I’ve been reading some of the posts from Amber, David and Lawrie as part of open education week. One thing that strikes me about it all is the similarity to Ivan Illich’s idea of learning webs, which is based on connecting up networks of individuals and resources to share skills and support one another’s learning.
One of the weaknesses of Illich’s learning webs is the emphasis on the individual; the networks are essentially networks of individuals who are both the consumers and the products of learning. The learning opportunity itself is assumed to exist in the interactions between the members of the network rather than as a discrete product that can be traded in some manner independently of the individual who offers it.
This is a very compelling vision of a learning web, but its a simplification. In an open education marketplace, it still makes sense for individuals to group together to reduce duplication and costs, and to add value by capitalising on their strengths. Such groups will then produce more standardised, off-the-shelf opportunities at lower cost than the bespoke one-to-one interactions between individuals that are implied in the learning webs model. As such groups become more successful, they exert market power, such as promoting the market value of their offerings through things like tokens of status for achievement, backed by the reputation of the provider.
So before you know it, you get back to something like a formal education system dominated by some large providers, and a long tail of specialist training companies and individual tutors and coaches.
While its tempting to see the internet and social networks as providing the kind of disintermediation that would disrupt this type of market pattern, a quick look around reinforces the “long tail” view – while a global distributed market does enable a large number of very small providers to survive, it also tends to amplify the dominance of the very largest providers. Or, to put it another way, with the opening up of eCommerce networks you get a lot of individuals selling a couple of things on Etsy or eBay; but you also get Amazon selling pretty much everything. (So it perhaps shouldn’t be surprising that the institutions putting a lot of effort into open education and open education resources are typically the largest and most famous)
Is open education, therefore, rather than a distribution of education opportunity and provision to a network of peer learners, instead a short cut to a globalised education market dominated by a handful of huge institutions, with a vast army of freelancers trying to make a basic living on the margins?
How could you possibly not get here from there? Is the idea of learning webs a complete non-starter?
(I don’t know whether its necessarily a good or bad thing as such, but when talking about open education, and the possible demise of the formal education system as we know it, we need to be clear about the potential consequences.)
Perhaps we need to add a Fifth Network to any discussion of learning webs and open education: the regulatory system of exchange that mediates the interactions between members of the network. The default for this is the same kind of market that exists for other kinds of services, but other possibilities include vouchers, offsets as well as various kinds of supply-side mechanisms.
Its this network that determines the overall shape of the other four networks, and of the learning web as a whole.