December 27th, 2014

Back to the Future: Revisiting the “Whole Earth” Concept of Sustainable Tools for 21st Century Education

By Susan L. Stansberry and Edward L. Harris

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Abstract: The “Whole Earth Catalog” (1968-1972) featured a collection of creative ideas, articles, and durable, practical tools promoted from a utilitarian, environmentally conscious, and intellectual perspective. The wisdom inherent in the catalog may be of value to education today, as we seek innovative, timeless, and empowering technologies to promote sustained learning for all. This purpose of this article is to position the discussion of sustainable educational technology tools for 21st Century education within the context of the “Whole Earth” standards: 1) High quality at a reasonable cost, 2) Easily accessible, 3) Useful and relevant to independent or self education, and 4) Capable of launching a cascade of new opportunities.

Keywords: educational technology, sustainable education, instructional technology, sustainable tools


For you non-Baby Boomers, the “Whole Earth Catalog” (see was a collection of creative ideas, articles, and durable, practical tools published regularly from 1968 to 1972 and very sporadically thereafter. During its four years of regular publication, the Catalog earned a reputation as being utilitarian, environmentally conscious, and intellectual. “Whole Earth” was not just a directory for sustainable tools; it also promoted a philosophy by which to use those tools. There was something special about the publication from the feel of the recycled paper, to the wide array of pragmatic implements, to the thoughtful articles.

Tools and skills were the foremost purpose of the publication. “Whole Earth” publishers believed these tools and skills would empower individuals to take ownership of their education, shape their environment, and share the experience with others (Whole Earth Catalog, 1968)

“Whole Earth” tools were both innovative and timeless, and they provided opportunities for personal growth. One of the primary tool editors, Kevin Kelly (2000), posited, “the most revolutionary tools are those that expand the choices inherent in other tools” (p. 4).  Before any product was included in the Catalog, it must have met a rigid set of standards:

  1. High quality at a reasonable cost,
  2. Easily accessible,
  3. Useful and relevant to independent or self education, and
  4. Capable of launching a cascade of new opportunities (Whole Earth Catalog, 1968, p. 2).

Although “Whole Earth Catalog” was exemplary of a bygone era of innovative ideas, profound social change, and a radical call to consciousness, the above standards for tool inclusion could effectively be used today to ensure sustainability and quality for educational technology. Examples are seen in the sections below.

Standard 1: A Good Tool Offers High Quality at a Reasonable Cost

High quality and affordability are obvious factors in any discussion on sustainable technologies. Educators must consider the cost of ownership and return on investment as they seek to adopt new educational technologies. Open source software vs. commercial software, outsourcing vs. insourcing, open education resources (OERs) vs. pre-packaged curriculum, and security vs. safety are constant battles being waged in the educational arena.

What is the best technology for the least amount of money? Often the hidden costs of open source software or open education resources are ignored in favor of little to no actual cost. Hidden costs might include onsite developers, trainers, and hardware differences. As “Whole Earth” philosophy suggests, decisions regarding new technologies for an educational system are best made at the grassroots level. Without the initial buy-in from users at the Early Adopter, Early Majority, and Late Majority stages (Rogers, 2003), an institution might find themselves investing in high quality tools that no one actually uses. That price is always too high to pay. Unlike the familiar movie line from Field of Dreams, “If you build it, they will come,” investment in educational technology does not ensure that it will actually be used.

Standard 2: A Good Tool is Easily Accessible

In the “Whole Earth” days, accessibility was expressed in terms of how easily the technology could be mailed or shipped. For instance, while large harvesting combines were not seen in the publications, sickles, pocketknives and books were prominent. An inaccessible tool is useless, while an accessible tool is invaluable. In the modern educational vernacular, we often think of accessibility in terms of human accessibility to technology, or the degree to which a technology is available to as many people as possible.

Academic fields such as Educational Technology and Information Sciences further differentiate between availability, which concerns how readily obtainable a technology is, and accessibility, which concerns the skills one needs to successfully employ the technology in the manner intended. An example might be digital library services. Most universities make available a wealth of research materials online for anyone who has university credentials to log in to their system. However, while these materials are available, they are not necessarily accessible to the user who is unable to navigate the university library website or remember his or her login credentials. Further, he or she might not have the search skills to interact efficiently with digital databases. Thus, when adopting new educational technologies, availability as well as accessibility must be considered and planned for.

The average teacher or faculty member might appropriately view a learning management system (LMS) much like a pocketknife – a specific tool to make completing specific tasks in specific situations more effective and efficient. Therefore, they may use it merely to post the course syllabus and grades. To the university IT leaders, however, an LMS is considered as much more than a tool.  It is an entire system that has the potential to change the way the university approaches teaching and learning. Processes must be in place, however, for the LMS to be available and accessible to faculty members and students in a way that leads them to using this tool for innovative change.

