Diagram of a P(L)E

The following diagram is a schematic representation of the current state of my P(L)E for tagging and sharing links talked about in the article entitled: The sharing of links online. Below I have added a number of thoughts about this schema and what it implies.

Configuration 1

1. This schematic representation privileges the technology and gives the false impression that a P(L)E is all about online tools and not so much about practices and ways of working. It does have the merit of making some things clearer, for example the position of FACEBOOK with respect to the DIIGO add-on (see below).

2. Activities and the related parts of the P(L)E can be usefully grouped into sub-activities: finding links; checking their interest; tagging and posting those links; annotating links; discussing links; reusing links; … Note that the schema does not give information about how these activities are organised other than the configuration of online tools. It would be interesting to explore exactly what the nature of the practices are here and how they relate to the tools used and their configuration as part of a drive to better understand the meaning of practice in this context…

3. A tool like the DIIGO add-on for Firefox acts as a convenient dispatching method (amongst other things), minimising the need to re-enter data. Note the fact that Facebook is not served by the add-on and as such requires additional work to post links there. If I were working for DIIGO I’d add such a possibility.

4. Note that the LINKEDIN platform is absent from this diagram (even though I use it). The reason for this is that Linkedin is not made to post commented links. This is a shame, because a highly legitimate activity in a professional community is sharing knowledge.

5. I have not mentioned FRIENDFEED, even though I used to use it to echo on FACEBOOK activities carried out on DIIGO and TWITTER. One reason why I do not favour this system, despite its obvious interest, is that it leads to duplicated entries on Facebook. In addition, it publishes material indiscriminately. All that gets posted on DIIGO is mentioned via FRIENDFEED on FACEBOOK. This does not suit my way of working. I use DIIGO as a place to post links. I do not use FACEBOOK for that. Those people who post a large quantity of links on FACEBOOK can be irritating as far as my personal usage goes. In the complexity of the Net, imposing a certain order is helpful, like, for example, having a specific place for links. As a result I am careful about and limit the number of links I post on FACEBOOK. FRIENDFEED is an interesting idea: group together feeds from many other sources so that all can be found in one single place but in doing so and then allowing the relay of those feeds elsewhere it wipes out the specificity of the different sources it gets information from and in so doing contributes to confusion and noise.

Configurations for learning and change

With the increasing availability of a wide-range of cheap or free, easy-to-use, modular apps and services to assist all manner of activities and a parallel trend in which people pick and chose the elements of their own online working (and/or playing) environment rather than submitting to closed, monolithic solutions that seek to cater for all needs in one offer, users intuitively develop experience in combining these ‘apps’ according to the circumstances and in integrating the use of those in their ways of working.

P(L)E is the name I suggest for this way in which apps are chosen and combined in context-determined configurations by users to carry out activities that include learning or change in a process in which those configurations and the users’ practices (ways of doing things) mutually influence and modify each other.

In using this acronym, I borrow and ‘tweak’ the existing term Personal Learning Environment, called PLE for short, distinguishing my use of the term from that of others, by the ‘L’ in parenthesis, implying that it is always about learning, but not only. I will spend little time discussing the relative merits and failings of existing definitions of PLEs, but rather I will use the acronym P(L)E as a marker or a flag for the exploration of the phenomenon described above. The purpose of doing so is to create an ‘image’ of the P(L)E to help depict, understand and come to grips with this evolution. For a description of a P(L)E see The sharing of links online and see Tracing out learning experiencesfor an exploration of how thinking about P(L)Es can be a learning experience in itself.

Applications and tools

One of the basic building blocks of a P(L)E is a wide range of small, easy-to-use, modular applications readily at the disposal of users along with other tools, some of which will necessarily be off-line. The way these apps are used requires that they are able to communicate with each other, exchanging essential data securely and seamlessly. They also need to be open in the sense that they can interact and work with other such apps beyond their own platform. Just think of the way social networking sites use each others data. The use of these apps implies that their adoption requires shorter learning curves, as smaller modular tools and subsequent upgrades are easier to manage and necessarily less complicated.


