This probably sounds familiar: You are with a group of friends arguing about some piece of trivia or historical fact. Someone says, "Wait, let me look this up on Wikipedia," and proceeds to read the information out loud to the whole group, thus resolving the argument. Don’t dismiss this as a trivial occasion. It represents a learning moment, or more precisely, a microlearning moment, and it foreshadows a much larger transformation—to what I call socialstructed learning.
Socialstructed learning is an aggregation of microlearning experiences drawn from a rich ecology of content and driven not by grades but by social and intrinsic rewards. The microlearning moment may last a few minutes, hours, or days (if you are absorbed in reading something, tinkering with something, or listening to something from which you just can’t walk away). Socialstructed learning may be the future, but the foundations of this kind of education lie far in the past. Leading philosophers of education—from Socrates to Plutarch, Rousseau to Dewey—talked about many of these ideals centuries ago. Today, we have a host of tools to make their vision reality.
Think of a simple augmented reality app on your iPhone such as Yelp Monocle. When you point the phone’s camera toward a particular location, it displays "points of interest" in that location, such as restaurants, stores, and museums. But this is just the beginning. What if, instead of restaurant and store information, we could access historical, artistic, demographic, environmental, architectural, and other kinds of information embedded in the real world?
This is exactly what a project from USC and UCLA called HyperCities is doing: layering historical information on the actual city terrain. As you walk around with your cell phone, you can point to a site and see what it looked like a century ago, who lived there, what the environment was like. Not interested in architecture, passionate about botany and landscaping instead? The Smithsonian’s free iPhone and iPad app, Leafsnap, responds when you take a photo of a tree leaf by instantly searching a growing library of leaf images amassed by the Smithsonian Institution. In seconds, it displays a likely species name along with high-resolution photographs of and information on the tree’s flowers, fruit, seeds, and bark. We are turning each pixel of our geography into a live textbook and a live encyclopedia.
So look beyond MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) in thinking about the future education. In our focus on MOOCs and how they are likely to disrupt existing classrooms and educational institutions, particularly colleges and universities, we are missing the much larger story. Today’s obsession with MOOCs is a reminder of the old forecasting paradigm: In the early stages of technology introduction we try to fit new technologies into existing social structures in ways that have become familiar to us.
MOOCs today are our equivalents of early TV, when TV personalities looked and sounded like radio announcers (or often were radio announcers). People are thinking the same way about MOOCs, as replacements of traditional lectures or tutorials, but in online rather than physical settings. In the meantime, a whole slew of forces is driving a much larger transformation, breaking learning (and education overall) out of traditional institutional environments and embedding it in everyday settings and interactions, distributed across a wide set of platforms and tools. They include a rapidly growing and open content commons (Wikipedia is just one example), on-demand expertise and help (from Mac Forums to Fluther, Instructables, and WikiHow), mobile devices and geo-coded information that takes information into the physical world around us and makes it available any place any time, new work and social spaces that are, in fact, evolving as important learning spaces (TechShop, Meetups, hackathons, community labs).
We are moving away from the model in which learning is organized around stable, usually hierarchical institutions (schools, colleges, universities) that, for better and worse, have served as the main gateways to education and social mobility. Replacing that model is a new system in which learning is best conceived of as a flow, where learning resources are not scarce but widely available, opportunities for learning are abundant, and learners increasingly have the ability to autonomously dip into and out of continuous learning flows.
Instead of worrying about how to distribute scarce educational resources, the challenge we need to start grappling with in the era of socialstructed learning is how to attract people to dip into the rapidly growing flow of learning resources and how to do this equitably, in order to create more opportunities for a better life for more people.