I will discuss the idea I call Cloud Learning – universal access to learning by all through the fact that our learning environments, learning content, learning services an learning devices are becoming digitally distributed, context aware (as in physical location, physical environment and learners themselves) and will resemble more of a cloud than a cathedral.
Cloud Learning takes a holistic approach in understanding how digitally distributed and transparent mobile technologies are shaping individual and organizational learning as a whole.
Cloud Learning Devices
Current trend on mobile and tablet computing points towards a future where the input and access devices we use are becoming paradoxically both context sensitive and location independent. Cloud learning on a mobile device matches distributed learning resources from human and non-human appliances to the context of use.
We now know the location through GPS, owner through the services, environment through the sensors and network through the social connections. This enables the devices to be tailored to individual needs and content to be delivered in a contextual way.
Applications such as Layar already show the potential of using the camera, accelerometer, location awareness and cloud-based content to augment human capabilities to a wholly new level.
Learners will loose their backpacks as all the content they will ever need will be available on their mobiles and tablets on-demand in a similar way as any track of music can be readily available through Spotify without local storage.
The future of a bookshelf is not going to be a replica of the physical one: it will include the ability to bookmark, highlight annotate, share and filter any piece of content, article and page based on your social network graph.
Learners will combine various applications on their mobile devices to form a personal cloud learning environment, consisting of interconnected software applications utilizing content and services available from the cloud for individual learning needs. This is something that is being now enabled through application and content stores.
Cloud Learning Services
There are good examples on how social technologies are enabling new modes of collaboration and learning. In general, social computing platforms often deploy a network of people connected on a planetary scale.
Such networks are used to filter and display better and more focused information for learners based on their social connections, usage history and proclaimed interests. What is possible in open systems in terms of recommendation systems have major advantages over centralized and closed systems based on a limited content and user base.
Crowdsourcing enables one to outsource certain key tasks through the internet to a large number of people in order to tap into the collective intelligence available. Services such as Quora provide means for asking questions and getting answers from skilled people all around the world, increasing the diversity of conversations.
Cloud Learning Environments
Talking about a learning environment as a separate entity points towards the distinction that learning could only happen in certain environments and not in others. It also points to an idea that one environment could be better designed for learning than another.
The fact today is that learning environments surrounded by walls are a hindering factor to potential conversations, interactions and perspectives one could have. In other words the traditional model of a class room is outdated – it limits our access to other people, other content and other means of learning.
Mobile is about to liberate us from the walls and single point of access to content and resources.
The reason for centralized learning environments is obvious: during the age of analog media, one had to gather content (such as books) and resources (as in people) into a single physical location (a school) in order for learning to be efficient.
Now in the age of digital media, the best content and the best people to teach, co-learn and share with are accessible on the network, making centralized models less efficient.
Nobel laureate Ronald Coase wrote in his economic theory that high transaction costs lead to the foundation of centralized organizations. In the other hand, low transaction costs lead to a situation where economic activity happens increasingly in the open markets.
We already see this happening in the media: the internet has lowered the transaction costs in distribution and production of news, therefore leading to a situation where the internet is replacing the printing press as a distribution channel and consumers have become the producers of news.
If journalists want to be successful in the future, they need to focus on becoming curators of content, analysts and informants to their readers. Similarly school teachers are no longer the primary means to knowledge, but should act as a coaches or curators, rather than broadcasters.
The internet is lowering the transaction costs of learning. This leads to a situation where learning happens more and more in the open markets, in a distributed and decentralized manner. It is obvious that the primary interface will be based on mobile, cloud-based devices. Some principles:
- Learning content: Content needs to be presented in various different forms and mediums from dynamic conversation-based streams to well thought out narratives and information visualization dashboards.
- Learning locations: Learning should take place in different locations during the day. Material under study would connect with the objects in the environment.
- Storage of learning content: a library larger than the library of Alexandria can already fit into a single device in your pocket. Content will be organized in an associative way through tagging and could potentially use the possibilities offered by the semantic web. Content that is based on physical objects will have location based information embedded within. Cloud computing will provide a distributed and efficient way to store and access this information.
- Organization of learning content: digital technologies free us from the limitations of physical organization. Metaphorically the same book could reside on multiple bookshelves at the same time. Social recommendation systems and new kind of search engines provide relevancy and accuracy for finding suitable content.
