18 September 02009

More on self-organised learning

Here's the next instalment in a 'slow conversation' with Seb Schmoller, which kicked off with my post Progressive austerity and self-organised learning, followed by a response from Seb. I think it's fair to say Seb is more cautious than me so far. He splashes a little cold water on my enthusiasm for things "lightweight" — pointing out that the institutional and technical infrastructure underpinning informal learning is far from lightweight — and worries that I underestimate the importance of accreditation. He's probably right. I'll come back to those points in a roundabout way in a bit.

But in this instalment, I want to bump the conversation along to the question of how the professional practice of people like me and Seb should change to respond to the "progressive austerity" environment. Leaving aside whether the right term is "collapse", I think we agree that business-as-usual is not an option.

Ten years ago, I was part of the team that built the original infrastructure for learndirect. The total contract value ran into eight figures. More recently, clients have been seeking to update their web portals (yes, some still use that term) and gateways rather than build from new, but there's still an implicit expectation that the cost will run comfortably into six figures.

In parallel, agile start-ups and community projects have been stitching together learning materials and peer discussion using whatever was cheap and ready-to-hand. (The Living IT project that Seb and I worked on in the '90s used listservers running on my Mac Performa, though we also had the advantage of a software partner who contributed a prototype Virtual Learning Environment.) Now the online learning ecosystem has matured, and the scope of what's cheap and ready-to-hand includes heavyweight resources like iTunes U learning materials in your pocket and MIT Open Courseware, plus tools for organising like Facebook, meetup.com and (if you need a full-scale VLE) Moodle — not to mention (still) good old email listservers. With these at your disposal, and a bit of imagination, it's possible to offer some pretty impressive learning experiences.

Large-scale, build-your-own-infrastructure learning environments are going to look like vanity projects that are hard to defend in the face of a tight squeeze on spending (arguably this lesson should have been learnt five years ago from the failures of UKeU and NHSU). Imaginative application of existing resources and infrastructure has always offered more bang for your buck. In an austere climate, that's irresistible. How can we make sure it's progressive as well? How do we retain the elements that make learning in online environments inspiring and liberating, cut away unnecessary bloat and barriers to learning, and perhaps even reform the ancillary practices around learning — including accreditation?

Needless to say, I don't have all the answers to this. But I've had the chance to explore some possibilities through discussions at recent School of Everything meet-ups (highly recommended if you're in the London area), with people like Dougald Hine and Julia Shalet.

One of the things Julia and I talked about over lunch the other day was doing a review of tools and techniques that groups can use to organise their own learning — along the lines of what the Whole Earth Review did for groups organising their own sustainable living decades ago. This is not a particularly original or novel idea: Jay Cross & friends have done something similar for the corporate learning sector in the Learnscaping un-book and almost certainly on a wiki somewhere (such is the speed of evolution of Jay's sites that I can't find it now).

It might still be a good idea. On further reflection, I can't help wondering if something like it doesn't already exist, albeit probably organised in a way that might not suit all learning contexts. Things have moved on from the days of the Whole Earth Review: in place of scarcity of information, we have abundance. The trick is how, in all that abundance, to find something that's directly relevant to your context of learning (prior knowledge and experience, co-learners, preferred location and medium, teaching and support needs, purpose/goal, and the interactions of all these).

So does the world need another wiki that maps learning tools and resources onto the contexts where they work best?

That's a genuine question for me right now, not a rhetorical one. My hunch is that the answer lies in providing a manageable 'way in' to deal with what seems like an unmanageable range of paths and options you could take.

Seb is right to pull me up on my use of "lightweight" and point out that the technical infrastructure that sits behind and supports the information environment, from libraries to Google, is anything but lightweight. But one of the secrets of success of Google — and of Amazon recommendations, Spotify and Pandora — is that they provide what feels like a lightweight interface to a distinctly heavyweight set of stuff.

There are hazards with doing this, of course. Librarians, teachers and information professionals of all stripes caution that things that look lightweight may actually be lightweight: superficial, unsupported and untested.

