tl;dr Rather than large, expensive central institutions of learning, the future of learning will consist of three main elements: a local learning network, local learning communities, and an expansive digital library. It’s going to be awesome.
To launch our Higher Ed. lab, two years ago we started with an audacious hypothesis: run college-level courses that merge theory with practice, operate in borrowed spaces, and cost just $450. After teaching over 200 students in Agriculture, Graphic Design, Web Development, GIS, Carpentry and Philosophy our first experiment is wrapping up successfully. While our execution was by no means perfect, the idea we prototyped works. Students learned, teachers were paid the going rate, and we invested thousands of dollars and hours back into our campus community.
If our model were taken to scale: you could offer a year of college (in small, twelve-person classes) for just $6500; students would learn to ask hard questions and build the world; and our neighborhood campus would be transformed by the energy and investment of our partnerships.
Of course, being a tiny non-profit laboratory, we don’t have the resources to found a college just yet. While we work to raise support to launch the fully-fledged Saxifrage School, we are going to keep moving on a second big experiment. Instead of creating more programs, this project will work to re-engineer the current learning infrastructure by changing the way that students identify and engage with learning opportunities. We’re calling it Learn.Pgh. We’ve been working on the ideas for a while, and wanted to share here an unfinished thought experiment on the future of learning we are working to create.
The Learn.Pgh concept is a big steps towards what we envision as the future of learning: small, distributed communities structured around thematic interests rather than expensive, isolated institutions narrowly siloed into disciplines. A rhizomatic rather than linear (or arboreal) structure of learning.
While I will talk about the concept as “Learn.Pgh”, know that it could just as easily be Learn.NYC or Learn.____.
For the past five years there has been a lot of rhetoric about using the City as the Campus, but what would it look like for that to really happen? To start, we need an infrastructure that can support learners outside of their institutions. Here’s an example of what the platform could offer:
- Comprehensive directory of all local learning opportunities (including traditional offerings like workshops and classes, as well as mentors and educational volunteer opportunities).
- Support for the creation & operation of Learning Communities
- Registration for chosen opportunities
- Credentials (via the OpenBadge framework)
- Visualization of past and future learning
- Learner profile and portfolio for archiving accomplishments and work
We think the future of learning could be supported by three main elements that we hope to work on in stages. The first two of these are part of the Learn.Pgh (or City as Campus) project.
- A platform for finding and credentialing local learning opportunities
- A local community to learn with others and connect to experts
- An expansive digital library with further opportunities and resources
Stage One: Build the Platform (an example)
The transition between distributed learning opportunities within the network needs to be seamless. Learn.Pgh will enable students to create custom learning paths that assemble opportunities from multiple providers into a single program. Here’s a hypothetical story of one learner:
Sandra lives in Pittsburgh and was interested in pursuing Food Studies and Agriculture. She already has a B.A. in English, but hasn’t yet found work she enjoys and hopes further education will be the ticket. The primary conventional option available to Sandra would be an M.A. in Food Studies at Chatham University. This would cost her $34,000+ (plus interest on her loans) over two years of full-time study. Not able to afford the program or adhere to its schedule, she looks for alternatives.
At learnpgh.org she locates a number of resources that enable her to create a two-year program of her own. This list is by no means exhaustive and would eventually include a number of digital resources alongside the in-person opportunities. Nonetheless, this is an impressive collection representing a nice variety of already existing local opportunities:
1. Theoretical Study
- Organic Agriculture Course at the Saxifrage School ($450)
- Environmental History Lecture Series (Free)
- Reading Group on the Readings of Wendell Berry ($80 for Books)
- Michael Pollan Lecture ($25)
- Food and Climate Change Lecture and Video (Free)
- Mark Bittman Lecture ($25)
- GMO Film Screening ($10)
- Slow Food Film Series ($50)
- Panel on Food Security and Food Sovereignty (Free)
- Permaculture Design Certification Course ($870)
2. Practical Study
- Medicinal and Culinary Herb Production Workshop ($15)
- Blueberry Production Field Day ($15)
- Read the educational Urban Harvester archives, Grow Pittsburgh (Free)
- Grafting Workshop with Grow Pittsburgh (Free)
- Food Event and Metalworking workshop with Tim Kaulen (Free)
- Rain Garden Design-Build at the Touchstone Center for Crafts ($300)
- Master Gardener Program with Penn State Coop. Ext. Office ($200)
- Volunteer organizer for Farm-to-Table conference (Free)
- PASA Farming for the Future Conference (Free)
- Internship at Garfield Farm (Pays $2000)
- Urban Farm Apprenticeship with Grow Pittsburgh (Pays $3000)
- Assistant Cook for Weekly Community Dinners (Free)
- Western Pennsylvania Conservancy Land & Garden Steward (Pays $250)
- Member of the Pittsburgh Food Policy Council
- Two-Year monthly mentorship with Farmer, Don Krestchmann (Free*)
Since this is not an exhaustive list of opportunities, let’s assume that Sandra actually takes part in about three times as many Theory & Practice (sections 1 & 2) opportunities than are listed above. That amount of resources combined with the listed Experiences (section 3) would make up a very full 2 years of workshops, courses, lectures, films, readings, work, and mentorship.
