Excerpt on the: Future of Learning
The Classroom and the World Wide Web
Modes of learning have changed dramatically over the past two decades—our sources of information, the ways we exchange and interact with information, how information informs and shapes us. But our schools—how we teach, where we teach, who we teach, who teaches, who administers, and who services—have changed mostly around the edges. The fundamental aspects of learning institutions remain remarkably familiar and have done so for something like two hundred years or more. Ichabod Crane, that parody of bad teaching in Washing- ton Irving’s classic short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” (1820), could walk into most college classrooms today and know exactly where to stand and how to address his class.
If we are going to imagine new learning institutions that are not based on the contiguity of time and place—virtual institutions—we have to ask, what are those institutions and what work do they perform? What does a virtual learning institution look like, who supports it, what does it do? We know that informal learning happens, constantly and in many new ways, because of the collaborative opportunities offered by social net- working sites, wikis, blogs, and many other interactive digital sources. But beneath these sites are networks and, sometimes, organizations dedicated to their efficiency and sustainability. What is the institutional basis for their persistence? If a virtual site spans many individuals and institutions, who or what supports (in practical terms) the virtual site and by what mechanisms?
Our argument here is that our institutions of learning have changed far more slowly than the modes of inventive, collaborative, participatory learning offered by the Internet and an array of contemporary mobile technologies. Part of the reason for the relatively slow change is that many of our traditional institutions have been tremendously successful, if measured in terms of endurance and stability. It is often noted that, of all existing institutions in the West, higher education is one of most enduring. Oxford University, the longest continuously running university in the English-speaking world, was founded in the twelfth century.4 Only the Catholic Church has been around longer and, like the Catholic Church, universities today bear a striking structural resemblance to what they were in medieval times. As is typically the case in the present, the medieval university was a separate, designated, physical location where young adults (students) came to be taught by those, usually older and more experienced, who were authorized (scholars, professors, dons) to impart their special knowledge, chiefly by lecturing. Over the years, such features as dormitories, colleges, and, later, departments were added to this universitas (corporation). The tendency toward increasing specialization, isolation, departmentalization, and advanced (graduate and professional school) training developed in the wake of the Enlightenment, gathering steam through the nineteenth and into the twentieth century.
Given this history, it is certainly hard to fathom something as dispersed, decentralized, and virtual as the Internet being a learning institution in any way comparable to, say, Oxford. We know, given these long histories, what a learning institution is—or we think we do. But what happens when, rivaling formal educational systems, there are also many virtual sites where learning is happening? From young kids customizing Pokémon (and learning to read, code, and use digital editing tools), to college students contributing to Wikipedia, to adults exchanging information about travel, restaurants, or housing via collaborative sites, learning is happening online, all the time, and in numbers far outstripping actual registrants in actual schools. What’s more, they challenge our traditional institutions on almost every level: hierarchy of teacher and student, credentialing, ranking, disciplinary divides, segregation of “high” versus “low” culture, restriction of admission to those considered worthy of admission, and so forth. We would by no means argue that access to these Internet sites is equal and open world- wide (given the necessity of bandwidth and other infrastructure far from universally available as well as issues of censorship in specific countries). But there is certainly more fluidity and access to participation than at traditional educational institutions.5 So we re-ask our question: Are these Internet sites “learning institutions”? And, if so, what do these institutions tell us about the more traditional learning institutions such as schools, universities, graduate schools?
One of the best examples of a virtual learning institution in our era is Wikipedia, the largest encyclopedia compiled in human history and one “written collaboratively by volunteers from all around the world.”6 Sustaining Wikipedia is the Wiki- media Foundation, Inc., with its staid organizational charts and well-defined legal structures. What is the relationship between the quite traditional nonprofit corporation headquartered in San Francisco and the free, open, multilingual, online, global community of volunteers? Is the “institution” the sustaining organization, the astonishing virtual community, or the online encyclopedia itself?
When considering the future of learning institutions in a digital age, it is also important to look at the ways that digitality works to cross the boundaries within and across traditional learning institutions. How do collaborative, interdisciplinary, multi-institutional learning spaces help to transform traditional learning institutions and, specifically, universities? For example, how are the hierarchies of expertise—the ranks of the professoriate and the divide of undergraduates, graduate students, and faculty (including adjunct faculty, tenure-track junior faculty, tenured, distinguished, and emeriti faculty)—supported and undermined by new digital possibilities? Are there collaborative modes of participatory learning that help to rethink traditional pedagogical methods? And what might learning institutions look like—what should they look like—given the digital potentialities and pitfalls at hand today?
