Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Self-organized groups and the methods and ethics of accessing learning resources

Jay Cross has posted some further reflections on the Hole in the Wall project that was presented in a keynote speech by Sugata Mitra at Online Educa Berlin two weeks ago.

It seems to me that the key to the success of HiWEL is the notion of "self-organized groups" who learn on their own. If education is to become truly non-invasive, it must refrain from defining both the goals and the means to reach them, entrusting the groups with this task. If educational gurus notice that a group is neglecting what is considered "essential" in the curriculum (for whatever reason, whether it’s basic security, survival or simply an existing set of values), the group could be challenged to account for why they may be neglecting a certain topic or reminded of the interest in pursuing it. Respecting the self-organizing group and its decision-making capacity is the sine qua non of success. It also happens to be the absolute opposite of the organizational principles of traditional education and training.

It's worth reflecting on how learners in self-organized groups use external resources to solve problems. One of Sugata’s anecdotes in Berlin concerned a girl who was overwhelmed by the exposure to the micro-biology courses in English (a language she had to learn as the medium of instruction). She stole some money from her mother to phone her uncle in Delhi, who she hoped might be able to explain in simple terms what DNA was. His vague and unscientific but nevertheless informative answer gave her the minimum she needed to begin constructing her understanding of the lessons she wanted to explore.

In other words, everything one already knows or has access to in the world becomes a potential resource for building rather than simply receiving knowledge (traditionally from a single authoritative source). This is probably the best answer to Andrew Keen as well because it demonstrates that even not fully reliable sources of knowledge (the uncle) can contribute to the construction and refinement of knowledge. Being exposed to a multiplicity of sources and entering into dialogue with them is the best way of evaluating the components of knowledge and understanding relationships between complementary elements.

I expect that within the family (in Indian culture) the mother could forgive her daughter for the theft. It’s worth noticing that in some cultures – and especially within educational institutions -- that theft would not be forgiven and the child would be branded as a real or potential delinquent. It’s the old Jean Valjean problem that our western cultures are still struggling with, where the “rule of law” can easily become a rigid regime of “law and order”.