Is that where we come in? Seb points to the importance of supporting learning at critical points, making sure learners receive the right formative feedback, and worries that self-organised learning may not be sufficient for this. Let me correct one possible misunderstanding here: self-organised learning is not necessarily unsupported or self-supported; it's not wholly self-service. There is certainly space in self-organised learning for teachers, but possibly with the tables turned. Instead of the teachers setting the parameters of the learning and containing it within a space that they run and own, a group of learners with common interests may come together, agree their parameters and preferred learning environments, and then hire in a teacher to help them achieve their goals.

So I see School of Everything, which styles itself as a kind of eBay-for-learning-opportunities, helping you find someone to teach you what you want, as an enabler of self-organised learning. As it stands, I think it could provide more sensitivity to different contexts of learning. To take one example (not intended to be a representative one), I'm interested in learning French, but, perhaps atypically, not because I want to be a fluent conversationalist with French people; I want to be able to read French crime fiction at some other literature in the original, and I want to be able to watch French films without needing subtitles. So I'd like to be able to hook up with the niche minority who share these aims, perhaps have someone curate a set of texts and video resources that lead us to greater mastery, get help when I'm stuck, and share experiences. What new features or additional learning tools could I use in conjunction with School of Everything to make it easy to organise this?

I've gone on too long already, but briefly to come back to the question of accreditation, and throw a challenge back to Seb. If I concede that I may undervalue accreditation, I wonder if, after decades in the professional culture of further education, he might perhaps overvalue it. A full critique of current approaches to accreditation should have its own post, but in a nutshell I worry that they put too much emphasis on abstract metrics rather than more situational ones. And there's always a risk that the tail ends up wagging the dog, just as the first generation of Virtual Learning Environments focused more on tracking learner than on teaching them (because they were sold into institutions that were paid on tracking measures). I think if we're serious about progressive austerity, we should look critically at accreditation practices.

Anyway, just as self-organised learning does not preclude teaching, it doesn't preclude accreditation either. The self-organisers should be able to buy it in. Then we'll find out how much they value it.

Happy for anyone else to join in the conversation, here or elsewhere, should you wish to!

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Ideas and Essays on 18 September 02009 | TrackBack

Hi David -

Very interesting discussion.

On Seb's point about the "need to learn in real 'vocational' environments", it strikes me that, far from being a brake on the kind of lightweight future of learning you envisage, this may be a driver of it.

Universities and colleges don't provide "real" environments. I regularly hear complaints from students, particularly those on vocational post-grad courses, who are stuck using substandard equipment that is not a reasonable preparation for the professional environments they are supposedly being trained for. Rather than create unsatisfactory artificial environments within academic institutions, a great deal of vocational training would be better (and cheaper) carried out by making use of the downtime in real workplaces.

I look forward to following your discussion on accreditation, as it unfolds.

Posted by: Dougald Hine on 21 September 02009 at 1:06 PM

In a climate in which cuts are threatened and coming it is too easy to take up a routine "fight the cuts" position, thereby ceasing to focus on the potentially beneficial and/or transformational potential of the "Internet revolution".

I do not normally write comments with links to "my stuff", but I hope you'll accept these exceptions, which are:

i) a summary from a talk by Sugata Mitra at Google's London office on Monday 5 October - essentially about "lightweight learning" - at 0.03USD per day per child;

ii) comments in Friendfeed from various people (including you...) on a recent piece in Business Week by Sun's founder Scott McNeally: An Internet Revolution in Higher Education.

It is Sugata's talk that I think has most of relevance. Firstly, on account of the economy and effectiveness of the kind of learning he has investigated. Secondly, because of its widespread applicability. And thirdly because of the way in which "teachers and teaching" are sidelined by it.

After his talk I had a conversation with Mitra about whether it is even faintly realistic to expect teachers to embrace self-organised learning. Obviously some will, just as some people running or working in "scribing houses" set up printing businesses in the years following the invention of hot metal printing. But just as most scribes opposed printing, so, surely, most teachers will cling onto the conventional model.

Posted by: Seb Schmoller on 11 October 02009 at 12:50 PM
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