“Will this be on the test?”
Seth Godin

This is a subject near and dear to my heart. I’ve been studying and experimenting with this for a while, and have been beta-testing an online art education solution. It’s still early, we’re about eight months into our online experiment, but we’re learning a lot on how to make online education work. Here are some thoughts:

Peer-to-peer mentoring: You’re assessment is spot-on about this. In fact, institutions that treat education as merely a content delivery problem to solve miss the point. Information is important, but it’s when a community forms around information that great learning occurs. A community working through information reduces the chances of someone getting stuck. A community inspires learning though inspiration and the social pressure to belong. In our art community we encourage the reading of books and doing online tutorials, but we have a culture where we don’t tackle subjects alone. It’s modular in that the entire community doesn’t go through a single book together, but rather different artists group together to tackle subjects like figure drawing, perspective, or composition. At any given time there are various groups of artists working on various things. We accomplish this by creating group threads for participation, rather than individual threads.

We’re finding that a motivated group working together through a good book or tutorial, can learn a subject well without a trained teacher. Part of why this works is the life-long learning model. No one ever graduates. As a result, instead of a small group working its way through a class and then leaving, the first group working its way through a subject stays in the community. As a result the first group can then help the next group through. Because no one ever graduates or finishes, the knowledge base of the community grows.

Projects: In addition to the group threads we all have projects where we share our progress and process. Project threads are typically silo threads for individual projects, but the group threads on the site build the relationships that foster feedback in the project threads.

Video meet-ups: We meet for live, group video calls once a week. In the video calls questions get answered and skills get demonstrated. This also has the added benefit of building the relationships in the group.

I don’t know if I agree about there not being a need to memorize. I think, however, if we dig down on the subject, I suspect we agree. There are many tasks that require a base set of skills that require automatic processes that have been embedded deep into the brain. Reading is such a skill. If you had to look up the phonetics every time you wanted to read a word, you wouldn’t be able to read much of anything. The skill has to be developed. Teaching and memorizing the alphabet is the first step. Beyond that, developing the skill is largely experiential — done through reading and writing. Again, I take your point that memorizing is overrated for a lot of information, but some skills do require a base level of it. There are aspects of developing drawing skills that are very much like developing reading and writing skills. Some things you have to know in your bones.

I agree that lectures aren’t the answer, at least not by themselves. I’d point to Sugata Mitra’s TED talk where he talks about his experiment of putting a computer in a wall in poor neighborhoods in India. What he found is that groups of kids huddled around the computer and learned together. It appears that the group is just as important as the access to information. It’s difficult to learn in a vacuum. Even “self-educated” people learned collaboratively. Benjamin Franklin had his Junto, and Frederick Douglass had the kids in his neighborhood when he was young and the East Baltimore Mental Improvement Society when he was older. Learning is more than about information — it’s about being social. It’s about mutual improvement as much as it is self-improvement. Whatever an individual can learn on his or her own, he or she can learn more as a part of a learning community.

Online learning has to harness the social nature of learning to reach its potential. It must be about communities not silos. The unprecedented access to information the internet provides only solves part of the problem. Building online communities that work together to use the information, be it for art, math or anything else, is to my mind, the biggest thing early online education missed, and the current challenge we have to face.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.