Another key building block of a P(L)E is a set of practices, that is to say the ways a person or a group repeatedly goes about a particular activity. These practices range from formal and explicit ways of doing things (like the check list of a pilot in the cockpit before he starts up the jet engines) to the informal and tacit ways of doing things (like intuitively developed activities that have never been discussed or deliberately thought out).


The richness of the P(L)E lies not so much in the applications or the practices themselves but rather in the way individual users and groups tacitly or explicitly assemble configurations of applications and have those interact with their ways of working. These combinations of applications and practices are the very heart of a P(L)E. Compared with preset manufacturer-decided configurations, such multiple combinations offer a much wider variety of possible solutions, many of them unforeseen by those who conceived of and built the tools.

The more this capacity to combine and configure is developed, the better the response to challenges and changes in the environment. The appropriate metaphor here is the living organism and not the machine. Saying so has fundamental implications about the nature of future applications but also about approaches to change and learning. Applications need to respond to the complex evolutions in ways of doing things by growing and developing in an almost organic way. And work on learning and change needs to concentrate on the processes of choice and combination and creativity potentially inherent in the P(L)E rather than trying to pre-determine ‘ideal’ paths.


The P(L)E is a user-centred vision in which efficiency of activities in a complex, fast-changing world depends on the freedom of the user to choose from a large palette of tools and his or her capacity to develop and evolve appropriate configurations of practices and applications. The best way to empower users is to encourage the availability of such modular applications and foster the development of competences in creating configurations of apps and practices.


The configurations people develop may well vary from one activity to another or from one context to another. So a P(L)E cannot usefully be seen as a fixed configuration, because that doesn’t fit how people are increasingly using their freedom to combine things for their own purposes. Attempts to describe, to constrain or to ‘build’ PLEs as fixed configurations (of software), however much they can be ‘personalised’, are affiliated, intentionally or not, to a out-dated model that seeks to control the way users/learners employ technology rather than encouraging them to develop their own solutions and fails to consider the essential role of people’s practices in the way such tools are used with the resulting inefficiency and inappropriateness.


The P(L)E is inherently about learning even if it is not seen as being used to learn. Why? Because creating and using multiple P(L)Es with the need to develop configurations and new ways of doing things involves developing competences that are continually evolving. The P(L)E is also necessarily about change because it represents the interface between the changing world and how we respond to it in our ways of working.


The nature of the P(L)E inherently entails a creative process the strength of which lies in creating new possibilities through relationships both in terms of those between the apps chosen and how they are combined as well as those between those combinations of apps and people’s ways of doing things.

Having said that, the combination and re-combination of apps and practices and the way use and practices mutually shape each other, as characterised by the P(L)E, is largely informal and tacit. Most people do not reflect at length or write about how they do such things, not even when new ways of working evolve in a group context. Seen in this light, the concept of the P(L)E is an instrument for reflective practice, in that it focuses attention on activities that otherwise go unnoticed and, as a result, possibly leads to users thinking about how and why they combine a multitude of apps with their ways of doing things. Studies have shown that such reflective practices are conducive to learning.

The challenges

The technical challenge of P(L)Es entails making available modular, interconnectable, interchangeable apps that are intuitive and easy to use and that can interact with and respond to emerging practices.

The pedagogical challenge involves understanding the combination of configurations of apps in relationship to the development of practices and how they contribute to learning and change.

The methodological challenges are two fold: 1) finding ways of working on practices without destroying the flexibility and pertinence due to their tacitness and informalness and 2) bringing together multiple perspectives (technical, pedagogical, user) in collaborative work.

Evaluation in complex situations

The following text has been adapted from and inspired by part of a report written within the PALETTE project.

Evaluation helps handle complexity in complex situations by providing provisional stabilities that assist decision-making processes and can serve to combat entropy by enabling the emergence of a simpler order from complexity, albeit temporarily.

Understanding and improving evaluation in complex situations requires extending the notion of evaluation to include moments of evaluation, that is to say, embedded evaluative processes not necessarily carried out by evaluation experts.

Many people are unaware that evaluation is an activity that involves and concerns all actors in a complex situation and not just the experts of evaluation. Evaluative moments are invariably to be found amongst their professional practices.

