Chapter Nine

Open and You

Before examining what ‘open’ might mean for the way you, your employees, or your children learn in the future, let’s return briefly to the themes introduced at the start of this book. 

The belt-tightening following the global financial crisis has disproportionately affected the poor and the young. Despite the best efforts of successive UK governments, for example, the number of Britons in relative poverty has consistently risen since 1980. In 1970, CEOs in America earned 39 times the average salary of their company’s employees. By 2000, that multiplier had risen to 1,039 times the average worker’s salary. By 2011, the one percent of wealthiest Americans, who so angered the Occupy movement, controlled 40 percent of the nation’s wealth. 

Globally, young people (aged 15-24) constitute a quarter of the world’s working-age population, yet they make up almost half of all those unemployed. Here’s a depressing stat: one in five of the entire world’s young live on less than $1 a day. On top of the economic disadvantages they face, they are perhaps the first generation for whom the phrase ‘natural’ resources has a hollow ring to it – the solutions to the multiple energy and environmental crises will simply have to be found within the next 20 to 30 years, or our current college kids face an old age not worth imagining.

There’s No New Normal

We therefore face a host of global challenges, and relying upon what we already know has limited value. The thing we need most in the midst of an ‘open revolution’ is an open mind.

I’m personally thankful, therefore, that so many young people, despite the hand they’ve been dealt, are so lacking in cynicism, and so selfless in their determination to find new answers to the age-old question: how shall we live? If the 1980s spawned the ‘me’ generation, driven by material need, they are being followed by the ‘we’ generation, driven by a set of values and ethics that put us to shame. All we really have to do is not get in their way.

Creative solutions to the many challenges ahead will require divergent, creative and cross-disciplinary learning. Fortunately, the kinds of social learning now emerging encourage us to think differently. Divergence in thinking demands a diversity of thinkers. A borderless learning commons, therefore, becomes critical to solving trans-national problems. A commons welcomes newcomers, an enclosure keeps them out.  

Frustrated by a lack of impetus and new ideas from our historic institutions, some in the Global Learning Commons are thinking big. The author Don Tapscott, for example, envisages a ‘global solutions network’ – a multi-stakeholder global collection of activist groups (some of whom I’ve highlighted in these pages), as a better, more agile model to solve the global crises facing us than the post-war founded global ‘representative’ organisations: 

“Now we can move towards a different model that embraces representative democracy, but it’s based on multiple stakeholders, and it’s characterised by a culture of public deliberation and of active citizenship. What an exciting time! … (Change) is not going to come about solely by our great leaders selling a new vision of how we can cooperate… down to their populations... It’s going to come about through millions and millions of people participating and bringing about real change.”56 

During the 2013 general election, Italian politics was stunned by the sudden emergence of the ‘Movimento 5 Stelle’ (5-Star Movement). Formed in 2009, and led by comedian Beppe Grillo, the party has no offices – it exists entirely on the internet – and members chose their candidates through online primaries. It advocates ‘direct democracy’ where people vote for each initiative, not leaving such decisions to their elected representatives. In the 2013 general election ‘Movimento 5 Stelle’ became the largest party in Italy’s parliament, winning 25 percent of the vote. It is an astonishing story, and one which we are likely to see repeated as Europe continues to simmer.

There is an urgency, and uncertainty, surrounding the future of these new forms of networked movements, and concerns that they can accelerate the growth of extremist political parties, from the left and right. Corporations have vested interests, political parties expect to lead, so we can anticipate resistance. One of the features of distributed networks, however, is that they are constantly in flux. Occupy’s activism hasn’t gone away, it’s just become more horizontal. Instead of high-profile city-centre gatherings, there are now tens of thousands of low-profile actions bringing citizens together, here to prevent a house foreclosure, there to rebuild after Hurricane Sandy, all the while helping to fashion new forms of democracy. 

These networks are not content with lying dormant between four to five-year election cycles, nor are they content to only care about domestic national issues. Groups like, and even Anonymous, realise that their strength and security lie in their numbers and global reach.

How then, can learning adapt to such seismic changes? How can businesses and places of formal learning remain relevant, amid a torrent of informal, do-it-yourself initiatives? How can we foster the principles of collaboration, creativity and innovation needed to meet the challenges we face? Before I offer some practical suggestions for those working in businesses, education, or ‘just’ bringing up kids, let me share a couple of over-arching, inevitable, directional shifts that we all have to work with, not against. Be warned, for it’s about to get ugly.

