The small one is down for a nap right now, so I can write. Little kids look at the world in funny ways. The other day she came up and proudly proclaimed that "my throat is burping!" Turns out she had the hiccups.

In a few years, this kid will go off to school, sit down in a classroom, and Learn Things. Continuing on from the last post, I'd like to examine the idea that the classroom she'll grow up to be in might not be a classroom at all. The reason: a growing surge in ambient information.

When people are asked how the internet will change our educational lives in the next decade, this is probably what most of them think of. With increasing amounts of smaller, cheaper, faster technology and connectivity, information becomes pervasive, accessible wherever you ask for it and most places you don't (witness the rise of context-sensitive advertising).

Since it's easier to use data, more data comes into being; with increased amounts of data to understand, we begin letting our computers do the understanding for us via the explosively maturing semantic web. Tapping into many minds other than your own will become commonplace (how many of us already look online for consumer reviews before we buy a computer or refrigerator?) and "queries to the metabrain" will tap into both human and machine knowledge.

So far, this is the acceleration of business as usual; no computer-literate teenager would be surprised by what I've just written.

The tipping point comes (and is coming now) as we go post-digital, taking the technologies for granted and using them as natural ways to live our human lives more fluidly. The heralded "classroom without walls" will give way to lives without classrooms. We're learning how to learn without placing our bodies in a specific geographic location. Next up is learning how to learn without placing our minds in a specific mental frame - "in school" will be an archaic phrase because we'll be simultaneously in and out of school all the time.

In kindergarten, a good teacher notices something you're doing and takes the opportunity to turn it into a mini-lesson without pulling you out of the flow of your activity. We haven't been able to scale this into higher grades too much. While one teacher might be able to cover the knowledge of 25 five-year-olds well enough to spot and teach lessons to them all, it's the rare human being that can cover the depth of knowledge that 25 ten-year-olds will pursue, let alone 25 university students delving into the depths of 25 different subjects. (We'll talk about the ability to mentor someone both in your specific field and in a depth not your own in a future post on apprenticeship.)

But what if the teachers didn't have to do this by themselves? What if we had "smart recognition" of places where context - little mini-lessons - could be inserted? And what if, instead of waiting for a teacher to notice and instruct her, the student had the ability to tap into the needed data stream in the field (or better yet, it was done automatically)? If lessons were taught in context, we'd let kids out of the classroom so they could experience more contexts to learn from. Teachers and parents would have to make sure that the lessons were high-quality and level-appropriate but not limited or biased in potentially horizion-narrowing ways, but these are skills that our children (and our computers) should be learning anyhow.

Along with bringing children out of the (increasingly nonexistent) classroom, this would bring adults back into it. I didn't have lessons or textbooks at my job this summer; there is no course called "How To Be An EE Intern 101." Schools give people enough tools for them to start learning on their own by asking questions. "What do I do when this part doesn't work?" "What does this chunk of code do?" "Did you run into problems setting up that micro last year?" You used to have to either sift through a book to find the 3 relevant pages or wait around for an older engineer to give you the right information. Taking the brains-as-factories analogy, this is the equivalent of industrial production before the advent of Just In Time manufacturing. Idle hands. Wasted time. Interruptions in the workflow. General underutilization of potential.

Just-In-Time ambient software will bring adults "back to school" by acting as a / supporting a real mentor peeking over your shoulder or a helpful buddy at the keyboard. "That's the bypass cap, and we use them because..." You learn on the job, within the job, without being pulled out of your task to go sit in a classroom. Computers will suggest where to look for help if they can't assist you themselves. "It looks like you're writing a resume. Remember to ask Leslie to check it - here, I'll pop up a blank email for you." (The trick, of course, is to do this without becoming annoying or intrusive.) Soon it'll answer questions I didn't even think of asking. "Mel, why are you drawing JPEGs of your equations? Ever heard of LaTeX? Here, gimme 15 minutes and I'll link you to a crash course..."

There are many things best done in classrooms; there are many things best learned through formal instruction. But there are equally many subjects and people that don't take naturally to classroom instruction, and I expect to see these modes of learning freed from this constraint. Classrooms will exist because they need to exist, not because they're the "only way" to do something.