The understanding of this extended notion of evaluation can be enhanced by looking at evaluation as a series of practices developed within one or more communities of practice.

As evaluative practices may differ from one community to another, working in a trans-disciplinary and multi-cultural contexts requires that attention be paid to differences of perspective resulting from evaluation as potential sources of misunderstanding but also of learning.

These differences in perspective need to be ‘surfaced’ in order to collectively understand, appreciate and manage them in a productive way.

The difference between experts and the lay in evaluation can be understood from a social practice perspective in that evaluation experts belong to communities of practice centred on evaluation whereas lay users of evaluation belong to communities not centred on evaluation but whose practices contain some activities related to evaluation.

In a participative context that is heavily dependent on knowledge, the relation between experts and laypeople is necessarily problematic because of the imbalance of power due to differences in the perceived legitimacy of their respective knowledge and expertise.

The practice perspective throws new light on the way knowledge is given form and shape and is made to last as a process of learning. It raises the question of the extent to which evaluative processes and their outcomes are recorded and made available and whether this might contribute to improved efficiency or impact.

Understanding evaluation from a practice perspective suggests ways in which innovative practices can be adopted thanks to the efforts of those people who gravitate at the limits of such communities and act as go-betweens or knowledge brokers, bringing new ideas with them. These activities need to be encouraged and enhanced if we seek to innovate in ways of working.

The concept of usability, that addresses the relationship between the ‘design’ of the evaluative activity and the use to which it is put seen in the light of its role and place in a wider context or process, is a useful lever for improving evaluation and evaluative moments.

Usability has its limits, however, in particular the extent to which evaluation is able to question the framework in which it is taking place.

To enable the critical evaluation of fundamental questions, assumptions and frameworks, thought should be given to creating ‘places’ and roles in whichtransgression (asking questions that are generally not allowed) would be possible such that transgrssion could be innovative and constructive.

Boundaries and peripheries

The following is the first of a series of short articles I plan to write about Communities of Practice sparked off by reading Etienne Wenger’s book: Communities of Practice. Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge University Press, 1998. There are many very stimulating ideas in the book that I suspect could readily help people understand a lot about learning and about communiites and about practice if they could be put in a short, accessible form.


Communities of practice have boundaries that are defined by the practices of the community. For example, the way a particular job is done by members of the community singles them out from other people or their shared understanding of certain terms distinguishes them from people not in the community. When new people seek to join the community they have to progressively learn these distinctions. Boundaries of communities can also be marked out by artefacts created by the community as part of defining their practice. Such artefacts include things like texts about their activities, but they could also be a flag or a mark on the wall that has special significance to members.


The periphery of a community of practice is situated at the limit where a community is in contact with the world around and with other communities of practice. Unlike boundaries, which define limits, peripheries are places of contact and exchange. In terms of learning, peripheries are rich places. In the contact with the world around and with other communities, new practices are born and with it the community and its members learn. It is at the periphery that most innovation begins. Some people are naturally good at bridging the space between communities. These key people, with one foot in and one foot outside, need to maintain a delicate balance between belonging and not belonging especially if their community of practice lies partly or wholly within an institution. Those who succeed greatly favour the learning of communities and the development of new practices.


Institutions also have boundaries, which are often formal and rigid, but these boundaries do not necessarily correspond to those of communities of practice. There are often overlaps. There are also boundaries within institutions due to communities of practice that are not reflected by institutional structures. In the management of change in institutions, much harm is done by the failure to recognise  the importance of the boundaries of communities of practice and more importantly the work that takes place at peripheries of such communities and its contribution to learning and innovation. For example, two teams work in the same office space on different but related projects. The two leaders of the teams have worked together in the past. Their informal exchanges bring added sense and meaning to the work of their separate teams and enhance the outcomes for the institution and provide satisfaction and motivation for participants. However, the teams belong to different units. So when reorganisation is discussed and it is suggested it would be more rational to have all members of each unit together, the two teams are separated on different floors of the building. The proximity that made peripheral learning so easy is done away with and the richness lost in the name of a change that only considers institutional boundaries.

