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Chapter Six

Open Learning in Society



The central argument informing this book is that if we are to make business and education more innovative, more effective, we need to learn from the values and actions present when groups are doing things for themselves. The enthusiasm and ability of small groups of self-organising citizens to respond to challenges makes bigger, better funded, organisations look slow and cumbersome in comparison.

They’re more open, lighter on their feet, and they learn fast. They bring the participation, purpose and passion outlined in Chapter Four to complex problems. Critically, they don’t separate learning from doing. They gain knowledge through collaborative action, and the results of their actions determine what they need to know next.

Most of us experienced formal learning like this: you were required to be seated, while someone told you things, without the value of context or purpose. You were assessed on your understanding of that knowledge not through demonstrating a skill or putting that knowledge to use, but purely through recall or reasoning.

The illustrations I’m about to share are polar opposites of that experience. They suggest that it’s in the application of knowledge that the learning power resides. We learn best when we build things, fix things or provide a service to others. Collectively solving problems provides not only the motivation to learn, but also the springboard to further learning.


Surviving Sandy

When Hurricane Sandy hit the north-east coastline of America, in October 2012, a nation held its breath and waited for the government response. President Barack Obama and New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg were acutely aware of the failure, seven years earlier, to respond adequately to Hurricane Katrina. This time, the media reports were more favourable. President Obama was considered to have handled the response of the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) far better than George W. Bush had done in 2005.

On the ground, however, reports were less congratulatory. People complained of supply chain problems: food, water and clothing filled warehouses but were not being distributed quickly or evenly. Worse, in the months following the storm, FEMA was accused of overcomplicating the aid application process, and unfairly rejecting ‘untold’ numbers of applications.  

Because of its proximity to the 2012 Presidential Election, the scale of the devastation caused by Sandy was under-reported compared with that of Katrina. The numbers were dramatic: 72 deaths; over 7 million people left without power; 346,000 homes damaged or destroyed; 100,000 jobs lost and an estimated damage bill of $71bn.

Although federal disaster relief was lacking, Hurricane Sandy provoked a self-organised response from tens of thousands of ordinary people, marshalled by voluntary groups like Recovers.org. First established in 2011, by Caitria and Morgan O’Neill after a freak tornado hit their hometown in Massachusetts, Recovers manages volunteers, tracks donations and serves as an information hub. In the seven days after Hurricane Sandy made landfall, over 23,000 volunteers signed up to Recovers.org. 

But this was just one self-organised response. Almost overnight, a slew of groups appeared: ‘New York Communities for Change’, ‘Rebuild Staten Island Foundation’ (which helped repair over 1,000 uninsured homes), ‘Rockaway Help’, and many others all took to Facebook to provide volunteers to help clean up the mess. 

Perhaps the most effective action group, however, was ‘Occupy Sandy Recovery’. Staffed by many of the same people who had taken part in the Occupy Wall Street protests, it was no surprise that Occupy volunteers were the first to set up food stations and distribution centres. They’d had lots of practise looking after people in the Zuccotti Park encampment in 2011, though admittedly not on the scale that Sandy presented. 

Coordinating the distribution of food, clothing and donations was only part of the ‘mutual aid network’ that Occupy established. They mobilised over 50,000 volunteers – more than the military presence in the immediate aftermath of the hurricane – to pump water, remove mould, shift debris and rebuild homes. Almost exactly a year after being forcibly evicted from a New York park, Occupy volunteers were back on the streets. And they stuck around long after the initial emergency to help restore life to large areas of the city.  

But it wasn’t just the inside of people’s homes that they were restoring. Sandy Recovery restored the reputation of the Occupy movement in the eyes of New Yorkers. As Roz Mays, a fitness instructor who volunteered to work at one of their five New York centres, confessed: 


"To be quite honest I thought the Occupy Wall Street movement were crazy hippies. Turns out they are phenomenal in transforming communities. This is a home-grown community based organisation of people who just want to help.”


Tellingly, the Occupy Sandy website carried more than details of how to ‘respond and rebuild’. Its library section encouraged people to share their views on climate change and disaster capitalism, and their Storyline project allowed people to express traumatised feelings in the wake of the disaster, through personal testimonies. People who came out of apartments to direct traffic when the traffic lights went down; musicians who ran workshops in emergency shelters; women who cycled energy bikes, so that mobile phones could be recharged after power blackouts. 

