Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World

This was Stephen Downes’ second talk in a series of 3, which he is giving in London this week. This is how he introduced it on his blog Stephen’s Web 

In this presentation I look at the needs and demands of people seeking learning with the models and designs offered by traditional institutions, and in the spirit of reclaiming learning describe a new network-based system of education with the learner managing his or her education.

Although I have only listened to the recording of this talk, I found it more interesting than the first talk, which I listened to live, having been a delegate at the conference, although there was plenty of interest in that one too. What I like about Stephen’s talks is that he doesn’t pull any punches. He always challenges my thinking.

The thrust of this talk, from my perception, is, as the title suggests, that learning is no longer in the control of institutions, but increasingly personal and in the control of learners as they occupy a networked world. There is a distinction between personal learning and personalized learning. Institutions don’t understand personal learning because personal learning has to be in the control of the learner. It is made to order. Learning is built not from a kit but from scratch. Institutions think they are catering for personal learning, but in fact are offering personalized learning – which is ‘off the shelf’ learning; one package with a bunch of options.

There is evidence that today’s students are demanding change and want more control. Learning is no longer about remembering. The content, nature and means of learning are changing on a daily basis. Learning today is more about play and socializing. Lecturing is also changing. Lecturing today is not so much about content as creating the potential for dialogue.

A particularly challenging point that Stephen made was ‘Do away with models’ – learning models and design models.  The right model is no model. New versions of old models don’t produce results. It is obvious that people learn differently, have different objectives, priorities, goals and times when they want to learn, but if you use a learning model you are attempting to predefine the outcome, whereas learning should be about discovery and exploration. I would also say from the work I have done with Roy Williams, that we need to recognize that  learning will often be unpredictable and emergent. (See Emergent learning and learning ecologies in Web 2.0)

Autonomy rather than control is the essential in education. Autonomy does not mean no structure, it means choice of structure. Personal learning is based on self-organization and self-organizing networks. Learners need to reclaim management and organization of learning. The way forward will be for students/learners to have their own personal web server and run their own web services from their own home networks.  The University will be a box in your living room. Learning should be cooperative and networked. It is not content that is important, but the making of connections. Learners need networking skills.

What do we need from institutions?

We do not need

  • more models, more designs
  • more learning theories
  • more standards, measurement and centralization
  • more control
  • more of making the same mistakes

We do need mechanisms to support people in learning and bettering their lives. Institutions need to think in terms of serving many different people in many different ways and supporting personal learning, rather than attempting to control and personalize learning.

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And here is an interesting blog post about this talk by Sonja Grussendorf – Beyond institutions: Stephen Downes at NetworkEDGE

See also Arun Karnad’s post:

3 thoughts on “Beyond Institutions – Personal Learning in a Networked World

  1. Glenyan July 11, 2014 / 6:54 pm

    I love this line “Autonomy does not mean no structure, it means choice of structure.” It makes me think 2 things right away: decentralized doesn’t mean ‘no center’ it means many centers, or ‘authentically centralized’; and choice often comes with a hearty side dish of delegation, but the process of choice is the essential ingredient.

    This was an enjoyable read, although I can’t help but always feel that the word ‘learning’ is just not good enough anymore. We really do need a word that emphasizes the intentional side of learning. 🙂

  2. jennymackness July 12, 2014 / 5:11 pm

    Hi Glen – good to hear from you. I like your observation that decentralized might mean ‘many centers’ rather than ‘no center’. Makes me wonder how it relates to rhizomatic learning.

    If the word ‘learning’ is just not good enough any more – do you have any ideas about what to replace it with?

  3. Glenyan July 14, 2014 / 4:26 pm

    Hrmm, I should say it’s not specific enough – like only using the term ‘food’ when discussing culinary matters. Much of the time ‘educate’ works for me when I want to think about intentional learning.

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