Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ A World To Change

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Oct 19, 2010

Posted to the Huffington Post, October 18, 2010.

This week I am in week five of an online course called PLENK, which I'm offering with three colleagues in the research community here in Canada.

As we reach the midpoint of the course, enrollment has just passed 1500 student mark. The discussions are reasonably active, we're aggregating 227 student blogs, 1340 of them are reading the daily newsletter, and the tweet count has just passed 1701.

We're not the first people in the world to offer an online course, of course. Nor is this the largest online course ever offered -- it doesn't even match our own record of 2200 participants, which we reached in 2008 with Connectivism and Connective Knowledge, much less the other online courses that have been offered over the years.

Our course is just the latest in a series of projects intended to rethink the concept of a course, to redesign learning, learning theory and learning technology, and to open access to learning to every person (or at least, every person with an internet connection) in the world. More on that in a bit.

PLENK -- Personal Learning Environments, Networks and Knowledge -- is about an emerging online learning technology called the personal learning environment, or PLE. Some of us are building PLEs. My own project at Canada's National Research Council, for example, is called Plearn.

The four of us are part of a wider community exploring new models of online learning, and of learning in general. George Siemens is a researcher at Athabasca University's Technology Enhanced Knowledge Research Institute, Dave Cormier is the Web Projects Lead at University of Prince Edward Island, and Rita Kop is a fellow researcher working with me at the NRC's Learning and Collaborative Technologies group here in New Brunswick.

The PLENK course is just the latest activity our small part of this wider community has undertaken. You may have encountered some of the other work we've undertaken.

If you've been reading about edupunk, for example, you've been reading about the do-it-yourself ethos in online learning drawn from the coding and alternative music community, personified by Jim Groom, and batted around by a bunch of us before being written about in Anya Kamenetz's book on the subject.

Or if you've heard of MIT's OpenCourseWare project you might not be familiar with the wider open-learning community behind it, from David Wiley's pioneering efforts and original open content license, to the UNESCO Open Educational Resource (OER) discussions, to WikiEducator, Wikiversity and Curriki, all efforts to redefine learning content as free, open and sharable.

We are the people who have been rebuilding learning technology from the ground up as free and open source software, not simply to lower technology costs for schools and universities, but to help any organization, institution or individual offer their own online learning.

In 20 minutes, as I write this, I'll be participating in an EDUCAUSE conference panel discussion with Martin Dougiamas, the creator of Moodle. This is just the tip of a massive effort that includes projects like Sakai, Elgg, Connexions, LAMS, and many, many more.

Or maybe you've heard of e-learning 2.0, the concept coined in a column I wrote 5 years ago, the idea that learning online can and should embrace social media technologies, content distribution and file sharing networks, and pedagogies involving social knowledge construction, communities of practice, and hands-on experiential learning in the community.

You know, it's pretty easy to drown in the day-to-day discussions of charter schools, teacher unions, so-called school reform, and all the rest of it that has characterized the education discussion since the launch of this section on The Huffington Post three weeks ago. I was almost drawn into it myself; I have a half written screed that has "America's schools" as the topic somewhere in the first paragraph.

I must confess that I am far more interested in the students themselves, and not simply "America's children" but learners of all natures and stripes around the world.

When we look at education from a broader perspective, as former Open University Chancellor Sir John Daniel has said on numerous occasions, it becomes clear that we have to change the model. The idea that students will assemble in a building to be provided education by a teacher (if they're young) or a professor (if they're older) is not scalable.

"It will not be possible to accommodate the secondary surge through the conventional provision of secondary schooling, skills training and adult education in classrooms in public institutions," he said recently. "Governments must encourage alternative approaches, particularly providers that can deliver quality learning at scale with low costs."

When we see even the richest nation in the world struggle with the expense of providing an education for all its citizens, we see the underlying truth to this. The huge expense of education is at once intolerable to anti-tax activists and at the same time irresistible to educational content and service providers.

But if we focus our attention on the needs of learners, all learners, they are not served either by cutting the system to the barest of bare bones or handing of the reins over to the private sector. There is no secret sauce or pixie dust that will repair an unsustainable system. If we want to ensure that learning is provided to all, we need to rethink the basic premises of the education system.

What are we to do?

In the first instance, we need to stop listening to the cranks and the charlatans. We all know who they are, or at least have some idea, so I don't need to belabor this. Suffice to say that each time someone comes up with a crockus, we should ask ourselves whether such a thing makes sense, whether there is a body of evidence and reason behind it, whether such a thing addresses the deep problems in education.

But more than that: we need, first, to take charge of our own learning, and next, help others take charge of their own learning. We need to move beyond the idea that an education is something that is provided for us, and toward the idea that an education is something that we create for ourselves. It is time, in other words, that we change out attitude toward learning and the educational system in general.

That is not to advocate throwing learners off the bus to fend for themselves. It is hard to be self-reliant, to take charge of one's own learning, and people shouldn't have to do it alone. It is instead to articulate a way we as a society approach education and learning, beginning with an attitude, though the development of supports and a system, through to the techniques and technologies that support that.

Nor is it to advocate some fundamental reform of the education system. I will leave the system and its reformers to themselves. I doubt that the system could be reformed, and even if it could, do not have the time nor energy to try. Indeed, it remains a source of wonder to me that when people talk about "change" and "reform", they always mean, of other people. I'm not interested in that approach to education.

Rather, it's about a complete redesign of the system, from the ground up, using new technologies and new ideas. That's what I'll be writing about in this column, hopefully once a week, in The Huffington Post's education blogs section. I'll be looking at the people who are building this new system now, at the people who are advocating free, open and authentic learning. I'll be describing the tech from the perspective of someone who builds it, and the philosophy from the point of view of someone who lives it.

Because, you know, change does not come from the system. It does not result from the replacement of one set of leaders with another. It's not something you can create by reshaping old institutions that were designed in a different age for a different purpose. The only real revolution, as John Lennon once said, comes when you change the people. Ourselves. One attitude at a time.

So that's it for today. I have a teleconference to get to. And a world to change.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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