Though learning was less of a priority than helping others, those engaged in Occupy Sandy and Storyline, embarked upon a steep learning curve. They learned about climate change; emergency sanitation; community cohesion; post-trauma stress; alternative power sources; disaster management – the list is extensive. They learned how to put together powerful oral histories, and how to present the Occupy movement as a grass-roots self-help community in ways that weren’t in evidence in 2011. This was learning through doing writ large. 

The personal stories of the Sandy Recovery paints a moving picture of what people can do to help themselves when public support services cannot cope. They also rekindle a lost sense of community. Some of the storytellers remarked on how they felt ‘kind of sad when it was all over, and we went back into our homes’. The Global Learning Commons is at its best when confronted with an emergency. 


Just Do It

If the English Riots of 2011 were part of the wake-up call to make civic participation a higher priority, then a less-publicised aspect of the riots helped show how that aspiration could be realised. After seeing TV pictures of a furniture store ablaze in Croydon on 8th August 2011, artist and writer, Dan Thompson, urged people to volunteer to help clean up the damage done. I was working at my laptop the following morning, and in the midst of a national mood of gloom and foreboding, something truly remarkable happened. 

By mid-morning tweets with the hashtag ‘#riotcleanup’ were coming in thick and fast, with people volunteering in their tens of thousands. The hashtag became the second most active worldwide. One image in particular – a shot of hundreds of brooms being held aloft in a London street – was re-tweeted globally, and the ‘Broom Army’ achieved iconic status within an hour. 

Politicians were quick to seize on the opportunity. Boris Johnson, Mayor of London, was photographed pushing a broom, and Prime Minister David Cameron later referred to the campaign in his speech to the Conservative Party Conference:


“Dan Thompson watched the riots unfold on television. But he didn’t sit there and say ‘the council will clean it up’. He got on the internet. He sent out a call. And with others, he started a social movement. People picked up their brooms and reclaimed their streets.”


Despite these fairly crude attempts to gain some reflected political glory from Dan’s idea, Cameron was right to describe what happened as a ‘social movement’. Without requiring permission from anyone, over 100,000 showed their immediate support for the clean-up via Twitter, and thousands of people turned out to clean up the mess that the rioters had caused. 

Furthermore, #riotcleanup acted as a catalyst for a range of similar campaigns: #reverseriots, #riotrebuild and #peckhampeacewall were some examples of ordinary people contributing time and support to help restore the fractured sense of community. The government response was to hastily pass the Riot Damages Act, which sought to compensate victims of the riots. When it failed to get compensation for those who needed it most, however, these social movements stepped in to raise money to get shops and businesses open again. 

I was curious to discover Dan Thompson’s expectations for the clean-up campaign, and what people had learned from becoming involved:


“I aimed for 50 (out of around 4,000) of my followers to respond. I knew they were interested in local shops and independent traders and used language that would engage that audience. I think people learned that you can do small things and make a big impact; that you can take action in your local community and that tools like Twitter are useful for organising. They learned that actions don't have to have a big investment in either planning or resources to have an impact.”


Dan’s campaign reached many times more than the 50 volunteers he hoped for, and is a striking example of what I call the six imperatives powering the Global Learning Commons. So far, we’ve looked at characteristics and principles that shape the Global Learning Commons (participation, passion and purpose) and the values and actions that determine the learning (share, open, free, trust). 

But principles and values aren’t enough to become ‘open’ – you need to have motivation for deep and powerful learning to happen. The following are the motivational drivers behind the phenomenal innovation seen in social learning, and help explain why such innovation is largely lacking in schools, colleges and the workplace. These imperatives don’t rely on external incentives (financial reward or career promotion) but are instead exclusively intrinsic in how they fire us up:


  • Do it yourself 
  • Do it now 
  • Do it with friends 
  • Do unto others
  • Do it for fun
  • Do it for the world to see 


Although I’ve assigned some examples of innovative learning to specific ‘Do-its’, it’s worth pointing out that most of the examples which follow combine more than one imperative. Indeed many, like Dan’s #riotcleanup, combine all six.


