Why the way we learn has to keep getting more agile
Budgetary pressure can mean that learning gets more centralised and standardised. But in an era where there are near-free resources and tools in the commons of the Net, there’s no reason why learning cannot become quicker and easier to organise, more powerful — and cheaper. By David Jennings.
In this first article of a series, which are going to explore Internet tools for learning, I explain how bottom-up models, emerging from particular groups and communities, using Internet tools, may bring the agility that is necessary to overcome the limited budgets.
Learning suffers when money is tight
Whether in the private or public sectors, budgets for education and training are being squeezed. In times like these, the first instinct — if it isn’t simply to cut these activities, which isn’t always an option — is often to reduce costs through standardisation. You automate or de-skill the standard elements and then aim for economies of scale.
Arguably this was what the first wave of e-learning offered a decade or more ago. But it creates inflexible and impersonal learning experiences, with reduced scope for adapting of the fly, responding to individual needs or tinkering creatively with ideas to understand them better.
Across the board from schools to management development, some are, sadly, still following the old instincts. But others are realising that environment created by the Internet is now rich and mature enough to support new ways of learning that are self-organised, just in time, social and informal to the core, with sufficient individual flexibility to stop and start, mix and match — and this model can achieve better results with lower costs.
Tried and trusted methods, on steroids
How is this possible? Firstly it leverages the amazing richness of resources and tools that are now available for free or feels-like-free online. I shall dedicate two further articles to these resources and tools, in turn. But for now, consider two unmissable examples of what has been built on the platform of the Net over the last decade.
• As a launching pad for learning, Wikipedia is without precedent — not a complete solution, for sure, but ready-to-hand and chock full of pointers to further resources.
• Similarly, social networks for sharing and discussing life’s incidental lessons are now taken for granted. Yet the ease and fluidity with which we can find people with similar interests, engage them in dialogue and then maintain a continuous ambient awareness of what they’re discovering is a deeply powerful platform which makes learning almost unavoidable.
Secondly, I mentioned new ways of learning, but of course I’m mostly talking about ways that are as old as the hills, just channeled into new bottles. We’ve always learnt things on the job, when we needed to, by asking peers and by informal apprenticing with master practitioners. We tend not to give the same weight to this learning, compared with sitting in rows in front of an instructor. Yet it is equally, if not more useful. I’m guessing that most people reading this article won’t have done a formal course in how to use the Internet. I’d also bet that most have Internet skills in the top 10 percent of the population.
Grands Projets give way to self-organising and self-reliance?
In 2005 Scotland commissioned what it claimed was the world’s first national intranet for education. It may also turn out to be the last. Opinions differ on how successful this £50 million large scale infrastructure was (over 2,500 schools and many of the country’s universities were connected). Apparently George Lucas, of Star Wars fame — so no stranger to big budgets or planning down to the last meticulous detail — was one of its fans and saw it as a model for his own educational foundation. In September 2011, however, the Scottish Government cancelled its lengthy procurement of a second generation of this intranet. They recognised, six months into the process, that the twin goals of flexibility of provision and economy of scale could not be matched to the satisfaction of both client and provider.
Top-down planning of flexible bottom-up activities has always been tricky. Instead of a national intranet, there could be a range of these activities, organised within communities of interest and drawing on freely available tools, along with resources shared openly in ‘the commons’ rather than locked behind some firewall.
Self-organised learning environments
That may sound intuitively like a more agile solution, but would it work in practice? There is a growing body of research that demonstrates how, at least in certain contexts, it can. The “Hole-in-the-Wall” experiments have become famous via exposure through TED, broadsheet education supplements and a tenuous link with Slumdog Millionaire. Professor Sugata Mitra, now at MIT’s Media Lab, and his colleagues have shown how children could learn to use a computer on their own, and then use the computer to explore and learn other domains.
This learning is entirely exploratory, self-organised, voluntary and unguided. Professor Mitra’s findings, now replicated in different forms in many different countries, suggest there are many ways in which children, in particular, can learn and that some of these emerge spontaneously when the learners are left together with minimal intervention from teachers or other assistants. Mitra has had to coin new terms to explain these phenomena. Minimally Invasive Education, as he calls it, by analogy with minimally invasive surgery, is low-cost by definition because the interventions it requires by learning support staff are kept to a minimum. Critically, this is not automating the learning process, but redesigning it from the ground up to take advantage of networked information spaces.
Mitra also proposes Self Organised Learning Environments — essentially workstations with large-screen computers that enable around four people to participate and/or observe throughout. It is early days for testing the limits of this approach, and it is only one example of what I call agile learning — learning that is easily and fluidly organised, but still powerful enough to tackle difficult challenges. I will provide more examples, and their benefits, in two further NMK articles.
Other articles in this series
About the author
David Jennings is an independent consultant who helps people learn and discover online. He is accredited as an occupational psychologist and learning technologist, and is author of Net, Blogs and Rock’n’Roll: How Digital Discovery Works and What it Means for Consumers, Creators and Culture (2007).
About the company
David is director of DJ Alchemi Ltd, incorporated in 1999. The company’s first contract was as part of the consortium that built the national infrastructure for learndirect, extending through England & Wales, so it has played on both sides of the centralised/agile fence.
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• Eight interviews and examples of agile learning in a free newspaper http://goo.gl/PIKpw