Learning Independently – Together

“School is broken and everyone knows it. Public schools from kindergarten to graduation have been crumbling for decades, dropout rates are high, and test scores are low. The value – in every sense – of a college education and degree is hotly contested in the news every day. Students face unprecedented debt in an economy with a dwindling middle class and lessening opportunities for social mobility. This has a significant effect on lives and the economy itself.”

KioThus begins, controversially, Don’t Go Back To School – A Handbook for Learning Everything by the American writer, teacher and graduate school dropout Kio Stark, a comprehensive examination of the alternatives to long-established and formal educational pathways. I should point out before proceeding further that ‘school’ in this context is used to denote formal education in the broadest (American) sense, and mainly in the context of higher education, rather than ‘high school’ or ‘secondary school’ as we in the UK would understand it.

The text consists largely of a series of interviews with successful entrepreneurs – over 100 of them – who have, for a variety of reasons, eschewed expensive university courses in favour of independent learning. And herein lies the interesting element of the book for me – Stark’s definition of ‘independent learning’.

“Independent learning suggests ideas such as ‘self-taught’ or ‘autodidact’. These imply that independence means working solo. But that’s just not how it happens. People don’t learn in isolation. When I talk about independent learners, I don’t mean people learning alone. I’m talking about learning that happens independent of schools. Almost all of the people I interviewed talked about the importance of connections they forged to communities and experts, and access to other learners. Anyone who really wants to learn without school has to find other people to learn with and from. That’s the open secret of learning outside of school. It’s a social act. Learning is something we do together.”

The author goes on to reveal from her research four important features of almost every form of learning outside school:

  • It isn’t done alone
  • For many professionals, credentials aren’t necessary, and the processes for attaining credentials are changing
  • The most effective, satisfying learning is learning which is more likely to happen out of school
  • People who are happiest with their learning process and most effective at learning new things – in any educational environment – are people who are learning for the right reasons and who reflect on their own way of learning to figure out which processes and methods work best for them.

The final section of the book provides practical advice on where to find online collaborative learning systems, free and low-cost online learning platforms including MOOCs (see below), how to access scholarly publishing and academic research, and a ‘further reading’ list.

By coincidence rather than consequence, and as a firm believer that you can, in fact, teach an old dog new tricks, I made the bold move last week of signing up to take part in my first ever MOOC, which, for the uninitiated, stands for ‘massive, open, online course’, or, as Wikipedia would have it, ‘an online course aimed at unlimited participation and open access via the web. In addition to traditional course materials such as videos, readings, and problem sets, MOOCs provide interactive user forums that help build a community for students, professors, and teaching assistants.’

This particular course, E-learning and Digital Cultures, is being offered by the University of Edinburgh and Coursera, one of the biggest of the MOOC providers, and runs for 5 weeks through November and December, with a commitment of 5-7 hours a week. The course tutors promise that it is ‘not about e-learning’ but ‘an invitation to view online educational practices through a particular lens – that of popular and digital culture’.

“E-learning and Digital Cultures is aimed at teachers, learning technologists, and people with a general interest in education who want to deepen their understanding of what it means to teach and learn in the digital age. The course is about how digital cultures intersect with learning cultures online, and how our ideas about online education are shaped through “narratives”, or big stories, about the relationship between people and technology. We’ll explore some of the most engaging perspectives on digital culture in its popular and academic forms, and we’ll consider how our practices as teachers and learners are informed by the difference of the digital. We’ll look at how learning and literacy is represented in popular digital-, (or cyber-) culture, and explore how that connects with the visions and initiatives we are seeing unfold in our approaches to digital education.”

The plan is to take my friend Inanimate Alice along to find out where she stands in relation to e-learning, and indeed digital culture. Having just returned from an interesting and fruitful tour of the Frankfurt Book Fair and the Dutch Game Garden, we are keen to explore further how Alice’s personal journey could be used as the starting point for engaging young people (particularly girls) in the creative industries, and how this relates to the current seismic shift in publishing trends.

Should be fun, and I will of course be reporting back. After all, there really is no such thing as a free education, is there?

Footnote. In the course of writing this blogpost, and with half an eye on Twitter, as you do, my attention was drawn to this post by Will Gayhart on The Death of Graduate Schools of Education.