Do It Yourself (Autonomy)

The desire to take initiative and responsibility in the social space is key to understanding what has made social learning so compelling. We are beginning to realise that we don’t have to wait for those who govern locally or nationally to act on our behalf. We now have the means to act autonomously, in many areas of our social lives and it makes us feel better about ourselves, and others, when we do. It’s where self-determinism meets collaboration, accelerated by social networking tools.  

The headline-grabbers are well known. Social movements like Amnesty International, Greenpeace and Avaaz have millions of supporters who may be asked to take actions ranging from signing an online petition to forming life-risking human barricades. Their independence comes largely through steering clear of complex political affiliations, opting instead for single-issue, single-objective protests. 

Avaaz has over 25 million members, in almost every country on the planet. Its membership has risen eight-fold in just five years. Every day or so, I receive an email that informs me of some aspect of geo-politics: everything from human rights to environmental disasters. I am often asked to sign a global petition, seeking action from governments around the world. Like most members, I make it my business to understand the cause I am putting my name to. My learning derives from wanting to be a responsible citizen. Although it appeals directly to the individual, Avaaz encapsulates what it calls ‘the rising ethic of global interdependence’. So, when, in October 2011, a highly contentious bill giving the US government the right to effectively censor the internet was introduced to the House of Representatives, Avaaz mobilised 3 million signatures from around the world, which led to a meeting at the White House. The bill, by now widely discredited, was quietly shelved in January 2012. 

Perhaps the two most widely-cited examples of DIY are the creation of the open source software operating system, Linux, and the online encyclopedia, Wikipedia. In both instances there was, and continues to be, a desire to contribute knowledge, irrespective of rank or status, which is then built-upon, critiqued, or corrected by others. Both produced outstanding products, which the world has gratefully used at no cost. 

More recently, DIY is attempting to get us to think and act differently in our everyday lives. ‘We Are What We Do’ is a good example. It began as a Christmas book placed at the checkout in Sainsbury supermarkets. ‘Change the World for a Fiver’ featured a collection of simple actions, which can have social or environmental impact. ‘We Are What We Do’ became an online hub, where individuals could post ideas for others to act upon. ‘Start a car pool’, ‘learn more, do more’, may not be as dramatic as protesting in Tahrir Square, but such actions have, at the time of writing, led to over five million ‘actions’. ‘We Are What We Do’ is now a not-for-profit ‘behaviour change’ company that creates ways for millions of people to do more, small, good things.


Do It Now (Immediacy)

I’ve noted, earlier, the emerging force of ‘Just-In-Time’ learning. Lilian Katz, a distinguished early childhood educator, highlights the link between immediacy and one of the most contentious labels in formal education: ‘relevance’. Katz coined the term ‘horizontal relevance’, to suggest that learning is most powerful when the learner acquires a piece of information to solve an immediate problem. 

Its opposite, according to Katz, is ‘vertical relevance’, when the information might be needed at some unspecified point in the future. This form of learning is ‘Just-In-Case’ (it comes up on the test paper). Vertical relevance still determines most teaching, or work-placed training. Bored learners would sooner call it vertically irrelevant, since they often fail to see the point of what’s being taught.

There’s nothing more guaranteed to raise the hackles of a traditionalist than the R-word. They equate a responsibility for making learning relevant with ‘pandering’ to students. They also argue that we can’t always predict what we’ll need to know, so the relevance question is, well, irrelevant. It’s true that some learning – the dreaded health and safety training for instance – is best done in advance, and not while the is raging. But there’s a reason why you get the airline safety briefing when the engines are running, and you’re buckled-up, and not when you’re booking your ticket.

I could, and frequently do, argue all day with traditionalists about immediacy and relevance, but that’s not the point. Because what’s happening when people learn informally is that everything they seek out is horizontally relevant, whether it’s the guitar chord you want your elder brother to show you, so you can play your favourite song, or the video of how to cook chicken chasseur for tonight’s dinner. So, whatever we think doesn’t really matter, I’m afraid. They’re bound to want formal learning to be more like that. It’s just the way the world is. 

