Schooling is an effective way to promote learning and personal growth, but its not the only means to this end and sometimes its not the best means. Even when schooling is an effective way to achieve the private and public outcomes that society intends through its education system, connections beyond the classroom provide significant additional benefit. Unfortunately, they are often only an occasional afterthought. Perhaps its time that they moved from optional extras to core components of public education.
As long ago as 1971 (in the previous millenium), Ivan Illich commented in Deschooling Society that, “The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring.” Today computer technology makes such a change not only possible but inevitable. The question is not whether the change will occur but when and under whose guidance.
Web 2.0 applications like social networks and wikis do not, in my opinion, yet fully represent the sort of ‘educational webs’ that Illich suggested so long ago, but they certainly do illustrate the potential for such enabling and democratizing mechanisms. Indeed, we are seeing the emergence of private and commercial webs of variable quality – which may eventually lead, through some Darwinian process, to useful educational applications but may equally well produce a plethora of drivel that confuses, and even malicious networks that misinform and mislead.
It would be much better for the school system to develop new educational webs, or utilize existing webs in purposeful ways, that expand its reach and improve its effectiveness rather than wait for others to develop networks that displace or overwhelm it. This would be in addition to the instructional applications of ICT within the regular school structure, which can also be powerful and which I presume will continue to emerge, and would be distinguished by students’ independent use of such networks to connect to, communicate with and participate in the world beyond the school.
One function of such webs might be to expand on the “pen pal” connections that now exist between schools and classes by enabling individual students with particular passions to find and converse with others more independently. Such webs might also include non-students with similar interests, whether professionals or hobbyists. This, of course, raises issues of credibility and safety but let’s just put such legitimate questions in the parking lot for the moment while we try to peer outside the box.
Structured and supported, but autonomous, connections beyond the classroom could benefit not only ‘learning’ but also the ‘caring’ and ‘sharing’ that Illich mentions. Personal engagement with others on issues of common interest would, of course, inevitably fuel traditional learning but the primary benefit might not be academic. To thrive in the richly interconnected and rapidly changing world in which our children already live, they need “soft” skills such as communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking that cannot be developed as effectively within the classroom as beyond it. They also need to transcend egocentricity and cultural embeddedness to appreciate their interdependence with the rest of humanity.
Perhaps the many social networking mechanisms that already exist make it unnecessary to reinvent the wheel in the form of ‘educational webs’ if we take responsibility for helping student learn to use them constructively and effectively in ways that promote learning and growth. Perhaps, but at a minimum schools then need to seize on these mechanisms and take charge of their use as core learning strategies for connection, communication and collaboration in relation to learning objectives and not just for information retrieval. The potential should not be left to chance and while it may be driven by student interest and energy it should be steered by educators to maximize its intentional benefits and minimize the distraction of unfocussed busyness.
The purpose of schooling is not to be good at schooling but to be enabled as a constructive participant in the world beyond and after the school. We only stayed inside previously because we had no alternative. Now we do but our habits continue to confine us. Or perhaps its fear, or confusion, or complacency. Funding is a real constraint, but it does not prevent significant change, as many educators are demonstrating, and too often its simply an excuse. The future is now and the future is learning, not schooling.