Self organised learning spaces

This guest post by Steve Wheeler was previously published in his blog, Learning with ‘e’s.

Photo: William Murphy, CC BY-SA 2.0

“I never teach my students. I only provide them with the conditions in which they can learn.” – Albert Einstein

The social web is replete with self-organising spaces. Take Wikipedia for example. It is now the largest single repository of knowledge on the planet and continues to grow with over 4.2 million articles in English, and many more in other languages. Currently, 750 new pages are added each day on just about every topic known to humanity. It’s the first port of call for many web users when they wish to check a fact or statistic. Who creates and maintains this huge, ever expanding repository of knowledge? We do. You and I. Us and an army of similar minded volunteers who love learning, and want to share their knowledge. All Wikipedia has done to promote the vast ever expanding storehouse of knowledge, is to provide the environment within which it all takes place. And that should give all of use some clues as to how to facilitate self-organising learning spaces.

Self organised learning – where learners control their own pace and space or learning, and often decide on what content they wish to consume – is a growing force in education. From individual students learning informally by browsing on their handhelds, to small flipped classrooms, to vast groups of learners following a programme of study on massive online open courses (MOOCs), education is changing to become learner driven. Yet many academics and teachers struggle with the concept of self-organised learning. Often this is because it is something of an alien concept to them. When they were in school, college or university, they were probably required to attend lectures and classroom teaching sessions where they were expected to ‘receive knowledge’ and then go away and attempt to make sense of it in an essay, project or examination. Clearly, the temptation is to perpetuate this kind of didactic pedagogy approach when one is expected to teach. Many however, are breaking out of this mould, and are launching into new kinds of pedagogy which enable learners to take control, and where teachers are another resource to be called upon when needed.

Wikipedia facilitates knowledge generation, sharing, remixing and repurposing because it is an open, accessible space where everyone can participate. It may be error ridden, but these errors are usually addressed and content revised, deleted or extended accordingly, and often within a short space of time. Yes, there will be disputes, just as there are ‘edit wars‘ within Wikipedia, but hopefully, learners will also learn from this how to gain confidence in their own abilities, how to defend their positions and how to think critically. If this kind of learning occurs within a psychologically safe environment which is blame free, success can be achieved. Self-organised learning spaces should be similarly founded on psychologically safe principles, where if errors are made, those who made them can learn and adjust as they discover the ‘correct approach’ or the ‘right answer’.

Working within self-organised communities enables a vast amount of learning to take place, but it also allows for individual differences and personalities to flourish. Teachers who adopt the approach of facilitating self organised learning must be willing to allow learners to take their own directions and find their own levels. Exploration, experimentation, taking risks, asking ‘what if?’ questions and making errors, are all essential elements of self-organised learning. However, probably the most important component is the ability of the learners themselves to direct their own learning, and to be able to call upon the resources they need, when they need them. We can learn a lot from Wikipedia, and not just from the knowledge it contains.

Creative Commons License

Self organised learning spaces by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

I (Bill) have been active across the Wikimedia projects, including Wikipedia, since about 2008, and one of the minor missions of this blog is to help promote “free culture” as well as distributed, self-organizing educational projects. Everything which appears on this blog—both my posts and guest posts—are licensed under a Creative Commons license to better facilitate the pooling, remixing, and reuse of useful materials.

Combine open educational resources with a system of portable, persistent, and verifiable credentials a la Mozilla’s Open Badges project and you’ve really got something special. No longer does an individual need to be tied down to one specific instructor or institution—the best open educational resources and assessments can empower knowledge-seekers to broaden their skills in effective, verifiable ways. Teachers will always be important, of course, but the social justice/human empowerment angle appeals to me: if someone in rural sub-Saharan Africa can connect to the internet by bouncing signals between a cheap wind- or solar-charged Android handset and an internet blimp, they can join in this emerging global bazaar of knowledge and credentialing.

How’s that for self-organized learning spaces?

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