Friday, 19 June 2009

The Future of Learning Institutions

There is a lot of discussion at the moment about how organisations adapt to a world which is now profoundly affected by communications technology. The early hype of the internet is starting to make a fundamental impact to our lives both at work and at play. We shop differently, we work differently, we take part in world events like never before. It's a "real time" experience in the virtual online world (how ironic?).

Yet the way we learn has not really kept pace. I've grown up with computers and networks and made a career out of harnessing these to aid and improve learning effectiveness and workplace performance. Yet, it is only now that some of the fundamental assumptions around learning pedagogy and the structures of our learning organisations - both in education and in business - are being truly challenged.

Don Tapscott has recently written a piece on The Impending Demise of the University. Here he suggests:

"Universities are finally losing their monopoly on higher learning.There is fundamental challenge to the foundational modus operandi of the University — the model of pedagogy. Specifically, there is a widening gap between the model of learning offered by many big universities and the natural way that young people who have grown up digital best learn."

This gap has been gaping for some considerable time - I would suggest since well before the birth of digital communication and the internet. Technology has been a catalyst to reveal the core difficiencies and inefficiencies of our assumptions about learning best practice.

To add to the growing number of calls for change is a report - an impending book - by Cathy Davidson and David Goldberg on The Future of Learning Institutions in a Digital Age. In it they ask:

If we face a future where every person has (easy access to) a laptop or networked mobile device, what will it mean? What will it mean for institutionally advocated, mediated, and activated learning? How will educators use these tools and this moment? How will users—learners—adapt them to learning functionality, access, and productive learning possibilities? Will what is learned and the new methods of learning alter as a consequence, becoming quicker but shallower, more instrumental and less reflective? Or will the social networking possibilities prompt greater reflexivity, a more sustained sociality in which the positions and concerns of the otherwise remote are more readily taken into consideration in decision making? How can we use these tools to inspire our most traditional institutions of learning to change?

Lots of questions - and they also present some answers, well findings, that will help institutions start to change to support an audience who have - to a large extent - changed already and will look elsewhere for their learning needs.

Bravely they put forward ten principles for the future of learning:

Self learning
Learning through making your own connections and links - massively accelerated through the use of a browser and tools such as RSS, Twitter and note collecting tools such as Evernote.

Horizontal structures
Moving away from top down, authoritative, standardised education - which is by far the dominant model still - to one where collaboration dominates and you focus on learning how (process) rather than learning that (content).

Collective credibility
What is an authoritative and trusted source of information? Is it text books (long out of date usually)? Lecturers (ditto)? Wikipedia/blogs (who wrote it?) Learning what and who to trust is key to surviving in a fast changing sea of information where everyone is a publisher and voices an opinion.

De-centred pedagogy
Unclear phrase but essentially means learning institutions need to move away from "expert" authorised curricula and their current restrictive practices on the use of alternative learning sources (such as Wikipedia etc) and promote a more collective model where incremental learning comes from lots of sources and reliability and trust is managed in a very distributive manner.

Networked learning
Essntially collaborative learning, where working together is more effective than working alone as an individual. Technology makes this easier than ever before and requires team-based skills that are currently peripheral (rather than core) to a lot of higher education assessment and evaluation.

Open source education
Removal of intellectual property restrictions and open sharing of new content of learning purposes. Pioneered by MIT and now increasingly popular there is much to be said for this to reduce the huge amount of duplication of effort in learning institutions around the world. With a more commercial hat on, it's hard to see how this can be made sustainable in the longer term as the wider internet community is debating how long the "free" culture can actually last.

Learning as connectivity and interactivity
This says the same thing really as the earlier principles but with a statement that technology is the core enabler here, at the heart of the model, not on the periphery.

Lifelong learning
We are having to take more responsibility for our learning and development, so that we stay relevant, employable, and engaged with what is an increasingly digitally driven society. The Digital Britain report published this week demonstrates the importance of providing both the right infrastructure, policies and priorities to ensure we capitalise on the opportunities available.

Learning institutions as mobilising networks
Traditionally, institutions represent rules, governance, control of production and distribution of standardised content and learning practices. As mobilising force, the emphasis is on flexibility, interactivity, collaboration and crucially outcomes. This means institutions need to radically change in structure in order to rebalance their cost and revenue models to focus on new areas of value.

Flexible scalability and simulation
This makes similar points to those earlier again emphasising the potential of technology to connect groups, large and small, and to provide access to simulations/virtual experiences that accelerate learning enormously, making good the vastly unequal distribution of physical resources (for example science labs, access to geographical sites of interest, proximity to valued people etc).

So, not sure if these 10 principles are that profoundly stated but provides a useful platform for reflection on the way in which learning will be shaped, guided and modelled in the future.

We can no longer hang on to old ways - there will simply be no audience left.