This post is slightly unusual in that its initial purpose is to act as a resource for my 'Knowledge Café' session at the NIACE Innovating Learning event on 4 Dec 2012. That's why it's a bit longer than many of my blog posts. But I certainly hope that what follows will also be of interest to those not attending this event.
Sugata Mitra, Professor of Educational Technology at Newcastle University, is perhaps best known for his 'hole in the wall' experiments, in which children organise themselves and use a computer to learn successfully without the need for a teacher or indeed any adult supervision. (Read page 1 of this document for a brief description of these experiments.)
Sugata's work has led to an interest in 'self-organised learning'. But what exactly does 'self-organised' mean in an educational context? I suggest that the term is used with three different (but related) meanings:
1 The individualistic meaning: the self-organised learner as an individual, independent learner
In their brief paper Self Organised Learning: A gateway to personalising learning Gerv Leyden and Jackie Dearden talk about the self-organised learner in the singular rather than the plural:
the autonomous or self-organised learner [is] able to ‘learn how to learn’ and possess[es] a disposition to do so. Such a learner can analyse his/her own learning strategies and outcomes as well as support the learning of others.
They seem to be thinking of the 'self-organised learner' as an individual who is capable of taking control of his/her own learning, in other words the independent learner about whom much has been written, particularly in the context of higher education (e.g.here and here). This notion of the individual self-organised learner also fits in with the idea of 'personalised learning'. Leyden and Dearden do, though, acknowledge that there is a social aspect to being a self-organised learner:
S/he also knows how to make an effective contribution to and benefit from the processes of teamwork and working with others.
2 The social meaning: the group taking control of its own learning
This is perhaps the most common way in which the term self-organised learning is used. In traditional learning environments it is the teacher and/or the institution who are very much in charge of what learning takes place, how it takes place and where it takes place. Self-organised learning refers to the idea that groups will take charge of their own learning, but this need not always preclude teachers and institutions. As David Jennings has written:
... self-organised learning is not necessarily unsupported or self-supported; it's not wholly self-service. There is certainly space in self-organised learning for teachers, but possibly with the tables turned. Instead of the teachers setting the parameters of the learning and containing it within a space that they run and own, a group of learners with common interests may come together, agree their parameters and preferred learning environments, and then hire in a teacher to help them achieve their goals.
This sounds very positive and empowering, but in this age of alleged austerity many people fear that any promotion of adult self-organised learning by government and its agencies is primarily aimed at trying to encourage learning on the cheap.
3 The scientific meaning: learning as a 'self-organising system'
In the field of systems thinking and complexity science the term 'self-organising' has a very particular meaning. I can think of no better way of starting to understand this concept of self-organisation than watching this short video of a flock of geese in flight.
Nobody teaches the geese how to fly in a V-formation and nobody tells them to do it. If you examined, analysed or dissected an individual goose you would find nothing that would suggest that a group of geese will self-organise into a V when they fly together. The whole system (i.e. the flock) is, in quite a literal and scientific sense, greater than the sum of its parts (the individual geese). Similar self-organising systems can be found throughout the biological, physical and social world. (In a way the flock of geese is not a typical example of a self-organising system because its V-formation appears so simple. Many self-organising systems exhibit very complex behaviour - just think of a colony of honey bees and how they organise themselves!)
Sugata Mitra is one of the first people to have applied the concept of the self-organising system to social learning. This powerful idea provides a basis for understanding how people can very often learn better in a self-supporting group without a teacher than they can as individuals (even with a teacher!)
Self-organised learning and technology
The powerful networked technology of the 21st century can facilitate and support self-organised learning in ways that were simply not possible in earlier times, when individuals had little choice but to depend on teachers and institutions for their learning. It seems to me that this applies regardless of which of the above three meanings of 'self-organised' one favours.
For individuals it is easier than ever before to organise and take responsibility for their own independent learning and to customise and personalise resources to suit their needs because of the availability of so many rich learning resources on the Internet and the relative ease with which these can be accessed and indexed.
Groups of learners can use the powerful communication capabilities of the Internet as well as its mutiplicity of learning resources to facilitate their self-organisation.
And those working in the field of systems thinking and complexity science tell us that for a self-organising system to function it must have feedback mechanisms and a source of energy input from outside the system - both of which can be provided as never before by today's technology.