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Community Intelligence (Part 1)

In 1933, Vannevar Bush, wrote an article for the MIT journal, Technology Review. In the article Bush speculated about the future of education. Bush wrote that he expected that sometime in the future there would be a machine with “a thousand volumes located in a couple of cubic feet in a desk, so that by depressing a few keys one could have a given page instantly projected before him.”

Bush continued to work on this idea at his new post as head of the Carnegie Foundation. During the Second World War he was forced to abandon his research when he was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as his chief Scientific Adviser. In this post he had overall responsibility for all of the United States’s scientific research, including the Manhattan Project which built the first atomic bomb.

After the war Bush returned to his research. In July, 1945, Bush published “As We May Think” in Atlantic Monthly. In the article Bush discussed the problems of what he called the “information explosion”. He argued that a new type of machine would be needed to help humankind to cope with this explosion of information. Bush proposed a hypothetical device called the “memex”: “a sort of mechanised private file and library” in which an individual would store all his books, records and communications. It would be constructed to allow its contents to be consulted “with exceeding speed and flexibility”. This article was in fact the blueprint for the Internet. However, it would be another 35 years before his dream was realised.

In 1980 Tim Berners-Lee joined the European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) in Geneva. His main role was to support CERN’s community of physicists in the retrieval and handling of information. CERN is a vast organisation doing research of unimaginable complexity. The physicists were based in several different countries. Berners-Lee’s task was to create a system which CERN could consolidate its organisational knowledge. He set out to create a system that would allow individual scientists to access data being created by other members of the CERN team.

Berners-Lee called the system ENQUIRE (enquire within about everything). He later pointed out: “It allowed one to store snippets of information, and to link related pieces together in any way. To find information, one progressed via the links from one sheet to another, rather like in the old computer game “adventure”.

It was not until 1989 that Berners-Lee wrote the proposal that would change the world. He pointed out that the central difficulty that CERN’s community of physicists were having was that information was continually getting lost. His proposal was to create a connected “web” that would stop this happening.


By October 1990, Berners-Lee began describing his system as the “World Wide Web”. Over the next few years the Internet evolved in a way that was not predicted by Berners-Lee. For example, he only envisaged a text-based system and was rather disapproving when it became a means to access and distribute photographs. In many ways, the original idealism behind Berbers-Lee idea (he refused on principal to try and make money from his invention) was lost. However, others have followed his example and have constantly emphasised the role the web can play in providing a free education for the world’s citizens.

The creation of the web has resulted in some educators to question previous definitions of intelligence. Vannevar Bush speculated about “a sort of mechanised private file and library” in which an individual would store all his books, records and communications. This reflects the thinking of the time. What Berners-Lee developed was more to do with “community intelligence” rather than “individual intelligence”. The important point is that information resides in the community rather than inside the heads of individuals. Berners-Lee was originally concerned about organizing information within the CERN community. The development of the web enabled the creation of millions of different intellectual communities.

Tom Atlee has been a great advocate of community intelligence (he calls it co-intelligence). Atlee argues:

Healthy communities, institutions and societies - perhaps even our collective survival - depend on our ability to organize our collective affairs more wisely, in tune with each other and nature.

This ability to wisely organize our lives together -- all of us being wiser together than any of us could be alone - we call co-intelligence.

Co-intelligence is emerging through new developments in democracy, organizational development, collaborative processes, the Internet and systems sciences like ecology and complexity. Today millions of people are involved in co-creating co-intelligence. Our diverse efforts grow more effective as we discover we are part of a larger transformational enterprise, and as we learn together and from each other.

Atlee is the founder and co-director of the non-profit Co-Intelligence Institute. Atlee believes passionately that it is possible to use community intelligence to develop what he calls a “Wise Democracy” . I would add that full use of community intelligence will dramatically improve the quality of education.


A group of educators including Jean-Francois Noubel, George Pór, Torben

Anderson and David Meggitt have created their own website devoted to the idea of community intelligence.


On their website they include the following message:

The great 15th Century explorers, Bartolomeu Dias, Vasco da Gama, Christopher Columbus, Amerigo Vespucci, set sail against the prevailing worldview of a flat earth. We remember their names, but who knows anything about the communities of shipbuilders, astronomers and navigators, whose talents and dedication made their explorations possible?

Six centuries later, the cult of the hero - for example, the great CEO, who does it all alone - is still part of the prevailing worldview of individualism. Can it survive the era of growing interconnections and interdependence of organizations, people, and nature?

The people behind the Community Intelligence website are mainly concerned with helping business leaders to make use of community intelligence.