Managers and change

Managers often fail to understand the role of those people who work at the periphery of communities of practice. Managers see them as threats or as undermining the institution because such people are not entirely anchored in the institution. Managers often reproach such people with failing loyalty, with putting their energy elsewhere. They do not realise how valuable such a role is to innovation and learning in the institution and to the good relations between the institution and other institutions.

If managers were more aware of the existence of communities of practice and of their role in producing learning, in sparking innovation, in developing ways of working, in creating coherence, in favouring communication, in maintaining motivation and in raising job satisfaction, we might limit much of the damage done by a purely institutional approach to management that thinks change in terms of institutional boundaries expressed as institutional units and hierarchies as privileged channels of communication.

Backwards Engineering: When the Solution dictates the Problem

The path that runs from a complex problem to its possible solutions could be likened (at the risk of oversimplifying) to a tree structure where movement flows from the most fundamental problem out towards a series of smaller related problems and from each of these to a number of potential solutions. Satisfactory decision-making in complex situations often requires keeping a number of possibilities open and adopting several solutions. Whatever the choice, pursuing one or more smaller, related problems and there possible solutions results in a large number of other problems and potential solutions ceasing to be considered. Particular difficulties arise when the solution takes on a life of its own in such a way that it begins to dictate the perception of the problem rather it being an answer to the problem. From this perspective, no other solution is possible because the solution is both the starting point and the goal. Taken to its extreme, the solution is created with only a tenuous link to a particular problem and then its creators seek to suggest how it might be used to solve any number of problems. This is often the case with technological developments. But what if the problem to which our solution corresponds is not the pertinent problem in our situation and we need to retrace our steps back towards the underlying problem and find other paths to other solutions? If this sounds abstract and complicated, maybe an example wil help understand.

Martina’s problem

A group of colleagues working in educational policy-making have come together to help each other find solutions to policy problems related to the use of ICT in education. One of the members of the group, Martina, volunteers to take the plunge and describe a problem that she currently needs to solve. After due thought, she e-mails the rest of the group that the problem that besets her organisation is the need to encourage teachers to use modular software that includes not just course material but also suggestions for suitable ways of assessing results. They currently use a simple database system to note down and share ideas about assessment related to online learning resources, but it is rather clumsy and not compatible with international standards. Martina has been involved in work on international educational standards as well as innovative forms of assessment for a number of years and is conversant with the latest technical solutions for online educational resources. She argues that the use of modular software incorporating ideas for assessment alongside learning resources will be a far more efficient solution. When the group meet face-to-face for a daylong seminar, they begin by listening to her explanation of her problem and its context. Jerry, one of the participants who specialises in curriculum development, asks her why teachers require the additional information about assessment methods. It transpires that she judges that teachers are employing old-fashioned methods that are not appropriate to the use of ICT. Another group member, Mary, who works on in-service teacher development, raises the question of teacher training: surely that has a role to play in helping teachers develop new assessment methods. Martina has to agree, but she points out that it is not relevant to the problem they have with educational resources and assessment methods. But what if her colleagues are right? What if the problem lies with teachers, their attitudes and their working conditions? Or what if it lies in the rigidity and biases of the overarching assessment schemes in schools? If either of those are the case, the technological fix may well not solve the problem.

But what if the problem is elsewhere?

Martina is convinced that the problem she is confronted with begins and ends in providing suitable assessment means in conjunction with related online resources. The problem she has chosen to submit to the group, understandably you might say, coincides with her interest and knowledge about leading-edge software and new forms of assessment. The solution to her problem appears self-evident to her. Even in her e-mail about the problem to her colleagues prior to their meeting, she already pointed to what she thought was a probable solution. During their seminar she brushes aside suggestions from her colleagues that other issues might be pertinent. But what if there really is a deeper problem that remains unanswered? Judging from what she says to her colleagues about the out-dated assessment methods of teachers, the problem does not lie only in the difficulties of providing such modular resources. That is only part of a possible solution to a deeper problem: the difficulties her teachers have with developing new forms of assessment that fit new pedagogical methods related to ICT use. This in turn may be due to a number of factors like the rigidity of the overall assessment system or the inappropriateness of available course for teacher development. It would seem that she takes what she sees to be the solution for the problem. As a result, she cuts herself off from seeing other solutions that may be more appropriate to the deeper problem that she is no longer prepared or able to consider.

