If you could give me any comments or other feedback on this draft article by Thursday, I'd be very grateful! I've written it for the newsletter of the Association for Learning and Technology, so the audience is mostly learning technology professionals in Higher Education and Further Education.
Comments welcome either in the comments field below or by email to me, david at alchemi-dot-co-dot-uk. Many thanks!
Like the future, the impact of a colder climate is not evenly distributed. I guess there must be some areas where current economic challenges are experienced as business-as-usual, plus some pressure to trim a bit of excess fat. But many of the people I speak to have a sense that we are going through — or just heading into — a period that is qualitatively different from the cyclical ebbs and flows that education has gone through over the past decades.
My sample is in no way balanced of representative but last year I interviewed people involved in learning from a home educator to a university professors, and from a social software entrepreneur to a photographer who is committed to helping people learn yet refuses to see this as teaching (recorded on my blog, and collated in abridged form in a self-published newspaper). I was trying to do two things: to get a sense of what might be common across these different contexts, and to get a sense of the longer sweep of change, beyond the horizon of recent funding cuts.Changes bred of necessity and opportunity
This article is a reflection on what I am calling "agile learning", drawing on some of the themes that emerged from these interviews. Hopefully this term is fairly self-explanatory: agility involves letting learners manage, direct and adapt their learning with minimum constraint. It is not intended as another packaged solution, with proprietary paraphernalia of trademarks and methodologies; more an umbrella term to allude to the particular kinds of invention that are bred of necessity in a challenging climate.
Over the space of 10-20 years, learning activities that were once marginal and supplementary will move into the mainstream as institutions lose their historical monopoly on the capability to process and share resources. We are already seeing what self-organising groups can accomplish with powerful tools but without formal lines of command.
What happens if and when the resources in the commons outstrip those controlled by gatekeepers as a matter of course? If Wikipedia is seen in some quarters as an irritant — its use to be cautioned and policed – imagine how learning might feel if the wiki model were to pass a tipping point, and classrooms to be seen as rare and peripheral events.
Some might say that we are close to that tipping point already, or have already passed it. Meanwhile others will argue that it is never coming. Institutional interests will downplay self-organised learning experiences as inferior. It is going to be a rough, uneven and sometimes ill-tempered period of transition. The recent hoo-ha over the term Edupunk — whether it is about reinventing or gutting universities (see starting point of this debate.) — is just a small portent of things to come.
Is self-organised learning just for people with degrees?
Let us jump for a while to the other side of the fence and look at some of the new entrants in the learning field and how they challenge the status quo. My contention is that, with some of these interventions, some theoretical and institutional chickens are coming home to roost. Wikipedia and open source developments demonstrate the kind of creative accomplishments that area possible with little or no top-down control. Sugata Mitra's Hole-in-the-Wall model glimpses how robust learning can be an emergent property of small groups, with no teacher input. It also challenges the idea that learning-to-learn skills and a grounding in metacognition are a pre-requisite for organising your own learning.
Consider another orthodoxy: you need much more than content to enable a fulfilling learning experience. So how do we explain the spectacular popularity of the Khan Academy? This popularity grew from a foundation of over 2,000 short YouTube videos, which have garnered over 40 million views. Surely this just automates the old lecture model? It is not even interactive, and the production values are distinctly handmade. It is like a bumble bee that the (old) laws of aerodynamics said should not be able to fly. But it does.
So far we lack the comprehensive research to tell us the range of contexts where people are using Khan Academy videos. Probably learners are using them alongside other learning paths, whether self-directed or teacher-led. But the success of these resources in terms of the attention they attract evidences a strong demand for learning content that learners can use flexibly to help them develop their understanding. What makes Khan Academy agile is the wide range of learning scenarios in which the videos can fit, and the variety of learning experiences they can enrich.
University of the People (UoPeople) is a US start-up that adds some structure to the Khan Academy model so that it can make a case for Higher Education accreditation. Partnering with the OpenCourseWare consortium, UoPeople aims to make a feature of being "tuition-free", majoring instead on peer-to-peer learning for adding a dialogue layer to Open Educational Resources (OERs). Currently the drive behind this is to increase access to HE in the developing world, especially crisis-stricken areas like Haiti. But you do not have to be a paranoid conspiracy theorist to imagine the implications if the outcomes from this model are seen to be credible.
The high-water mark of structured formal education
So how do we understand the different kinds of challenge and change, looking ahead a decade or so? The Innovation Grid for Education, developed by Charles Leadbeater and Annika Wong, provides a useful framework — see Table 1.
Improve HE/FE through better facilities & teaching
Supplement HE/FE by working with communities and individuals
Reinvent HE/FE to create an education better fit for the times
Transform HE/FE by making it available in radically new ways
To understand what could be at stake in this spectrum of innovation, consider just the example of open educational resources — defined broadly, to include any resource that is "open" and could be used educationally. These resources could be used simply to improve delivery of formal learning, through efficiencies of scale and the quality improvements that come with extensive peer review and contributions. Or they could reinvent it, maintaining the formal structure of tuition and accreditation, but gutting the institutions that deliver it, using efficiencies as a pretext for radical cuts in teaching staff, say.
Using Khan Academy resources as a means of reviewing or augmenting other learning courses would be an example of supplementingthose existing routes, in the top right of the Innovation Grid.