From Pedagogy to Heutagogy

There must be some unwritten academic maxim somewhere that if you want to dissuade people from attempting to understand how learning works, you give them the worst names you can think of. I will attempt to explain this in simple language, but let’s start with a technical announcement:

Though it was happening anyway, ‘open’ has accelerated the shift from pedagogy, to andragogy, to heutagogy.

There, aren’t you glad I told you that? Notwithstanding the fact that I managed to combine the three ugliest words in the English language in a single sentence, I like to think there’s quite a profound thought in there. The word pedagogy derives from Greek and, literally translated, means ‘to lead the child’; andragogy is translated as ‘to lead the man (adult)’; heutagogy means ‘to lead to find’. I know, that’s not much clearer. But, if we look at commonly-used interpretations, it gets better.

In pedagogy, the learner is led to a conclusion determined by the teacher, informed by the teacher’s knowledge and beliefs – it could be termed ‘instructional learning’. In andragogy, though the destination may be decided by the tutor, the route involves greater learner involvement, acknowledging the importance of relevance, motivation and problem-solving. Although andragogy is a term open to many interpretations, let’s use it here to denote ‘self-directed learning. In heutagogy, there is not necessarily a defined destination, nor a prescribed route – it is ‘self-determined learning’.

These shifts in how we’re learning mirror the bigger shifts in how we’re living. We are moving from being compliant citizens, being told what is good for us, to informed actors who are determining our own futures. As society inevitably becomes more open, the way we learn in the future simply has to reflect those shifts. Changes in learning are both a reflection, and a consequence, of how we now want to live. 

The shift, from instruction to self-determination, is also happening because that’s the path we’ve been taking when we learn informally. When we’re learning for fun, we surf not knowing where it will take us, just doing it for the joy of discovery. If we find something of interest to us, we share it with others, in ‘communities of discovery’. If enough people pool their findings they might even collectively come up with ‘new’ knowledge, or insights. 

Whilst this ‘higher-order’ learning requires discipline and greater learner responsibility, it would be wrong to see it as only for grown-ups. I have seen children in the primary stages of their education quite happily take the path of self-determination. Ewan McIntosh, educator and social learning expert, argues that young students should be not just ‘problem solvers’ but ‘problem finders’. In 2011, Ewan worked with 10,000 students from 98 schools who were all invited to find a problem, and then prototype solutions (everything from water filters for polluted rivers to clothing made out of potato chip packets). So, heutagogy is equally applicable to children as it is to adults. It’s defined by approach, not age. 

From Factoids to Deep Knowledge

The second shift in direction is that knowing is no longer reliant upon our recollection of information, and more about our ability to create and connect new ideas. Traditional, instructional pedagogy involves the transference of knowledge or facts from expert to novice. For centuries we had no alternative but to have that transference take place in a classroom. But now that we can instantaneously get facts from a Google search, do we need to place such dependence upon our powers of recall?  Could this lead to liberation of the teacher’s role, in helping us connect data, guiding us to make sense of facts, and create new ideas? Apparently not.

In January 2011, the new English Secretary of State for Education advocated a return to the teaching of facts to students. If you ever needed a reason to keep politics out of learning, here it was. I decided to blog about this, under the pretence that I’d had a sneak preview of a new Google app called ‘Factoid’. I described how, by combining the search tool powering Google’s powerful Adsense technology – which links email text to suggested ads – with their plans to digitise the world’s books, it would no longer be necessary to remember facts. 

I had invented a series of filters: Significant Dates (history); Connecting Countries (geography); Add It Up (statistics); Quotable Quotes (literature), which would offer up facts to feed into your essay, say, on the French Revolution. In the future, I concluded, we wouldn’t have to find facts, they’d find us. The more I made it up, the more excited I got about this eminently feasible piece of kit. At the time of writing, Google haven’t yet unveiled such a tool (though if they subsequently do, please treat this description, Sergey, as my stake in the IP, and you’ll find me sipping cocktails on Richard Branson’s tropical island).57 

It seems ridiculous that an education minister should call for a return to 19th-century, fact-based learning methods, while employers are looking for people who can critically analyse, ask important questions, and make connections between facts, rather than regurgitate them. Politicians do seem to spend inordinate amounts of time making ineffectual policy changes to how we might be taught, and then defending such policies, rather than reflecting the transformation in how we’re actually learning, and then freeing us up to do so. As James Surowiecki noted in ‘The Wisdom of Crowds’:

“It’s easier for individuals to create explanations to justify the way things are than to imagine how they might be different.” 

So, as this book draws to a close, allow me to summarise, and suggest how, by going ‘open’, we might imagine things to be different. 