The backwards engineer

The “backwards enginerring” approach to problem solving is rarely adopted deliberately. Martina is not maliciously seeking to mislead her colleagues. Such an attitude often goes unnoticed by those adopting it. Their apparent refusal to retrace their steps and challenge the assumptions and choices they and others have made along the way can have various origins. It may be, as is probably the case with Martina, due to the wish to capitalise on personal experience and knowledge or to be reassured by familiar ground. One of the merits of peer-exchange is that it enables synergies between differing expert perspectives and counteracts the potential bias of one expert perspective over all others. Another reason for such an attitude may be the will to increase or ensure personal influence by shifting discussion into one’s own field of expertise. To be able to broach such a sensitive subject, any form of peer learning requires a supporting and trusting relationship between participants. A further justification for such an attitude may be the “pressure” of work and the professed lack of time that pleads against “wasting” time by reconsidering what seems self-evident. Urgency is often put forward as an excuse for hasty, if not sloppy decisions. There are even those who make a point of systematically preferring action over reflection. There are no doubt many further explanations, but it may simply be that the prevalence of “backwards engineering” in problem solving is due to its ease of use and its own self-justifying dynamic which outweigh the inappropriateness of the solutions developed. A bit like children who find their path more easily through a labyrinth on paper by tracing their way back from the goal to the starting point, working backwards from a solution that appeals to us is enticing.

Whatever the reasons that justify the “Backwards engineer” in his or her approach to problem solving, the result of what amounts to identifying the problem to fit the solution when a deeper problem persists and remains unanswered, can lead to a great waste of time and money, not to mention a serious loss of motivation and good will of many of those involved, if not considerable damage.

Do Swiss Computer Science studies need a new strategy?

SARIT is the Swiss association for research into information technologies. It was founded in 1989. Its purpose was to “improve the quality of Swiss computer science research and provide Swiss computer scientists with access to top international research activities within the European Union (EU) and the United States”. Activities in its first decade centered on exchange programs for postdocs and faculty members to ICSI (International Computer Science Institute) in Berkeley and to ERCIM (European Research Consortium for Informatics and Mathematics) sites. A small number of people managed these exchanges in collaboration with a few companies. The work was supported by federal and related funds. However, this funding system could not be continued.

In 1998, SARIT was restructured, becoming a national scientific association with the goal of “improving national and international relations within the IT research community and to making IT research better visible and recognized within Switzerland”. All professors of IT related subjects in Swiss universities and Federal Institutes of Technology became individual members of SARIT together with industry-based IT research units.

Decline… ?

Despite its goal of “making IT research better visible and recognized within Switzerland”, discussions at the annual SARIT conference in early 2006 pointed to the growing difficulties of Computer Science to hold its own as an area of study. The major issue on the agenda of the conference was the perceived decline of Computer Science as a field of academic study in Switzerland. A number of indicators pointed to this decline including the decrease in student enrolments in computer science and a relative lack of political influence. Several hypotheses were put forward to explain this situation. One was that it was a question of image. The public don’t know exactly what Computer Science is. The field changes so often. Some felt that the image of Computer Science had somehow lost its appeal. The field was no longer attractive to students, especially women. Young people prefer to do either mathematics or engineering. Another hypothesis discussed was that the origin of the problem lies in the confusion as to whether Computer Science is about science or about technology.

Finding strategies

As we can see, SARIT is confronted with a similar problem to that of other organisations working in the field of ICT: the increasing integration of computer-based technology in society is creating an urgent need for a radical change in strategy.

