The Most Important Question

I was asked, what are the most important questions that need to be resolved during, say, the next five or so years?

There's only one: under what conditions can a learner manage his or her own learning?

I know this may seem like I'm being glib (and it has been that kind of day) but I am being very serious.

First of all, we are rapidly entering a period in which there will be a significant shrinkage in the public resources allocated to education. This is already the case in the developing world, and one of the reasons (not the only reason) it remains the developing world. Meanwhile, most online learning to date has been directed toward emulating in-class instruction, there is an increasingly pervasive trend such that subjects are defined as competences and learning material is automatically delivered to learners based on these competences. Could such a system be sustainable, and to what degree could it replace more traditional forms of learning. So there is a genuine human need here, to know whether we can sustain this shrinkage in funding, and if so, how.

Secondly, there is globally an even increasing onslaught of rich media and other content, including even inside schools, which is intended not to educate or to inform, but to sway or to sell. Against this, especially in web 2.0 circles, there is a school of thought modeled loosely along the lines of Freire's 'Pedagogy of the Oppressed' which suggests that people, working for their own benefit and creating their own association, can take charge of their own learning, and hence, their own understanding of the world. If it possible for people to effectively mount a counter to propaganda or corporate-based 'content learning' on their own, or is some manner of public intervention required, and to what scale.

-- Stephen


  1. Such a culture would require a defense system, like Macafee, against "sway and sell."

  2. Excellent question.. I think kids owning the learning, (designing/creating the curriculum even)... is the only way this 7hr-a-day thing we call school could/should work. So asking - under what conditions is huge to making it happen.

    My thoughts on those conditions... (and the only reason I'm writing here in your spot - is because I'm craving yours):

    1) absence of standardized testing

    2) until standardized testing is removed.. allowance of a more efficient, student-owned way to learn the standardized content

    3) once time is freed, by removal or by efficiency, access (via a facilitator of connections) to individual expert tutors and plns per passion, will become the conditions needed.

    Here's the plan we're hoping will allow for kids to own the learning...

    #1 speaks specifically to it.. #2-4 help make it happen.

  3. So Stephen,

    How would you suggest we go about researching the answers to such a question?

  4. Hi Stephen,

    I resonate with your views. Great food for thoughts. Should people take charge (and be) responsible for their own learning?
    In response to your question, my further questions are: What sort of education would support the learner in managing his/her learning?
    What would be the "role" of open education in the coming 5-10 years?
    What would be the "role" of open "educators"?

  5. ... And what kind of technology could support this?

    I still contend that current software is far too restrictive from the learner's side (and possibly the educator's too). That's not to say that it couldn't be locked down for specific purposes, but the frameworks that exist all hold very strong opinions about how learning is done.

    In my view, the best opinion a technologist can have about the nature of learning is that it's up to the teacher, and up to the student. That then allows the wider social questions - like the one you've posed above - to be tested.

  6. This is helpful.

    I'm exploring this question in a small way; I hope to be setting up a PLE/ePortfolio for skilled immigrants in my community of Winnipeg which will help them assess their gaps and barriers and develop learning plans to overcome them and get productive jobs before their money runs out.

    A big issue for them is building their knowledge networks; this helps them figure out how their field is practised here in Canada, a bit about workplace culture, and professional contacts which may lead them to good jobs.

    I figure this is somewhere between PLE, PLN, eP and Community of Practice. They're adults who need to find their mojo again in an often confusing new place. They need to build knowledge, confidence and credibility, then be able to demonstrate it.

    It has to be custom, because each person is coming from a different place. But the issues each face are quite similar: language, professional vocabulary, Qualifications Recognition, workplace culture, networking. To me, this argues for a mix of open content modules assembled by need with group facilitation as the glue.

    I think adult learning, with its respect for where people are coming from, is a great filter for organizing thoughts about autonomous learning.

  7. I think the idea to take away standardized testing that Monika wrote about actually sounds like a good idea. I'm not sure standardized tests actually fit any purpose other than labeling those who pass with high scores from those who barely pass. Teachers spend so much time just trying to teach what's needed to pass the test that I think a lot of learning gets lost.

    As for the major question of the post, I am unsure of the answer.

  8. Answer: when institutions (ie. power) let them.

    Your question has been addressed in some ways under the "constructivist" banner for years. We already have good evidence in support of learner-controlled approaches.

    But conservative power ignores all that, pressing for a return to didactic, institution-controlled teaching methods to achieve "testable", backward-looking ends. Forget creativity, responsibility, risk-taking....

    "Under what conditions..." speaks of variables and categorical positivism. This feeds into the hands of conservatives, who can fund research that produces findings on counter-hypotheses. And withdraw funding for progressive research.

    Your reference to Freire is right, we need research that takes an emancipatory stance and engages directly to shift learning communities: action research, critical ethnography, etc. That's already happening, of course. But then its "findings" get boxed in academic journals and ignored in public policy formation.

    Public attitudes to what counts as worthwhile research ought to change. This is something I'm grappling with in my own work about public deliberation (related as it is about lifelong learning about political matters).

    As a first step, researchers need the courage to publicly promote the polical change necessary for paradigmatic change in learning institutions.

    Stephen, you are already leading the way.

  9. I'll respond from a K12 perspective. I think it's not yes or no but yes with guidance. I think a sliding scale from K to 12 of direct instruction to self-direction. But kids need to be taught how to self-direct. My own kids entered a self-directed high school in grd 8 and it was a shock to their system. But it makes sense.

    As to the technology piece, I just wrote a post about this called Technology Powered Learning Environments and referenced a higher ed example that you might be interested in. The tech piece needs work but I think in 5 years it'll be there since it is needed to support a more open self-managed learning environment.

  10. I believe that you hit on the answer to your own question on the 22nd of this month in OLDaily:

    "Teachers would probably conduct themselves very differently if they understood that what it is that they model, rather than what they say, that gets learned."

    As a student, and a tutor, this sticks out to me; people learn to take control of their learning best when they interact with somebody taking control of their own learning, and the motivation to do so themselves. It would also help to have the entire system reworked to encourage actually learning, but that takes a lot more to do.


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