While the World Wide Web has technically existed for twenty years, web 2.0 has really come of age in the last 5 to 10 years. Put simply, web 2.0 is the use of the Internet for sharing and collaboration – not simply download but also upload; not ‘read only’ but rather ‘read write’. Web 2.0 has in many ways become a crucial form of literacy. It is 2 way – the content consumer can also be the content producer. Sites like Wikipedia, flickr, MySpace and Youtube are but a tiny handful of the best known sites which only exist because they are facilitated by web 2.0 users who act as creators as well as consumers and writers as well as readers.
Open Learning and its implications
The effects of this cultural phenomenon are starting to evidence significant consequences for education. Indeed some are beginning to ask questions of not just reform but radical re-imagination of educational shapes and structures. For example, how necessary are teachers now, at least in large numbers? For that matter, how essential are schools? Could a whole cohort of students have their learning better facilitated by other professionals like mentors, teaching assistants and support workers who often have an excellent relational connection with students? Could this learning take place in different venues like homes, libraries, resource centres? A small and more dynamic team of teachers may well be necessary as subject specialists to upload content and moderate student contributed materials and to plan and resource a collaborative syllabus with the students, but the actual curriculum direction can truly be shared, with students acting as ‘participators’ and ‘collaborators’ with their own learning. This seems to really address the intentions of initiatives like ‘learning to learn’ and independent / personalised learning. It also allows schools to better position themselves as huge resource centres, able to better use their real estate, resources and technology to support and serve community learning.
In the current context, initiatives for change or improvement however well informed often become marginalised attempts at reform which can never really compete with the demands of assessment, data and Ofsted judgements. This is a worry because it leads to a perpetual state of reform – a new initiative every five years (or even every two). This climate is unhealthy as education professionals are increasingly and often rightly cynical towards such initiatives, seeing them as the latest fad which will never really embed or bring about any real reform long term. Therefore, we end up playing lip service to these well intentioned ideas while really, we just keep doing what we’ve always done. Not only does this keep education in a generally Victorian shape of ‘the learning factory’ but it means we maintain that shape whilst feeling negative and disempowered.
So how might participatory learning help, and why isn’t it just another fad? Well, firstly, this is not a change that is top–down. This is not the result of a think tank initiative into educational reform. This is not contrived. This is happening. Education has become such a mammoth institution, it is hard to turn its head, but this really is grass roots, bottom–up sociological change in the way content is being created and shared in the very way meaning is being produced and culture is being shaped. New Scientist magazine conducted a huge study of over ten thousand and concluded that 35% of people now consider themselves ‘broadcasters of their own media content’! This is an extraordinary shift in culture production. This is happening. Participatory learning is not a fad because we are having to keep up with it. The changes needed are a response to shifts in culture. Tony Benn said in an interview about the health service that “systems need to change to fit the needs of the people, we should not seek to change people to fit them into a system”. It seems likely that this idea can be equally applied to education as a system. Much of the energy of teachers and educational professionals is invested in shaping our young people into the school system; teaching them the established canon of fact based subject knowledge and then testing this fact knowledge through hard assessment and examination. Instead, we could be allowing the change that is happening to also effect change in the education system, indeed it is anyway. If we resist, then the serious worry is that we separate education from learning. We drive a wedge between school as a system and all the organic learning that young people engage with on-goingly. This is not a fad; this is necessary realisation of how culture is changing.
Participatory practice and open learning presents us with a subtle but transformational mindset shift which we must make. The system as we have it will not serve our young people in their futures. As Sir Ken Robison says “the whole structure of education is shaking beneath our feet… we have mined our minds for a particular commodity and in the future, it will not serve us.” Students need to be a well prepared for a future that will require collaboration, participation and radically new ideas. Young people must learn from each other as much as their teachers. They must feel that they run their learning. They need to feel like they contribute the content, that they build their world, that they plan their journey. The job of the teacher is to serve this by equipping students with skills of “curiosity, courage, investigation, experimentation, imagination, reasoning, socialbility and reflection” (Claxton, G) and releasing these skills where students already have them. Maybe we need to model these skills first for ourselves to see their value, after all, we are also products of the system as it stands. Maybe we could start as educational professionals by modelling courage; the courage to try a new way of working and to not undermine such change at the first sight of a mediocre Ofsted judgement or a drop in exam results. Maybe we could model the curiosity and imagination needed to risk engaging with the bottom–up change that is happening instead of perpetuating this system that ‘will not serve us’.
What might a small step look like?
It is clear that we cannot just start again, the mammoth that is the educational system can barely turn its head let alone stand up and change direction (and certainly not without falling apart first), so what is a small step? Well this year my students and I moved away from paper. We did away with books and teacher led content, and every student opened a learning blog which is open online for all. Here they make their notes, publish their essays and productions. I also maintain 4 blogs where I publish teaching notes, materials and resources to facilitate virtual discussions. They read each others blogs and leave comments, encouragements and criticisms. They build on each others ideas. Some of the benefits so far include a clear breakdown between what is seen as school work and what is seen as general life learning. GCSE students have started to blog film reviews and recommendations from their own initiative. Students have embedded links to YouTube videos that they have made in their own time and I have then been able to engage with them in analysis and criticism around their own creative projects, which exist entirely outside of required curriculum study. Students are independently learning all the time, and this model of blog learning is seeing them reflect on this more ‘authentic’ style of independent learning in a more interconnected and explicit way. Essentially we are beginning to see the emergence of genuine Assessment for Learning and peer / self assessment, but not as a top–down project met with cynicism and resistance but as a real and organic form of sharing ideas and thoughts. I am also seeing more homework submitted and much clearer evidence of students taking personal responsibility for contributing to the whole learning experience.
I have encountered some road blocks; the amount of work it can require of me as a facilitator is significant, but only in setting up the structure and updating it with new resources and stimulus materials, once the students realise that this is not a gimmick but rather that I do really want them to own it and to contribute what they are naturally doing anyway to this learning process, they quickly run the thing almost entirely – including providing their own stimuli and text resources. I did also encounter some initial resistance to posting up ‘school work’ in a public / open way. Some of this is a fear of copying but mostly a fear of being seen to be wrong or stupid. However, after a few structured class discussions and a blog debate too, it was generally decided that this is a negative, learnt, default language, which is in my opinion a direct result of the factory learning mentality which privatises learning and demonises mistakes. We now have to actually educate our young people out of this mindset which we were educated into. When we as a class realised together that no one owns wisdom, that knowledge or facts are not necessarily learning and that mistakes are the goal, in that they make opportunities for reflection and origionality, the class warmed to the idea of open blog forums for shared learning.
The key is that blogging has opened up opportunity for explicit and rich dialogue with my students about what learning is and what it isn’t. It has permissioned students to see their life experiences and personal / social creativity as real, valid and vital learning. I am not necessarily suggesting that blogging is best practice and that everyone should do it, indeed such a move might make it more of a gimmick. It might be that blogging lends itself very well to my subject area (that of Arts and Humanities) and that this style may not work so well for all, but what I am saying is that my experience of blogging serves as a very useful case study of how small steps can be made against a dominant and deeply embedded school system which may be increasingly ineffective. I welcome all other models and experiences which learners (whether student or teacher or manager or parent) find to be a similar step out of the ‘learning factory’.
I am happy to engage in any further conversations about this paper either online or in person. Please feel free to have a look at the blogging network:
Claxton, G. What’s the Point of School?
Gauntlett, D. Participation Culture, Creativity and Social Change.
Robinson, K. Do Schools Kill Creativity?
Raymond, E. The Cathedral and the Bazaar
Lessig, L. Free Culture and How our Kids Speak.