Ed. note: We’re thrilled to provide a guest post by Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U. Anya Kamenetz, author of DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education.
One of the biggest blocks to understanding how education might look in the future is an invisible assumption that learning has to be boring and hard. Have you ever been on a sports team, or played with a band, or just geeked out about one of your favorite movies? If so, you know how fun it can really be to explore a shared interest with friends, even if there’s plenty of practice (drills) or research (IMDB, Wikipedia) along the way. Could technology help more of our learning feel like this by making it something we do with friends?
Although I titled my DIY U, the future of education I’m envisioning is not really about the mythical lone autodidact. It’s more about the potential for people to take advantage of the explosion of free and open educational resources on the web to learn together in communities, both outside of, and alongside, traditional institutions.
There are lots of good reasons to pay attention to the importance of people teaching each other. John Seely Brown and Richard P. Adler, in their 2008 article “Minds on Fire: Open Education, the Web, and Learning 2.0,” cite research by Richard J. Light at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, who found that students’ ability to form and participate in small study groups influenced their success in college more than multiple other factors.
“Light discovered that one of the strongest determinants of students’ success in higher education—more important than the details of their instructors’ teaching styles—was their ability to form or participate in small study groups. Students who studied in groups, even only once a week, were more engaged in their studies, were better
prepared for class, and learned significantly more than students who worked on their own.”
Second is that emphasizing peer study is one way to address the most stubborn part of the cost spiral in higher ed. For example, many of the course redesigns done through the National Center for Academic Transformation use Undergraduate Learning Assistants–peer teachers–and increased use of group project work combined with software tools to take some of the pressure off instructors’ time.
But the most exciting reason to explore the role of communities in learning is that it may actually help us get smarter, faster, as a species. Think about times when you’ve gotten stuck on a fine point of some subject but haven’t known exactly who to call, or your teacher or parent’s explanation just wasn’t clearing things up for you? These days, when I need a stubborn question answered, I’ve gotten used to posting a status update to Facebook or Twitter and getting back amazingly good responses. I even used Twitter as my virtual writing group when I was working on DIY U. “Sitting down to write 500 words by 2pm” I’d post as a public commitment and people would cheer me on. I also got help & feedback on building my website, finding good books and articles to read, and formatting my book.
The more access we have to others’ relevant knowledge and expertise, the more quickly and thoroughly we can learn. That’s why a whole group of educational innovators are excited about the possiblity of distributed learning–taking place across large networks over the Internet.
In 2008 and 2009 George Siemens and Stephen Downes taught the course Connectivism and Collective Knowledge, on this very topic, as a “Massively Open Online Course.” They had thousands of students all around the world following along through blogs, wikis, Elluminate, Moodle, PageFlakes, Second Life, UStream, and probably more.
“We took the role of a teacher and tried to fragment it so students would play teachers to each other,” Siemens told me. “The best person to teach you is someone who’s just mastered it–that’s fairly well established. This is one way the cost of the educator can be dispersed. Given the abundance of information and given the connective and social opportunities around technology, perhaps the teacher’s role is one of multiple nodes amid an overall network.”
In other words, instead of thinking of social networking as the ultimate distraction from classes, maybe it’s time to think of it as your best learning resource.
As an added bonus to our readers, we’d like to bring as many of you into the conversation as possible, and Anya has graciously offered to provide a signed copy of her book to folks who engage in the conversation here by posting their comments about her essay. We’ll be giving away up to five signed copies of her book!