Towards Open Learning Communities

Reflections on opportunities past and present

"The 'untested feasible' is an untested thing, an unprecedented thing, something not yet clearly known and experienced, but dreamed of." Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of Hope, 1994

I. Opening up the school

The multitude of changes and challenges confronting the world today calls for renewed thinking on the means and ends of learning. As the world enters the 21st century, many of the fundamental assumptions that have shaped and guided past thinking about the nature of work, social relationships, the environment, cultural diversity, political participation, etc. seem increasingly inappropriate. In order to cope with these transformations and facilitate them in a socially-constructive manner, it is vital for learning to take on a broader meaning and role: in assisting people in their individual and collective struggles; in providing them with the tools to make sense of a changing world marked by social fragmentation and conflict, and in encouraging them to contribute to a world of peaceful development.

Yet despite the concerted efforts of schools around the world, it is becoming evident that present educational systems are ill-equipped for taking on the challenges that lie ahead. Today, there are still nearly one billion illiterate people in the world, 130 million school-aged children out of school, and very few options for supporting the continuing learning needs of those who have dropped out of schools or who have no possibility of joining them. Barriers to learning are varied, from time, age, circumstance and socio-economic status but the problem that confronts us, however, runs much deeper than simply inadequate delivery mechanisms. The formal education system can often, in itself, constitute a barrier to learning.

Models of education have predominantly focused on building a culture of schooling/teaching rather than on enabling a culture of learning. The result, as Seymour Papert, of MIT Media Lab, says in "The Children's Machine", is that "the institution of School, with its daily lesson plans, fixed curriculum, standardized tests, and other such paraphernalia, tends constantly to reduce learning to a series of technical acts and the teacher to the role of a technician." Roles and relationships of teachers and learners have often been narrowly constructed with little space for growth and change. Discussion, in educational decision-making circles, has unfortunately tended to remain focused on building/maintaining school buildings and trying to get children into them, rather than on what actually happens inside the classroom and when children leave (both on a daily basis and upon graduation/drop-out). Education is, all too often, seen as an activity for the early part of one's life, a stage to prepare for life ahead, even though continuous learning is becoming increasingly critical for meaningful participation in society. In drawing strict boundaries with the informal and non-formal domains of learning, mainstream schools are often isolated from their surroundings, cut off from the communities to which they belong. They have had difficulty not only in legitimizing other learning communities, other learning experiences, or other systems of knowledge, but also in drawing from these for new ideas, energy and relevance.

So, how can learning be liberated, in and beyond the classroom? What opportunities exist for cracking open narrow and confined visions of schooling, learning and individual growth? The frameworks and discourse with references linked to schooling often do not allow us to think about supporting learning in a broader sense. Nothing short of a mindshift is required in and outside the school. There is, today, without doubt, an urgent need to look for further solutions and the means for doing things differently, rather than doing more of the same. This means facilitating and transforming existing structures, creating new ones and seizing the opportunities that surround us. One such catalyst for change might lie in information and communication technologies.

II. The promises and concerns behind technologies

"To serve the basic learning needs of all requires more than a recommitment to basic education as it now exists. What is needed is an 'expanded vision' that surpasses present resource levels, institutional structures, curricula, and conventional delivery systems while building on the best in current practices. New possibilities exist today which result from the convergence of the increase in information and the unprecedented capacity to communicate. We must seize them with creativity and determination for increased effectiveness." Jomtien Conference, 1990

The emergence of powerful new information and communication technologies, such as those based on the use of computers and multimedia, digital compression and satellites, fiber-optics and wireless networks, artificial intelligence and virtual reality, dramatically expand our options for engaging in learning and teaching at the individual, community, and societal level. Opportunities are also emerging for making better use of technologies that have been previously under-utilized in supporting learning processes and learning communities (i.e., radio, television, photography, blackboard, textbooks). Today new possibilities in information processing and communication networks are making the idea of open learning communities increasingly viable alternatives to conventional forms of education as a means to facilitate learning.

