As the scope and quality of learning that can happen outside of institutional groups continues to increase, the educational hegemony of traditional schools continues to decrease. In Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, Clay Shirky writes, “Now that there is competition to traditional institutional forms for getting things done, those institutions will continue to exist, but their purchase on modern life will weaken as novel alternatives for group action arise.”
I’ve been reading Shirky’s book, thinking about how some of his general ideas on institutions apply to schools. In the following excerpt, I’ve replaced some key words with my own:
scribe[school], someone[an institution] who has given his life over[whose mission is] to literacy[education] as a cardinal virtue, would be conflicted about the meaning of movable type[free-forming educational networks]. After all, if books[information/teachers/experts] are good, then surely more books[information/teachers/experts] are better. But at the same time the very scarcity of literacy[information/teachers/experts] was what gave scribal[school/institutional] effort its primacy, and the scribal[school/institutional] way of life was based on this scarcity. Now the scribe’s[institution's/school's] skills[information/teachers/expertise] were[are] eminently replaceable, and his[its] function– making copies of books[educating]– was[is] better accomplished by ignoring tradition than by embracing it.” (p. 67)
We are now seeing two basic paradigms being adopted by educational institutions for dealing with the perceived and real threats to their influence and viability.
In an effort to stave off obsolescence, using an operational model developed when information/expertise and group-forming were expensive or impossible, many schools are attempting (often under the banner of security) to insulate their members from the outside network. This camp is building barriers and enacting policy aimed at shielding the institution from disruptive change. This can be seen in the creation of network filters; the suppression of free-form, need-driven networks, limiting information access through the use of rules/regulation/policies, and… general inaction. (Maybe if we ignore it, it will go away.) Many other institutions are unresponsive due to their unawareness of the potential for both positive and disruptive change. The culture of these institutions does not promote networked learning nor does it perceive any threat to its current educational paradigm. I believe most institutions today fall into this group.
The traditional paradigm is insular in many ways: It insulates itself from the outside world; it separates institutional members from one another; it silos subjects from each other.
Another camp is opening up the institution–from the inside out–allowing students and staff to access outside information and join outside networks as needed–and from the the outside in–allowing those outside of the institution to benefit from the institution’s offerings. MIT, Tufts and Stanford, among others, are starting to put their courseware online for anyone to use for free. Opening up the institution may seem like a counter-intuitive way of protecting it, but in an era where tremendous value is being created by informal and self-organized groups, sharing becomes the simplest and most powerful way of connecting with external learning opportunities. Why limit students to one teacher when a large number of them exist outside the institution? Why limit students to a truncated classroom conversation when a much larger one is taking place all over the world? Why not give students real-world opportunities to learn how to manage and benefit from networked sources? Institutions that are opening up are betting that the benefits obtained by sharing their resources will outweigh the expenses incurred in their creation. These institutions understand that larger and richer sources of knowledge and wisdom are to be found outside their walls. They understand that allowing students to access these sources, sharing their own, and helping students learn how to manage and understand all of it, will add value to what it is that they do as institutions. They appreciate that the costs of trying to match the quality and quantity of resources/expertise found on the network would be prohibitive. The most practial solution is to become a participatory member of the network. In the end, providing access to these resources and teaching students how to benefit from them not only serves the students, but also keeps the institution from becoming irrelevant, although admittedly, institutional influence will most likely be diminished as more learners self-organize.
At its core, the paradigm below is about connecting and taking advantage of the educational power of large, heterogenous groups.
code: jtarbell learn more
The paradigm below is the simplest one for most schools to adopt. Many are trying to do so, but understandably, due to institutional inertia, struggling.
The diagram below describes what’s happening in many schools right now.
Clay Shirky writes, “…in some cases the change that threatens the profession benefits society, as did the spread of the printing press; even in these situations the professionals can be relied on to care more about self-defense than about progress. What was once a service has become a bottleneck.” p. 69
Other related reads (external links):
In: Alternative Ed, Cooperation/Competition · Tagged with: Clay Shirky, institutions, insulated, networks, organizations, schools, Will Richardson