Agile learning: How ‘making do’ can evolve into ‘making good’

By David Jennings

Behaviour changes in a colder climate. We are forced to become more resourceful, to find new ways to do things. Older patterns do not always reassert themselves automatically when things get warmer again.

Bucking the trend, open resources and tools are continuing to grow even in colder climes, and already we are seeing some cash-strapped pioneers using these to hack together their own education outside institutional boundaries. The means to do that were not available ten years ago —OpenCourseWare and Wikipedia were just starting, there were no Google Apps— but in another decade the alternatives they offer for resourceful learners could make a truly viable alternative.

With that premise, those coming ten years will be a period rife with creative and destructive potential. So how do we maximize the creative possibilities, to enable more independent, personalised, agile learning without losing the richness and flexibility embedded in current institutions?

Over the last year, I have interviewed a sample of people who I thought might give me some useful pointers: from a home educator to a university professor; and from a social software entrepreneur to a photographer who is committed to helping people learn yet refuses to see this as teaching. These interviews are recorded on my blog, and collated in abridged form in a self-published newspaper (goo.gl/PIKpw). I was trying to do two things: First, to get a sense of what might be common across these different contexts; and second, to get a sense of the longer sweep of change, beyond the horizon of recent funding cuts.

Changes bred of necessity and opportunity

This article is an exploratory outline of what I am calling ‘agile learning’, and draws on some of the themes that emerged from these interviews. Hopefully this term is fairly self-explanatory: agility involves letting learners manage, direct and adapt their learning with minimum constraint. It is not intended as another packaged solution, with proprietary paraphernalia of trademarks and methodologies; rather it is an umbrella term that alludes to the particular kinds of invention that are bred of necessity in a challenging climate.

Learning activities that were once marginal and supplementary are gradually moving into the mainstream as institutions lose their historical monopoly on the ability to process and share resources. We are already seeing what self-organising groups can accomplish with powerful tools but without formal lines of command.

But what happens if and when the resources in ‘the commons’ outstrip those controlled by gatekeepers as a matter of course? If Google and Wikipedia are seen in some quarters as irritants —their use to be moderated and policed— imagine how learning might feel if the open wiki model were to pass a tipping point, and classroom lectures came to be seen as rare and peripheral events.

Some might say that we are close to that tipping point now, or have already passed it, while others will argue that it is never coming. And institutional interests will downplay self-organised learning experiences as inferior. It is clearly going to be a rough, uneven and sometimes ill-tempered period of transition. The recent hoo-ha over the term Edupunk —whether it is about reinventing or gutting universities (Groom, 2011)— is just a small portent of things to come.

Is self-organised learning just for people with degrees?

From the other side of the fence, new entrants in the learning field are challenging the status quo. As they do so, certain theoretical and institutional chickens are coming home to roost. Wikipedia and open source developments demonstrate the kind of creative accomplishments that are possible with little or no top-down control. As Sugata Mitra outlined in his keynote at the ALT-C 2010 conference, the Hole-in-the-Wall model gives us a glimpse of how robust learning can be an emergent property of small groups, with no teacher input. It also challenges the idea that  learning-to-learn skills and a grounding in metacognition are a pre-requisite for organising your own learning.

Consider another orthodoxy: you need much more than content to enable a fulfilling learning experience.Bumble bee by tassie sim So how do we explain the spectacular popularity of the Khan Academy.This grew from a foundation of over 2,000 short YouTube videos, which have garnered more than 40 million views. Does this just automate the old lecture model? It is not even interactive, and the production values are distinctly handmade. It is like a bumble bee that the (old) laws of aerodynamics said should not be able to fly. But it does.

So far, we lack the comprehensive research to tell us the range of contexts in which people are using Khan Academy videos. Learners are probably using them alongside other learning paths, whether self-directed or teacher-led. But the attention that these resources attract evidences a strong demand for learning content that learners can use flexibly to help them develop their understanding. What makes Khan Academy agile is the wide range of learning scenarios in which the videos can fit, and the variety of learning experiences they can enrich.