Discussion around new technologies, however, tends to stir up a whole range of emotions from optimism and hope to skepticism and anxiety - some talk of leapfrogging development, others of the widening information or the dehumanization of society. Much of this stems from the history of technology which has provided many instances of predicted revolutions that failed to materialize. Samuel Morse, for example, once predicted that the telegraph would ensure that world communities enjoy a peaceful co-existence in the future by "annihilating space and time" and thus "bringing mankind into a common brotherhood". Reflecting on these failures, analyzing trends and experiences, several important concerns have been raised around the use of technologies, specifically in education:

Past uses of technology have focused on dissemination and "drill and skill" applications. Broadcast radio and TV and computer-aided instruction, for example, were developed from a perspective that learners were recipients and their behaviour could be anticipated. To move beyond technologies as mere transmission modes, a broader and more complete vision of how technologies could nurture and transform the learning process is needed.

The possibilities for using different combinations of technology to create and facilitate learning processes and environments are infinite. In the words of Gerald Lesser, co-founder of Sesame Street TV programme: "Television's greatest power is its capacity to transport, to show the world to children--to display people, events, and ideas that they have never encountered before and unlikely ever to have the opportunity to confront." Technologies make it possible to visualize other worlds, linking up diverse learning communities, creating new worlds beyond the constraints of reality. More immediately, these technologies, and their breaking down of barriers, present us with a chance to address questions of space, distance and time. They question fundamental assumptions, generating new ideas and even, sometimes, albeit more rarely, catalyze social and institutional change. To unlock this potential requires recontextualizing the ways in which we "see" new technologies.

History has repeatedly shown that just blindly chasing after access to the latest technologies, without asking for what ends, will not allow us to achieve many of our goals for development. Discussion and recontextualization, particularly for the countries of the South, should start with challenging the deficit model of development in which developing countries are pushed to "catch up" with the industrialized world. The overriding questions for countries (in both North and South) must be: What are our goals, how do these goals serve the interests of our learners, how do they relate to creating a more equitable world, can networks or communities of learners be created or facilitated?

III. Technology is real...in the South too

"The death of distance will probably be the single most important economic force shaping society in the first half of the next century. It will alter in ways which are still only dimly imaginable, decisions about where people live and work; concepts of national borders, patterns of international trade." (The Economist, 1995)

The last few years have seen the proliferation of virtual worlds, cyberspace and intricate networks of communication between businesses, banks and other commercial vectors. E-mail, Internet and tele-conferencing, etc. are now in common usage in many parts of the world. Yet, this artificial world should not let us forget that a real world made up of hunger and disease lies beyond, and that this real world is where the majority of humans still live. It has been said, for example, that more than half of humanity has never made a telephone call and that there are more telephone lines in Manhattan than in all of Sub-Saharan Africa. Away from the screens of the modern age, tangible and pressing issues of survival confront most of the developing world. Within such a context, there is a real risk that technology will become just another means for widening the gap between economic "haves" and "have-nots", that it will develop into another way of imposing outside models on others, and that global culture, with its tantalizing images of potential wealth and symbolism will override and devalue local knowledge systems.

To deal with this situation, it is important to see technology as an evolving entity. Developments are happening daily and the role the South has to play, whether it be as generator or user of information and communication technologies, is still in the making. Information and communication technologies are not some magical panacea from the outside, artificial means to create artificial worlds. They are a way to increase human exchange and capacity; a possibility for widening learning opportunities and, as such, have their right to a place in the South as much as in the North. Furthermore, it can be stated that technology is already a reality in the South and increasingly so for greater numbers. Its impact on development both positive and negative cannot be ignored. Solar panels, wind-powered electricity, etc. have already shown their success in the developing world. Today, information and communications technologies are trying to find their place. The following give a brief idea of developments and the chance they present for the South.

Given this situation, how will the South use these new technologies? How can they be channeled to foster learning opportunities? How can they reflect the cultural and social specificities of each country?

