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eLearning: From the enclosure to the global learning commons

By David Price / November 2013

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In researching and writing my new book, OPEN: How We'll Work, Live and Learn In The Future, I was constantly having to revise my assessment of the impact of eLearning. I think this is symptomatic of the place that digital learning occupies right now.

When I started on the book, just over two years ago, MOOCs hadn't arrived. By the time I was on the final draft, some were saying they'd flared, and were already fizzling. While I don't accept that "passing fad" dismissal, the disruption MOOCs were set to bring to higher education, doesn't seem so great, as embarrassingly low completion rates pour on the MOOCs parade—for the moment.

The bigger dilemma for me, given the focus of my book was this: Where does online learning sit in the formal-informal continuum? You see, the call-to-action in my book is that those who work in formal education are in danger of being left behind by the explosion of informal and social learning. My conclusion is this quiet revolution in informal learning may be facilitated by technology, but it's being turbo-charged by a set of values, motivations, and actions that we too frequently overlook. And that's where the secret to compelling, engaging eLearning lies, I believe.

The biggest, disruptive, innovation affecting how we work, live, and play, is something that's often described as "disintermediation" (cutting out the middle man). But in reality it should be called "digi-mediation" as it replaces the human intermediary with a digital user-fuelled intermediary. So, where we once used a travel agent to book our holidays, we now do it ourselves through TripAdvisor, and a host of booking platforms. Where we used to go down to our local record store to buy a new album, we check out the new band on YouTube, follow them on Twitter, and go to their website to buy directly from them, or even fund their dream to to make the album through Kickstarter. The gap, between producer and consumer, is rapidly shrinking and when it comes to the knowledge industries this has significant implications for job prospects. Knowledge Process Outsourcing will contribute $17BN dollars this year to the Indian economy, thanks to sites like Elance and O-Desk.

While all this was happening, organizational learning was still trying to make the transition from the training room to the Yammer feed. The metaphors I use in the book—"Learning Enclosures" and "Learning Commons"—derive from the battle for land use in England in the 15th -19th centuries. The commoners were gradually hounded out through the desire for landowners to make their farming more profitable. Fences appeared, and the idea of a shared responsibility for the upkeep of vast tracts of the English countryside, became privatized.

Apply that metaphor to the use of knowledge and the shortcomings become obvious. Socially, we're living in a global learning commons—we share, open ourselves up, freely give away our ideas, and trust others to make use of that knowledge. In formal and corporate learning, however, we've been much slower to react. Proctor and Gamble's Connect + Develop initiative was the most publicized example of a company looking outside its R&D departments and creating a learning commons culture: "Proudly Found Elsewhere" became the new company motto. Connect + Develop grew out of a realization that the rate of innovation needed to survive, but couldn't be met, even with a global R&D department of 9,000 people. Going beyond the learning enclosure and inviting expertise in, was transformative.

Patrick McKenna is the CEO of Ingenious Media. Based in London, Ingenious Media is an investment and advisory group specializing in media, entertainment, sport, leisure, and clean energy. Their investments—which included the film "Avatar," the biggest-grossing movie of all time—are based upon the opening-up of knowledge. As Patrick explains, it not only makes good business sense to give their IP away, it's inevitable:

"It's a bit like the open source software model. We give a lot of our knowledge away, so that people will engage us to deliver some implementation of that knowledge. We tell people everything we know. Some of our original funds were marketed under confidentiality agreements, but the information still found its way out. Confidential information in the marketplace today, is tomorrow's reading for the rest of the world, so why bother trying to hide it? It's actually becoming much more open. As time has gone on, we've learned to be much more transparent about our thinking."

So, the transition to a more open world is inevitable. The challenges, for Chief Learning Officers and classroom teachers alike, is "how do we adapt to the ways people learn when they are doing it for the sheer love of it?" And this is where I come back to the potential of eLearning.

Knowledge is also being disintermediated. We're still working out how to deal with all of this, but one thing is clear, while the economic value of knowledge has plummeted the social value of knowledge has soared. Let me explain.

The Six 'Do-Its' of Social Learning

I've identified what I call the six imperatives of social learning. These are values, motivations, and actions that make social learning exciting, and formal learning, well, dull by comparison. The challenge for eLearning is to see how these characteristics can be brought into online learning programs.