The Bit That Would Have Saved You From Having To Read the Whole Book

Almost everything that determines our future – societal governance, the economy, industry, the environment, our education system, and much more – is being fundamentally re-examined. All of those pillars are likely to look very different in 20, if not 10, years from now.

The institutions, which represent those pillars, are under scrutiny because we are discovering new ways to connect, and new reasons for doing so. The connections become possible through the opening up of knowledge. The democratisation of learning is driving disintermediation: we no longer need the doctor to tell us what is wrong with us, or the salesperson to tell us which product to buy, or the educator to tell us the answer. We can help each other come to those conclusions. 

Disintermediation means that pop stars can have direct conversations with their fans, and would-be pop stars can sell their products directly to their would-be fans, without the need for a record company. More significantly, perhaps, disintermediation allows corporations to have a direct conversation with customers, without the need for market research, and governments to centralise control without the need for non-governmental agencies, or quangos.

Most importantly we, as employees, consumers, learners and concerned citizens, are discovering that we can talk to each other, and learn from each other without the need for those intermediaries. This is heady stuff, and it’s hard to imagine a scenario where we’d willingly hand this new-found power back.

Along with the good stuff, however, disintermediation also means fewer jobs for people who used to work in those intermediary roles. A business that once would have needed to hire a local IT company to build its website, can now directly engage freelancers from any part of the world. Authors that once needed agents and publishers to find their audience can now do it themselves. Disintermediation is having a seismic effect on employment, and, therefore economies, throughout the world. And no one knows how it will work itself out. Only those intermediaries that can add value will survive.

In itself, all this would represent a paradigm shift – an irreversible economic, political and societal off-axis tilt. It is in the reasons for connecting, however, that the real revolution resides. Because disintermediation allows us to take independent and collaborative actions, which enable us to better control our lives, and become more autonomous, and therefore more engaged, in how we work, live and learn. We have rediscovered mutual trust, become intoxicated by the power of reciprocal generosity, and felt liberated by our lessening reliance upon institutions, and by the power of sharing. 

Exemplified by a myriad of civic movements, self-help groups and social enterprises, and powered through ‘open’ principles, we have rediscovered the spirit of the commons. It turns out that participating and learning in the commons is borderless, immediate, purposeful, informal, playful, transparent, and authentic. In fact, we like it so much that we wonder why the companies we work for, the schools we attend, and the public and private sector institutions we deal with, seem so restrictive by comparison.

The early adopters – our most innovative companies, schools, colleges and institutions – are already incorporating the values and motivations found in Open. They understand the need to radically change how they operate. The best schools and colleges similarly see their futures in opening up learning to a much wider range of participants. They’re restructuring the teacher/learner relationship to allow for more autonomy and collegiality, more independence and interdependence in learning.

These organisations are in the vanguard of coming to terms with the new reality, the end of command-and-control. Others seem to be either unaware of the need to change, or are hoping it will somehow blow over. I suspect the largest group is the remainder: organisations, centres of learning and mildly bewildered parents who instinctively grasp the magnitude of change but don’t know how best to navigate their way through it.   

So, allow me to conclude with some practical advice for those who want to become ‘open’, but need some help doing it.

Open Learning in Business

1. Engage in Engagement

Companies that don’t place a high priority on engagement will never create engaging places to work in. We’ve already seen how vital employee engagement is to productivity, innovation and worker retention. You won’t know how engaged your employees are unless you ask them, so if you don’t do so already, regularly measure engagement. 

Engagement starts with a conversation. The conversations can’t just be internal – though that also has to happen. Employees will engage if the company itself engages – with its customers/clients and its geographic and online community. Becoming a social business has a transformative effect on engagement. Don’t see engagement as a luxury to be invested in only when the sun is shining – engagement is vital to innovation and to the creation of new products and services.

2. Value Values

Similarly, companies that are only interested in creating shareholder value end up eating themselves. Companies that are committed to changing the world for the better will flourish. Simply complying with legal requirements for social responsibility isn’t enough. Open learning and citizen journalism means there is now nowhere to hide unethical practices. If the hacktivists don’t get you, then your customers will. As the head of business development at Proctor & Gamble said, “People are going to want, and be able, to find out about the citizenship of a brand, whether it is doing the right things socially, economically and environmentally.”

Ethics and corporate social responsibility will increasingly impact upon employee engagement, because employees are also consumers and seek the same thing. The smart companies now support staff volunteering – in work time – in the local community, because of its impact on employee engagement. Building a culture of service is a lot more fun than maintaining a culture of servitude.