When will people no longer receive information but also generate it. This is particularly relevant for the education systems of the South which, like their counterparts of the North, are generally ill-prepared to deal with the challenges and opportunities inherent in the emerging information and communication technologies. Preparing for the "information society" means developing critical insight and reinforcing the processes of dialogue. It means going beyond appropriate technologies towards the appropriation of technologies.

IV. Towards open learning communities:

From appropriate technologies to appropriation

"Given the trend toward more open societies and global economies, we must emphasize the forms of learning and critical thinking that enable individuals to understand changing environments, create new knowledge and shape their own destinies. We must respond to new challenges by promoting learning in all aspects of life, through all institutions of society, in effect, creating environments in which living is learning.".
(The Amman Affirmation, 1996 )

Negotiating the relationship between technologies, learning, communities and cultures is and will remain an increasingly difficult task. The emerging paradigm of sustainable human development and the arrival of new methods of gathering, dispensing and reacting to information calls for a new conceptualization of learning -- one that strives to be more participatory, social, and anticipatory. This shift in approach might or might not pass through schools. What is certain, however, is that opening up education and building on the best of current practice, mixing learner-centred methodologies, supporting the development of local content and creating spaces for a renewed vision of community dialogue might provide the answer. More purposeful and pro-active approaches to technology, such as those encompassed in the concept of open learning communities, could pre-empt formulating and imposing yet another top-down irrelevant vision on people

Several questions are vital in the shaping of dynamic learning contexts by technologies:

These questions are central to the concept of open learning communities. (The term open learning communities, while including environments that may continue to be called schools or even exist in schools, is deliberately used to challenge the reader to think beyond the narrow school-teacher-textbook model of supporting learning).

Philosophically open learning communities are concerned with re-linking learning to broader development issues, problems and trends such as globalization/localization, the emergence of technological and information societies, the growth of informal institutions and economies, democratic participation, cultural homogenization, environmental conservation, social justice and equality. The very concept of open learning communities asks the question: education for what? It is based on a generative convergence of thinking and experiences linking different ideas concerning learning (i.e. lifelong learning, multiple intelligences, intergenerational, multichannel and collaborative learning, transdisciplinarity), cultural pluralism and communities, people-centered development and participation (in conceptualization, planning, implementation, research, evaluation). The ability to adapt to and generate change and participate in society is central to the concept of open learning communities.

Practically speaking, open learning communities have existed for a long time. Many diverse and potential open learning communities can be identified: extended families, homes, television talk show audiences, distance learning courses, Silicon valley, women's collectives, schools, youth clubs, income-generation groups, religious communities, cities and villages and Internet-based environments for dialogue. What is new is not only recognition and validation of these dissonant contexts as spaces with valuable knowledge systems but also the desire to strengthen them as learning entities and link them to each other.

Stimulating local and global processes towards the conceptualizing of a new system of diverse and inter-connected open learning communities which attempt to go beyond the boundaries of formal, non-formal and informal education constitutes a huge challenge.

Many interesting and promising experiences are still beginning but the development of global Internet classrooms, for example, shows how networks of learning can support wider visions of learning and cater to the needs of a wide group and number. Several specific aspects and applications of technology should be considered in the context of open learning communities such as:

Information and communication technologies can be used to support the interactive sharing of ideas and information. Such dialogue is critical not only to the support and motivation of the learners, but,

more importantly, to their overall growth and development. The technologies provide an opportunity for diverse groups of people to communicate while at the same time potentially altering the nature of communication (i.e., the medium becomes the message). They challenge realities of space and time. The technologies also allow us to construct, store, process and share information in different ways.

Information and communication technologies can be used to provide flexibility for catering to different learning styles (e.g., through multisensory aural, visual, pictorial, oral, physical means, etc.) and learning needs. They are capable of engaging individuals and communities in different kinds of learning processes, particularly more collaborative and participatory ones. They can be used to liberate learners in and outside the classroom and create new learning spaces by opening up learning to any time and any place. They can also be used to allow learners to be given a greater role in planning their own learning programmes and producing their own learning materials. Technologies can be used to support the development of cultural diversity, local knowledge and pluralism. They can provide the opportunity for greater relevance and socio-cultural specificity of content and activities.

