There Went the Future

Casual Learning and Web 2.0

learn, by aaron schmidt, with Creative Commons LicenceWe presume much of the past but rarely understand exactly what it hides. In our expectation to have lived and learned enough we stumble over half-familiar ideas without a second thought. But sometimes it pays to stop and look around. Following my recent posts on knowledge management and Andrew Keen’s assault on Web 2.0, I’ve been thinking a great deal about how we learn – not just the formal ways in which we’re educated, but the mechanisms of learning by chance.

So I went back to Ivan Illich’s classic denouncement of institutionalised education in Deschooling Society. And I found the future waiting to be made.

This isn’t a road to Damascus story – I’ve read the book twice before. And as always I doubt the capacity of any society to dismantle its educational institutions. They seem to be at the centre of social mores, anchoring the rest. But I’ve always admired Illich’s capacity to say it how he saw it, to pull apart the notion that learning is inextricably linked to school, to argue that schooling itself is a process of lowering expectations towards curricular goals.

Illich offers a counterproposition early in the book. He claims that “creative, exploratory learning requires peers currently puzzled about the same terms or problems”. In a broad sense project-based learning is addressing that sort of concern almost four decades later, and pedagogy has hardly stood still since 1970. In adult education, case-based learning is pushing in the same direction. But these approaches only work in the classroom. They offer structures for learning. What Illich wanted was to throw up possibilities and see how they floated back down to the dirty earth of daily life.

Bring those antagonisms together, mofo! by the Frankfurt School, with Creative Commons licenceHe suggested that when a person wanted to discuss a book, an article, a film or a song they could add their name, address and telephone number to a list. After a few days they would receive a list in reply, containing all those people who were interested in discussing the work in question, replete with telephone numbers so meetings could be arranged. Sure, it sounds a bit like a relic of the sixties counter-culture, but not when you realise the initial list is stored inexpensively on a computer. Exchange the telephone number for a web address, add in a Facebook account or a blog, and you have the same idea crossing boundaries around the world.

What Illich proposed was Web 2.0, Flintstones style.

Or to put that in a slightly different way, Ivan Illich offers us a template for self-motivated learning that could well be the most valuable use of the Internet as it grows, changes and convulses to provide more people with what they want, more often.

And here, contra Illich, institutionalised education can offer a good deal of guidance. Anne Balsamo suggested a few years back that universities needed to inspire the “technological imagination” of their students and faculty. Why? Because that was the path towards enhanced critical thought; technology allows us to tackle old tasks in new and varied ways. Like learning itself.

So how do we focus, or alternatively unleash, our technological imaginations in aid of casual learning? Timothy Burke of Swarthmore College in the US offers a clue. He recently wrote about the possibility of creating a news aggregator for a number of classes he teaches, with all students given authoring privileges. So instead of the lecturer feeding information one way, anyone involved in the courses could offer information that they thought others might find useful.

In a sense that’s Illich’s notion of casual learning in a more formal settling, and it’s similar to what’s being achieved on the active, informative and often insightful Information Fluency blog, part of a course by the same name at Gustavas Adolphus College in the American Midwest. But Burke reinforces the idea with a slight twist – alumni should be allowed to keep their access so the community grows, and with it life-long learning.

red conversation, by Simple Dolphin, with Creative Commons licenceThere are, of course, limits to this sort of community making. You can see them on any social networking site, and even in Flickr groups. The conversation is often trivial and introspective. But as Clay Shirky points out in his recently released Here Comes Everybody, just because a discussion takes place in public doesn’t mean you’re meant to hear it. He offers the example of conversations overheard in malls, and links them back to MySpace messages. You can take or leave the chatter – what’s important is to grab hold of the substance when it arrives.

So we’re back to the possibilities of casual learning 21st century style, which I’m sure would have delighted Ivan Illich, although he seems to have been wary of how information technology – particularly the word processor – was working to re-formalise thought after the 1980s. Still, more than we perhaps realise, blogs strip back those impediments. Because I’m writing to be read I research the topics that interest me. Some comments about my posts are small talk, but they keep me going, they enthuse me. And when the incisive or heavily critical comments come along, I’m forced to cover the ground again, look for new meanings, search for new ways of explaining things that other people clearly care about.

Ms. Whatsit recently wrote that learning is a spiral – you move on, but in a sense you keep returning to your premises until finally you reach some sort of understanding, a new perspective. That seems much of what it’s like to learn casually, but there’s still another element to it. Mike Shapiro at Ad Nauseam has been thinking about how he could make learning more like playing video games for his students. He doesn’t mean to trivialise, but to identify and harness the element of compulsion that pushes a gamer on.

Move on, by clair elu, with Creative Commons licenceAnd that’s the perfect image of the casual learner; a person compelled to move on, pushed by their technological imagination rather than a set curriculum or the promise of a certificate. For me it’s about remaining puzzled, about questioning the world, about asking myself the most difficult question.

Now that I’m educated, how do I learn?


4 Responses to There Went the Future

  1. lewis says:

    there is a really interesting conversation between clay shirky and daniel goleman (author of emotional intelligence) that i thought you might have interest in. it’s called socially intelligent computing and there are free samples available at the publisher’s website,

  2. Mike Poole says:

    Louis, thanks very much! I’m just planning a post on what you might call ‘community’ and the racism page on Wikipedia, revolving around similar themes. I’ll definitely listen to at least the sample before I actually write anything. And the learning goes on . . .

  3. John Connell says:


    It’s always nice to come across an intelligent and interesting blog that I had previously, somehow, missed. I started writing a post this afternoon (still to be published on my blog) around the definition of pedagogy – I think we have to be able to extend it beyond the neutral, technical sense of the techniques and approaches we use in our teaching to something that makes more explicit recognition of our purpose in teaching. In this too I keep coming back to the likes of Illich (I love the phrase: ‘Web 2.0, Flintstones style’ ) and Freire.

    Freire in particular always reminds me that teaching is, in so many ways, an explicitly political act. I think this must be the case if genuinely critical thinking is what learning is so often supposed to be about.

    And, like you, whatever the appeal of Illich’s ability to ‘say it like he saw it’, the institutional basis for much formal education is here to stay. I often wish it were otherwise, but….

  4. Mike Poole says:

    Hi John, yes, Freire was very much concerned with knowledge transferred, known and reknown, within the learner’s context. And with the ‘democratisation’ of learning, for want of a better term – the learner as a critical thinker both equal to and engaging with the teacher.

    I’ll be checking your blog for the post you mentioned. Actually, I had completely forgotten about Freire, so in a sense I’ve learned (and relearned) something already!

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