It is a truism that we learn from experience, and yet creating a role for experience in learning has been one of the most difficult problems in education. All forms of education will create some sort of experience or another, but not all of these experiences are of equal value. In Experience and Education John Dewey characterizes “the two principles of continuity and interaction as criteria of the value of experience.” But what does this mean?
The first is a recognition that no experience is inherently meaningful. What a new experience means depends on previous experience; “every experience affects for better or worse the attitudes which help decide the quality of further experiences.” And the second recognizes that quality experience is active. “Observation alone is not enough. We have to understand the significance of what we see, hear, and touch. This significance consists of the consequences that will result when what is seen is acted upon.”
And yet so much of traditional education continues to rely on passive experience consisting of knowledge transfer - reading, lectures, videos - rather than hands-on practice and knowledge creation. So it was hoped that the internet would augur a new era of education based on activity and interaction. The emergence of the web, YouTube, Web 2.0 and social media was a great step forward, assigning a role for creativity in the learning experience.
It’s not that people hadn’t recognized the importance of creativity in the past. ASs Jenny Mackness writes, “I remember in 1999 how stimulating it was to go to a conference on the newly published report – All Our Futures: Creativity, Culture and Education. Ken Robinson who chaired the publication of this document has been pushing for more creativity in the curriculum ever since. But there is increasing evidence that creativity in the curriculum is being squeezed out. This theme was taken up by author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie when she awarded this year’s Turner Prize to Charlotte Prodger. The lack of creativity in the curriculum remains a concern.”
Enter the internet and web 2.0 to pick up the slack. Social media brought about an explosion of creativity. The History Teacher videos by Amy Burvall are but one example of the millions of education-focused YouTube videos created in the ten years of the platform’s history. Jon Udell’s Heavy Metal Umlaut showed us early on how communities could learn with each new iteration of a Wikipedia article building on what was left by the previous authors, a form of continuity by stigmergy.
But interactive experience requires an openness that social media platforms were unable to provide. There was a gradual conversion by social media of the internet user as an active participant in a viable community to a passive consumer of advertising and manipulative media. And criticisms of social media were numerous, ranging from fake news to offensive content to tracking and surveillance to dark patterns. But what social media didn’t do was allow users control over what they viewed and over who viewed what they said. The algorithm would decide. The social media business model required that they replace interaction with marketing, community with commerce.
Insofar as content is what we experience on the web, in E-Learning 3.0, continuity and interactivity are no longer thought of as distinct from content. As we discussed in our conversation with Amy Burvall, the history of how the content was created becomes part of the content. The interactivity enabled by the content becomes part of the content. Creativity and consumption collapse into a single activity. Or, in terms of education, the act of taking the course and the act of creating the course can be one and the same.
New technology is beginning to combine the ability of teachers and role models to model and demonstrate successful practice and the need for learners to practice and reflect on their learning in that environment. Content distribution networks and live streaming are transforming real-world events into hands-on learning experiences. Tools for creating and consuming content are becoming one and the same.
A good example of this is the live-streaming platform Twitch and especially games like Fortnite, in which players become spectators, and back again, over and over. And using applications like xSplit or Open Broadcaster software individuals can make their experiences part of the learning experience shared by others. We’ve seen similar trends develop in education. An oft-cited example is the assignment bank of DS-106, in which course participants themselves create the tasks.
It is important that this be seen not just as an affordance of technology, but rather as an attitude about the content itself. We see this with the recent self-shredding art by Banksy or the inside look at how the single-scene time-lapse sequence in Kidding was filmed. In the course we saw a great example of this from Dogtrax. Some artists have made working openly part of the act - Deadmau5, for example, showing how electronic music is produced. Being able to see and experience how something is created is a key step on the way to becoming a creator oneself, and becoming a creator, in turn, becomes a key part of the learning experience.
If we think of this concept from an educational perspective then we may be thinking of “creating things while learning.” That for example is how much of the ‘maker movement’ in education is framed. Creativity is thought of as an adjunct to learning, not as the core. But it may be more useful to think of it as “learning while creating things.” From this perspective, the dialogue and interactivity that takes place during the creation sets the work into context and enables the person to see it as a process rather than an artifact. Even mathematics can be seen as something created, not discovered.
This perspective is related to both the process of creativity and the outcome of creativity. In her book Intention Amy Burvall talks of ‘critical creativity’ “which stems from the belief that ‘if they build it they will get it’. Critical Creativity is students using creative expression to demonstrate deeper thinking and the nuances of understanding content. When students make connections, transform knowledge, and articulate the reason behind their creative choices, learning becomes more sticky, meaningful, and authentic.” Creativity from this perspective is at once a constructive process as well as a cognitive process.
Similarly, the concepts of ‘design thinking’ and ‘experience design’ seek to blend creation with comprehension and understanding. As described by Wikipedia, design thinking is “the cognitive, strategic and practical processes by which design concepts (proposals for new products, buildings, machines, etc.) are developed by designers and/or design teams.” Similarly, user experience design is “the process of enhancing user satisfaction with a product by improving the usability, accessibility, and pleasure provided in the interaction with the product”. What these have in common is the interaction between designer, design, and the ultimate purpose or use of the design.
As design becomes more decentralized - as more designers and more end users become engaged in the process - the outcome of creativity begins more and more to reflect consensus and community. Like paving the cowpaths - drawing out and identifying patterns in what people do and what they want to do. In a sense, through this interactivity, the design process becomes the ‘source of truth’ alluded to earlier - not Truth with a capital ‘T’ but rather the basis for facts that will be taken as given by members of the community.
The difference between previous iterations of learning technology and that which we are experiencing with E-Learning 3.0 is that these creative activities become distributed and democratized. Just as multiple authors can edit Wikipedia articles or work on code in GitHub, participatory learning media enables learners to interact creatively without management or direction; the outcome is a consensus determined not by voting but by participation. Experience in learning changes the relation between teacher and student from one of persuasion (and even coercion) to one of creativity, co-work, and construction.
One note: Jenny Mackness wrote "very few artists who work collaboratively on a painting." True. Just as for most of my papers I am the sole author. But this is a focus on the product, rather than the history and creation of the product.
My work (and Rembrandt's) is created by a single author, but is the product of years of training and development, external circumstances, a community of artists or researchers, socially developed techniques ranging from perspective to style, etc. etc. Even the subject of the paintings - people, places, etc - is drawn from the community - is drawn from the consensus of the times, and his experience of that, as a participant in creating that.
Workplaces, and especially distributed workplaces, are beginning to create self-organizing consensus-based co-production networks. Early awkward and exploitative platform-based efforts such as Uber and Airbnb are giving way to (slightly) more sophisticated and equitable network alternatives such as Steam, Koumbit and Medium. Again, note that these aren’t collaborative enterprises in the traditional sense - an Uber car isn’t driven by a team of employees, AirBnB houses aren’t grouped into a single building. Each creator works independently, but also, they work in a community.
Eventually these new models of creating consensus will inform learning strategies and community decision-making in general. Look at, for example, at the case studies describing “self-organising locally based groups in Germany, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom that ... represent a range of responses to the issue and associated modes of action, exhibit different levels and forms of ‘organisation’ and may challenge more established forms of governance and knowledge in different way.”
The challenge for educators and for society in general will be in managing and accepting the transition from emphasizing ‘what people learn’ to ‘how people learn’. Like the creative process itself, what’s important is not what is created - it could be anything from a cake to a cathedral - but rather how it is created. It is the history, process and provenance of the creation that gives it meaning, relevance, and ultimately, truth.