Standard 3: A Good Tool is Useful for Self-education

In self-directed learning (SDL), the individual takes the initiative and the responsibility for what occurs. SDL also implies that the user/learner has the ability and opportunity to choose from a range of available and appropriate resources (Brookfield, 1994). Thus, since opportunity and choice can empower a person to grow in his or her capacity to be self-directing, these factors should be nurtured and promoted in educational processes.

Perhaps the Internet is one of the best examples of a technology that nurtures self-direction and promotes both informal and formal learning opportunities. Having access to experts and/or a collective of like-minded individuals as well as activities such as “earning badges” has motivated SDL to an unprecedented level.

The commitment to and motivation for learning can also be readily observed through resources like TED Talks, massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPs), virtual worlds, Wikipedia, Kahn Academy, massive online open courses (MOOCs), and thousands of similar resources. At the heart of each of these resources that foster passion, conversation, and a commitment to learning lies a task to be accomplished or a problem to be solved.

Standard 4: A Good Tool Launches a Cascade of New Opportunities

“Whole Earth” editor Kelly (2000) comments that technologies create their own new problems, such as too many possibilities, too many passions, and too much demand for knowledge.  Many educators encounter this problem in their classrooms with student use of mobile devices on a daily basis. For example, the proliferation of mobile devices in the hands of learners of all ages has created the opportunity for development of specific apps as well as new instructional strategies to incorporate mobile devices into learning situations rather than ignoring or banning them. In a similar way, the popularity of and immersion in digital games and simulations has created the opportunity to re-examine learner motivation and participation and apply those concepts to instruction that may or may not include actual digital games or simulations.

While new technologies create new problems, the problems also result in new opportunities for new tools to solve those problems. “Whole Earth” was at the forefront of reminding readers of the cycle of  (1) new tool, (2) new challenges, (3) new tools. More contemporary sources expand on this notion. For example, in the Technology Learning Cycle (Marra, Howland, Wedman, & Diggs, 2003), the authors provide a model that explains how and why we move through phases of understanding and applying the use of technology tools. When a learner completes a Technology Learning Cycle (TLC), he or she is not only gaining personal and professional knowledge and skills, but impacting their classroom and future learning as well.

Fueled by the continual invention of new technology innovations and dynamic changes in existing innovations, the Technology Learning Cycle consists of five phases, the first being launched by learner interest and present knowledge of any innovation. The learner moves through phases of skill development, and then he or she is encouraged to reflect upon and share experiences with others, beginning a new cycle of learning. By engaging in one learning cycle, a person begins a new cycle at a completely different level of awareness and with an enhanced set of skills and knowledge. The value for us as educators is to continually invest in cycles of exploration and new learning.

Sustainable Tools for 21st Century Education

The growing presence of technology in the everyday lives of learners presents new challenges and possibilities for sustainable education. Sustainability assumes the presence of stable, functional, and user-friendly tools and spaces. What are today’s innovative, timeless, and empowering tools? One doesn’t have to look far or purchase a print catalog to find out. Web 2.0 resources have connected educators to experts and other users of technologies through personal or professional pearning petworks (PLNs), blogs, wikis, and unconferences. Traditionally print resources like the Chronicle of Higher Education, academic journals, and mainstream media resources all have a robust web and social media presence; thus the need for learners’ information literacy, or 21st Century Skills, has increased exponentially.

Seimens (2005) argues that “we derive our competence from forming connections” (n.p.). The educational technology tools that bring students authentic learning opportunities, increased engagement, and deeper learning have connections in common. Learners may connect with other learners in any time or place; post their original work and ideas for anyone to see, critique, or collaborate on, or consult with an unending host of experts in any field. Sustainable learning now relies on available and accessible tools that connect the learner to the whole world.

However, while our technology has changed, the wisdom of “Whole Earth” prevails — the wisdom of not just acquiring technologies for technology’s sake, but the wisdom inherent in using technologies that promote a sustainable lifestyle. In education today, we are continually seeking innovative, timeless, and empowering technologies to promote sustained learning for all.  Just as the publishers of “Whole Earth Catalog” understood, educational technologies are best adopted from grassroots efforts, and those technologies adopted, must empower users to take learning, teaching and research to deeper, more meaningful levels.

Innovative ideas, interconnections through sharing those ideas, and purposeful inclusion of technologies in today’s classrooms echo the rationale behind Whole Earth. So in striving for sustainable tools for 21st Century education, as readers are reminded in every issue of the Catalog, we must seek technologies and skills that empower individuals to take ownership of their education, shape their environments, and especially, share the adventure with whoever is interested.




Kelly, K. (2000). “Tools Are the Revolution,” in WHOLE EARTH CATALOG.

Marra, R., Howland, J., Wedman, J., and Diggs, L. (2003). A little TLC (technology learning cycle) as a means to technology integration. TechTrends, 47(2), 15-19. Doi: 10.1007/BF02763419.

Rogers, E. M. (2003). Diffusion of innovation (5th ed.). New York: Free.

Siemens, G. (2005). Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age. International Journal of Instructional Technology & Distance Learning, 2(1).


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