Educators interested in this area have created websites called Forums. I joined my first education forum a couple of years ago. It was for UK teachers who taught history. The thing that surprised me most about this forum was the willingness of teachers to spend so much time helping others. Most of the questions were about teaching particular history topics in the classroom. A small group (about 10 people) attempted to answer the questions that were mainly being asked by young, inexperienced teachers. These teachers were clearly delivering an important service. However, it was limited to the teaching of one subject in one country.


Nine months ago I got together with a group of teachers who taught a wide variety of different subjects in several different countries, to create an International Education Forum. It had several objectives. Like the History Forum we wanted to provide help to young and inexperienced teachers. We also wanted to play a role in the professional development of experienced teachers.


Another important objective was to provide a means by where teachers from different countries could come together and collaborate on different educational projects. For example, we have used the forum to organize a bid for an EU Comenius 2 project. Called E-HELP it was approved by Brussels last week.


Several of the original group behind the International Education Forum were also members of the European Virtual School. Hosted by European Schoolnet, an organisation supported by 26 Ministries of Education, the Virtual School has 20 subject-related departments with an editorial staff of more than 100 teachers, heads, teacher-trainers and researchers from 17 countries all over Europe. Although the Virtual School has been successful at encouraging collaboration between teachers, the communication system it has created has been fairly ineffective. The International Education Forum has attempted to help them with this.


The International Education Forum has also attempted to facilitate debate between educationalist from different countries. As well as comparing different educational policies being imposed by different governments, members have been involved in discussing the potential of e-learning.

One new feature has been to provide an online dimension to international conferences on education. We are currently hosting online seminars that originally took place at a conference for history teachers in Leeds (2nd–4th July)


This is just one way we can improve community intelligence. I intend to look at others in a later posting.

Please feel free to pass comments on what has been said so far. Don’t restrict yourself to the points I have raised.

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I am another participant on The Education Forum. I'm a teacher of English at a university in southern Sweden, and we use IT a lot in our teaching. One example is our use of Internet tutors. I've been working with an English teacher in Queensland for nearly 10 years now. He marks send-in tasks for Swedish students, and is an incredible asset to the courses he works on. When a Swedish student gets something back from Bruce, she knows exactly what her English is really like, since, so far as she knows, Bruce doesn't speak Swedish.

However, I'm very sceptical of the various attempts which are made to have computers do what people do best, and people do what computers do best. I often use a short story written by E.M. Forster in 1909 to introduce this point on distance courses. Here's the beginning of the first chapter of The Machine Stops:


by E.M. Forster (1909)



Imagine, if you can, a small room, hexagonal in shape, like the cell of a bee. It is

lighted neither by window nor by lamp, yet it is filled with a soft radiance. There

are no apertures for ventilation, yet the air is fresh. There are no musical

instruments, and yet, at the moment that my meditation opens, this room is throbbing

with melodious sounds. An armchair is in the centre, by its side a reading-desk -

that is all the furniture. And in the armchair there sits a swaddled lump of flesh - a

woman, about five feet high, with a face as white as a fungus. It is to her that the

little room belongs.

An electric bell rang.

The woman touched a switch and the music was silent.

'I suppose I must see who it is', she thought, and set her chair in motion. The

chair, like the music, was worked by machinery and it rolled her to the other side of

the room where the bell still rang importunately.

'Who is it?' she called. Her voice was irritable, for she had been interrupted often

since the music began. She knew several thousand people, in certain directions

human intercourse had advanced enormously.

But when she listened into the receiver, her white face wrinkled into smiles, and

she said:

'Very well. Let us talk, I will isolate myself. I do not expect anything important

will happen for the next five minutes - for I can give you fully five minutes, Kuno.

Then I must deliver my lecture on "Music during the Australian Period".'

She touched the isolation knob, so that no one else could speak to her. Then she

touched the lighting apparatus, and the little room was plunged into darkness.

'Be quick!' she called, her irritation returning. 'Be quick, Kuno; here I am in the

dark wasting my time.'

But it was fully fifteen seconds before the round plate that she held in her hands

began to glow. A faint blue light shot across it, darkening to purple, and presently

she could see the image of her son, who lived on the other side of the earth, and he

could see her.

'Kuno, how slow you are.'

He smiled gravely.

'I really believe you enjoy dawdling.'

'I have called you before, mother, but you were always busy or isolated. I have

something particular to say.'

'What is it, dearest boy? Be quick. Why could you not send it by pneumatic post?'

'Because I prefer saying such a thing. I want----'


'I want you to come and see me.'

Vashti watched his face in the blue plate.

'But I can see you!' she exclaimed. 'What more do you want?'

'I want to see you not through the Machine,' said Kuno. 'I want to speak to you

not through the wearisome Machine.'

