Judy Breck – How online education helps to save one child at a time

18 Jul

Judy Breck

Author and Internet pioneer who is convinced that ignorance and terrorism will be ended by global connectivity.

Judy summarises her own career path in her Brief Bio as follows:

  • Generalist

  • New Yorker and Texan

  • Blogger

  • Author of 4 books about internet knowledge for learning

  • Led creation of largest Internet collection of open content learning links 1997-2001

  • Before 1997:
    mentor, web author, desktop publisher, deacon, painter, politician, copywriter, debate coach, teacher, amateur of the sciences

I first found Judy by following a Carnival of the Mobilists link from the OpenGardens blog to Judy’s Golden Swamp blog. is dedicated to explaining and showcasing one particular golden emergence: that of an open content network of what is known by humankind available in common to each person on earth.

A brief definition of the Golden Swamp:

  • Do you think the Internet is a creepy place?
  • That idea is a main cause of the failure of learning in the digital age.

  • The freshest, most authentic knowledge is now on the Internet.

  • Schools have not embraced the global virtual knowledge ecology.

  • The established education industry has instead spent the past decade filtering Internet learning out of our kids’ lives.

Judy is a prolific and enlightened blogger. Not only does she produce the amazing Golden Swamp blog but, she is also on the team of Howard Rheingold’s blog at Smartmobs. As well as Judy’s blogs, her articles and books should be mandatory for everyone involved with education, Internet usage and technological development.

Judy’s articles include ‘Education Unwired‘ and an early plea for website quality published by the New York New Media Association in 1996 called ‘Unkinking the Communication Hose’.

In summer 2006, in the Education Technology Magazine, Judy published the article ‘WHY IS EDUCATION NOT IN THE UBIQUITOUS WEB WORLD PICTURE?

An extract from that article follows:

You may believe that education does not belong in the open chaos of the emerging Internet. But thinking that misses a wonderful new cognitive order of learning that emerges from the chaos of connected knowledge. Education should be right in there with the other major elements in the ubiquitous mix of the Web world. The openness of the content within the Internet is a change for learning that is as complete as the invention of phonetic symbols was for language. But that is getting ahead of our story.

Judy has produced four insightful books about using the Internet as a tool for learning

  1. The Wireless Age

  2. How We Will Learn in the 21st Century

  3. 2004, Connectivity – the answer to ending ignorance and separation (Can you hear me yet?)

  4. 2006, 109 Ideas for Virtual Learning

Ajit Jaokar met Judy when he visited New York in 2006 and soon after that meeting we were both delighted that Judy agreed to take part in the Digital Eves project.


Judy, with such an amazing portfolio of blogs, articles and books it is difficult to know where to start the interview. One of your blogs that I read with great interest was called “
The End of Awful” . That blog was published on September 11,2006 the day after your 70th birthday. One particular sentence really struck me – “I do not think terrorism can survive everyone in the world learning from the same page, sharing that experience in the commons, and creatively mixing and mashing their cultures.” This is one of the most insightful statements I’ve ever read. Please could you explain a little more about your theories on how networks and connectivity will end ignorance and terror?

My Christian faith teaches me that each one of us owes no master other than the God who is Love and forgives us. My political convictions begin with the individualism that broke loose in ancient Athens and was expressed by Thomas Jefferson when he wrote in the American Declaration of Independence: all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. My experience with education has demonstrated that the deepest flaw in schools today is the lack of trust in other people’s children.

The mischief the leads to terrorism and the tyranny always gets its traction by suppressing the individual. Ignorance is a condition that allows tyranny to move into power, and indoctrination that lets the bars down for terrorism always comes from the top down.

Almost suddenly—over a period of barely a decade—the planet is wrapped in wires and beams that are about to connect everyone to everyone else, and each of us to a grand commons bountiful with everything known by humankind. Think about this:

Only individuals can participate in the Internet connectivity. All the power flows from individual nodes. There are no hierarchies. This empowerment of the individual is amplified by the end of isolation where terrorism can incubate. Longer range, it will be the end of ignorance that will bring the global golden age of liberty.