If, however, employee engagement is not a big enough reason to broaden your value priorities, consider this: there is growing evidence that demonstrating a strong social responsibility is correlated to improved financial performance, and there is a clear link between being listed in the FTSE4Good or Dow Jones Sustainability Indexes and share performance. It wasn’t, I suspect, pure altruism that drove Steve Jobs to say, “The creative economy is the future of the world. Let’s make a better one together”. 

3. Trust in Trust

In researching this book it seems that straddling the knowing-doing gap of trust is one of the stiffest challenges facing business leaders. They know they should do it, but too often they just can’t bring themselves to do it. It’s partly because trust tends towards absolutism: having partial trust in someone, is the same as having none. This is not to say that trust should be naively applied – trust and responsibility need to go hand-in-hand. But in an age of openness, a company that does not trust its workforce is unlikely to gain the trust of its customers.

Trust is often the first casualty in an economic depression, and the public loss of trust in major corporations since 2008 will take years to restore. Warren Buffet believes ‘it takes 20 years to build a reputation, and five minutes to ruin it’, but making your company a social business is seen as an attractive option for those seeking to build their reputations quickly. You can’t claim to be a social business, however, if you don’t demonstrate trust in each and every employee.

That means you’ll just have to trust that they’re learning socially, and using social media tools in the best interests of your business. If they’re discovering what your customers really think of your business, that’s time well spent. If they’re learning how to do their job better, don’t freak out because they appear to be using Twitter. In fact, get a Twitter account yourself – you’ll soon see how useful it is to your own learning. Of course, some may abuse that trust, but the majority will feel connected, valued and engaged. Those sorts of people tend not to watch the clock. Besides, if you create a results-only work environment does it really matter that they ordered a Groupon voucher on work time?

4. Learn About Learning

While pretty much every CEO knows how budgeting works, how many of them know how learning works? Yet knowing how to build the curiosity, imagination, creativity, knowledge and skills of your workforce is arguably more important than the ability to understand complex financial data. The speed at which companies are required to innovate raises the learning stakes. CEOs can’t simply delegate the responsibility for learning to others. They have to know how to provide learning opportunities, and they have to be learners themselves. An enlightened and highly visible commitment to organisational learning not only built the Edison empire, but also inspired employee loyalty and engagement.

So the lesson is, promote learning, not work. If workers – like those who worked for Edison – feel like they’re learning, they don’t feel like they’re working. They’ll more often be in ‘flow’, rather than the ‘pretend-attend’ state they perfected in their high-school careers. And, as we’ve seen repeatedly throughout this book, the implications of learning in the social space insist that learners are given more autonomy – give learners the right to roam.

An innovative learning environment needs a diverse community of learners. Creative breakthroughs come from challenging questions, not conformity. So an open learning organisation creates a culture of respectful challenge, has a high tolerance of mavericks, and avoids mimics. 

Collaboration is the bedrock of learning. The Global Learning Commons is inclusive. The most effective learning is found in projects seeking to solve intractable problems. Proctor and Gamble’s Connect and Develop is a graphic illustration of the power of learning through crowdsourcing. So, always seek to co-construct solutions, with whoever wants to play. 

 Learning isn’t just for company elites. It was Telus and Xerox engineers whose sharing via social learning platforms saved their companies fortunes, not middle managers. 3M gave all of its employees 15 percent free time, not just the top scientists. Allowing everyone the freedom to follow their interests sends an important message: that good ideas can be found everywhere, by anyone.

Welcome failure – simply having different sets of eyeballs wasn’t enough to make 3M’s post-it notes happen. It also needed a freedom to fail culture. We can only be creative when we’re not afraid to make mistakes. Those failure rates at Google and 3M (36 percent and 50 percent respectively) are what make them two of the most innovative companies in the world. Try re-labelling mistakes as ‘learning moments’, like they do at WD-40, and take away the fear of failure. And make sure everybody knows about it when you have learning moments too.

5. Open Up Your Business

Open organisations – Edison believed in machine shops, not silos. The smart companies, like Valve are opting for fluid org charts - forming teams to work on self-chosen projects, and then disbanding. Facebook established ‘Hackamonth’, so that engineers who had been on the same project for over a year could work for a month on any other project that needed help. The result has been new energies, new perspectives. If you want innovation to flourish, you need learning to stay fresh, not departmental groupthink. 

Open culture – radical transparency is fast becoming the default position for innovative, socially responsible companies. Remember Tony Hsieh of  He advocates the ‘happiness principle’:  ‘You can’t have happy customers, unless you have happy staff’. And urging his staff to ‘be real’ is the key to good staff-customer relationships. You can’t be real, unless you have a culture of transparency. Being transparent means letting go of command and control. That carries risks. But the alternative – creating communications enclosures and plugging the gaps where unhappiness leaks out – is just exhausting.