There’s another reason why immediacy matters. Research in neuroscience suggests that every time you post a request on Twitter for a particular reference, or news report you missed, and you get an immediate response, you get a little dopamine hit.36 It turns out that finding information that provides a quick solution to a problem helps ‘stamp’ the memory in our brain and ‘attaches motivational importance to otherwise neutral environmental stimuli’. In other words, Just-In-Time learning is more likely to stick, while Just-In-Case learning is Teflon-coated.

For those who’ve always delivered learning in orderly, sequential blocks, and who yearn for acquiring knowledge for its own sake, the random ad-hocery of the Do It Now imperative is a pretty tough pill to swallow. Swallow it they must, however, because, out there in society’s Global Learning Commons, learners are frolicking around, being delighted by the learning power of now. And they are increasingly expecting those dopamine hits in the classroom, or training room, too.


Do It With Friends (Collegiality)

Formal education and training likes to frame learning as an individual pursuit. This is sometimes because it’s easier to measure it that way, and we only value what we can measure. It’s also the case that the historically preferred method of transferring knowledge, from the expert to the learner, has always been one-to-one, individual tuition. 

In the Global Learning Commons, it’s a very different picture. We have followers, friends and personal learning networks. We read daily online newspapers, automatically aggregated to include people whose knowledge we admire. Learning here is networked, linked-in and highly social. 

While we may never meet the people we now learn from, it’s wrong to dismiss these relationships as imaginary. Communications may be geographically stretched, but they’re far from distant. It’s appropriately called a social network. My initial perception of Twitter was that it was little more than electronic attention-seeking. If one were simply to judge it by newspaper regurgitation of celebrity tweets, such prejudices would be confirmed. My fairly limited personal learning network was transformed, however, once I started using it. And I’m not alone. 

Millions of workers now consider Twitter an indispensable, if not primary, source of professional development. Fluid learning communities regularly come together for ‘hashtag meet-ups’, where issues are debated with no one person able to hog the conversation, due to the 140-character limit. People learn stuff, but they also share the small talk of friends.

John Seeley Brown has written about the learning patterns of a group of extreme aerial surfers living near his house in Maui, Hawaii. These five friends have, remarkably, all become world champion surfers, on an island that hitherto had failed to produce any. Seeley Brown observed how they formed an intense community of practice, built around their respect and affection for each other. 

Training sessions were recorded on video, and then critiqued. Adjacent disciplines like skateboarding and motocross were mined for new moves, classic competitions analysed. As a study group, it was about as good as it gets. Indeed, the global surfing community benefits from a highly-effective learning commons that has formed around a mix of attitudes, behaviours, values and practices. It has done this in sharp contrast, and perhaps in response to, the commercial exploitation of surf culture. 

Seeley Brown highlights the ‘tinkering’ at the heart of surfing. Experimentation, risk-taking, innovation (and building upon previous innovations) lie at the heart of tinkering. There are similarities here with the notion of ‘hacking’ – in the benign sense. The hacker community identifies five core beliefs: sharing, openness, decentralisation, free access to computers and world improvement.37

If one substitutes ‘the ocean’ for ‘computers’, then it’s likely most surfers would subscribe to these principles. The two communities also share a common desire to offer an alternative way of living, being comfortable with the mantle of ‘outsiders’. It seems that this combination of resistance and purpose has contributed to their effectiveness as learners.

In researching this book, I became fascinated by surfers as a learning community. I travelled to one of the most beautiful places on earth, Byron Bay, in Northern New South Wales in Australia, to interview Rusty Miller. Here’s a man who can justifiably be called a surfing legend. Born in Southern California, Rusty became USA surfing champion in 1965. 

Since then he travelled the world in search of surfing challenges, but became disenchanted with the industry that grew up around the sport. In the 1970s he discovered Byron Bay and decided to set up one of the world’s first surf schools there. Now in his late 60s (but with the body of a 30-year-old) Rusty teaches beginner surfers every day. He is not just a great coach, he’s a great educator. He acknowledges the importance of mentoring, in his case gained by hanging out with lifeguards:


“I can't remember them saying 'do this' or 'do that', but they'd look out for me. I just went out with them. If it was too big, they'd say 'oh, you can't go out’.”