Each of our own children and all of other people’s children will learn from the commons. Ignorance will end globally—and will end in a way that has never happened before. American kids will not be taught one version of history while Iranian kids are taught another. Kids from all over the world will study from the commons, learning history from the same virtual pages. And there is more. If there is disagreement the new generations will be connected with each other as individuals, not isolated. They can confer and collaborate. They can decide which pages of history too are true; this is already happening on Wikipedia.

Of course optimism in public affairs and learning always comes back to what you think of other people’s children. That question is seldom discussed publicly. I recommend it for personal reflection. If you believed in your heart that a child in Kenya, or Mongolia, or the rougher part of your own town has unalienable worth and the potential to make major contributions to the future, my guess is you would have been a rare person in generations before the 21st century. Perhaps the most interesting thing that will happen in the next decade or two, is we are going to find out just how well other people’s children will do. They will have the greatest equality of opportunity to learn in human history. I believe in them. Do you?

I do believe that there is a bright future for all the children of the world and that bright future will depend upon people trusting each other. However, the future will also depend upon us – the current ‘generation of grown-ups’ being sensible trustees of the planet.

By believing in other people’s children I am getting at something different than trusting each other. Believing in other people’s children is seeing the potential of an emaciated Darfur child as equal to that of your own toddler. It is not assuming at any level in your own thinking that blacks cannot succeed or that Arabs are innately violent. It is proper human nature to see the potential in your own child. But what I see as a fundamental problem with the way we did education in the 20th century is that schools could become mechanisms for isolating and dismissing groups of other people’s children.

The old saying goes that you can only save one child at a time. We can only believe in other people’s children (or our own, for that matter) one by one. It is the individual that has worth and that has potential. The digital and mobile age gives us a way to deliver learning to one kid at a time.

Perhaps we ‘grown-ups’ need to find the best ways to work together and grow technology that is easy to use and freely accessible whoever you are and wherever you are – and making sure that it’s available to all children. Which, I believe, is pretty much in alignment with your philosophy and the philosophy behind this book – celebrating the achievements of individuals to inspire others to find their own pioneering pathway.

I am not disagreeing with what you say. One child is an individual. That is the key. Yes, grown up individuals are the key too, of course. As to getting grown-ups to work together, this has proven exceedingly difficult when it comes to the education industry. I ranted a bit about that today (20 October 2006) on this post: – How to do laboratory science in the 21st century

That post is an excellent example of some of the ‘challenges’ to open learning. With your kind permission, I’d like to include it in this book.

Certainly, you have my permission to use this post.


How to do laboratory science in the 21st century

[post from the Schools We Have Now category at Golden]

This morning the New York Times has a story on the front page that is ten years old in its timing. It asks—as if it were newsworthy—whether virtual science is a good way to teach high school students. It seems the vaunted College Board has decided to challenge the online labs that provide experiments in mixing chemicals, dissecting tissue, and other expensive and now rare on-hands school laboratory traditions.

Maybe in 1996 these would have been worthwhile questions. But in the meantime here are some changes virtual science has caused: Detailed, realistic online labs have replaced NO labs that students would find in many schools. Virtual experiments offer experiences considered too dangerous to be done in a brick and mortar lab. Lessons using tissue spare the lives of experimental animals. Virtual experiments offer a broad range and variety of levels of difficulty impossible in a classroom full of kids.

Nonetheless complains, “Trevor Packer, the [College] board’s executive director for Advanced Placement [:] “You could have students going straight into second-year college science courses without ever having used a Bunsen burner.”

