The DIY University or Business School: how to build your own agile learning experience with social media
The hardest things we learn — how to speak and many other life skills — we learn mainly through self-directed improvisation. That method didn’t scale to meet the needs of industrial society, but as those needs change and the sophistication of online resources and tools make self-organised learning scalable, the time is right for agile, improvised learning methods to reassert themselves, argues David Jennings.
By David Jennings
If you think about your own education, particularly in the later stages, what are the episodes that stand out as the most memorable and powerful? Are they the one where you were led, by a teacher or other instructor, through a predetermined set of challenges? Or did they involve going slightly off-piste from the curriculum and exploring a new area playfully, perhaps through improvising along with your peers? I’m betting that more of you opted for the latter.
What hinders improvisation
There’s a lot of research now that shows how playful, self-directed improvising experiences trump programmed instruction (see A New Culture of Learning, 2011, for an overview). Intuitively this makes sense: you learn more, and more meaningfully, if you work actively with something, rather than if you receive it passively. While there is scope for improvisation in almost any learning method, the desire to standardise outcomes at large-scale constrains this and leads to more standardised teaching.
So is the solution to reinvent village schools and do all learning in very small groups? Historically such groups had access to limited range of resources and teachers. They had very little slack to play with — if someone or something is missing, there’s no back-up — and that also hinders improvisation and flexibility.
What helps improvisation
Bear with me a moment if you’re wondering what all this has to do with new media. Some of the things that help you to improvise your own learning are:
1. the ability to draw on a vast range of learning resources, which have already been tagged and rated for by an informed community;
2. maintaining awareness of what a large group of friends and peers are doing — they inspire you by demonstrating links and possibilities that would never have occurred to you on your own, or you can learn vicariously from following their journeys towards mastering a new domain;
3. being able to find people who share your interests, no matter how specialised they are, and then organise them with shared discussion spaces, collaborative projects and suchlike;
4. having control over your own learning paths and who you pursue them with.
The first of these was covered in the previous article in this series. The second and third points are where social networks and the whole array of Web 2.0 tools come in. A whole movement has grown up around Personal Learning Environments — the bespoke combination of favoured apps and resources that you configure to meet your needs — and Personal Learning Networks — the array of friends, professional acquaintances and experts you follow and engage with using social media. With these tools on hand, everyone now has the means to set up group learning projects, organise university-style tutorials, or engage deeply with a mentor.
Less than a generation ago you had to be enrolled in a learning institution to take advantage of these kinds of experiences. Now the means to weave them into your life are ready-to-hand and you have more say in how the process is tailored to meet your needs. Operating at Internet-scale overcomes the problem of slack, because the ‘reserve’ banks of resources and people are massive and give everyone scope to improvise alternatives if Plan A has a hitch.
How to improvise
This brings us to the fourth point: how learners can develop the confidence and competence to improvise and to manage their own learning. There isn’t space here to cover this complex issue in depth. But first remember that there are radical traditions of self-directed learning stretching back well over a century. You may not want to swallow them whole, particularly their ideological baggage, but they may still have some valuable techniques that come into their own in today’s environment. Then try Googling terms like ‘Minimally Invasive Education’ and ‘Learner-Generated Contexts’ to explore the more recent research on how putting learners in charge can produce outcomes as good as, or better than, traditional methods.
Organising around interest
Many of these transitions are already taking place in business, where the pressures to adapt to changing circumstances, and tightening budgets, are felt keenly. Agility is at a premium. Some of the change is under the radar by its very nature: groups of employees self-organising their learning projects don’t make headlines. But you can see it in the rising profile of ‘informal learning’ in the corporate world and the emergence of businesses like Noddesoft, who are providing tools to help organise and capture these forms of learning in organisations.
Anne Marie McEwan is founder of the currently in-beta Smart Work Company Ltd, a pilot online business school based on social and work-based experiential learning. "There is now the opportunity for managers to access content, and together with other similarly self-determined people, practice reflective and critical thinking skills," she says. "The skills and support they get from peers in the the online business school will give them the courage to experiment back in their workplaces."
The path for adopting these approaches in educational institutions is going to be less straightforward. Of course they too welcome opportunities to become more agile and more learner-centred. Yet the principle of learners organising themselves may seem threatening to those in schools and universities who are, understandably, feeling beleaguered at the moment. It needn’t do, but, for a while innovation will remain concentrated at the edges of the system, outside the mainstream.
One such interesting area is the silent growth of home education, and in particular the increase in collaboration and sharing among home educators: their annual festival has grown thirtyfold in under a decade. If this trend were to continue another decade, we might see the emergence of self-organised neighbourhood learning centres as an alternative to the factory-scale mega-academies. Perhaps predictably, all the self-organised learning schools that have applied for the Department of Education’s ‘Free Schools’ initiative have been turned down.
This is the beginning of the story, not the end. The tools and resources of the net make it a profoundly fertile environment for agile learning. Like plants taking root in the cracks of old concrete, these new forms now have all they need to thrive.
See the 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, a consultancy whose client list includes learndirect, the National College for School Leadership, BSI, CIPD, Nesta, PA Consulting, unionlearn and several startup enterprises.
● Personal Learning Environments http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_learning_environment and Personal Learning Networks http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Personal_Learning_Networks
● Minimally Invasive Education http://www.hole-in-the-wall.com/MIE.html
● Noddlepod collaborative work-based learning tool from Noddlesoft https://www.noddlepod.com/
● The Smart Work Company online business school http://www.thesmartworkcompany.com
● A New Culture of Learning: cultivating the imagination for a world of constant change, book by Doug Thomas and John Seely Brown http://www.newcultureoflearning.com/