He also recognises the importance of personalisation in learning, and the need for learning to be understood in context: 


“I'm getting really good at assessing where people are at. People learn differently. There's a mental attitude about learning that you can assess, by talking to them, it could be something simple like "This guy doesn't feel good about himself.” So there's a relationship between their attitude and what I see them physically doing.”


Crucially, Rusty shares the same approaches as Maui’s champion surfers, in learning from ‘adjacencies’ – in Rusty’s case, philosophy and the ecology of the ocean – and  through an appreciation that the best teachers are the best learners:


“I'm still excited about it, because I'm learning so much. It’s like the clerk in Canterbury Tales...'and gladly will he learn, and gladly teach’. That's why I'm so stoked.”


I’m convinced that Chaucer himself would be stoked to be quoted by a surfing legend, and that there’s much to be learned about innovation and learning itself from analysing surfers as a community of practice. There must be a research grant in there somewhere.


Do Unto Others (Generosity)

When one looks at the explosion of groups now forming to help others in recent times, it sometimes feels like we were sedated into believing we were bad people, and that an awakening is starting to take place.

I know that last sentence sounds like it came from the musical ‘Hair’, but consider this: if, in a pre-internet age, someone proposed that we should open our houses up to complete strangers and that these visitors would expect us, not simply to feed them, but to escort them around our cities, they would have been given pretty short shrift. 

I’ve already highlighted the success of Couchsurfing.com – but there are others: Hospitality Club, GlobalFreeloaders, BeWelcome. And then there are the plethora of fundraising and donation sites, like Kickstarter and  JustGiving.com. It turns out we’re not so bad, after all. Who knew?

After the success of #riotcleanup, Dan Thompson launched ‘We Will Gather’ in 2012. It’s a way of connecting people with free time and a desire to volunteer with actions in their area. All that is needed, according to the website, is ‘a good thing that needs to be done, a place for people to meet up, and a date and time’. Although many of the actions are small – cleaning civic spaces, or fixing up gardens – the intentions behind them are profound. We were supposed to be driven by self-interest, encapsulated in Margaret Thatcher’s famous quote, ‘There is no such thing as society, only individual men and women’. Quite clearly, she got that wrong.

Marcia Conner, co-author of ‘The New Social Learning’, highlights the impact that social media has upon the spirit, and acts, of volunteering: 


“Social learning thrives in a culture of service and wonder…accelerated when we give our attention to individuals, groups and projects that interest and energize us. We self-select the themes we want to follow and filter out those that feel burdensome, all with impunity.”  


In other words, we’re no longer likely to face a knock on the door, asking for help from church or community, to carry out actions that fail to inspire us. There are now so many projects and causes looking for help that we can surely find ones that we can identify with and commit to with enthusiasm, rather than through a sense of duty.

There has been a long tradition of ‘service learning’ in North American schools and it usually makes for memorable learning and motivated learners. As schools have become more like enclosures, however, the opportunities to connect with local neighbourhoods have shrunk at precisely the same time as such opportunities are exponentially growing in our social spaces. We learn best when we do it with passion and purpose. Doing unto others as we’d have them do to ourselves provides a powerful motivation to learn.


Do It For Fun (Playfulness)

Conditioned by years of dreary copying from the blackboard, most of us developed low expectations of the pleasure to be found in learning. Yet, this was only ever true for formal education. When we’re with friends or family, there’s simply no point to learning if we don’t enjoy it. Having fun is the primary driver. 

Does that mean that the learning that is taking place is somehow inferior? I don’t think so. Some of the most important life skills we master are achieved only because of the pleasure derived along the way. Learning to swim, or to ride a bicycle, are good examples. 

Fun without challenge, however, is usually an unsatisfying experience. I’ve played golf most of my adult life. I enjoy playing, but I probably enjoy practising even more. Why? Because no one ever masters the ability to hit a golf ball consistently well, not even the best pros. Understanding the physics, and biomechanics, involved in bringing a club head to hit a golf ball perfectly square to the target line at just the right angle of elevation and at the optimum point of acceleration… well, it’s a lifelong challenge. But the feeling of hitting just one pure shot, that seems to fly effortlessly off the clubface, out of maybe 20 scrappy ones, is enough to keep me working at it.