- From broadcast and consumption to collaboration and co-creation: the past was all about teachers acting as transmitters of content. In the future teachers and students are collaborators and students are considered part of the process of improving teaching. Teachers and facilitators will be available on-demand from anywhere in the world through the network.
It is evident that digitally distributed learning environments through mobile devices will be more scalable, more effective, more comprehensive, more social and more immersive than traditional physical class rooms and centralized locations for schools.
The question os assessment often arises in the context of learning taking place in non-formal, informal and distributed environments. How do we evaluate that learning has occured and how do we certify that learning?
Traditional modes of assessment assumes that a set of questions should be answered in a specific way, demonstrating systemic understanding of the topic – the SAT scores are a good example of this. The questions are answered in isolation to the world to demonstrate memorization.
Contemporary modes of assessment would assume that learning happens everywhere (in the cloud) and that the way how you demonstrate learning is to track how ones thinking has evolved over time through multiple channels. It also assumes that one does not learn or solve problems in isolation with the world but is effectively connected to the world to its maximum.
There are effectively three levels of certification: 1st hand, 2nd hand and 3rd hand certification.
- 1st hand certification is what you say you know. In the old world you would describe your skills in a resume and leave it to the employer to evaluate if that holds true. In the new world you can make your work and learning processes visible as it happens, demonstrating progress and increasing the believability of your 1st hand descriptions. A simple blog (a log of thoughts) makes reflection visible and demonstrates the evolution and iteration of thinking as it happens.
- 2nd hand certification is what others say about you. In the old world you would describe your references in a resume and leave it to the employer to call these references to evaluate if these people really value your work and learning. In the new world people accumulate links, likes and comments to the resources you produce on social networks. A Klout score on social media or a personal stock price based on social media activity on EmpireAvenue demonstrate your social capital through a simple metric. The question is, are you making an impact with your progress, enabling other people to build on top of your work through reflection and co-creation, or are you effectively invisible to others?
- 3rd hand certification is what an authority says about you. In the old world you would get a certificate on hand to add in your resume that you have demonstrated the ability to pass a specific rat test (a school). This doesn’t necessarily mean you have mastered all the topics involved, but it demonstrates that you have been capable of passing such tests under the supervision of an authority. In the new world a single test in isolation is not enough but your ability to solve problems in connection with others.
A professor could go through your blog and certify that you have truly demonstrated learning, but this alone will not be sufficient. What it effectively means is that you have to demonstrate life-long learning, ability to switch jobs, be certified by multiple authorities and effectively becoming someone who evaluates the learning done by others. You have to master all three: 1st, 2nd and 3rd party certification to be a learner and worker of the future.
The Mind as a Cloud
Andy Clark and David J. Chalmers wrote about the idea of an “extended mind” in a paper on philosophy under the same title (1998). The starting point is that the mind, the body and the environment are interconnected and cannot be meaningfully separated. The tools and objects in our environment play a significant role in our cognitive processes.
As the objects and information in the whole world (e.g. books) become coupled with our context through the mobiles, the external objects will effectively become part of our cognition. We move from just-in-case learning (memorization) to just-in-time learning (interaction), where the real-time web combined with a mobile link enables contextual information to be readily accessible.
The whole world available in this manner through mobiles then becomes our 6th sense. Our mind is not separate from our environment and it no longer just uses external objects in our immediate physical environment. Through cloud-based mobile devices the global mind is effectively an extension of our minds – turning our minds from single brains to interconnected clouds.
Universal Cloud Learning
Assuming that we want to provide universal primary education to all, we first need to enable cloud learning for all. This requires that technology becomes embedded in our environment. In a similar way as pen and paper has partly enabled universal primary education in the old world, in the new world cloud-based mobile learning should be universally accessible. Consider what Mark Weiser, the former chief scientist at Xerox has said:
“The most profound technologies are those that disappear. They weave themselves into the fabric of everyday life until they are indistinguishable from it. “
We should stop looking at mobile technologies as technologies alone and start embedding them into our environment and eventually into our culture in order to make them indistinguishable from it. When that happens, the old world (including mobiles per se, folks) will disappear and a new world based on universal cloud learning will enable universal primary education to all: no single institutions, no single learning environments, no single devices or software, but a distributed learning environment – the world as it is.