Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A Gathering of Ideas

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 10, 2010

Originally posted on Half an Hour, June 10, 2010.

Submitted to the iDC Mailing List

I haven’t had much to contribute this week because I have been engaged in a couple of projects that will I hope eventually offer open and free access to learning.

- Personal Learning Environment – this project, which is an application and systems development project being undertaken by Canada’s National Research Council, is intended to enable learners easy access to the world’s learning resources from their own personal environment

- Critical Literacies 2010 – this is an open online course, on the model of the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge courses George and I have offered in the past, designed to study and foster the fundamental capacities learners need to flourish in an online environment

For myself, I have little to no interest in ‘trends’ in higher education, nor am I interested in the ‘globalization’ of higher education. Where perhaps once I thought mass movements or mass phenomena were important, these no longer interest me. And where I once thought the needs of learning could be addressed institutionally, I now see institutions playing a smaller and smaller role.

I come to this field originally as a bit of a futurist. I was working as a web developer and instructional designer when I posted ‘The Future of Online Learning’  in 1998. This paper, written originally to explain to my managers what I was working on, caught people’s imagination and, because of its accuracy, had a remarkably long shelf life. A couple of years ago I wrote ‘The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On’  to update the predictions and draw out some of my thoughts on them.

Today, my work is still very much forward-directed, but I do not (and never have) believe in the inevitability of the future. Yes, we can detect patterns and regularities in events, as I describe in ‘Patterns of Change’, an article I wrote for Critical Literacies last week. But as I state near the end of that article, I believe that choice, decision and selection play a major role in shaping the future.

Thus, while I often think of the future generally, and the future of education in particular, as a gradual migration of mass phenomena to network phenomena, I do not see this progression as inevitable, and indeed, I observe on the part of many quarters efforts to keep us firmly entrenched in the world of mass (I document these and other observations, for those not familiar with it, in an online newsletter, OLDaily  ). Change is not only progression, it is also conflict (and it is also cooperation).

So, I don’t care what the majority of educational institutions are doing, I don’t care what the ‘best practices’ are, I don’t care how ‘higher education can make you a better leader’, I don’t even care about debates such as ‘equity or utility’ (sorry George) because these are all things that trade on commonality, general principles, massification, manipulation and control, and ultimately, corporatism and statism (the twin pillars of the mass age).

What I do care about is the personal. This is not some pseudo-Randist individualism, not some sort of Lockean atomism, not a definition of the individual as the granules who, when assembled together, create the commonwealth. I am interested in the person as embedded in society, the person as a member of a network of communications and collaborations, a person who works and creates with and for other people, a person who experiences sociality, but also, and contra the mass nation, a person who is self-governing, guided by his or her own interests and principles, and is living a fully engaged life in a technological civilization.

It is the development of this sort of person that I had in mind when I wrote ‘Things You Really Need to Learn’.  I am by no means the first to advocate such an attitude toward education. This is certainly what Illich has in mind in ‘Tools for Conviviality’  :
if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high, independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either slaves or masters and enhancing each person’s range of freedom. People need new tools to work with rather than tools that “work” for them. They need technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather than more well-programmed energy slaves.
So little of what we read or see in the field of online learning is concerned with providing people with the tools they need to create their own freedom. Study the work on e-learning and you will find a preponderance of material addressed to achieving corporate objectives and ROI, advancing the interests of colleges and universities, meeting employment needs and developing industrial strategies, assisting in the privatization or corporatization of the learning infrastructure, extending the reach of a given technology or product network, or subsumption of learning entirely under the individual’s relation as ‘consumer’ with a corporate entity (whether that entity is government or private sector).

“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” This phrase from Audre Lorde has haunted me ever since I first heard it. The development of, and provision of, tools for the higher education sector, the corporate e-learning sector, or even for the school system, parents, priests or non-profit agencies to use, will never provide the degree of conviviality envisioned by Illich. In these tools there is, and will always be, embedded a dependence back to the originator of the tool, back to the system of mass that makes it both possible and necessary.

I have struggled with the role of the mass in relation to individual freedom and autonomy.  I can certainly see the benefit and need of everything to do with mass, from that sense of belonging we all get from being a part of a team to the organized production we require to sustain a modern technological society. I am no myopic idealist looking for the utopian society of perfectly enlightened autonomous individuals working in perfect harmony. But I also write wishing that the mass had some sort of ‘escape’ or ‘no-harm’ clause, or that educators had their own version of the Hippocratic Oath, pledging first, to do no harm.

In the meantime, I work with and for what I believe the internet truly is – an explosion of capacity thrust into the hands of people worldwide, the instrument not only for the greatest outburst of creativity and self-expression ever seen, but also of the greatest autonomy and self-determination, and as well on top of that an unparalleled mechanism for cooperation and cohesion. My view of the internet is as far from the factory as one can imagine. But not as an inevitable or guaranteed future. Only one where there is a determined and directed effort to place the tools – the physical tools, the digital tools, and the cognitive tools – into the hands of a worldwide population, to do with as they will.

I’ve followed the discussions on this list with some interest. But these, too, seem in many respects distant to me. The distinctions of academia, the dialectic of class struggle – these seem to me to miss the essential nature of the change. In the end, to me, the meaning of the internet boils down to a simple utility. One person, one voice. The freedom of each of us to form and to have and to share our own thoughts, created by us, contributed freely to the world, and a society built, not on the basis of a propagation of ideas, but rather, on the basis of a gathering of them.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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