Agile Learning community of practice


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Presented at the Be Bettr conference on hacking education, London, 2011-01-14
For the newspaper mentioned at the end of the presentation, see

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  • Do we need an agile learning community of practice. This is a genuine question. In a minute I’m going to make my argument for why the answer is Yes. But if I’m wrong, I’d be really grateful if you could tell me, and stop me from wasting more of my time. I’m going to assume that you all know what a Community of Practice is - in broad terms its an informal group of practitioners who learn the tools of their trade through apprenticeships, conversations and day-to-day interactions. I’m also not going to define what agile learning is in any precise terms. Generally, it’s the kind of stuff that people talk about at an event like this. If you want to find out more what I think about it, there’s a newspaper with seven interviews I did, and one interview with me. The newspaper represents the conversations I had to try and get things clearer in my own mind. But the precise definition remains a work-in-progress, something for the community to refine, not for one person.
  • Let’s talk a bit more about the community we might have here. In DIY U, Anya Kamenetz describes three guilds that are involved in transforming HE. The artisans are the people who work are gradually changing things from within via changes in policy and grafting new initiatives on the established structures. The merchants are the people who see the challenges for HE as an opportunity to make money, meeting learners’ needs in new ways. They hang out with venture capitalists. Then there are the monks…
  • My bet is that the monks are the guild best represented in this room. Let’s get a show of hands: are you principally an artisan, a merchant or a monk? OK, so maybe this event is a kind of festival for our secular community, pitched between Yule and Candlemas in the pagan calendar. If that’s the case, maybe I’m playing it safe by asking you if we need a community of practice, because, by being here, you’ve already kind of hinted that such a thing looks useful to you. But if I can’t convince you of the point, then I won’t be able to convince anyone.
  • A bit about me, and how I came to be part of this brotherhood. When I started in the field that we hadn’t yet christened as e-learning, any advocacy for online learning was seen as a kind of punk attitude. At least it was within Technology-Based Training, where people were getting excited that the kind of interactive content that had originally required high-spec video disc players, was now reaching common or garden desktop PCs via the CD-ROM drive. The internet, with its pathetic bandwidth, was definitely seen as a step back from this rich content approach. In 1997, when we started offering these accredited online courses with the Sheffield College and Manchester College of Arts and Technology, we were early adopters of CSS to minimise page loading for learners with 14.4Kbit modems. The richness, we argued was in the conversations with tutors and peers that CD-ROMs couldn’t offer.
  • The experience of offering those courses was what you might call a mitigated failure. But the experience stood me, and the people I was working with, in good stead, and I spent a few good years working on the kinds of (mostly public sector) learning websites that get called portals, channels and gateways.
  • They might be loath to admit it but these tend to work on the “build it and they will come” model. Frequently there was a lot of good stuff there, but the intended users found it difficult to get to it. There were a bundle of reasons for that, from poor information architecture and usability, to getting lost in a bundle of self-justifying ‘push’ material from the providers. Mission creep was endemic. Some of these systems - and I’m not necessarily referring to those shown here - felt so disconnected from the everyday practice of their users that they were almost sclerotic and top heavy from the day they were launched. Time and time again, when speaking to those users, you’d hear the same refrain: “It’s easier just to use Google”
  • So I got interested in what people were actually doing when they said they were using Google. This opens up the whole space around informal learning, or what I sometimes call feral learning. How do you learn when no one has been assigned the role of guiding your learning? What do people do when they have to make do? I had a hunch that when we get good at making do,when we get good at scavenging and/or cultivating the online commons, we may find it more satisfying, enjoyable and effective than the alternatives. It might be a bit like making your own furniture without Ikea or growing your own food without Tesco. The book I wrote a few years ago now was a study of one area where people learn stuff in a social online medium without even thinking that what they’re doing is learning. No one goes on a course to develop their musical preferences, but we explore, we forage around, we take tips from professional gatekeepers and more often from friends. Sometimes we might use the data-crunching recommendation engines as another source. but all this is bound up in a social dynamic of sharing and different kinds of intrinsic motivation.
  • All of this comes in starker relief now that we’re in austere times. We just can’t afford the all-singing all-dancing online cathedrals of learning. But the premise of what I’m calling agile learning is that when you put together this squeeze on budgets with the relative ubiquity of broadband availability and the web 2.0/read-write web, then you’ve got the elements that enable a whole range of new models from established and non-traditional players. These are supporting new ways of learning within and beyond institutions. They’re exploiting the possibilities of connectivity and zero distribution costs. I know you know all this, and I’m not claiming any special insight here. I’m just pointing to some things which at the moment are quite disparate, but which I feel could get better by knitting them together.
  • And when that happens some chickens start coming home to roost
  • For example, Do you have to have a grounding in metacognition and learning to learn skills before you can kick off your learning stabilisers and create your own learning. Sugata Mitra’s initiatives suggest that, at least under certain conditions, you don’t Khan Academy shouldn’t work, should it? It’s just automating the old lecture model, it’s not interactive, and the production values are pretty low grade. It’s like a bumble bee that the laws of aerodynamics say shouldn’t be able to fly? But it does.
  • So I think there are a bundle of new and quite profound questions for which we’re only beginning to feel our way to the answers.
  • One very small scale example. Over the past year and a half, a group of us in London - schoolteachers, researchers, software designer, artists, charity and community workers, entrepreneurs, consultants - have been meeting weekly in the RFH to talk about self-organised learning. Recently - and spurred on by the prospect of having something to hand out at this event - we produced a short newspaper, based on edited versions of interviews I did last year. You may have seen various ne’er-do-wells reading it. If you’d like a copy, come and get one.
  • Agile Learning community of practice

    1. 1. Do we need an agile learning community of practice? @ agilelearn
    2. 3. The monks write blog posts packed with old movie clips and argue late into the night in pubs after conference sessions. They want to liberate knowledge from the university altogether
    3. 4. <ul><li>1997 </li></ul><ul><li>Design features to work with 14.4k modems: </li></ul><ul><li>CSS, mostly plain text </li></ul><ul><li>Warnings for IE3 users </li></ul><ul><li>Crap logo </li></ul>
    4. 6. Is your learning infrastructure blocking the natural flow ?
    5. 8. + +
    6. 9. Home to roost
    7. 10. Some chickens…? <ul><li>Self-organised learning is just for people with degrees </li></ul><ul><li>You need much more than content to enable a learning experience </li></ul><ul><li>Extending formal schooling is key to building capacity </li></ul>
    8. 11. Some questions <ul><li>In which contexts might agile models take off? </li></ul><ul><li>Who defines quality, and how? How does this link to accreditation? </li></ul><ul><li>Where are the ethical and political trapdoors? </li></ul>
    9. 12. We don’t know how applicable these agile approaches are in different circumstances, or with what impact …
    10. 13. … therefore a community of practice is one of the things that would help us find out
    11. 14. Can you tell me… …whether this argument is right or wrong? <ul><li>How best to docu-ment and share? </li></ul><ul><li>Who’s already doing this? </li></ul><ul><li>What are the flaws? </li></ul>@ agilelearn
    12. 16. Credits & licensing <ul><li>Blogging monk photo by Mike Licht </li></ul><ul><li>Chickens photo by Laura Hadden </li></ul><ul><li>Empty pocket photo by Stuart Pilbrow </li></ul><ul><li>Constipated face photo by John Ryan </li></ul><ul><li>These slides are licensed under Creative Commons </li></ul><ul><li>Find them online at </li></ul>