Room for Curiosity: The Present Edge of Online Learning

Over the past three years a portion of my brain has been perpetually occupied by a little niggling thought; what does a great learning experience look and feel like? In fact, I tried to get some of it out of my head back in November 2013 when I posted a piece on Medium titled The Changing Face of Education. It all started after I produced TEDxBrighton 2012 and another volunteer team member, Lorne Armstrong, started talking to me about one of his businesses — a then relatively new company called Ashdown Academy. The Academy delivers diplomas and postgraduate diplomas in events management, accredited by the Chartered Institute of Marketing, and Lorne was keen to take his courses online — to increase both the reach and profitability of the courses.

I was working as an independent digital consultant at the time — mostly born out of the fact that I spend far too much time on the internet — and had a fair amount of experience as a student of online learning environments. I’d been topping up my math skills (skillz) on Khan Academy, getting meta in Coursera in a course about online courses, and had learnt the Final Cut + Motion inside and out through Lynda.com (praise be to Lynda!). But I’d not had the opportunity to apply my experiences as an online student (and a fairly fresh university graduate) to the creation of an online course; so needless to say this out-of-the-blue proposition really piqued my interest. I set about fathoming the concept with the team at Ashdown before compiling the thinking into a technical specification that I could take out to tender on their behalf.

This is actually the story of how Rich and I met — a much smaller iteration of this very company pitched for this project and I trusted them enough to award them the contract. Having been on the client side of Say Digital provides a great insight into the service we provide our clients and the attributes Rich and all of our team bring. Needless to say, we built and launched the online learning management system (LMS) and now Ashdown have literally hundreds of students experiencing the world of events for the first time on the platform and coming out of it with a CIM accredited Level 5 diploma. (I also appear as a lecturer on the course giving a sneaky insight into the use of social media for events marketing!). In creating the LMS, our ultimate goal was always to develop the best learning experience for the students — but to also comply to the CIM’s accreditation rules (i.e. # of learning hours, # of reading hours, invigilated examination monitored within the system etc).

We talked a lot about the moonshot goal of a blended learning course where students could attend site visits in person and have their lectures on their phones or iPads on the go or in their own time. I talked about the TEDx Summit — the power of bringing people together in one, intensive, learning experience where knowledge and ideas can be shared — I’m a big advocate of the power of breaking bread together. Since the learning platform launched and I’ve watched, monitored and tweaked the experience based on feedback (and a little R&D) and my thoughts on learning experiences have developed a lot further.

“If you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original.” — Sir Ken Robinson, How Schools Kill Creativity, TED 2006

I’m sure many of you reading this will have come across the infamous TEDTalk by Sir Ken Robinson where he slammed the current state of education for it’s inability to allow creativity, and creative thinking, to prosper. The sentiment extends far beyond Robinson’s intended remit of the schooling system and onto our approach to adult, HE and lifelong learning. If we continue to apply the same logic and practices of classroom-based rote-learning to the internet, we’re absolutely missing out on the breadth this medium has to offer. During the lead up to TEDxBrighton 2013 I came across an incredible 16 year old chap called Sam Watling. Sam had an incredibly patchwork education experience — continually moving from one learning institution to another, state, private, Steiner — in order to find a place he could flourish, that could understand and work with his autism and keep him safe from bullying. When Sam first walked me through his talk on Our Antique Education I was in awe of his eloquence. He captivated this tumultuous moment in time perfectly when he said,

“The power dynamic envisioned by the [education] system is inherently flawed for the current state of technology because it does not allow for the flexibility and individuality of how we work to be incorporated.” — Sam Watling, Our Antique Education, TEDxBrighton 2013

He’s right, our current learning format wasn’t designed to cope with the perpetual interference of technology on our lives — the speed at which we can receive, access and engage with information through the web; how we communicate with each other and discover information. Lord David Puttnam also commented on this need for change when he spoke at MIT in 2012, saying:

“It’s tragic because, by my reading, should we fail to radically change our approach to education, the same cohort we are attempting to ‘protect’ could find their entire future scuttled by our timidity.” — Lord David Puttnam, speech at MIT 2012

So what would a great learning experience look like? What are we aiming towards? What would learning look like if we just did away with all structure and started from scratch? In order to answer these questions, we need to understand where we’ve come from. Thanks to Derek Wenmoth whose work formed the source material for this simple diagram that clearly explains what he calls the emerging paradigm in online learning. If you’re familiar with any of the terms in this diagram, I recommend checking out the following sources:

I don’t have the answers to these questions, but I’m definitely interested in the ‘rhizome’ when applied to learning and you can flick through my slides from my Brighton Strategy Meetup talk on the subject below.

Room for Curiosity: The Present Edge of Online Learning

Interested in chatting about online learning? Drop me a line on Twitter.

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