On Open Learning Environments

Sweden’s Vittra School (Image from Edudemic.com)

When looking to explore the panoply of 21st century incarnations of education, I am often compelled to seek out a tangible unifying force at work which might correspond within a larger context of society as it is being influenced by the digital technology revolution.

As the web has increased in its capacity for open sharing and collaboration, it has inverted power-structures and business models that have failed to meet authentically the potentialities of the emerging digital age. Where we can see outdated business-practices in the music and film threatening those industries’ continued existence in the age of file sharing online and the advent of remix culture in aps and Macintosh Arts on devices around the world, educational institutions should seek to embrace the 21st century as an opportunity to help cultivate educational value in the communities they serve. In attempting to identify this through-line within the lens of imagining future learning environments, I find inspiring the conception of a scholastic experience whose foundational purpose is to aid in the removal of the boundaries and walls which exist in our institutions.

The literal and perceived ‘walls’ of school largely extend from a bureaucracy established to serve a different conception of knowledge and schooling than exists today. We separate students by age and grade, divide classes by time (with bells!), segregate our subjects in different areas of our buildings, and detach much of the experience of learning about a variety of topics from applying or rejoicing in the value the labour of their learning contributes to the community. If we look at the manifestation of 21st century principles at work in enterprises like Wikipedia – where the values of connection, openness, and collaboration have made the peer-edited encyclopedia a global storehouse of emergent knowledge – schools would be well advised to adopt similar ethos in creating tomorrow’s schools.

While the information revolution might be in the process of changing cataclysmically the manner in which we go about learning informally as much as formally, the spirit of connection, openness and collaboration presents the possibility of a one room school house for the 21st century, where the physical barriers in our schools – walls, separate subjects, age groupings – dissolve along with the larger boundaries we imagine construct our schools.

John Willinsky talks about how “the democratic culture of [our] country is dependent on the educational quality of our civic lives,” which I would like to apply to a conception of schooling wherein the cultivation of this ‘educative civic life’ is nurtured and maintained by the learning activities carried out by the students themselves. This notion of learning has been nurtured in my own practice through the open-education movement and pioneers such as Stephen Downes, Jim Groom and Gardner Campbell, who have worked to develop the architecture of open online courses. In opening their courses and institutional learning communities to the wider web, and reflecting on and reforming their work publicly, they have created courses which function as just this sort of societally enriching education.

In sketching out the design principles underlying effective self-organizing networks, Stephen Downes describes how “human neural networks, student educational experiences, the cities, ecosystems and anything else you want to create a network out of work better if they satisfy the following four criteria”:

Autonomy, the individuals in the network makes their own decisions.

Diversity, being one isn’t about being the same. Let me repeat. Being one isn’t about being the same. Being a Valencian isn’t about being the same, being a pine tree isn’t about being the same, being a doctor isn’t about being the same. Diversity, in fact, is what makes being doctors possible.

Interactivity, the knowledge created by a network is created by the interaction between its members and, as we would say, is emergent from its members and is not simply the propagation of one person’s opinion to another, to another, to another, to another. Everybody contributes together to make knowledge.


Finally, openness, because networks cannot work if they are closed. Networks cannot work if there are barriers to communication, if there are barriers to entry, if only some kind of messages are allowed.

Something I’ve been thinking about in my last few posts has been the possibility and potential for our schools to embrace these more open principals while fulfilling their institutional responsibilities. As much as we might wish (or philosophically rationalize) that education to take on this more free-range (or what Jim might call feral) approach, there is tension here between an intrinsic inspiration – that emanating from individual learners – and and the extrinsic obligations of institutional requirements. But in exploring the boundary between these opposing forces, there is much to be learned about which assumptions about learning we can retain, and which we might discard.

Jim Groom‘s recent Internet Course at the University of Mary Washington, which he has been teaching with Paul Bond, has offered an example in striking a new balance in course planning, execution, and assessment:

What was somewhat unique about this particular test was that the students designed it. The questions for the test were based on the four panels discussions they ran over the first half of the semester. These panels were student-led, driven by the research they did in the first couple of weeks on specific topics such as internet historyhow it workscreation/consumption, and intellectual property.

Given the students have been framing the curriculum and discussions for the class thus far, it only made sense to have them create the midterm. The result was pretty remarkable. The test is impressive, and it reminded me a bit of what happened with assignments in ds106. What’s more, the feedback students gave Paul and I on the test was interesting–almost to a student they found it both difficult and useful in forcing them to re-engage and clarify what we discussed during each of the panels.

Gardner Campbell recently captured the web’s role in bringing about some of what these first two have described here by highlighting the role of recursion and syndication in learning:

Web syndication really does think about the web as a vast database, and each site on the web as potentially a dynamic, curated representation or slice of that database. But the database is itself constantly refreshed because the web that feeds the database of the web is the web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making.

Education as a constantly refreshing database. A web of human curiosity, expression, and meaning-making. Idyllic, utopian even. What might such principles lead to in the K12 classroom, though?

Enter Sweden’s Vittra School, which brings us back to the initial idea of division and barriers in the classroom:

The principles of the Vittra School revolve around the breakdown of physical and metaphorical class divisions as a fundamental step to promoting intellectual curiosity, self-confidence, and communally responsible behavior. Therefore, in Vittra’s custom-built Stockholm location, spaces are only loosely defined by permeable borders and large, abstract landmarks. As the architects explained, “instead of classical divisions with chairs and tables, a giant iceberg for example serves as cinema, platform, and room for relaxation, and sets the frame for many different types of learning,” while “flexible laboratories make it possible to work hands-on with themes and projects.”

Whether our schools feel compelled or pushed to pursue these (r)evolutions is something only time will reveal. But there is an ecosystem of knowledge and learning that is enabled by the advent of the web that schools would do well to embrace if they are to grow meaningfully into the 21st century.

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