It’s what the MIT professor, Seymour Papert, calls ‘hard fun’: the potent mix of challenge and enjoyment. Writing in an article in 2002, Papert acknowledged the difficulty in finding the space between criticising traditional schooling’s coercive approach to learning, and joining the ‘touchy feely, let’s make it fun, let’s make it easy’ school of engagement. Papert’s concept of hard fun arose from the words of an 8th-grader:


“A teacher heard one child using these words to describe the computer work: ‘It's fun. It's hard. It's Logo (the programming language being learned).’ I have no doubt that this kid called the work fun because it was hard rather than in spite of being hard.”38


For some reason, learning and fun have become incompatible. Students aren’t there to have fun. If they were, school wouldn’t need to be compulsory. Having fun at school means students aren’t being stretched, doesn’t it? But Papert’s fun comes directly through being challenged, having previous beliefs contradicted, tackling difficult problems. Hard fun is something that all learning professionals should strive to create.

Society has an often-contradictory relationship with the enjoyment derived from computers. On the one hand, we (the concerned parents) understand the importance of computer competence in our children. But we also exhibit a kind of protestant prurience when we think our children may be spending too much time having fun playing video games. In 1981, British Labour MP, George Foulkes drafted a bill, ‘Control of Space Invaders (and other Electronic Games) Bill’ out of concern for Space Invaders’ addictiveness and potential for causing ‘deviancy’. The bill was defeated by only 20 votes. Seriously, we almost banned Space Invaders.

To be fair, there have been deaths caused by exhaustion, or cardiac arrest, due to video gamers in China and South Korea playing video games for 50-hour stretches. These, however, are isolated cases, and the challenge for learning professionals is to harness the engagement, self-discipline and resilience shown in a gamer striving to complete a level, to more conventional learning situations. Enter ‘serious gaming’.

Serious gaming is a generic term for video gaming with a more overt educational purpose. After initially struggling for credibility – the term was at first seen as oxymoronic – recent studies have provided convincing evidence of the cognitive impact of serious gaming. 

The most striking example of serious gaming is FoldIt.39 Devised by the University of Washington, FoldIt enables thousands of gamers to solve science problems specifically relating to ‘protein folding’, predicting the shapes which amino acids will form in HIV, Aids, Cancer and Alzheimer’s. 

Zoran Popovich, one of FoldIt’s creators says that the game has shown ‘that it is possible to create experts in a particular domain purely through game play’. One of its leading players is Scott Zaccanelli, a massage therapist from Dallas, Texas. Players are ranked according to their ability to figure out problems. Zaccanelli himself plays for a couple of hours every evening and, at the time of writing, is ranked 12th in the world:


"Everybody's got their motivations for it. Some do it for the camaraderie, others for the competition. (I’m just) happy that science is being done."


If you’re new to video gaming, this might all seem a bit nerdy. Maybe, but you should know that one of FoldIt’s 2012’s puzzles was to identify a folded-protein structure, made by HIV monkeys, which had eluded scientists for 15 years. Scott’s team was able to work it out in 10 days. Does that sound like fun?


Do It For The World To See (High visibility)

The Global Learning Commons allows one insight to be shared among millions. In April 2012, Martha Payne, a nine-year-old student from Lochgilphead, Scotland, began blogging about her school dinners, posting a daily photograph of her lunch. Martha intends to be a journalist, so was encouraged by her father to write about her food. Because some of the portion sizes were shockingly small, word of Martha’s blog, ‘NeverSeconds’, soon spread. 

The local authority instructed Martha to stop blogging. One might have thought that a better response would have been to ask why kids were going hungry at school. Celebrity chef and food campaigner Jamie Oliver tweeted Martha’s blog and virality ensued. Suitably chastened, the local authority dropped its ban and did something about their school dinners. Six months later, NeverSeconds had reached almost nine million page views and Martha’s first book had been published, with the proceeds from each book now providing a daily meal for 25 children in Malawi.