In 2006, using a Bunsen burner is an insurmountable obstacle for teenagers in failing schools, developing countries, and places with strict fire codes. With today’s technology you could easily do a virtual Bunsen burner lesson on your mobile phone screen. Yet the vaunted Gray Lady New York Times, who probably carried a story about Robert Bunsen’s burner invention in 1855, is giving front page coverage to going back to 19th century schooling. Here is some flavor of that from the NY Times article:

John Watson, an education consultant who wrote a report last year documenting virtual education’s growth, said online schools had faced lawsuits over financing and resistance by local school boards but nothing as daunting as the College Board. “This challenge threatens the advance of online education at the national level in a way that I don’t think there are precedents for,” Mr. Watson said.

The board signaled a tough position this year: “Members of the College Board insist that college-level laboratory science courses not be labeled ‘A.P.’ without a physical lab,” the board said in a letter sent to online schools in April. “Online science courses can only be labeled ‘A.P.’ if the online provider” can ensure “that students have a guided, hands-on (not virtual) laboratory experience.”But after an outcry by online schools, the board issued an apology in June, acknowledging that “there may be new developments” in online learning that could merit its endorsement. . . .

[And what does the accrediting industry itself—of which the College Board is a prime example— show when it measures online labs?] On the 2005 administration of the A.P. biology exam, for instance, 61 percent of students nationwide earned a qualifying score of three or above on the A.P.’s five-point system. Yet 71 percent of students who took A.P. biology online through the Florida Virtual School, and 80 percent of students who took it from the Virtual High School, earned a three or higher on that test. “The proof is in the pudding,” said Pam Birtolo, chief learning officer at the Florida Virtual School.


The above post does demonstrate very well the complexity in getting grown-ups to work together and the need for educational pioneers.

As this book is about considering what events in a person’s life inspires them to become a pioneer, the other evening, whilst browsing through the links at , I found an interview you made at KTSM-TV El Paso, Texas in April 2001 , shortly after publication of your first book “The Wireless Age.

It’s a great interview and you talked about the Remote Sensing Sites at NASA and the new ‘ABCs’ of education’


B-Better and more compelling and


The ABCs are an accurate summary of the features needed for a truly open and empowering Internet and I wondered what were the key events in your life that inspired you to become a pioneer of Internet/Wireless Internet education?

At this point Judy sent me one of the ideas from her book 109 IDEAS that describe how she became involved in the Internet education area. To read Judy’s own words I’d suggest that you buy her book but below is my understanding of her journey:

Has Judy Breck viewed more web pages with learning content than anyone on earth?

One of Judy’s defining moments in terms of her goal to help to develop the internet to improve learning and make it accessible for all happened in the summer of 1996 when she discovered the Internet.

The inspiration happened in the unlikely setting of a luncheon at the Art Director’s Club of New York. With an ugly text based vision projected onto a home movie screen standing on a tripod, Judy discovered the Internet. Since that time, it is quite possible that she has viewed more web pages of learning content that anyone else.

What follows is a brief description of her journey.

Teacher to MENTOR

From High School to Wall Street and the Whitehouse connection.

Frustrated by the established attitudes to education Judy left her job as a high school teacher in the early 1960s. She had viewed this as the coward’s way out. Yet, it was this frustration with the education system and the route that she has taken that has defined the work ethic and values that are have made Judy the inspirational thought leader and educational activist that she is today.

From 1968 to 1992, Judy worked as a Wall Street law firm secretary for Thomas W. Evans, a gentlemen who was a law partner to Richard Nixon. Judy was hired by Evans initially out of Texas to work as a member of Nixon’s national campaign staff.

Evans also worked to improve education as a national leader in private sector educational efforts and wrote two books about schools. In the role of Education Chair for President Reagan’s Private Sector Initiatives group, Evans founded and led for six years a White House sponsored national and international Symposium on Partnerships in Education. Later he was invited by the Board of Trustees of Teachers College Columbia University, where he served as chairman for several years.

