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A very familiar theme emerges, often, in on-line and around-the-bar debates and it hinges on the tension between on-line learning as a "delivery" mechanism and as a conduit for shared contributions. I was in and out at various times of a fascinating UNESCO debate that explored this space in the context of an excellent databse they'd supported the development of. My initial contribution is here: 
This has been a fascinating debate - and I've sat here nervous to intervene because there are such huge questions underpinning the whole, useful, exercise. But here are four thoughts: 
Firstly, the 21st century is very different from the 20th, everywhere. In the 20th century many successful enterprises consisted of "building a big thing that did things for people": the BBC, public transport systems, huge universities, and so on. But in an age of communication the success stories are about "helping people to help each other" as we have seen with SMS, with e-Bay, with Google. Even the BBC is moving rapidly towards user generated content. I'm involved with teachers' TV which has over 800 programmes about teaching largely by teachers for teachers ( both on- line, v-podcast and on-satellite. VERY cheap communications technology is helping this, but in most cases education has been slow to respond and we still hear of learning being "delivered" and wisdom "received" in a very one way, synchronous manner. Distance learning built on a peer-to-peer model of collaborative endeavour is powerful, effective HUGELY affordable, culturally sensitive and advances learning in the context where it will be applied. Ideal for everyone, but particularly for countries with limited resources but long histories! Have a a look for example at workplaced degree models built around the "ultraversity" concept. ( 
Secondly, the distance learning market and provision is distorted by one huge problem. Almost all (in fact all as far as I have seen, but I'm cautious about absolutes) see it as a Content market in the way that publishing once was. That may have been true once but where content was king now community (and communities of practice) is sovereign. This confuses tradition providers and they do not clearly see the business model. As education moves from oligopoly towards perfect competition (with many, many providers and many consumers because most participants are both) that these traditional providers have to rethink. My worry about the database is that it, inevitably, favours 20th century provision and says very little about the alternatives. As with micro-payments and other innovations it it the alternatives that Africa, and indeed everyone, desperately need. 
Thirdly, it is clear that education is going, or indeed has gone, global. This poses some real challenges. Public service activity is almost always national in funding and scope. As learning goes global we see a huge swing from public service education provided free at source to a commercial model where initial economies of scale disguise the privatisation of provision. Now, I don't object to private and commercial provision, it has been very helpful and I applaud it. But as education moves to a global activity we need a countervailing, balancing public service provision that is global too. You will see why UNESCO is so important in this... 
Finally there is a challenge here for traditional models of research. The "old" model of refereed, peer reviewed journals is failing. It fails because in a cosy way it largely only confirms what we already knew. I'm engaged in a huge amount of work on innovative designs for learning spaces all around the world (amongst other things, see but as an exercise I've just taken the best 10 schools worldwide and I only find three of them mentioned in any way in traditional research literature. Want to know about them? You have to talk to the people who built them and are running them to find their internal research and reflections. So suddenly research has become like detective work. We have to look in the unexpected places for the things we didn't expect to know. Universities will REALLY struggle with this. Individuals won't. 
And of course you will see how this discussion within a community of practice, globally distributed, in a small way mirrors the direction that learning is taking. How useful the database is we will debate, but the conversation is of real significance, as ever. 

© Stephen Heppell 2006  

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