University of the People (UoPeople) is a US start-up that adds some structure to the Khan Academy model so that it can make a case for Higher Education (HE) accreditation. Partnering with the OpenCourseWare consortium, UoPeople makes a feature of being ‘tuition-free’: using peer-to-peer learning to add a dialogue layer to Open Educational Resources (OERs). Currently its mission is to increase access to HE in the developing world, especially in crisis-stricken areas like Haiti. But you do not have to be a conspiracy theorist to imagine the implications if the outcomes from this model are seen to be credible. Another US-based initiative, the Saylor Foundation aims to provide a “zero-cost alternative to those that lack the resources to attend traditional brick-and-mortar institutions”. (For more details of these and other new models like WikiEducator please see the list I have curated at http://agilelearning.amplify.com/tag/new-models/.)

The high-water mark of structured formal education

So, looking ahead to the 2020s, how do we understand the different kinds of challenge and change we are facing? The Innovation Grid for Education, developed by Leadbeater and Wong (2010), provides a useful framework (Table 1).

[table id=4 /]

Table 1: Innovation Grid for Education, Leadbeater and Wong (2010)

To understand what could be at stake in this spectrum of innovation, consider the example ofOERs: broadly defined to include any resource that is ‘open’ and could be used educationally. These resources could be used simply to improve delivery of formal learning, through efficiencies of scale and the quality improvements that come with extensive peer review and contributions. Or they could reinvent it, maintaining the formal structure of tuition and accreditation, but gutting the institutions that deliver it, using efficiencies as a pretext for radical cuts in teaching staff, say.

Using Khan Academy resources as a means of reviewing or augmenting other learning courses would be an example of supplementing those existing routes, as in the top right of the Innovation Grid.

The transformational cell of the grid is where the change gets seriously structural – and seriously agile. Within the developing world, generations have grown up with the idea that extending formal education —in terms of access/reach and age— is key to building capacity. Learning technology could soon throw that long-term trend into reverse.

Conceptually such a shift might involve:

  • the development of a learning commons – open resources with the means to discover and organise them ‘on the fly’ using rich metadata;
  • the tools for people to self-organise their participation in learning – both as producers/mentors (what Clay Shirky, 2010, calls our “cognitive surplus”) and as learners/peers;
  • the growth of social capital that comes from this free association and the kind of post-institutionalised individual empowerment that Ivan Illich argued for in Deschooling Society (1971);
  • new methods for assessment, especially formative assessment, that are sufficiently modular and low-cost to be integrated into a wide range of contexts.

In practical terms, the most likely way for this to come about will be through a gradual shift of innovations down and to the right in the Innovation Grid as the centre of gravity of learning moves. For example, UoPeople currently operates mostly in the reinvent cell of the grid. It assembles open elements to emulate the measurable achievements, if not the broader ethos, of HE.

When you separate the credentialed aspects of learning from other elements, like the informal induction-into-values that is part of campus life, you open up the opportunities for further shifts. Leaving aside the Browne Report recommendations, learners will realise that they can mix and match access to learning resources, an immersive community of peers and mentoring, and accreditation procedures. They may source each of these from different places, and emphasise one or more depending on their experience and needs.  As young people weave together learning with the demands of their first jobs, and then perhaps return to it later in their careers, provision will feel less formal. So reinvention of HE segues into its transformation.

From the other direction consider the School of Everything, another new entrant that explicitly acknowledges the inspiration of Illich in providing directory services to enable people to find others who can help them learn. As their motto puts it “Everyone has something to learn; everyone has something to teach”. At the moment the main focus of activity on the site is in what you might call ‘hobby learning’: how to play a musical instrument, or speak a foreign language. That locates it firmly in the supplement quadrant of the grid. But imagine a tipping point at which the way you build the learning credentials for your life and career feels more like the way you learn hobbies than the way you learn differential calculus today – even if it is differential calculus that you are learning.

Maturity and agility

This flip may not be inevitable. By its nature, growth in informal learning does not register in official statistics, except in circumstances where it actually displaces formal learning, and such direct substitution is rare until after the tipping point. But in the course of my interviews I found a range of contexts in which agile alternatives are taking root in the new learning commons and flourishing. For example, participation in the annual week-long gathering of UK home educators increased thirtyfold in less than a decade from 1998. Membership of online forums has, unsurprisingly, grown even faster.

