One of my students is dreading an upcoming musical performance. She’s Chinese, an educational immigrant from Beijing whose family has sent her to the US for 8th and 9th grade to learn English and learn American ways.  In two weeks, it’s our Family Weekend (think parent conferences, football games, and musical concerts), and she has a week and a few days to learn a piece of music well enough to play in the concert.

By way of encouragement, I showed her Tim Ferriss’s video on conquering fear:

We watched about ten minutes of it before she found herself completely lost in the complexity of his English grammar.  Alas.  I thought it was a lost cause, and that she wouldn’t be able to see or understand his inspiring message to “just get out there and do it; what’s the worst that could happen?”

Then she turned on the subtitles.  See that button on the screen?  Turns out that many of the TED.com videos are subtitled in many languages — Japanese and Chinese among them, along with Hungarian and Spanish.  So she watched his talk with traditional Chinese characters scrolling underneath.

It turns out that the characters that translate as “Incredible Hulk” include the character “CHEN” which I learned a long time ago meant something like “bureaucrat”.  So instead of a big green monster-person, it means “person unconstrained by bureaucracy”? I don’t know for sure, and she wasn’t able to explain it to me.

Anyway, the point is that she figured out in a few minutes how to make something useless to her — a 20-minute talk in English — into something useful, via correctly enabled Web tools.   This is the kind of world we live in… and yet people still insist that we need to have paper books.

Why?  Does an edition of the Great Gatsby have a scrolling gloss in Chinese?  And which version do you get to read?

The educational potential of the tools we’re developing have only begun to be tapped, and holding onto traditional visions of textbooks is getting in the way of really empowering our students in incredible new ways.

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