The gross cost of all activities would be about $5000
…subtracting money earned from internships, the net cost is $0.
Sandra will have learned from:
- 9 Courses
- 12 Workshops
- 21 Lectures
- 12 Films
- 3 Reading Groups
- 3 Conferences
- 9 Volunteer Opportunities
- 1 Internship
- 1 Apprenticeship
- 1 Mentorship
Sandra located, registered for, and kept track of all of these learning experiences on the Learn.Pgh platform.
Stage Two: Build and Support Learning Communities
Through her courses and experiences, Sandra will connect with a number of experts in the field but how will she connect consistently to fellow learners beyond her fellow students in certain classes? Without the community of the “school” how will Sandra find a community of co-learners to support, challenge, and inspire her for duration of her two years of study and beyond?
This powerful, consistent community is, arguably, the main thing missing from this potentially more fragmented learning experience. Instead of the traditional on-campus community of peers, Learn.Pgh connects students to their own Learning Communities. Communities form organically around specific themes of study and consist of an array of age and skill sets. Learners are brought together by their interest in a common subject. It’s likely that many learners will choose to join multiple communities or move between them, but for the sake of the example, Sandra will choose just one. More than one is not necessary as each learning community intentionally integrates both theory (humanities) and practice (technical training) in its focus.
Our fictitious student Sandra would join the Food Studies Learning Community. This community represents an additional layer of opportunity beyond what is laid out in the previous example containing her course load.
These learning communities improve upon the average Meetup or Facebook Group by requiring serious involvement of their members, including consistent financial or intellectual contributions (or benefits). Members of the learning community are involved by supporting (or being supported by) the group depending on their position. Members’ contributions vary on a spectrum related to their abilities: more skilled members provide more knowledge, opportunities, and mentorship, while less skilled members offer more time and money.
The Learning Community exists for the following reasons:
- A group dedicated to the collection and curation of learning resources
- A collective way to financially support teachers and resource-creators
- Access to a network of potential collaborators, colleagues, and employers
- A community to foster the creation of additional peer or expert-led learning opportunities
To use the example of Sandra’s Food Study program once again:
Upon joining the Food Studies learning community, Sandra attends their first quarterly meeting: a big community dinner in the basement of the E2 restaurant. She gets to know other students, teachers, and workers in her field. To support the learning community’s teachers, mentors, and resource creators/curators, she starts contributing $50/week to the community’s Gittip team. Note that the majority of team members have primary occupations other than their work with the Food Studies learning community and use this as supplementary income. Currently, the team’s ~$3000 in weekly contributions is doled out among various contributors (see the Gittip team as an example of how this works):
- Susanna Meyer curates digital learning resources (earns $50/week)
- *Don Krestchmann mentors 2 students once-a-month (earns $20/week)
- John Creasy offers apprenticeship and workshop opportunities at Garfield Farm (earns $100/week)
- Eric Werner consistently curates in-person opportunities in Pittsburgh and frequently adds unique, lesser-known resources to the Learn.Pgh platform (earns $25/week)
- Rachel Sampat is the lead administrator and organizer of the Pittsburgh Food Studies Community; in addition to recruiting members and overseeing its growth, she offers a number of free workshops and creates learning materials (earns $1000/week)
The additional $50/week brings Sandra’s two-year total up from $0 to $2600. For this, she gets the support of a community of peers and experts and ensures access to consistent quality opportunities, learning resources, and mentorship. Many of the “Free” opportunities she’ll be able to enjoy throughout her study are thanks to the work of the Learning Community and her weekly financial support. In addition to quarterly all-group gatherings, the Learning Community supports a schedule of learning opportunities throughout the year and connects the group online with information and publications at www.learnpgh.com/food/
Stage Three: Build the Library
This library has already been explained in great detail in a former essay on the Askr concept. Essentially, this expansive digital library will, someday, integrate seamlessly with in-person learning opportunities so that learners can craft a learning path that goes easily between digital and local resources.