This environment, as Evans’ secretary, was a great incubator for Judy and gave her a great insight into the activities around the development of education. From 1982 to 1992, Judy was given the role of Co-ordinator and played a major role in a MENTOR program that Evans founded and headed in the New York City public schools. The MENTOR program was managed from Judy’s desk at the law firm and consisted of “pairing law firms with high schools—eventually climbing to 45 pairings in New York and replication of the program in 20 states“.

Whilst working as the MENTOR program Co-ordinator, Judy visited may schools and met many staff members of whom she says: “A lot of these people became heroes to me, but I was once again appalled by what was not happening for learning in schools.”

Implosion of the Education System to the Cyberschool Cascade

When Evans moved from the role of partner to counsel, Judy left the job, she held for over 2 decades. Again, she needed to decide which direction to take. Another defining moment happened in 1992 when Judy read Lewis J Perlman’s 1992 best-selling book School’s Out [School’s Out. Lewis J. Perlman Publisher: William Morrow & Co; 1st ed edition (October 1, 1992) ISBN: 0688112862]. Perlman said computers were going to cause the education system to implode. Judy decided she wanted to help.

She cashed in her pensions and purchased best quality computer hardware and software. During the first four years (which Judy describes as ‘fairly abortive‘) she learned a lot about computers but lost touch with the education scene, which was her real passion. It was during this period that the Internet began to emerge as a powerful medium and by 1995 Judy developed a “small desktop multimedia business and was producing brochures, booklets and illustrations for print“.

When Judy bought a ticket for a luncheon meeting of the Art Directors Club of New York – another defining moment occurred. Judy got her first glimpse of the power of the Internet. Her own description best sums up this experience of what she saw and how she felt: “an old fashioned home movie screen that stood on a tripod. What I could see on the screen, between the heads of the many people at the crowded luncheon, was very ugly text. The connection was intermittent. My life, though, was changed“.

It was at this point that Judy realised that the Internet could be a better platform for students to acquire knowledge and enjoy education in a way that was much more successful than the lack lustre attempts made by schools.

Judy soaked up information like a sponge and in August, a few months after the luncheon at the Art Director’s Club, she wrote a ground breaking article called The Cyberschool Cascade. In Judy’s own words: ” the article describes some events in the early migration of knowledge into the Internet. I have some pride in the fact that much of what I said there has happened. My enthusiasm for the Internet has only increased over the years since I first wrote about the cascade.

Judy submitted the article to WIRED in the autumn of 1996 and in the winter of 1997. WIRED did not respond to Judy’s submissions and the article is published for the first time in the Appendix of Judy’s book 109 IDEAS.

The journey to 33rd Street

By autumn 1996 Judy became a keen Internet enthusiast beginning early exploration into websites at her multimedia studio. By attending the small exhibitions at the time, she also learned to look for work via Internet sites like

Judy applied for a part-time writing job at JUMBO!.com but Dick Firestone advised her that she was not needed at that time. Judy kept his e-mail address anyway. Judy contacted him again a few weeks later about some work that she couldn’t handle at her studio and when he responded he told her, “you are my favorite writer.” These were the only 2 emails that Dick Firestone and Judy exchanged until Dick Firestone rang Judy in March 1997.

He needed her help urgently ” to write instructions “a grandmother can understand” for downloading files from the Internet”.

Judy hurried along to the JUMBO!.com offices which were situated in a “small building on 33rd Street in the shadow of the Empire State Building“.

Dick explained more about the job to Judy and between them they decided she was the right person for the job because as Judy says: “I had not the slightest idea how to do the downloads and was old enough to be a grandmother

This was a great experience for Judy as writing the download instructions gave her insight into the structure of the Internet and websites. From her entry into JUMBO! to her exit when the dot com bubble burst Judy said “there was never a moment I did not feel like I had found nirvana. This was home and heaven at the same time.”

The Homework Channel

In April 1997, Dick Firestone asked Judy to become the senior editor and creator of the homework channel for JUMBO! This was a joyous moment for Judy and she has her own thoughts on the fateful events and good luck that made it happen but she certainly viewed it as a “perfect assignment“.

