit to a special bond to people in my own district and region. Why? Because I see more direct influence on students' learning. In that sense, the audience will likely always lean that way.

The interesting thing about twitter is that while it's not great for real conversation, it does foster conversation, albeit slightly dumbed down, in real time which is certainly an important factor. I read your blog and yet it somehow is very satisfying when our paths cross on twitter and we actually have a real time conversation.

I realize that's not exactly what you're concern is here but I think the idea of a truly global learning space is simply not realistic. Not simply because of time zones but because we'll always be attracted to local more than global. Not saying that's good, but that's human nature. Does twitter make us less likely to reach out globally? Not sure. Interesting question.

Wow, as someone said above, its a real lively old fashioned (circa 2005) blogversation, when as we all know BLOGS ARE DEAD (I see dead people, commenting...)

I read this in the AM, my morning habit of scanning RSS feeds on my mobile, in between trips to the snooze bar. It kind of bounced around the cortex all day.

WHile I agree to the observation, and can confirm what you describe-- in SOME place-- I am finding some things that just don't rub me the right way. I know a title is just a catchy thing, but I cannot accept that time zones kill global thinking. Time zones are inert and do not cause anything. People are the agents of what you describe.

What I worry about this the implication that we blog to get a response. To me, its a bonus, but that is by no means my prime motivation. I blog for me, and because I feel a compulsion to get my ideas written to my "outboard brain" -Cory Doctorow's 2002 description of blogging really deserves a regular re-reading (

So I dont give a crap when I hit the publish button, and am not choosing the timing to when there might be more retweets. I think that is a dangerous mindset and something we ought not to be modeling for others. It makes the practice sound vain and narcissistic (not that I am painting that label on you Ewan or Vicki, though I think someone out to send Stephen Downes a pink pony cause he has been on a harsh lashing out streak).

I for one will never make a recommendation to time your publishing to reach some peak audience.

it is also worth remembering, that on blogs, and even on twitter, there is a larger invisible audience who may read you and not respond. It's easy to forget about them, but it has always been, and I expect true now, that many more people will read and even share your ideas, and you will never know about it. The commenters and the tweetbackers get more attention, but they are a loud minority.

I do appreciate the spark this post made, even if I dont agree with some of it, as that is the best thing that can happen in an idea space is to start a flow of thinking, and some conversation.

Here I am posting at the absolute WRONG time to get that East Coast Bump, and I dont give a rats turd.

@Vicki @Stephen - It's a bit unfair to go at Vicki for accepting a ticket so that she could meet hundreds of fascinating educators and share their experiences with others. I, too, spent the entire week laughing that I was sent on a media pass, but our blogs, combined, have a wider readership than most of the education pages of the mainstream press that were there (we asked, to confirm).

The balance of when you're a blogger/interested party and when you're media is a delicate one, very grey indeed.

I think Vicki's response, and her contribution to the time zone element say enough.

Bygones? :-)

@Alan/cogdog - I don't blog to get a response, but I do blog to be heard, because I want to help create change towards a vision of education I believe in, and where I don't think we're at now.

Getting comments is one indication that the words are being heard or read. Stats on visitors to a page mean less and less, specifically because most people read through an RSS reader, as Stephen points out. And RSS conversion stats mean even less, as I publish feeds in full to make life easy for my readers.

Maybe I need to just get over it (and myself perhaps :-), but I always feel it's a backhanded compliment when senior govt officials in several countries let me know that my blog is widely read in their departments, and is informing change. I'd like to a) know what change is created (have some kind of feedback loop on impact) and b) know how I might be able to help on the ground (as this is how I pay my mortgage and keep my daughter - with another on the way - in clothes and pasta).

Different motivations, for sure, from the classroom teacher I was when I started this out, and different again from when I was a govt advisor. Hopefully it doesn't feel too out of place, though, in these conversations.

@Christian @Dean etc etc What I find interesting in comments about hyperlocalism is that rarely are the conversations we tend to hear about local - they're American (or North American), or Scottish. When we set up as a truly hyperlocal platform (my school and the school next door) we hit a rich seam of content, ideas, conversation, that still gets millions of uniques each year. But that kind of work tends to get driven 'underground' by the wider read (and louder) sites that go on and on about the Waiting for Supermans of this world.

I found your post this morning in my #poulingail
I created the paper through Twitter so that I can catch the posts that I'll never see working as a classroom teacher. Believe me, I am very rarely able to follow a live stream of Twitter. Because I am following you and because you posted a url, your post now appears in my own morning paper. I have 2 other paper feeds that I read. One is the #kindergarten daily that includes the urls Tweeted by the folks I follow in my kindergarten list. I also read the #nwp daily for the national writing project. I am just a subscriber of that. All three bring me the previous 24 hrs of url Tweets. Check it out. You'll never miss another valuable url based Tweet again. BTW very neat post. My K class and I will be Skyping with Honolulu (a 6 hours difference) tomorrow afternoon. Things like that are carefully planned.

I have to bring it around back to David's point about attention spans being shortened. Ewan, you are right in bringing up the point of provincialism in the collective tweets and blog posts around the world, and it's limitations to worldly conversation brought on by time zones.

I must say that in America, our media has supported the shortening of attention spans by reinforcing their advertising messages and music entertainment videos, glorifying what our well educated Advertising executives call the "images per second" measurement.

You see, over twenty years ago, the fine folks at Madison Avenue (the heart of American media production in NY) realized that the they could create "bullet points" and "sound bites" with these practices in television and movies (editing a 30 second commercial down to 7 seconds) and that this type of production glued the American public to their television sets.

Now, try and have an intellectual conversation in less than ten seconds!

It used to be that a soap commercial was 30 to 60 seconds in length, and it consisted of a man standing next to a table, with the product placement on the table. The spokesman pontificated the features and benefits of the soap, there was a close up of the soap, and then music, and then a close up shot of the person saying the tag line of the product.

It today's world, you have 15 images of skiers down a mountain, cars racing down the highway, people jumping on a beach, and young college kids dancing at a club, all with a back round of some disco beat thumping loudly, and a man screaming the the name of the product. This happens in the new 7 second commercial (coming soon to your mobile phone screen)

Regular folk like me can't take this. It is too much information all at once. We have learned that in the information age, one must learn how to deflect, and separate the wheat from the chaff.

Thanks for bringing up the point, Ewan. Glad I found your blog.


I am posting again because I am an American, and have to apologize for my previous post, as I realize that it was an American conversation.
I mentioned that our advertisers in media are shortening their messages, but perhaps in other places, it is not so.

My wife & I frequently enjoy well thought out and slower moving media, like television shows and full length feature films produced outside of our country because it takes some actual thinking to enjoy.

Me thinks Attention Deficit Disorder was invented by an American?

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About Ewan

Ewan McIntosh is the founder of NoTosh, the no-nonsense company that makes accessible the creative process required to innovate: to find meaningful problems and solve them.

Ewan wrote How To Come Up With Great Ideas and Actually Make Them Happen, a manual that does what is says for education leaders, innovators and people who want to be both.

What does Ewan do?

Module Masterclass

School leaders and innovators struggle to make the most of educators' and students' potential. My team at NoTosh cut the time and cost of making significant change in physical spaces, digital and curricular innovation programmes. We work long term to help make that change last, even as educators come and go.

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