Why Open & Social Learning Is Replacing Formal And Enclosed

I’ve had a great response to the extracts from my forthcoming book – thank you to everyone who has offered feedback. A number of people have asked me why I think learning in formal institutions has to open up, in response to the ways we now learn socially. Others have asked why am I calling it a revolution, and isn’t it just about a new set of tools? I hope this heavily extracted section helps set out the key difference in values, behaviours and approaches between formal and enclosed learning, and the way we learn for fun. As ever, please respond and critique!

“You probably take part in a revolutionary act several times a day. It may not feel very revolutionary, partly because we’re in the thick of it, without the benefit of hindsight and partly because in, a relatively short space of time, it has become almost second nature to us to learn differently. 

Perhaps it also doesn’t seem so radical because where we spend much of our waking hours -in large parts of the corporate world, and the education sector – it has been pretty much business as usual. But these two sectors are under intense pressure to revolutionise their learning systems, and the pressure comes from the way we learn when we have a say in the matter. It turns out that our preferences for learning are the polar opposites from those espoused by the institutional experts:

I’m not suggesting all the learning taking place in businesses and schools is defined by the list in the left-hand column. Nor is social learning defined by all of the qualities on the right. The phenomenal recent growth in book clubs, for instance, demonstrates that ‘the book’ is alive and kicking. But everything else about the learning seen in book clubs is defined by the qualities seen on the right, rather than the left.

You will see that I’ve not included digital technologies in these lists. The Open Learning Revolution is frequently, and in my view, incorrectly trivialised as people using social media and the internet. My belief is that this perception misses the point: the Open Learning Revolution is not about the technology, it’s about behaviour-shift.  

The open learning revolution is fundamentally challenging teachers of just about everything. One of the reasons that MOOCs are booming in the US is that public investment now demands a better return when it comes to student performance. In January 2013, the governor of California, Jerry Brown, announced his plans to pilot remedial online courses, delivered by Coursera rival Udacity, at San Jose State University.  Currently, only 48% of SJSU students graduate within six years – yet it is the 9th most successful public university in the US. Governor Brown was no doubt emboldened by a review of research, undertaken by the US Department of Education, which concluded that  students who took all or part of their class online performed better, on average, than those taking the same course through traditional face-to-face instruction’. If the pilot succeeds, online learning is likely to be introduced in all Californian universities, and when it comes to education, what California does today, the rest of the US does tomorrow.

Arthur C Clarke famously said that ‘Teachers who can be replaced by a machine, should be’. David Thornburg re-worded it to ‘Any teacher that can be replaced by a computer, deserves to be’. Around the world that replacement process is happening, as more courses go online, and more video tutorials are uploaded. But it isn’t simply the when and where of learning that’s being transformed – it’s the how, too.

If the Open Learning Revolution means anything, it points to a realisation that we have to understand how people choose to learn when they are free to choose (what to learn, and who to learn with) and bring that into the places where they are required to learn.

The scientific method of learning is often described as being ‘value-free’, and therefore completely objective. The Open Learning Revolution – often perceived as technology-driven – is, I believe, values-driven. The delightful thing about its emergence is that it shows that the jokesters, the behavioural economists, the politicians and the cynics all got it wrong. We want to collaborate, we’re not driven by financial rewards as much as we are by generosity, and, despite being cautioned against it, we repeatedly trust in each others better natures.

If we could bring these values into our places of work and of education, imagine what transformations we could bring about?”


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