It was this “perfect assignment” that lead Judy to seek out and post superior links to knowledge in the Subject Sampler pages on the website that is still live today.

The Knowledge Collecting Project

JUMBO!.com’s website was made up of channels of lots of different kinds of files ( for example: clipart, fonts, games, screensavers, sounds) that could downloaded from the Internet for free. The creation of the homework channel was an extension of this and created an index of the subjects taught in schools (chemistry, maths, etc.) converted into channels for those kinds of educational files.

By autumn 1997, gained a lot of traffic and even more was stimulated by publishing a weekly email newsletter. At first, the newsletter reviewed a Top 5 study pages and halfway through the project this was increased to a Top 8. Judy directed the knowledge collecting project up to May 2001. In her own words Judy describes that the creation of the newsletter made her “focus on the creative and excellent work being done in building learning open content web pages“.

In early 1998 Judy got help from the staff and by the summer of 2000 about 20 graduate students and two PhDs were working for her. Their roles were full or part time and involved finding, evaluating and organizing links in their knowledge subject specialities. Judy observes the progress when she says: “By that time we had created interlinked packets of 35,000 study subjects incorporating 150,000 open content links to study subjects. The interlinking we did caused surprising things to happen which I later realized were glimpses of the virtual knowledge ecology.

Quite a Ride

JUMBO!.com homework channel changed to, and finally –, was so successful that it got bigger than the other channels of JUMBO!.com, which were sold along with the JUMBO!.com name to Jupitermedia leaving the once homework channel as a website and business in its own right and soon after it became independent of JUMBO!.

The new Company was purchased by and integrated into a new website. was absorbed into ProQuest in 2003. In June of 2004, ProQuest took off-line. About eight months after it went on-line in early 2000, began to eliminate the management of the companies it had aggregated.

Judy describes her exit: “My exit came in May 2001. It had been, as Dick Firestone predicted to me it would be when things began to take off in the early days, quite a ride!


No matter what name on-line education gives itself, Judy has continued to watch, learn and write about on-line knowledge. That is something we should all be very grateful for and Judy provides a little more insight into the vision that inspired her to write Cyberschool Cascade.

The vision I have been inspired by has changed little since I wrote the draft article of the Cyberschool Cascade that is the Appendix of
109 IDEAS. The conclusion of that article, written ten years ago, summarizes my conviction and passion:

Cyberschool is already one of the great achievements of our species, and it is not even very sophisticated yet. In a time when tribal sensitivities are deepening and multicultures are demanding their perpetuation, cyberspace is the domain of the individual. A kid caught in a dismal family, neighborhood or school can jump into a chip, to go out to the ocean and find a far horizon. We are all that kid, in one way or another. The cascade washing over the world is giving each of us the captaincy of our own mind.”

Judy, having read your description of your personal journey from high school teacher to the Cyberschool Cascade and the creation of open learning content for all – your vision, conviction, passion and tenacity are clear and inspirational.

What words of guidance/advice would you have for teachers, education facilitators, and the tech gurus that are developing the Internet/Mobile Internet?

It has seemed certain to me for a long time now that a global golden age of learning is dawning. I think it will be the mobile delivery of the Internet that will pull the new learning over the horizon. Education as we have known it in recent decades will greatly change, or perhaps disappear. The mobile device will engage the individual student directly with knowledge in its now primary location: the Internet. Once that has occurred, the task of educators will be to remake learning around that change.

Most knowledge engagement in the education we have known has been indirect, with students receiving it piecemeal through grades, textbooks, standards testing, and lesson plans presented in the classroom. Much of their Internet experience has been on shared computers. That sort of previous learning is profoundly less direct than doing a virtual Bunsen burner experiment on a mobile device in one’s hand. I think the change to mobile knowledge delivery is so fundamental and complete that it will flip education to become Internet centralized. That will be a welcome change from having the Internet held at the periphery of education as it has been for the past decade.