The growth of the net as a learning environment in the broadest sense has brought this self-organised approach within the grasp of a much wider sector of the population. The tools and resources to support this still have a long way to go (the JISC OER programme is just two years old, for example). You do not have to assume that participation will increase at the same dramatic rate indefinitely to imagine that within another decade the home education ecosystem will be much more mature and its community of practice will be more experienced. (For any home educators reading, I mean ‘mature’ in the sense of sophistication and diversity, not recuperation within the mainstream!) This, in turn, enables a further step change in access and viability.

This is beginning to read like one of those not-another-bl**dy-paradigm-shift articles, so let me backpedal a moment, and also sound a note of caution. We do not want another round of re-engineering and cost-slashing that sneaks in under the cloak of being agile. Hopefully organisations will learn the lessons of the first dot.com era when emphasis on cutting tuition costs gave e-learning a bad name. Cutting everything to the bone makes learning more rigid, not more agile.

What makes learning agile? If it feels agile, then it probably is. So if you are creating a new platform or process, can learners easily integrate stuff that they have found or blogged about somewhere else? How easy is it to adapt learning experiences on the fly, to adapt to changing circumstances and tap into the individual motivations that the learners bring with them? How adept is the approach at getting learning started using the resources and tools to hand, rather than waiting until the ‘perfect’ infrastructure is complete? How resilient is the learning experience, so that if one part fails, another alternative can quickly be substituted?

Are there limits to agility? Of course there are. Whenever you make a case for self-organised and self-directed learning, there will be counterarguments that learners do not know what is best for them. Arguably, learners who choose their own direction will often have the motivation and commitment to push themselves beyond their comfort zone – but possibly not sufficiently reliably.

Why is agility relevant now? We need to be agile now because so many of our organisations are scrabbling around trying to make do with less money and less than optimum means. We all need to keep learning throughout our careers, yet the costs of this learning have been rising, not falling. We can be agile now because the counterpart to this private scarcity is a new form of public abundance; the abundance represented by the wealth of resources —including those formally labelled as Open Educational Resources and the vastly larger set of de facto open educational resources— and the lightweight, heavy-duty apps to organise them.

What needs to change? The way we measure progress, for a start. It has become almost a cliché to recognise that the best metaphor for managing complex situations like this one is gardening, rather than engineering. Yet our (small p) political culture is still wedded to calibrating each intervention in terms of local, short-term, cause-and-effect metrics.

For example, when will we read an evaluation that concludes, “The project was a great success in its own terms but may have choked off diversity in other forms of innovation”? Discussions on the role of the BBC in the media ecosystem have reached that level of understanding, but must it take 90 years and the lobbying of large private sector interests to get to this stage? We need to accelerate to a sophisticated appreciation of learning ecosystems. The bureaucratic mindset that abhors ‘duplication’ at the same time as seeking to replicate an abstract notion of best practice, regardless of context, is not good enough. A richer systems perspective will ask, for example, how much redundancy and spare capacity the learning ecosystem requires to remain agile and flexible. Should that redundancy be located within organisations or in the commons?

Taking a gardener’s-eye perspective, we must realise that biodiversity plus a mix of new and old growth is good for the system as a whole. This is not to deny that individual species both struggle in the fight for sunlight and depend on their symbiosis. Self-interest for educational organisations of all stripes almost certainly lies in exploratory collaborations to find out what configurations best deliver the aims of effectiveness, agility and resilience. In the long term all our differences will be forgotten as we become compost for future generations!

Bumble bee photo by tassie.sim (http://www.flickr.com/photos/tassiesim/4175758053/), licensed under Creative Commons.

References

Groom J (2011) Dear Edupunk, available from http://bavatuesdays.com/dear-edupunk/ (accessed 31/3/2011)

Illich I (1971) Deschooling Society, New York, Harper & Row.

Leadbeater C and Wong A (2010) Learning from the Extremes, commissioned by Cisco Systems, available from http://www.cisco.com/web/about/citizenship/socio-economic/docs/LearningfromExtremes_WhitePaper.pdf (accessed 31/3/2011)

Shirky C (2010) Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Allen Lane.

David Jennings
david@alchemi.co.uk

If you enjoyed reading this article we invite you to join the Association for Learning Technology (ALT) as an individual member, and to encourage your own organisation to join ALT as an organisational or sponsoring member.

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