Breakthrough ideas take time to filter into common usage
According to the United Nations, the radio took 38 years to reach an audience of 50 million people, television 13 years, and the Internet just four years.On the other hand, the telephone, one of the most groundbreaking communications tools in history, took 75 years to win 50 million users. In contrast, Facebook took only 3.5 years and Angry Birds a mere 35 days to reach the same number of people.
Clearly, every innovation has a gestation period and with time, it has become increasingly shorter. Indeed, the viral spread of Angry Birds globally in about one month has become a well-known case study.
These numbers tell a compelling story. It goes without saying that the Internet has revolutionalised how we connect from one end of the globe to the other utilising countless online platforms available to us today.
But how did the Internet begin? As history tells us, on October 29, 1969, two universities (Stanford and UCLA) connected two computers together through a project called Arpanet. Yes, the Internet is more than 40 years old, but it only reached consumers less than 20 years ago.
Since the printed word, perhaps no other innovation has affected human development as greatly as the Internet. Social and political revolutions have sprung from it. From the Arab Spring to allowing free video calls with a worldwide reach, the Internet has changed lives forever.
I remember living abroad in the 1980s and having to save enough money to make a three-minute phone call home. Today, my son in Britain has his Skype connection switched on for hours at weekends, so he can be a virtual part of the family while we have dinner or entertain guests. It doesn't cost a single penny.
Using tablet computers, grandmothers now have one-touch access to their family members and are able to share photos and videos at little or zero cost. And they do not have to learn to use a computer.
Without a doubt, the Internet has proven to be a game-changer, especially in education. The "flipped classroom" approach is already an accepted innovation in developed countries. Why should students waste valuable face-to-face time with professors, learning content they can easily learn themselves? The Internet is driving "self-directed" learning to heights previously not possible.
University students are arriving at lecture halls having already learned the course content on their own. The purpose of the "lectures" then is to have informed discussions with professors and fellow peers. In fact, some of the best professors are now offering their content online for free.
You have complete and open access to the same content that Ivy League university students have, with one difference - it is available at no cost. I recently met Professor Andrew Ng from Stanford University. He is the co-founder of an online resource platform that offers world-class content from some of the best universities. He is a firm believer in democratising education, where knowledge should not belong to the elite but is the right of every human.
It is so humbling to see one of the world's brightest minds going against the grain to fight for what can only improve humanity.
Content is one part of the equation. Tutoring is another.
Online support communities bend over backwards to help fellow students struggling to understand difficult or tricky concepts. I had an engaging session with Preetha Ram, a Yale-educated professor who gave up her job to form an online support community where students help their peers to learn. The tutors don't get paid; the satisfaction of helping fellow students overcome their difficulties is its own reward. The passion and fervour that online community members display to help others reminds me of the life story of Viktor Frankl, a Holocaust survivor.
In his 1946 memoir Man's Search For Meaning, Frankl suggests that those who have an inherent desire to assist others are able to endure and survive despite all odds. Interestingly, we feel our best when helping others, not ourselves.
How big should a classroom be? In Malaysia, we have an average of 40 students each and many consider this too big. What would you say to a classroom of 10 million students? This is the size of the Khan Academy, an online classroom made possible by the Internet.
Across the world, 20,000 classrooms are using Salman Khan's innovation at no cost.
I had a brainstorming session with an executive from the Khan Academy last week and was blown away to learn it is run by only 37 staff. Talk about productivity, passion and endurance. If the Khan Academy were to be established in Malaysia, we would probably expect to have 370 staff to run it. But what does all this really mean? It means that you have to look beyond the obvious. The Internet was never intended to do what it is doing now.
If you were to ask the original inventors of the Internet, they would be shocked at what their innovation has spawned. In fact, quite a few valuable innovations arose from inventions intended for different purposes. For example, Guglielmo Marconi, who invented the radio, was convinced that people would use his invention to talk with each other.
On the other hand, the inventor of the telephone, Alexander Graham Bell, felt that people would use his invention to listen to music. History has proven that they were wrong and both inventions have been used for the exact opposite purpose.
Inventors usually don't make good innovators. For something mind-blowing to happen, we need both inventors and innovators. We just need to understand that they are not the same person, and we should not attempt to convert one into the other. Being two sides of the same coin, one is driven by research and the other by profit. If we are to develop breakthrough solutions, we cannot have one without the other.
Dr Kamal Jit Singh is CEO of Unit Inovasi Khas.