Open data – The irresistible demand is to make data free. A company like – ‘the open database of the corporate world’ – has publicly-accessible data on 51 million companies throughout the world. Pressure groups relentlessly badger our governments to release information. Businesses will eventually have to open up, so why not get ahead of the curve? 

As Patrick McKenna argued earlier, it’s impossible to prevent intellectual property from being leaked, hacked, or pirated. However, that’s not the point: the capital value lies, not in the information, but in how you use it. Increasingly, businesses will release data in order to understand its value from the way it’s being used. The old advice – to never give away anything you can sell – has been turned on its head by the open source movement. Going ‘open’ has transformed the fortunes of most of the companies featured earlier – it could do the same for you.

Open Learning in Education

There’s much of the above that also applies to formal education. My advice to school leaders who are serious about engaging their students is this: you won’t have to worry about their engagement if you get yours right. Make school an engaging place to learn, not the exam factories we so frequently observe these days. Your learners will be passionate about collaborating, making and doing things, just like they do in the world outside school/college; though it seems obvious that the surest way to prepare students for life beyond formal education is to make education as much like that life as possible. It takes a brave education leader, however, to defy the current obsession with testing. 

The great educator, John Holt, once likened over-testing to a gardener pulling up a plant by its roots so that he could see how well it was growing. If a love of learning were a human right (and I contend that it should be) our courts would be overflowing with abuse of rights claims from our young.

This is where educators face their own knowing-doing gap. Instinctively, they know that if the goal is the engagement of every single student, the exam results should take care of themselves. How could we not become knowledgeable about things we are passionate about, and absorbed in? But the safest course of action is to aim for ‘coverage’ of the curriculum, and the filling of endless worksheets, which do little other than document students’ increasing disenchantment with learning.

Values also tend to be overlooked in formal education. By this I don’t mean the study of ethics, but rather the often-missed opportunity of values-led learning. In the US, there is greater commitment to ‘service learning’ (connecting the curriculum to local and global needs through purposeful projects) than in most countries. 

When done well, service learning increases the engagement of students, and increases their sense of agency. It was a lack of agency that drove many of the English rioters of 2011 to ransack their high streets. I like to think that more service learning in English schools may have made more of them think twice before setting their cities alight. See your school as the base camp for learning, and get them learning out there, where they live. More than anything, schools should value the outside-in perspective that creating a learning commons brings. 

The expertise that lies just beyond their gates is too valuable to ignore. Businesses, community groups and parents – especially parents – carry skills and life experiences that can help young adults make sense of the world they’re joining. Over 2,000 potential mentors and experts exist in every high-school parent body, most of whom would be happy to volunteer their time and effort to help their school, yet how often do we use them?

All of the above builds what Larry Rosenstock calls ‘adult-world connections’. If more of our schools (and colleges) were committed to this single goal, we wouldn’t see the shockingly low engagement rates outlined in Chapter Five. Instead, partly because we have allowed ourselves to be terrified about the safety of our young people in schools, we make our schools as forbidding as possible.

If you’re an educational leader reading this, I hope I’ve encouraged you to bring the Global Learning Commons we see in the social space into your place of learning. But for even the best intentioned of leaders, knowing where to start can be daunting. Here’s my advice: simply resolve to remove every physical, organisational and cultural manifestation of a learning enclosure you can find, and open it up to the commons philosophy. Here’s what I mean:

Physical – don’t allow any educator to organise rows of desks - nothing reminds students of their relative anonymity, and their place in the hierarchy, than serried ranks. Don’t allow any teacher to have a closed-door policy – make learning a public activity. Where possible, eliminate dividing walls between classes to build a collaborative culture – instead, think machine-shop and studios, with discrete spaces for experimenting, presenting, researching, and, yes, relaxing. 

Don’t think that high fences, security cameras, intercoms and metal detectors guarantee safety – as the massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School sadly demonstrates, schools are powerless in the face of a determined, deranged individual. The side effects, however, of such measures are to reinforce the impression that students already have: of school being set apart from the real world.

Organisational – perhaps the biggest enclosure of all is the schedule (timetable) that governs learning. Moving kids around each time a bell rings every 50 minutes, only reminds them that they are cogs in an industrial machine, and destroys any attempt to deepen learning, so get rid of the atomised schedule. While you’re at it, get rid of the bell too. And the tannoy announcements. This is a learning commons, not a prison. Commit to giving students the freedom and responsibilities of adults, and they’ll behave like them.

