Monday, 25 November 2013

Personalisation and Illich's Learning Webs

Ivan Illich has been the godfather of the Personal Learning Environment (PLE). It was Illich who, in 'Deschooling Society', described the pathologies of the education system and appealed for a needs-based, self-organising approach (of 'learning webs' as he called them in 1972) as opposed to the institutionalising, dissempowering status-quo. But his argument was really another salvo in a lifelong commitment to a reawakening of human dignity in the modern world. Illich's Catholicism never left him.

I've written many times about what Illich would make of current developments of the internet and education (he died in 2002) and our discourse on the Personal Learning Environment. The deep issue about the PLE, which is continually forgotten as e-learning academics get carried away with utopian visions which are in the end little more than apologetics for the status quo, is the human condition in a world of technology. I wrote about this here:

What we have seen in the discourse around the PLE is a mess and I wonder what Illich would make of it. I've been partly guilty here: woolly schemes and bandwaggons have rolled in wizzing people off to e-learning utopia via Facebook and Twitter - in many ways, much more troubling and less accountable institutions than your local University!

I think Illich would have been the last person to have sanctioned this cross between hippie laissez-faire education, technological determinism and personal ambition on the part of the academics that promoted it. Indeed, he said it quite explicitly:
"Universal education through schooling is not feasible. It would be no more feasible if it were attempted by means of alternative institutions built on the style of present schools. Neither new attitudes of teachers toward their pupils nor the proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom), nor finally the attempt to expand the pedagogue's responsibility until it engulfs his pupils' lifetimes will deliver universal education. The current search for new educational funnels must be reversed into the search for their institutional inverse: educational webs which heighten the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his living into one of learning, sharing, and caring. We hope to contribute concepts needed by those who conduct such counterfoil research on education--and also to those who seek alternatives to other established service industries."
The third sentence sticks out: what is a MOOC if it is not a "proliferation of educational hardware or software (in classroom or bedroom)"?

This passage also reveals what really drove Illich - the "heightening of the opportunity for each one to transform each moment of his  living into one of learning, sharing and caring" This doesn't sound to me like an 'online community'. It is a real, everyday community. Illich here is quite close to other Catholic thinkers - particularly Jean Vanier and his Communite de l'Arche (see

I've been recently talking to education academics at a University in the US who are running a thriving programme of 'Service Learning' among their middle class students. Service Learning is hard work - but it is important and and can be highly rewarding. The experiences of students on this programme are often transformative. The students entering the programme have an expectation of success wired into them by the expectations of their parents. The Service Learning situation challenges presuppositions: whilst the students may embark on the programme with ambitions to change the world (that the communities should be so lucky to have them!) the reality quickly hits them. Many good people have gone before them, trying to make a difference - and these new students will join them in trying to make a difference: engaging in the hard business of trying to do good things in difficult circumstances; acting out of care and compassion, not zeal and ambition.

This is what Illich meant by learning webs. It isn't about technology. It's about the interface between social needs and learning needs. This is not to deny technology a role, for technology forms an ever increasing part of the social fabric. However, the pathologies of technology must be properly understood. Of the pathologies one which I've been thinking most about is "the labour of learning is not to be saved".

What I mean by this is that as technologists we are tempted to reduce repetition of things  through the use of technology. So we video things, we put up web pages, etc. Sometimes these are appropriate things to do. But when they really work, they turn one form of labour into another; sometimes they increase rather than 'save' labour. For example, I video feedback to my students regularly. I do this because I think students will take more time to watch my videos than they will to read some comment at the bottom of their work. It takes me longer to do this, but I feel it is more meaningful to me and to them. Technology here isn't saving labour, it's increasing it. For their part, students will listen and play through the video more carefully. They will listen to things more than once, where they might have chosen to ignore a written comment. In short, their labour has increased too!

If, as a teacher working with a child who can't do their tables, I have to go through the basics over and over again, that repetition, effort and time really matters. If the child gets bored with one approach, I can find different ways to do the same thing - even ways involving technology (I did this with my daughter a few years ago - hilarious! - but there is no taking away from carefully constructed forms of repetition. (Actually, isn't most of education is some kind of varied repetition?)

What I'm saying is that it is the routine which does the work in education: the routine of practice, commitment and perseverance. There are no magic bullets: magic bullets take away the routine in the name of 'efficiency'. The education system, which Illich tagetted in his critique, believes it is a magic bullet (our politicians and managers want to make it ever more efficient!) We now mistakenly believe technology is a magic bullet. We need to reconnect with the day-to-day routine of life. We need to get 'stuck in' and become part of it. We need our learners to do this too. That is what 'learning webs' are really about. Service Learning isn't a magic bullet. But it may be part of the project that Illich was looking for.

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