The transformational cell of the grid is where the change gets seriously structural — and seriously agile. Within the developing world, generations have grown up with the idea that extending formal education — in terms of access/reach and age — is key to building capacity. Learning technology could soon throw that long-term trend into reverse.
Conceptually such a shift might involve:
- the development of a learning commons — open resources with the means to discover and organise them "on the fly" using rich metadata
- the tools for people to self-organise their participation in learning — both as producers/mentors (what Clay Shirky calls our "cognitive surplus") and as learners/peers
- the growth of social capital that comes from this free association and the kind of post-institutionalised individual empowerment that Ivan Illich argued for in Deschooling Society
Practically, the most likely way for this to come about will be through a gradual shift of innovations down and to the right in the Innovation Grid as the centre of gravity of learning moves. For example, UoPeople currently operates mostly in the reinvent cell of the grid. They assemble open elements to emulate the measurable achievements, if not the broader ethos, of Higher Education. But exactly that process of separating out the credentialed aspects of learning and the informal induction into values which opens up the possibility for further shifts. Leaving aside the Browne Report recommendations, learners will realise that they can mix and match access to learning resources, an immersive community of peers and mentoring, and accreditation procedures. They may source each of these from different places, and emphasise one or more depending on their experience and needs. As young people weave together learning with the demands of their first jobs, and then perhaps return to it later in their careers, provision will feel less formal. So reinvention of HE merges into its transformation.
From the other direction consider the School of Everything, another new entrant that explicitly acknowledges the inspiration of Illich in providing directory services to enable people to find others who can help them learn. "Everyone has something to learn; everyone has something to teach," as their motto puts it. At the moment the main focus of activity on the site is in what you might call "hobby learning" — how to play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language. That locates it firmly in the supplement quadrant of the grid. But imagine a tipping point where the way you build the learning credentials for your life and career feels more like the way you learn hobbies than the way you learn differential calculus today — even if it is differential calculus that you are learning.
Maturity and agility
This flip is by no means inevitable. By its nature, growth in informal learning does not register in official statistics — except in circumstances where it actually displaces formal learning, and such direct substitution is rare until after the tipping point. But from my interviews (cited above) I found a range of contexts in which agile alternatives are taking root in the new learning commons and flourishing. For example, participation in the annual week-long gathering of UK home educators increased thirtyfold in less than a decade from 1998. Membership of online forums has, unsurprisingly, grown even faster.
The growth of the net as a learning environment in the broadest sense has brought this self-organised approach within the grasp of a much wider sector of the population. The tools and resources to support this still have massive strides to take (the OER movement is barely out of its infancy, for example). You do not have to assume that participation will increase at the same dramatic rates indefinitely to imagine that within another decade the home education ecosystem will be much more mature and its community of practice will be more experienced. (For any home educators reading, I mean "mature" in the sense of sophistication and diversity, not recuperation within the mainstream!) This, in turn, enables a further step change in access and viability.
This is beginning to read like one of those not-another-bl**dy-paradigm-shift pieces, so let me backpedal a moment, and also sound a note of caution. We do not want another round of re-engineering and cost-slashing that sneaks in under the cloak of being agile. Hopefully organisations will learn the lessons of the first dot.com era when emphasis on cutting tuition costs gave e-learning a bad name. Cutting everything to the bone makes learning more rigid, not more agile.
What makes learning agile? There is no trademarked consultancy checklist for this. To adapt Kris Kristofferson (he was a Rhodes Scholar, after all), if it feels agile, that is what it is. So if you are creating a new platform or process, can learners easily integrate stuff that they have found or blogged about somewhere else? How easy is it to adapt learning experiences on the fly, to adapt to changing circumstances and tap into the individual motivations that the learners bring with them? How adept is the approach at getting learning started using the resources and tools at hand, rather than waiting until the "perfect" infrastructure is complete?
Are there limits to agility? Of course there are. Whenever you make a case for self-organised and self-directed learning, there will always be counterarguments that learners do not know what is best for them. Arguably learners who choose their own direction will often have the motivation and commitment to push themselves beyond their comfort zone — but possibly not sufficiently reliably.
Why is agility relevant now? We need to be agile now because so many of our organisations are scrabbling around trying to make do with less money and less than optimum means. We can be agile now because the counterpart to this private scarcity is a new form of public abundance. The abundance represented by the wealth of resources — including those formally labelled as Open Educational Resources and the vastly larger set of de facto open educational resources — and the lightweight, heavy-duty apps to organise them.
What needs to change? The way we measure progress, for a start. It has become almost a cliché to recognise that the best metaphor for managing complex situations like this one is gardening, rather than engineering. Yet our (small p) political culture is still wedded to calibrating each intervention in terms of local, short-term, cause-and-effect metrics.
For example, when will we read an evaluation that concludes, "The project was a great success in its own terms but may have choked off diversity in other forms of innovation"? Discussions of the role of the BBC in the media ecosystem have reached that level of understanding, but must it take 90 years and the lobbying of large private sector interests to get to this stage? We need to accelerate to a sophisticated appreciation of learning ecosystems. The bureaucratic mindset that abhors "duplication" at the same time as seeking to replicate an abstract notion of best practice, regardless of context, is not good enough. A richer systems perspective will ask, for example, how much redundancy and spare capacity the learning ecosystem requires to remain agile and flexible. Should that redundancy be located within organisations or in the commons?
Taking the really long-term perspective, the destiny of all our learning resources and processes, and ultimately our institutions as well, is to be compost for future generations. We had better learn how to become good, rich compost.