[iDC] Getting started: Equity or utility in the future of learning?

Stephen Downes stephen at downes.ca
Thu Jun 10 14:25:51 UTC 2010

Hiya Everyone,


I haven't had much to contribute this week because I have been engaged in a
couple of projects that will I hope eventually offer open and free access to


- Personal Learning Environment - http://ple.elg.ca - this project, which is
an application and systems development project being undertaken by Canada's
National Research Council, is intended to enable learners easy access to the
world's learning resources from their own personal environment


- Critical Literacies 2010 - http://elg.ple.ca/course - this is an open
online course, on the model of the Connectivism and Connective Knowledge
courses George and I have offered in the past, designed to study and foster
the fundamental capacities learners need to flourish in an online


For myself, I have little to no interest in 'trends' in higher education,
nor am I interested in the 'globalization' of higher education. Where
perhaps once I thought mass movements or mass phenomena were important,
these no longer interest me. And where I once thought the needs of learning
could be addressed institutionally, I now see institutions playing a smaller
and smaller role.


I come to this field originally as a bit of a futurist. I was working as a
web developer and instructional designer when I posted 'The Future of Online
Learning' http://www.downes.ca/future in
<http://www.downes.ca/future%20in%201998>  1998. This paper, written
originally to explain to my managers what I was working on, caught people's
imagination and, because of its accuracy, had a remarkably long shelf life.
A couple of years ago I wrote 'The Future of Online Learning: Ten Years On'
n_16.html to update the predictions and draw out some of my thoughts on


Today, my work is still very much forward-directed, but I do not (and never
have) believe in the inevitability of the future. Yes, we can detect
patterns and regularities in events, as I describe in 'Patterns of Change',
an article I wrote for Critical Literacies last week.
http://ple.elg.ca/course/?p=33 But as I state near the end of that article,
I believe that choice, decision and selection play a major role in shaping
the future.


Thus, while I often think of the future generally, and the future of
education in particular, as a gradual migration of mass phenomena to network
phenomena, I do not see this progression as inevitable, and indeed, I
observe on the part of many quarters efforts to keep us firmly entrenched in
the world of mass (I document these and other observations, for those not
familiar with it, in an online newsletter, OLDaily
http://www.downes.ca/news/OLDaily.htm ). Change is not only progression, it
is also conflict (and it is also cooperation). 


So, I don't care what the majority of educational institutions are doing, I
don't care what the 'best practices' are, I don't care how 'higher education
can make you a better leader', I don't even care about debates such as
'equity or utility' (sorry George) because these are all things that trade
on commonality, general principles, massification, manipulation and control,
and ultimately, corporatism and statism (the twin pillars of the mass age).


What I do care about is the personal. This is not some pseudo-Randist
individualism, not some sort of Lockean atomism, not a definition of the
individual as the granules who, when assembled together, create the
commonwealth. I am interested in the person as embedded in society, the
person as a member of a network of communications and collaborations, a
person who works and creates with and for other people, a person who
experiences sociality, but also, and contra the mass nation, a person who is
self-governing, guided by his or her own interests and principles, and is
living a fully engaged life in a technological civilization.


It is the development of this sort of person that I had in mind when I wrote
'Things You Really Need to Learn'.
I am by no means the first to advocate such an attitude toward education.
This is certainly what Illich has in mind in 'Tools for Conviviality'.
http://clevercycles.com/tools_for_conviviality/ :


if we give people tools that guarantee their right to work with high,
independent efficiency, thus simultaneously eliminating the need for either
slaves or masters and enhancing each person's range of freedom. People need
new tools to work with rather than tools that "work" for them. They need
technology to make the most of the energy and imagination each has, rather
than more well-programmed energy slaves.


So little of what we read or see in the field of online learning is
concerned with providing people with the tools they need to create their own
freedom. Study the work on e-learning and you will find a preponderance of
material addressed to achieving corporate objectives and ROI, advancing the
interests of colleges and universities, meeting employment needs and
developing industrial strategies, assisting in the privatization or
corporatization of the learning infrastructure, extending the reach of a
given technology or product network, or subsumption of learning entirely
under the individual's relation as 'consumer' with a corporate entity
(whether that entity is government or private sector).


"The master's tools will never dismantle the master's house." This phrase
from Audre Lorde http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Audre_Lorde has haunted me
ever since I first hear it. The develop of, and provision of, tools for the
higher education sector, the corporate e-learning sector, or even for the
school system, parents, priests or non-profit agencies to use, will never
provide the degree of conviviality envisioned by Illich. In these tools
there is, and will always be, embedded a dependence back to the originator
of the tool, back to the system of mass that makes it both possible and


I have struggled with the role of the mass in relation to individual freedom
and autonomy. http://www.downes.ca/presentation/53 I can certainly see the
benefit and need for everything to do with mass, from that sense of
belonging we all get from being a part of a team to the organized production
we require to sustain a modern technological society. I am no myopic
idealist looking for the utopian society of perfectly enlightened autonomous
individuals working in perfect harmony. But I also write wishing that the
mass had some sort of 'escape' or 'no-harm' clause, or that educators had
their own version of the Hippocratic Oath, pledging first, to do no harm.


In the meantime, I work with and for what I believe the internet truly is -
an explosion of capacity thrust into the hands of people worldwide, the
instrument not only for the greatest outburst of creativity and
self-expression ever seen, but also of the greatest autonomy and
self-determination, and as well on top of that an unparalleled mechanism for
cooperation and cohesion. My view of the internet is as far from the factory
as one can imagine. But not as an inevitable or guaranteed future. Only one
where there is a determined and directed effort to place the tools - the
physical tools, the digital tools, and the cognitive tools - into the hands
of a worldwide population, to do with as they will.


I've followed the discussions on this list with some interest. But these,
too, seem in many respects distance to me. The distinctions of academia, the
dialectic of class struggle - these seem to me to miss the essential nature
of the change. In the end, to me, the meaning of the internet boils down to
a simple utility. One person, one voice. The freedom of each of us to form
and to have and to share our own thoughts, created by us, contributed freely
to the world, and a society built, not on the basis of a propagation of
ideas, but rather, on the basis of a gathering of them.


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