It’s an extraordinary story, but one which has become rather more commonplace, due to the irrepressible rise of citizen journalism. Podcasting, blogging, tweeting – we are all journalists now. And it can be captivating – if you tweet it, they will come. User-generated content is transforming not just how we watch television – YouTube has forced all major TV broadcasters to offer viewing-on-demand – but also what we watch. Although we now take it for granted, pretty much every news broadcast, on every station, in every country around the world now routinely incorporates footage from citizen journalists. Our knowledge of what is happening around the world would be infinitely poorer without it.

Campaign groups have been quick to exploit the power of social media, none more so than the Invisible Children group who, on 5th March 2012, released ‘KONY 2012’, a powerfully emotive video (though flawed in its accuracy), detailing the atrocities carried out by Joseph Kony on young children in Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo. The video had over 100 million views in its first week, making it the biggest viral video in the history of the internet. 

Whatever one’s views of the campaign – to have global leaders significantly ramp up their efforts to capture the Lord’s Resistance Army leader before the end of 2012 – there was no disputing the impact of the video in the Global Learning Commons. It may have ultimately failed in its primary ambition to capture Kony in 2012, but it raised awareness of the issue, and animated young people around the globe. 

Here’s just one example, of which there must have been thousands: I watched the video in Australia on the day of its release, and was sufficiently moved by it to write a blog post. A history teacher, Neal Watkin, at Coplestone High School, Suffolk, read the post and shared the video with his students. Within hours I’d received an email from Neal telling me that students had formed an ‘action committee’ to see how they could help the campaign. Others, sceptical of some of the claims made in the video, conducted their own research. A week later I received a message from Neal:


“The action committee met and started to plan some action. One big idea was to reproduce the Kony video, but using our own students. It has turned into a great teaching point as we have been able to explore the issues of Uganda in the classroom and through impromptu sessions in the corridor. Tomorrow we will set up an online space to collect ideas and actions. Not sure yet whether we will follow Kony 2012 campaign or do something else to support Ugandan child soldiers. However, the campaign has helped raise awareness.”


Critics of KONY 2012 have argued that impressionable young people would have been falsely informed by the video’s naivety. This typically underestimates young people’s ability to make up their own minds. A fierce debate raged on YouTube, presenting all sides of the story. I believe most kids would have responded in the same way as the Coplestone students, and sought more information. My point here is that the phenomenal rise in the production, not simply consumption, of media whether video, blogging or tweeting may sometimes seem like the self-aggrandisement of the self-opinionated. But the potential of an unlimited audience for young students’ work can also transform our motivation to learn. Vimeo, YouTube and Twitter are filled with examples of extraordinary student work, where the public assessment means far more to these young people than whether they got a B+ from their teacher.


*****


So, these are the six imperatives that propel motivation in the Global Learning Commons. I should stress that these ‘Do-its’ are morally neutral. It’s possible to see the activities of ‘hacktivist’ organisations like Anonymous or LulzSec as either fighting for all our freedoms of information, or irresponsibly putting internal securities at risk. But, whatever one thinks of their ethics, there is no denying their ability to learn, innovate, and collaborate. Their capacity to temporarily bring major corporations to the point of collapse, as they did following Sony’s support for the Stop Online Piracy Act, is disproportionate to their size of membership. 

That they have largely evaded the clutches of a phalanx of internal security forces around the world, speaks volumes about the innovative learning environment they have created. It seems to me that there have to be powerful imperatives underlying their activities, at least some of which I’ve identified here. 

While these motivations can be used for harm as well as good, it should be apparent that, overwhelmingly, people who are learning socially outside the workplace and formal education do so out of a sense of altruism. The technology provides the tools, but it’s the power of personal connections, informal learning and displaying generosity to one another, which creates the imperative to learn, and act, collaboratively.

The Global Learning Commons is at its most powerful in the social space, and the illustrations I’ve chosen – community activism, play-based learning, online collaboration, serious gaming, tacit and informal learning, and self-publishing – do not even begin to represent the ingenuity, innovation and optimism out there. The question that underpins this book is whether the richness and vibrancy of learning approaches, which we see socially, can be brought into more formal arenas. And if so, what are the environments we need to create, and the values and actions we need to foster? 

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