'Oh, hush!' said his mother, vaguely shocked. 'You mustn't say anything against

the Machine.'

'Why not?'

'One mustn't.'

'You talk as if a god had made the Machine,' cried the other.

'I believe that you pray to it when you are unhappy. Men made it, do not forget

that. Great men, but men. The Machine is much, but it is not everything. I see

something like you in this plate, but I do not see you. I hear something like you

through this telephone, but I do not hear you. That is why I want you to come. Pay

me a visit, so that we can meet face to face, and talk about the hopes that are in my


(the rest of the story in in the public domain - just put The Machine Stops in as a search condition)


If you want to see how I've developed this idea of learning technology with a human face a bit further, take a look at some of my contributions to The Education Forum (particularly in the ICT Forum).

Edited by David Richardson
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Community Intelligence (Part 2)

Yesterday I mentioned how our forum has been used to help teachers. For example, one new feature is to provide a panel of educators with considerable experience of using ICT in the classroom that are willing to answer questions submitted by teachers.


We have also employed this approach to answer student questions. So far this service is only available in history but it is hoped to expand it to other curriculum areas. At the moment topics covered include the Cold War, Vietnam War, Women's History, Life and Death of John F. Kennedy, Spanish Civil War, First World War, Nazi Germany, Second World War, History of Russia, Black History and the History of Medicine.


These panels are not only made up of teachers. In some cases we have been able to persuade specialist historians to join these panels. One of the most important aspect of this approach is to give the students the opportunity to question men and women who took part in important events. On the Second World War panel we have members of the armed forces as well as civilians who experienced the Blitz. In the Vietnam War we have soldiers who fought in the conflict as well as those who were involved in the peace movement. This approach is particularly useful when teaching “interpretations of the past” in history.

Probably, the most impressive panel we have is for the Life and Death of John F. Kennedy. This is linked to a dedicated website on the subject.


The panel includes several members who have written books and academic articles about JFK. Doug Horne was for several years a member of the Assassination Records Review Board (ARRB). Larry Hancock is an expert on released FBI and CIA files on JFK. James Richards and Jack White are two of the world’s leading photographic experts on the assassination. We also have several important witnesses in the case that can be interviewed by the students.

Tim Berners-Lee created a system where CERN’s physicists could communicate with each other. The forum has done the same thing for experts on John F. Kennedy. In this way they can share their research in the same way as CERN’s scientists did. The forum has developed a “community intelligence”. For example, a couple of weeks ago a researcher posted an unusual photograph of John F. Kennedy on the forum. It showed him in a back-brace. A member of the forum asked who the man Kennedy was talking to. In a short period of time he was identified as Earl E. T. Smith, the USA ambassador to Cuba (June, 1957 to January, 1959). Another member pointed out that Smith’s wife, Florence Smith, had died in suspicious circumstances on 10th November, 1965. This resulted in a member posting a question asking if Florence Smith’s death was related to that of the journalist, Dorothy Kilgallen, who died two days earlier. It was rumoured at the time that Kilgallen had given the notes on the article she was writing on the assassination to a friend who lived in Florida. It was not long before it was discovered that Florence Smith was living in Palm Beach, Florida, when she died. What is more, she was living next to a house owned by JFK. Her maiden name was Florence Pritchett and was the long-time girlfriend of JFK. In fact, the couple had met in 1944. They spent a lot of time together and for a while friends believed they would get married. However, because JFK was a Roman Catholic, and Florence was a divorcee, the marriage never took place. FBI files released in the 1980s showed that the couple continued having a affair together right up until his assassination. Another member pointed out that Smith and Kilgallen were friends. In fact, they both worked together on the New York Journal American in the 1940s. The debate then went on to look at what possible information Kilgallen and Smith might have had on the assassination. This is an example of how community intelligence works. All these pieces of information resided in different heads. The information only had real meaning when it was placed into the arena of the forum. It then become community intelligence.


The concept of community intelligence raises questions about the nature of schooling. The school system currently places great emphasis on individual intelligence. Teachers spend large periods of time preparing students to be assessed on their knowledge and understanding. This involves making sure that this information actually belongs to them rather than some other individual. Yet collective intelligence does not work in that way. The important thing here is that this information and understanding resides in the community.

This is the point being made by the people behind the Community Intelligence website:


They argue that for businesses to prosper they have to organize the institution in such a way that enables community intelligence to take place. This reinforces the message being received from employers who insist they need staff that are team players. It is clear that the modern workplace needs a different type of person to the one it required 50 years ago. To achieve this schools will need to encourage young people to be fully informed about the importance of community intelligence.

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