Cultural – because of the workloads and isolation forced upon most teachers, schools have a hard time with collaboration. But it doesn’t have to be like that. Schools are generally free to organise themselves as they see fit. So strive for collegiality. Don’t allow teachers to simply ‘deliver’ learning. They need to be designers and researchers of learning. And when they’re designing, please remember the six ‘imperatives of social learning’ listed in Chapter Six: Do it yourself; Do it now; Do it with friends; Do unto others; Do it for fun; Do it for the world to see. These are the drivers of their own learning when they’re not in school or college. If you want to build a learning commons, make use of them.

Make time for collaborative planning. Don’t allow staff to design learning at the end of the day – that’s when they’re tired, cranky and wondering why they got into teaching. Instead, start the day when they’re fresh and feeling good about themselves, with professional development. 

The great schools and colleges that I’ve seen all have an obsessional desire to understand what great learning looks like. They talk about learning, among teachers and with students, all the time. They constantly innovate and they’re not afraid of getting it wrong. No student ever had his entire education ruined because of a learning innovation that didn’t come off. But I can show you plenty of students whose curiosity and imagination were strangled by being trapped in a repetitive, uninspiring, unimaginative learning enclosure. 

All this may seem like I’m asking teachers to work a lot harder. In fact, most of the above suggestions are about stripping things back. For example, too often teachers feel they have to ‘perform’ in class. They spend countless hours preparing, fretting about how to make their lessons more engaging. In reality, most of the time they’re doing all the work, and their kids are hardly doing any. 

When I led the Musical Futures project mentioned in the previous chapter, one of our biggest challenges lay in convincing teachers that learning would still take place if they weren’t directing things from the front of the class. Getting them to stand back and allow students to learn from each other went against all of their training. At the same time, I’d heard about Sugata Mitra’s ‘Hole In The Wall’ experiment in New Delhi, which was seeing remarkable progress being made by children from slums in learning to use computers, without any adult input. I went to meet with Professor Mitra, and it was clear that both our initiatives were improving students’ learning simply by getting out of their way. The wide-scale adoption of our respective approaches across differing cultural contexts would suggest that the capacity of students to teach themselves, aided by appropriate technologies, has been under appreciated and under reported. Does this mean teachers will soon become redundant? Absolutely not. It just means that they will have to accommodate the social desire to shift from pedagogy to heutagogy, and support learners to become more independent, and self-determined.

Open Futures

There’s still one constituent in all of this that we haven’t really addressed: you.

Yes, I really do mean you, so stop looking around. Because how you – as a parent, a worker, a human being and, above all, as a learner – respond to the challenges outlined here will largely determine if ‘open’ is an Arab Spring or a Bay of Pigs, an iPad or a Sinclair C5.

In other words, this is a unique opportunity for the concerned citizen. After decades of slumber, something stirs. We former couch potatoes have discovered that it’s a lot more fun to watch some TED talks, or take part in an online campaign, than watching reruns of soaps. In fact, we’re doing so much of this stuff, that some point to the dangers of ‘clicktivism’ – believing you’re politically engaged simply by hitting the ‘like’ button on a Facebook page. 

For me, whether 10 million clicks on an campaign is any less ‘authentic’ than a protest march of a hundred or so misses the point. The important thing is to participate. Don’t worry if you don’t know a meetup from a mic check. And do not, under any circumstances, believe any of that digital native/digital immigrant nonsense. 

The terms ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital immigrants’ were first coined by Marc Prensky. The former applies to anyone born after the invention of the iPod. The latter applies to the rest of us. Younger users are deemed to be completely fluent in speaking digital, while the rest of us speak haltingly, and with a heavy accent. While these stereotypes have become fixed in our collective consciousness and offer an easy way out when over-50s can’t be bothered learning how to programme the video recorder, they have no basis in fact.

Recent research suggests that attitudes to technology are independent of age. The average age of a video gamer is 37, and rising. Sure, adolescents might be a little more dexterous in their deployment of technology, but content is still king. It’s not the app that you use it’s what you do on it that matters. So, jump in, and don’t worry – nobody’s yet managed to break the internet.

Another source of parental angst is the amount of time our kids spend online. Two of the wisest experts out there, Cathy Davidson and Sherry Turkle, recently published well-researched, yet sharply contrasting, analyses of how technology affects young people’s desire and abilities to socially interact with each other.58 This goes to the heart of the current dilemma for parents: we know how important technology is for our kids’ futures, but we worry about the side effects. We therefore fret about whether they’re spending too much, or too little, time online. Since there’s no incontrovertible evidence that would guide us here, you may as well relax, they’ll find the answer themselves.  