My guidance/advice, to the extent I am qualified to play that role, is very simple: celebrate and take advantage of the grand new mobile opportunity coming soon for all youngsters on our planet to learn from the same page and collaborate virtually in their learning. That is a golden age for sure!

Agreed, that would be a golden age indeed. Judy, again, many thanks for providing some space in your very busy days to take part in the Digital Eves interviews. For the final closing questions, it would be interesting to hear any more general/personal words of inspiration you may have for others.

Role Models and Personal Inspiration

Who were/are your role models?

Maggie, you ask a challenging question to someone in her seventies. I suppose we now worry more about trying to be decent role models for younger people than we do about looking toward those to follow. In our later decades we also have seen the feet of clay of many of those we looked up to in earlier years. I can, though, single out as my most precious role model a man named U.A. Hyde.

Hyde was a Texas political consultant and press writer when I knew him during the 1960s. He was not a “success” by the usual standard. It would never occur to him to do something false to get that sort of success. The reason it would not occur to him is that he knew—as he told me once—that virtue is its own reward. When he told me that he said it this way: “You will lead a happier life if you know that virtue is its own reward.’

What Hyde taught me is that the fun is in putting your efforts toward making something work. Sometimes you will get rich that way. Sometimes no one notices that you made the thing work. Sometimes it does not work and you fail. None of those results are the point. The happier life is one of believing and doing.

Are there any particular books, films or songs that inspire you?

Beethoven is a profound inspiration me. Some how his music stirs and encourages my soul and gives me strong hope. I think part of his power is the internal perfection of his compositions. They are also not trite, not obvious. Beethoven creates a world where excellence and grandness are in charge while new ideas of worth emerge.

We’ve already seen that in the summer of 1996 and April 1997 key events happened that directed you towards on-line education for all.

From a more personal perspective where there any pivotal moments that told you that you were on the right track in terms of the work you’ve undertaken and the choices, you’ve made during your career and in your life?

In our secular and relativist times, the notion of divine assurance is seldom mentioned, but at least for me it is pivotal. I do not think God hands us a timeline or map to follow as we move through life. My sense of it is that the future has not been determined: we can affect it. Through prayer God will let us know if something we are thinking about doing to the future is appropriate and helpful—or is the opposite.

Working on something you feel God wants you to do has long been referred to as a “calling.” Over the past decade that I have been attempting to help move digital learning forward, there have been a few times when I have been reassured in prayer that my goal was appropriate—felt it was a calling. Those have been my most pivotal moments.

When discussing individualism you quoted Thomas Jefferson “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”.

Are there any other inspiring quotes that have helped to guide you in pursuit of your passion for on-line education for all?

There is an old saying: “You only save one child at a time.” This expression has meant different things. Some say the one child is yours, and so that child is more important than any other. Another meaning has been that though there are many children who need help it is most practical and effective to save them one at a time.

In the new mobile web era that is dawning, the mobile device brings the old saying into the digital world. The mobile is very much a one-person device, and something that is personal and carried by the person. Learning can directly reach one child at time through the devices. Children can be saved from schools that do not work and environments that hold them back by reaching to them through the mobile one child at a time.

Thank you for sharing your story Judy. Your pioneering thoughts on creating tools that will transform how we can “save one child at a time” is a motto that should be in the mind of all of us.



Footsteps - image created by Maggie Baldry

Legal bit

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the authors.  Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information contained in this work neither the author, contributors, employees or advisers are able to accept any legal liability for any consequential loss or damage, however caused, arising as a result of any actions taken on the basis of the information contained in this work. All third-party brands and trademarks belong to their respective owners.  Please note this notice is to protect the source research material. Please feel free to link and quote with references back to this page. Thank you. Copyright : Maggie Baldry

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Posted by on July 18, 2011 in 21st century, Soft Footsteps


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