Jon Barilone from the Connected Learning Alliance sent me a few interview questions for a podcast. In order to collect my thoughts, I decided to prepare some notes. The notes got longer, and eventually seemed like something I should just post here. It’s pretty rough, and I apologize for any typos or errors you might find.
1. Could you explain a little more about how “peer-to-peer learning” and “open learning” benefits young learners?
Your peers are important not just for young people, although the importance of your peer group might more important at certain stages in your life. Maybe you just give less of a damn when you are older?
In terms of learning, peer-learning is both a good way to learn because it gives you access to a group of people who can help out when you get stuck, and likewise, when they get stuck and you help them - your own learning deepens (because you have to empathize and look at something from a different perspective that you may not have considered beforehand). We all probably have had experience where we had to teach someone else and as a result felt like we had actually discovered something new about the topic.
And then, there is a whole range of important skills that you just pick up as side-effects as part of peer-to-peer learning - those are the skills and habits that make you a better learner yourself - and there is growing awareness that these skills might be very important. It’s thing like communicating (speaking AND listening), collaborating with others, empathizing etc…
And open learning is really a misnomer. What we mean by open learning these days should really be what we call learning, but we have to call it open because so much of our learning is restricted to certain spaces and times. Open learning means that if there is a community of practice and we are learning some practices that are relevant in that community, that we can now engage with them. It’s really learning by apprenticeship, but using electronic tools to do it at scale. So instead of learning about science, you learn to be a scientist. That sense of agency and participation is at the core of “open” for me …
2. The need to give education an update, to bring it out of the 20th century and into the 21st, is getting a lot of attention these days. What has the formal education world collectively been doing right to enable this “update,” and where do you think they could they improve?
This question reminds me of the many calls to disrupt education. I am skeptical of those claims. Partly because so often they are made by those who did very well, and benefited, from the institutions they are now aiming to disrupt. But also, because I’ve always preferred a different approach, an approach that is better described by the term hacking - because hacking is playful and it tinkers with ideas and systems in order to improve them. It doesn’t need to dismantle them. It just hates it when a system isn’t working as well as it could … so hacking education is about making education better - and that means not always following the rules. I like that.
What has education done right - it has created an incredibly important social institution and has given access to a huge number of people. We need to remember that we’ve come a long way since the time when only a handful of people had access to schools and university.
And a lot of learning happens in schools and university, even when some of the best learning happens in study-groups and outside of the lectures and formal “teaching” moments.
But what the education system is struggling with is - and this is very common for any large institution or system - inertia. Clearly the computer and now the Internet are really fundamental technological shifts that affect how we think about, and how we support, learning. I would like to see schools and universities more involved in * experimenting with that at a more fundamental level - not just moving the current models online (lectures are now on video), and maybe as one strategy within that * use technology to open up, let more people actually participate in research projects you are organizing, or let your students participate in online communities as part of their studies …
I would like to see more leadership in this space coming from those who care most about learning and based on my personal experience, those are the people who are currently working in the education system. So, I would like the institutions to be more involved in driving positive change … at the moment they seem so nervous about change, that they rather hold on to how things “have always been done” as long as they can.
3. One way Connected Learning is being introduced to people is to say it “builds on the education basics (those 3 ‘R’s of Reading, Riting, Rithmetic) by introducing a 4th ‘R’: Relevance.” Making learning in the classroom relevant to life outside it. Why do you feel this need for “Relevance” is so important for young learners?
I think relevance is key for everyone and any kind of learning. Why would you learn something that doesn’t connect to you in any meaningful way? If you have no interest in the topic whatsoever, the only reason to learn that remains is to please your teacher or parents. That’s not a great motivator - and as I know from my own experience - you tend to develop strategies that let you do well in the system, but don’t actually lead to much learning.
And I don’t actually like that framing. I don’t think the 3Rs are the core basics. I think it’s the skills and practices of being a better learner that are the real basics.
4. Even though more young people have access to post-secondary education than ever before, it seems we’re still a long way from college being ‘the great equalizer.’ How do you think our education system, and the way we think about learning in general, must evolve in order to deal with this equity issue?
Equity is a very big issue. I don’t think it can be solved by one institution without taking into account other broader factors of socio-economic equity. Kids of low-income families are not going to have the same opportunities as kids from middle-class families. And when a CEO can make a few thousand times the salary of the lowest paid salary of someone in the company - then something is just broken about how we value human beings.
But at the same time the system should do a lot more to try and provide good opportunities to everyone. And I think this is a political failure, rather than a school or university failure. I think it’s something that a society has to decide how it wants to deal with. I grew up in a country where good public education is the norm. This idea that you would privatize something as important as education is foreign to me - and I don’t understand why voters in the US don’t demand better education. It really makes me sad to see a great public university system like California straining from budget cuts … and then seeing the outrageous salaries that football coaches make. It doesn’t make any sense to me.
So, with P2PU I am trying to provide more equity and access, using technology and the generosity of people who want to share their learning and help others - but I am not doing it to dismantle the existing institutions.
5. Paint us a quick picture of the future for you and Peer2Peer University. It’s 10 years from now and you’ve accomplished everything you’ve wanted to with P2PU – how has the world changed because of it?
Success would mean that we’ve figured out how to use the Internet to involve more people in better learning opportunities.
For me, other people are the most important piece in learning - and the Internet let’s us connect in ways that were simply unimaginable even 20 years ago. So, if we can help figure out what that means - that would be great.
In one scenario success would mean that the ideas we (and many others) care about become so “normal” that we aren’t needed anymore. It’s the norm that people design their own course of learning, that they work on problems they care about together with their peers, that they make use of social technologies to connect and collaborate with people from all over the world - and that they develop deep and meaningful and lasting relationships with other people that go well beyond learning. Some of that is happening - for example, peer-learning and support is part of the connected learning framework … but it’s probably a long long way.
The other scenario is probably a little more pragmatic, and that is P2PU provides a space and a community for the people who are hacking education - where they can come together, support each other, share notes, and collaborate to improve the existing institutions, and also create alternatives and new models for learning online. Where those innovators don’t feel like they are isolated within their institutions.