Howard Rheingold’s roundtable on Reinventing Learning kept returning to a theme that’s a variation of writer William Gibson’s line that: The future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed.
Howard and all of the innovators in the discussion seemed to agree that the cornucopia of new digital learning tools based on the Internet has never been better and that pioneers in this space are enjoying unprecedented learning experiences. However, the learning experiences of the vast majority of people within most educational institutions remain largely unchanged and are barely taking advantage of the new possibilities.
So the bulk of the session focused on how to move more of the best practices of this new peer-to-peer learning into the more mainstream educational institutions, and how we might accelerate a broader systemic change to new kinds of flattened learning institutions that might emerge in the next 5 to 10 years.
Howard early on framed the conversation by comparing a warrior, doctor and professor from 1000 years ago with their counterparts today. The ancient warrior would be amazed by modern war technologies and would die instantly on a battlefield. A doctor would be bewildered by medical technologies in a surgery and have no idea how to proceed. But a professor from 1000 years ago would be right at home in today’s classroom.
This institutional lag time in education is curious because there is no shortage of amazing digital technologies that have radically transformed our learning experiences outside of formal schooling. And the younger Millennial generation now filling up America’s secondary schools and higher eduction are adept at the tools outside schools. Yet Howard pointed out an “institutionalized” mentality around learning even among those in top schools like Stanford and Berkeley where he has taught in recent decades. The best and the brightest have learned how to excel within the old frameworks, those hierarchical ones from centuries ago, and that is preventing them from really learning among themselves and on their own.
There is a great body of work around an alternative learner-centric, peer-to-peer pedagogy. Some of the thinking is not new but dates back to John Dewey and others in the 19th and 20th centuries. The new technologies based on the Internet are finally providing the infrastructure to more fully realize those early visions of ideal ways to learn.
Yet none of the group gathered for this roundtable thought there were fully baked alternative systems that could replace our current educational systems wholesale right now. In fact, Mimi Ito warned that the public school systems continue to fulfill many laudable goals that are essential to an equitable, democratic society. We need to be careful not to dismantle these institutions wholesale, but to unbundle those things they still do well from those things they don’t do well – or could be done better outside the institutions.
If anything, young people from affluent, more highly educated families are the ones taking early advantage of the thriving learning eco-system already out there. They are living the learning future that needs to be better distributed, which means needs to be broadly applied through new institutions.
So how do we accelerate that process of reinvention to get to those new learning institutions? Howard and every one of the roundtable participants were full of ideas, among them:
- Steve Hargadon thought we should encourage more widespread experiments and be cautious about getting locked on big ideas for system change at this point. We need to to know more about what really works before engineering them to scale.
- Howard thought we need to focus more public atteniton on the smaller success stories of peer-to-peer learning rather than give so much attention to the money going to new education startups and MOOCs (Massively Open Online Courses), which still mostly focus on scaling up broadcast models of professor-centric teaching.
- Jerry Michalski suggested we ensure that families could pull their children out of formal institutional schooling and so experiment with alternative ways. Most states still don’t allow it.
- Jerry added that a critical part of that effort would need to focus on alternative credentialing so those who take such risks have a better change of ensuring future employers of the value of their education. Get 20 big companies to telegraph that they are open to hiring those without formal degrees.
- Jamie Daves talked about getting companies to externalize what they need from future employees so that those inside and outside the educational systems could better align with future needs.
- Mimi talked about the need to create spaces for older adults who are not teachers to be able to interact with younger people in more informal learning environments. There are safety issues to be finessed but there could be a big payoff in getting the generations to work better together. Howard applauded the Maker movement as providing big strides in this area.
- Howard did not let tech off the hook. He said there needs to be more integration between all the learning tools, with special attention paid to a way to get good asynchronous, multimedia forums for extended discussions.
These are just some of the ideas to come out of the 90-minute session. Watch the accompanying video for the entire conversation, and you can jump through to different sections. It’s the start of a much longer conversation on how to reinvent learning, and by extension, our educational institutions, in the years ahead.
We’ll end with a final thought paraphrased from Howard: In a society that does not change much, the duty of the older generation is to teach the young not to reinvent the wheel, to teach them what works. In a society that changes very rapidly, the duty of the older generation is to teach the young how to adapt, to learn on their own.
Our generation has a lot of work to do to fulfill that duty.