Do It Yourself (Autonomy). The desire to take initiative and responsibility in the social space is key to understanding what has made social learning so compelling. We are beginning to realize that we don't have to wait for those who govern locally or nationally to act on our behalf. There's a lot we can do for ourselves, and it makes us feel better about ourselves, and others, when we do. It's where self-determinism meets collaboration, accelerated by social networking tools.

Do It Now (Immediacy). Lillian Katz, a distinguished early childhood educator, highlights the link between immediacy and one of the most contentious labels in formal education: "relevance." Katz coined the term "horizontal relevance," to suggest learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of information to solve an immediate problem. This is just-in-time learning. Its opposite, according to Katz, is "vertical relevance," when the information might be needed at some unspecified point in the future.

Research in neuroscience suggests that every time you post a request on Twitter for a particular reference, or news report you missed, and you get an immediate response, you get a little dopamine hit. It turns out that finding information that provides a quick solution to a problem helps "stamp" the memory in our brain and "attaches motivational importance to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli." In other words, just-in-time learning is more likely to stick, while just-in-case learning is Teflon-coated.

Do It With Friends (Collegiality). While we may never meet the people we now learn from, it's wrong to dismiss these relationships is make-believe, or imaginary, friends. My initial perception of Twitter was that it was little more than electronic attention seeking. And, if one were simply to judge it by newspaper regurgitation of celebrity tweets, such prejudices would be confirmed.

My fairly limited personal learning network was transformed, however, once I started using it. And I'm not alone. Millions of workers now consider it an indispensable, if not primary, source of professional development. Fluid learning communities regularly come together for hashtag meet-ups, where issues are debated with no one person able to hog the conversation, due to the now iconic 140-character limit. People learn stuff, but they also share the small talk of friends.

Do Unto Others (Generosity). In Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age, Clay Shirky highlights the desire we have to do "stuff that matters," in our spare time, rather than simply consume. Shirky's argument is that we now have the tools to take collaborative action in the pursuit of doing good.

Marcia Conner, co-author of The New Social Learning, highlights the impact that social media has upon the spirit, and acts, of volunteering: "Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder…accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity."

In other words, we're no longer likely to face a knock on the door, asking for help from church or community, to carry out actions, which fail to inspire us. Now, there are now so many projects and causes looking for help that we can surely find ones that we can identify with and commit to with enthusiasm, rather than through a sense of duty.

Doing unto others as we'd have them do to ourselves provides a powerful motivation to learn.

Do It For Fun (Playfulness). Conditioned by years of dreary rote learning, most of us developed low expectations of the pleasure to be found in learning. Yet, this was ever only true for formal education. When we're with friends or family, there's simply no point to learning if we don't enjoy it. Having fun is the primary driver. Does that mean the learning that is taking place is somehow inferior? I don't think so. Some of the most important life skills we master are achieved only because of the pleasure derived along the way. Learning to swim, or to ride a bicycle, are good examples.

It's what the MIT professor, Seymour Papert, calls "hard fun"—the potent mix of challenge and enjoyment. Papert's concept of hard fun arose from the words of an eighth-grader: "A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: 'It's fun. It's hard. It's Logo.' I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard."

Do It For The World To See (High visibility). The global learning commons allows one insight to be shared among millions. In April 2012, Martha Payne, a nine year-old student from Lochgilphead, Scotland, began blogging about her school dinners, posting a daily photograph of her lunch. Because some of the portion sizes were shockingly small, word soon spread of Martha's blog, NeverSeconds. Celebrity chef and food campaigner, Jamie Oliver, tweeted Martha's blog and virality ensued. Six months later, NeverSeconds had reached almost 9 million page views and Martha's first book had been published, with the proceeds from each book providing a daily meal for 25 children in Malawi.

It's an extraordinary story, but one which has become rather more commonplace, due to the irrepressible rise of citizen journalism. We're losing our inhibitions, and discovering that publishing what we think, feel, or know deepens our learning.

eLearning sits at the intersection of the formal and informal. It too often follows in the wake of technological breakthroughs, rather than remembering that tools alone don't transform—that always comes back to human characteristics. The technology, however, makes it possible for us to re-connect with the powerful emotional triggers for learning: altruism, trust, reciprocity, and a sense of common good.

Designing eLearning, which recognizes the importance of these values and motivations, will secure the future of digital, social, learning within formal context of learning.

About the Author

David Price, OBE, is a senior associate at the Innovation Unit, London, and author of OPEN: How We'll Work, Live and Learn in the Future, (Crux Publishing) is available from

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