Information and communication technologies can be used to create spaces for questioning existing policies and institutional structures and for introducing new ideas. They can support the presentation of ideas differently, create new avenues for reflecting and allow people to work with others in different ways. Technologies can be used to support processes for re-defining traditional roles and relationships (e.g., teachers/learners, gender, rich/poor, majority/minority). Such processes might involve engaging individuals to reflect on and reconsider their perceptions or attitudes about themselves or others and allowing non-traditional actors (such as community members) to enter into dialogue over decision-making in previously closed circles.

Underlying this discussion is a fundamental shift in the way in which technologies are implemented and planned: from trying to find/promote an elusive mix of appropriate technologies to supporting a process in which technologies themselves are appropriated by the people and cultures they serve. Through this process of appropriation, individuals and communities will create uses for technologies that have not even been imagined today.

Some of the questions that remain within the wider agenda of appropriation:

These will be some of the future challenges for technology and open learning communities. For technology to assist individuals and communities in identifying and meeting their learning goals and support the building of open learning communities, continuous purposeful efforts must be made in applying technologies with an equal, if not greater, amount of vision and innovational commitment as was used to create them.

V. About this portfolio: from promises to practice

The portfolio seeks to highlight illustrative cases in which technology has been creatively and effectively used to build and support open learning communities. At the same time, it wishes to contribute to a larger discussion on how technology can be used to support learning. It is comprised of this discussion paper, several cases of practice and abstracts, opinion pieces by leading change agents from around the world, a list of resources for learning more about the topic including books and Web sites, and a list of definitions. The portfolio is concerned with opening up peoples' minds to the possibilities but also the limitations presented by technologies. It asks readers to question and reject many of the basic assumptions surrounding education and to tap into the spirit of creativity and inventiveness that has allowed so many of the projects mentioned (see cases and abstracts) to blossom. The cases and abstracts were selected from all around the world, with many from the countries of the North. This mix of cases from the so-called developing and developed world shows how the marginalized, isolated and poor are a concern of all countries and that their needs and aspirations can, many cases, be addressed through technology. Technologies, of course, also challenge our ideas of space -- who is the North and who is the South -- and what are their connections?

This publication is the culmination of a six-month-long learning process in which the editors contacted over 200 institutions via mail, fax and e-mail. It is a process that will continue through this Learning Without Frontiers Website where readers will be encouraged to share both cases and their opinions. Readers are encouraged to contact the authors and projects directly for further information.

Cases:

From Afghanistan, Mali, Mongolia, United Kingdom, and selection of Global Classrooms, the cases of practice contain detailed information on set-up stage, obstacles encountered, use of technology, creation of learning environments through technology, open learning communities and costs.

Abstracts:

From a vast range of countries and technologies, a brief history and synthesis of innovative practice in technology and learning.

Opinion pieces:

These consist of contributions from distinguished thinkers/practitioners from around the world who are involved in a dialectical combination of action and reflection: Ron Burnett, academic; Steve Cisler, Apple Computer Co.; Aicha Bah Diallo, former Minister of Education, Guinea; Edward Gaible, People's Computer Co.; Wadi Haddad of the World Bank; Charles Okigbo - African Comm. Network; Ed Palmer, Children's TV; Mitchel Resnick, Nicholas Negroponte and Justine Cassell of the MIT Media Lab; Bunker Roy, grassroots village worker; Doris Schoenhoff, author of the Barefoot Expert; Minda Sutaria, Director of SEAMEO/INNOTECH; Prof. Vargas, Third World Academy of Sciences.

List of definitions:

Key words and concepts that have shaped the concept of open learning, open learning communities and man's relationship to technology.

List of resources:

A mix of publications and web-sites which provide an insight into the wealth of open learning communities world-wide and the creative use of technology.


This portfolio was conceived, written and edited by
Benedict Faccini and Manish Jain,
with special thanks to Swathi Kappagantula.
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