Creating a new education ecosystem
Learning is a concept that is variously bandied about as a right, a privilege, a product, and a gift but what does it truly mean in the 21st century, and how is technology changing our understanding of learning and its relation to education. By Malcom Ramsay & Cottage Labs.
It is clear that ‘learning’ takes place everywhere around us – from the youngest age, when it is seemingly gotten easily, right up to adulthood and old age, where it becomes commoditized or even impossible (at least for old dogs). Nearly always it’s seen as a good or beneficial to ‘learn’ more but how do we enable learning and what does that mean for the technology that we need?
A simple definition of the ability to learn is:
The ability to acquire or modify knowledge, behaviour or values
At present, throughout nearly all western countries the education system is seen as a means of standardizing this process at the national level. Education and learning go hand in hand and in order to ‘learn’ people enrol at nationally approved educational institutions. The system follows a well-worn path, built on an industrial-era model of education and has been exceedingly successful over the last two hundred years in creating an educated middle class. We are all accustomed to the accepted wisdom that the education system should deliver the skills that the population needs to effectively compete in the modern work place.
In a very crude analysis, education goes something like:
0 to ~5
|From birth until around the age of five, children are educated at home or in nurseries with little formalized, national curriculum. At this age the focus is on interpersonal skills and very basic literary and mathematical skills.|
~5 to ~18
|From around five onward children enter the school environment where a national curriculum, and to some extent the teachers, shapes a routine based around a schedule of classes that mirrors the Monday to Friday working week. The routine and level of teaching varies widely from school to school but in the vast majority of cases it is based on a group based, programmed schedule.|
~18 to ~22
|Depending on the country children will finish obligatory schooling at some point before the age of 19. For many this signifies the end of formal learning and they enter the world of work. For those that continue in education they will have to enrol in a university or other further education institution to gain an undergraduate degree or diploma. The structure of learning is broadly similar at this stage but with a greater emphasis on individual investigation and with study less focussed on a Monday to Friday schedule.|
~22 to ~26
|For those few that continue beyond an undergraduate degree the choices are highly specialized and in nearly all cases further formalized learning does not extend beyond four years after completion of an undergraduate degree|
Some form of education system, more or less following this shape, has been in place in Western countries for the last 100 years or more. It is generally assumed that the role of education, and the education system that provides it, is to instil knowledge. A curriculum is set that is tied to the needs for knowledge in certain key skills as determined by demand from the jobs market. In this way education is closely tied to employment and GDP. There is a well-established link between GDP creation and education. 
Source: International Education Statistics Analysis by Friedrich Huebler.
In the last 100 years there have however also been widespread upheavals in just about every sphere of human interaction. Two world wars, revolutions in Transport, Agriculture and Communications Technology to name but a few.
Whole social orders have risen and fallen but most of the institutes of learning in the western world pride themselves on being centuries old. In nearly all education systems there is an ingrained connection between learning as a process and ‘learning’ as a tradition or conservative outlook. Being ‘learned’ in some cases is clearly equated with the acquisition of knowledge.
In the last two decades remarkable changes have taken place that offer the potential for us to re-examine concepts of learning. One of the key changes from a technological point of view has been the ease of distribution of learning tools. With the rise of the internet and digital dissemination it is now possible to connect students to learning materials worldwide in an instant.
We need to change our approach to learning from the ground up if we want to accommodate these advances. The concept of restricted repositories of ‘learned knowledge’ is slowly disappearing. The library used to be a sanctified area, the preserve of a select few who had access to ‘the knowledge’ the ability to access this depended on an individual’s role within the education hierarchy, how ‘learned’ they were.
Too many processes and institutions operate ineffectively in the education ecosystem purely because they are the norm and nobody has thought to examine whether they are truly necessary. Knowledge is no longer something that signifies an ability for learning – it can be got easily and instantaneously from a smartphone and Wikipedia. We now see a shift in emphasis towards curation rather than storage, as access to knowledge becomes commonplace.
The concepts that only certain institutions or even individuals hold the keys to knowledge and that knowledge is equivalent to having learning are being replaced with the idea that knowledge is in fact a living breathing web. The idea that students must enrol on a course in order to gain knowledge has been replaced by the concept that learning happens through collaboration and sharing of information.
The ties between learning and knowledge are slowly being dissolved as knowledge increasingly becomes available like water. A number of new technologies are providing the infrastructure to share and and openly publish research.
The Open Access movement has risen in importance in recent years, advocating free access to academic research publications. The ability to see this as a plausible solution in any way is entirely down to the spectacular developments in infrastructure development that have created the tools to disseminate and manage research outputs globally. As of 2011 the Open Access journal The Public Library of Science (PloS)  is now reckoned to be the largest academic journal in the world.
The technology that we need to facilitate the next century of growth is only just coming into existence, tools such as Bibserver  and SWORD , provide the roots of the infrastructure needed to create a new ecosystem of academic research and enquiry based on open digital networks.
By Malcom Ramsay, partner at Cottage Labs.