A number of strategies to improve the situation were put forward by members of SARIT. One person proposed to press the authorities to introduce Computer Science as a specialised subject in secondary schools. Participants recognised, however, that there were a number of barriers to this idea, not the least being the lack of political weight of computer science in Switzerland. Such a strategy would also go against the current trend to integrate ICT use across subject areas in schools rather than keep it as a separate subject. A second solution was seen to lie in an awareness campaign, public relations and lobbying. It was not mentioned at SARIT-06, but a difficulty with this strategy is that it involves activities that are not perceived as being part of those currently undertaken in Computer Science. Where would the funding come from?

… or mutation?

Despite a certain ambient pessimism, a number of key speakers pleaded strongly for optimism. They stressed the importance of Computer Science as being “integral to all sciences”. And went on to say that “Computer Science will transform society in a profound way.” These comments may be misleading in that they seem to confuse the use of computers and computer science. There is however a very hopeful side to them in that they point to an alternative way of seeing this situation that could explain why the strategies put forward to re-assert computer science might not work. Let’s turn things round. Maybe it is because the use of computers is “an integral part of all sciences” and many other fields that computer science is threatened with a profound mutation. For those who are attached to Computer Science as it has been till now, this mutation might seem like a loss of substance. Paraphrasing the second quote above, we might say that is not so much Computer Science that is changing society but rather the use of computers in society that is changing Computer Science (if it lets itself be changed). As the use of ICTs is progressively integrated into an increasing number of human activities, it becomes more and more difficult to deal with it as a separate field of study. Although there is clearly a distinct body of knowledge about computers and computing, that knowledge only makes sense for society at large in relationship to other fields of activity. It is this combination of a specific set of core knowledge about computing and the need for a transdisciplinary approach due to the integration of ICT in many human activities that is the major challenge facing Computer Science.

Water logic?

A related challenge concerns the perceived identity of Computer Science as an academic field. For a scientific field to be able to prosper and develop, in current academic logic, it needs to be clearly defined and easily graspable. If we use a geographical metaphor we might say that a territory is more easily defended if it has clear boundaries. The nature of “Computer Science” as postulated here, flows in and out of so many areas of activities that it is difficult to set limits. Using a different metaphor, you might say that it is more of a “fluid” than a “solid”. It cannot contain itself. If this hypothesis is true, then strategies that seek to contain this area of study within the traditional boundaries of a discipline will miss its essential transdisciplinary nature. At the same time, it is doubtful, given current academic structures and culture that such a radical “fluid” field of study could survive.

Possible paths to follow

On the basis of these considerations, the following action lines seem to be necessary parts of a strategy for re-affirming the importance of Computer Science in Switzerland:

  • Develop the role of computer science as a largely transdisciplinary field by working closely with other academic disciplines and incorporate in computer studies a part of meta reflection about its transdisciplinary nature.
  • Reinforce the public image of computer science as a key activity in relation to many other human activities and also as a radically innovative and interdisciplinary approach to academic studies.
  • Prepare the way for such an interdisciplinary approach by increasing understanding amongst school-aged young people of the set of core knowledge that is specific to Computer Science.

Ambient “schooling”: Putting learning back into life

The term “ambient schooling” is emerging as a new power word in the conceptualisation of tomorrow’s schools. By “power word” I mean a word that has momentarily become magically imbued with extraordinary explanatory powers such that it is enough to use it in a conversation and all becomes clear (even if no one agrees on what it could be).

Using a gross over simplification, the concept of ambient schooling is largely driven by a techno-commercial scenario but includes a substantial pedagogical and ethical thread that frequently takes itself for a Trojan horse. On the technical side, the driving idea is that of pervasive computing and the generalised mobility of computing devices. ICT assisted learning becomes feasible anywhere at anytime. There is only a small step from the enticingly feasible to the absolutely indispensable. It is this step that commercial interests seek to bring us to take with the subsequent boom in sales of networking, hardware, software and services. On the pedagogical side, the “Trojan horse” is constructivist in nature and seeks to restructure schooling along new lines by riding the back of the ICT tidal wave. There does seem to be strong structural and conceptual links between pervasive, distributed computer networking and constructivist pedagogy.