Do ask them, however, to share their social learning with you – it will give you a glimpse of the future they’re facing, and it’s often far more interesting than the stuff they have to do at school, or college. Visit sites like Elance or oDesk. You will immediately understand the scale of the challenge: in the early part of the 20th century we competed for work against the people in our towns; in the second half of the century, the competition was initially regional, and then national; now, it’s global.

If you accept my analysis of the changing employment market and the competition we’re facing from rapidly developing nations, then it’s hard to know what to say to advise our kids. The global auction for skills suggests that it’s going to be hard for them to find jobs. So, they may as well create their own. Entrepreneurship will be at a premium, because it’s entrepreneurship that enables innovation to flourish.

So, think about what this means for your child’s social, and formal, learning environments. If you’re choosing a school by its examination results alone, is that really going to be in your child’s best interests? There’s no great secret to improving a school’s test scores. But is repeatedly drilling your kids to pass a test what they actually need for an entrepreneurial future?  Might it not be better to find a school that will allow them to find their passion and build the communicative, collaborative, and imaginative skills that are already key to our collective futures?

Over the years, I’ve sat in countless discussions where we’ve tried to identify the agency that will bring about radical change in educational policy, by looking forwards, not backwards. Will it be the teaching profession, or business leaders? Increasingly, I believe it will be parents. Parents, because of their voting power, are probably the only people that politicians will listen too. They need to become more vocal, and reclaim the ground they have lost in the debate around what good schooling looks like. Along the way, the language we use to describe learning has been reduced to letters and numbers.  

We know, from repeated market research studies, that if you stop people in the street and ask them what they look for in a perfect cup of coffee they will usually say the same thing – strong tasting, black, big aroma. When they’re at home they invariably make it weak and milky. As it is with coffee, so it is with the language of learning. 

Most parents, I believe, would prefer to know about their child’s confidence, their sense of well-being, their capacity for independent thought, or their ability to ask critical questions – the language of milky coffee. Instead, parents only know the language of black coffee, because that’s all they hear. Are they on target for good grades? Are they getting enough homework? What were their last test scores? 

Prescriptive educational policies, like ‘No Child Left Behind’ and ‘Common Core Standards’ in the US, the school league tables in the UK, and the introduction of standardised tests and a national curriculum in Australia, may have given the impressions that politicians are doing something about education. But along the way they are closing down conversations with parents about how their children should learn, because of the obsession with numbers. That refocusing of language and priorities will not come about through politicians admitting the error of their ways. Parents will have to regain the initiative, and find their voices. 

A Candle, Not An Apple

When Rupert Murdoch sold the social networking site, MySpace, for $35m – just six percent of what he paid for it – he reflected that ‘we screwed up in every way possible’. The site’s users – predominantly musicians and bands sharing their music to gain a wider audience – reacted badly to the media mogul’s presence in their commons. Sensing imminent enclosure in pursuit of Murdoch’s self-interest, they simply upped and left. It was an example of how strong the philosophy of a true commons can be, and how susceptible it can be to over-exploitation. A new way of looking at this tension between common good and self-interest was advanced by Lawrence Lessig, Professor of Law at Harvard Law School. 

Speaking in 2004, Lessig – who was one of the architects behind the Creative Commons movement – revisited the arguments, which were used to enclose British grazing land, known as ‘the tragedy of the commons’. Put simply, the tragedy occurs when livestock owners try to squeeze in an extra few cattle, or sheep, on the commons. Their personal yield goes up. But if everyone does it the land becomes over-grazed, and useless. 

This argument was famously rehashed by Garrett Hardin, in 1968, in an essay which called for enforced limits on population growth. He reasoned that, since we are driven by self-interest, it is only human nature to try to take the most out of a shared utility:

“…this is the conclusion reached by each and every rational herdsman sharing a commons. Therein is the tragedy. Each man is locked into a system that compels him to increase his herd without limit – in a world that is limited. Ruin is the destination toward which all men rush, each pursuing his own best interest in a society that believes in the freedom of the commons. Freedom in a commons brings ruin to all.”59

Lessig, however, draws the important distinction between properties that are rivalrous and non-rivalrous. The grass on a commons is rivalrous – if my cattle eat it, yours can’t, and you and your cattle suffer as a result. Similarly, if I take a bite out of your apple, that’s my gain, your loss. But learning is a non-rivalrous property. If I share an idea with you, you gain, but not at my expense. I still have that knowledge. Knowledge can be likened to the light from a candle: I can light many other candles without losing the original source of light.