We are concerned to conjecture about the character of learning institutions and how they change, how they change those who belong to them, and how people can work together to change them. Our primary focus is higher education. It is daunting to think that universities have existed in the West since medieval times and in forms remarkably like the universities that exist today. Will they endure for hundreds of years more even as learning increasingly happens virtually, globally, and collaboratively? It is our hope that thinking about the potential of new ways of knowing might inspire the revitalization of those institutions of advanced formal learning.
A key term in thinking about these emergent shifts is participatory learning. Participatory learning includes the many ways that learners (of any age) use new technologies to participate in virtual communities where they share ideas, comment on one another’s projects, and plan, design, implement, advance, or simply discuss their practices, goals, and ideas together.
This method of learning has been promoted both by HASTAC and by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation’s Digital Media and Learning Initiative. Participatory learning begins from the premise that new technologies are changing how people of all ages learn, play, socialize, exercise judgment, and engage in civic life. Learning environments—peers, family, and social institutions (such as schools, community centers, libraries, museums, even the playground, and so on)—are changing as well. The concept of participatory learning is very different from “IT” (Instructional Technology). IT is usually a toolkit application that is predetermined and even institutionalized with little, if any, user discretion, choice, or leverage. IT tends to be top-down, designer determined, administratively driven, commercially fashioned. In participatory learning, out- comes are typically customizable by the participants.
Since the current generation of college student has no memory of the historical moment before the advent of the Internet, we are suggesting that participatory learning as a practice is no longer exotic or new but a commonplace way of socializing and learning. For many, it seems entirely unremarkable.7 Global business more and more relies on collaborative practices where content is accretive, distributed, and participatory. In other areas, too—from the arts to the natural and computational sciences and engineering—more and more research is being enacted collaboratively. A New York Times article from 2008 even suggested that a future Nobel Prize winner might not be an oncology researcher at a distinguished university but a blogging community where multiple authors, some with no official form of expertise, discover a cure for a form of cancer through their collaborative process of combining, probing, and developing insights online together.8
Participatory learning is happening now—not in the future, but now. Those coming into our educational system rely on participatory learning for information about virtually every- thing in their lives. Adults, too, turn first to the Internet and the “wisdom of crowds” and “smart mobs” to help them make decisions about which car to buy, which cell phone service to use, which restaurants to frequent, and even which form of heart surgery promises the best results with the least risk. Business and other professions turn more and more to collaborative learning forms. Again, this is not the future. This is the condition of life now, in 2009, for a majority certainly in the global north but increasingly using mobile technologies in the global south, too.
This puts education and educators in the position of bringing up the rearguard, of holding desperately to the fragments of an educational system which, in its form, content, and assessments, is deeply rooted in an antiquated mode of learning. Every university in the global north, of course, is spending large sums of money revamping its technology offerings, creating great wired spaces where all forms of media can be accessed from the classroom. But how many have rethought the modes of organization, the structures of knowledge, and the relationships between and among groups of students, faculty, and others across campus or around the world? That larger challenge—to harness and focus the participatory learning methods in which our students are so accomplished—is only now beginning to be introduced and typically in relatively rare and isolated formats.
Most university education, certainly, is founded on ideas of individual training, discrete disciplines, and isolated achievement and accomplishment. What we want to ask is how much this very paradigm of individual achievement supports the effective learning styles of today’s youth and prepares them for increasingly connected forms of civic participation and global commerce—or how much it is at odds with contemporary culture. That needs to be stated more forcefully: The future of conventional learning institutions is past—it’s over—unless those directing the course of our learning institutions realize, now and urgently, the necessity of fundamental and foundational change.
Most fundamental to such a change is the understanding that participatory learning is about a process and not always a final product. We are concerned here not just with a prognostication about future institutions for learning, but with considering, even with projecting, how learning happens today—not in some distant utopian or dystopian future.
As noted above, we posted an early draft of this essay on Commentpress, the Web-based tool developed by the Institute for the Future of the Book as a variation of the blogging software, WordPress. Released in 2007, Commentpress allows an online text to be “marked up” in a digital version of margin notes. In doing so, we made authorship a shared and interactive experience, in which we could engage in online conversation with those reading and responding to our work.9 That is a version of participatory learning.