What’s Wrong With Making Learning Easier?


While we were in the early stages of planning Learning Futures, we held a dinner, to which we invited some of the best educational movers and shakers in the UK. One of the comments which really stuck with me was when Mick Waters (then curriculum director of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority) said that, for too many educators, learning is seen as being ‘like a cold shower: if it isn’t hurting, it isn’t doing you any good’.

I was reminded of Mick’s insight today, whilst flying from one conference in Sydney, to another in Auckland. The only film on offer on the plane was ‘The Tourist’ (don’t bother, seriously) so I started reading ‘A New Culture of Learning’, written by Doug Thomas and John Seeley Brown. The book is an interesting take on the way in which technology can mesh the personal with the collective, in the ways we now learn.

According to Thomas and Brown, Ryerson University, in Toronto, had welcomed face-to-face study groups for some time. But in 2008, Chris Avenir, a new student, set up the virtual equivalent of a study group, only on Facebook. Now, there’s considerable evidence to show that study groups not only make learning effective, they also make it socially pleasurable. But, it seems that the University drew the line at Facebook study groups. They charged Avenir with 147 counts of academic misconduct: one for organising the group, and 146 for each member who had logged on to the by-now popular Chemistry problem-solving group. Ryerson’s key argument seemed to reinforce Mick’s observation: that learning should be hard. Ryerson’s spokesperson said that ‘they (students) sometimes have to do the hard work of learning and not take the easy way out’.

And that, in a nutshell, is one of the key concerns of educational institutions, from local high schools to Ivy-League universities: how do we cope with the short-cuts to learning which many online sites and search engines provide? Do we pretend they haven’t been invented? Or do we embrace them as inevitable time-savers, albeit ones which might not follow the traditional ‘library-student-as-knowledge-detective’ model?

Tonight, in Auckland, I shared a dinner with Hilary Janks, of Wits University in South Africa. Hilary was enthusing over her ‘Second Chance at Literacy’ project in South Africa, in which she’s trying to raise the reading and writing performance of kids who have been stigmatised as ‘literacy strugglers’ (largely because they’re Africans writing in English, their second language). Hilary is going to use handheld mobile devices to get kids writing, blogging and collaborating. And more power to her elbow. I’m sure it will have a transformative effect.

I thought back to last week at the MTEC conference in Sydney where, time after time, the Twitter conversations were full of ‘wow, fantastic resource I’ve discovered!’ tweets. Here was 300 educators, all finding ways to problem-solve collaboratively through a willingness to freely share the personal, so that the collective benefits.

And their students will benefit, too. Online technologies make learning more immediate, more exciting, more equitable, and more accessible to our students. Those of us (and I’m one) who grew up with the 20th century cold-shower view of learning, simply have to get over ourselves. It’s not cheating, it’s collaboration. It’s not dumbing-down, it’s skilling-up. It’s not going away, so find a new way to think of learning: as a pleasurable, social, collaborative activity. Does it make learning easier? Undoubtedly. But if you’re the type who, like Ryerson, thinks that there’s value in making learning hard, then you might as well give out the quills and ink-wells, and be done with it.  

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