It’s hard to overstate the power of this idea. It lies at the core of Open, and has often been the source of bitter dispute as attempts to control not merely the expression of ideas, but the idea itself, periodically occur. We see it most recently in the battle for ‘control’ of the internet. Those who would seek to create learning enclosures, by restricting our ability to share all that we know, would claim that such enclosures are ‘for our own good’. Governments are trying to protect the populace from cyber-terrorists, publishers from pirates, while corporations need those restrictions to maximise shareholder return. The consequence is that where we find knowledge, and whom we learn skills from, needs to be tightly controlled. Their fear is that, now that we have the means to do so, if they allow us to learn from each other, they’ve lost authority and control in equal measure. Worse, only they know who the bad guys are.

This is not to say that we can afford to be naive. There are bad people out there who will attempt to do bad things unless the force of the law prevents them. But neither should we allow our collective knees to be jerked by simplistic scare stories. Paedophilia wasn’t invented after the internet, would-be terrorists used to share plans by using homing pigeons, and not every under-18-year-old illegally downloads books, music and films. 

The validity of Hardin’s position, and whether the freedom of the commons is in fact a tragedy, really comes down to your assessment of human nature: if all that drives us is self-interest, then freedom may indeed bring ruin to us all. I’ve tried to show throughout this book, that we’ve entered into a period where our better selves can emerge. We are taking to the streets, each other’s houses, and the internet forums, in large numbers, partly to show that we’re driven by higher ideals; to show that the politics of fear, greed, competition and distrust no longer represent us, they merely repress us. 

We have good cause to be optimistic about the social movement that has barely started. Our young people, despite the enormity of the financial and environmental mess we’re leaving them, seem remarkably upbeat about their capacity to save the world. As social media has grown, so has our confidence that we can use it to help others. As informal learning moves mainstream, so we have recognised that learning by doing is just as important as learning by reading. The advent of the video tutorial does not diminish the power of the written word. There will always be a monetary value in expertise, but that value is affected by scarcity, and ‘open’ now means that expertise is everywhere. 

It is not just the speed of technological transformation that will determine how we cope with the changes we’re facing, but the values and actions that we ourselves hold dear. Those values and actions, which we’re cultivating in the social space, will need to benignly infect the way we work, live, and learn. I’m convinced they can. We need, however, to be brave, and be willing to jettison the assumptions that we formed when the world turned rather more slowly than it does today.

Perhaps most remarkably, we are at a point where open learning can bring about a world envisaged with great prescience and eloquence by Thomas Jefferson when he reasoned that freely sharing our learning was not only the highest of aspirations, it was our natural state of being:

“He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me. That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density in any point, and like the air in which we breathe, move, and have our physical being, incapable of confinement or exclusive appropriation.”60 

‘Open’ is beginning to reshape our political institutions. It’s starting to challenge the dominance of free-market capitalism. It offers a new way for companies and corporations to do businesses. It has shaken up higher education and will eventually do the same for our schooling system. This is already an impressive set of works-in-progress, but the potential of ‘open’ is even greater. It could, in time, rescue the planet from the threat of self-destruction, because the scientific advances required to ensure our survival, can only achieve scale and sustainability if we treat that knowledge as common property.

Open learning gives the rural farmer in Kenya the same opportunity for self-improvement as the middle-class kid in California. It also gives them the chance to connect and understand each other a little better. Every time we gather in the learning commons, we chip away at fear and prejudice, and we glimpse a future that’s collaborative, not simply competitive. We’re lighting candles, not biting apples.

On one level, Open is about changing national values and corporate priorities. On another level, it’s deeply personal.

For this book, and this social movement, is about the story we choose to tell ourselves. That story used to be told to us by others. It said ‘if you want to learn new skills, be better at your job, improve your community, you need the experts to tell you how to do it. Not everyone can get access to that expertise, but life in the information age was never meant to be fair. There can only be winners if there are losers’.

Open tells a different story. It says ‘we can work this out for ourselves, level the playing field, share what we know, trust in our creativity, have fun doing it, and we’ll let you know when we need your help’. Not everyone has yet heard that story, because we’re only just grasping the incredible force we hold in our collective heads, hands and hearts. But, as more of us reach for the off button on that TV remote, and turn to each other to share our story, the more we begin to believe in ourselves.

It’s a story whose ending we cannot predict, because we’re literally making it up as we go along. That’s why it’s so exciting, because the learning lies in the telling of the story.


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