The following article seeks to take a different perspective on “ambient” learning, in which the word “ambient” (the dictionary says “that which encompasses”) refers to putting emphasis on learning as an integral part of all our activities in life with all the pedagogical, societal and ethical implications that that implies. It is primarily the learning that is all encompassing. The fact that the technology is ever present is convenient but not at the centre of our concerns. This article opens the way to approaching the question “How can ICT infrastructure and services be used to stimulate, help and improve that ‘ambient’ learning?” from a different angle. And simultaneously gives a new perspective to the question “How can existing schooling institutions be adapted to play a key role in developing ambient learning with the help of ICTs?”

From the one-fits-all curriculum to individual, learner-driven learning

Current curriculum-based teaching in schools relies on a “one-fits-all” path through learning. Although more and more choices are being made available to school-aged learners, these choices are still anchored in the philosophy that the institution, in fine, decides on the paths that individuals may choose from. There have been sound economic and organisational reasons for such limitations, but the situation is changing. Given the advent of the so-called “knowledge society”, the massive introduction of ICTs in everyday activities and the ever-increasing demand on individuals to be flexible and responsive to change throughout their lives, schools may well have to radically change their role if their educational work is to remain pertinent in modern society. In this scenario of the future, schools will need to prepare and assist learners in the local community to be autonomous and capable of independently deciding on and managing their own paths through learning. Learners will need to be able to identify for themselves the knowledge they lack in whatever activities they are undertaking and to develop strategies to acquire that knowledge. Such a scenario is much more in tune with the widespread drive towards life-long learning and the needed autonomy and flexibility of the citizen as a knowledge builder than the current disempowering curriculum-based approach of schools.

Non-formal learning and the possible role of schools

What’s more, in this future scenario not only will learning be more “individualised” and the learning path be decided on partly if not completely by the individual (or group), but the learning itself will also be less formal in nature. Engaging in activities and projects may well become the context for most learning, although those participating in the activities will probably not perceive what they are doing as learning in the sense that learning is currently conceived of in schools.

Instead of having other people artificially construct “learning” situations (either face-to-face or virtually) to oblige prescribed learning to take place, in this scenario, it will be the people themselves who seek to acquire the knowledge they lack in a situation or activity they have chosen to be involved in. The motivation to learn will spring partly from the requirements of the situation itself and partly from an ethos for learning that pervades future society and not from some imposed, external institutional factor like the current grades or marks.

In these circumstances, the role of learning institutions like schools would be centred on helping people (young and old) to handle “embedded” learning processes for themselves. This might include making competences and tools available to manage and facilitate the learning aspects of activities including how to identify needed to competencies and knowledge and developing strategies to acquire them as well as tools to help exchange and collaboration.

There may well be another role for these future schools (if such would still be their name): providing the context for such “embedded” (or one might say “ambient”) learning. There are no doubt limits to the spontaneous organisation of such activities as a basis for learning. Even those hackers who recombined life and learning and work created structures (albeit relatively informal) in which to carry out their activities. [See “Open sourcing ideas. A hacker approach to working, learning and writing“]. One could imagine these future schools as playing the role of local incubators for projects by young people. What else is an “incubator” – as it is used in the sense of business incubator – than an identified place (real or virtual) where support and encouragement, necessary infrastructure and means, and access to people, experience and knowledge are made available. Image the dynamism that such a change could bring to local society.

Of course current schools have a major social role that is unrelated to learning but which needs to be taken into consideration in thought about changing schools, that of custodianship. As young people are not seen as suitable for active participation in adult life and activities, society requires structures that occupy the young and free their parents to go out to work. The notion of childhood has become so ingrained in our perception of the young (although it is historically not so old) that it is very hard to see their role in any other way. There may be a fundamental and insurmountable contradiction between the disempowerment embodied in the role of schools as guardians of young people and the vision of schooling as the empowerment of individuals and groups as deciders in their own learning processes.

Responding to society’s needs for learning

Coming back to the question of ambient learning, what is being learnt on an individual or group basis has to respond to the requirements of society as a whole as well as the demands of the job market in particular. To be able to do so, individual choices in terms of activities – and, as a consequence, learning – need input about society’s demands at any given moment in terms of knowledge and competencies. Pioneer work has been done in this field, along the lines drawn up by Michel Authier and Pierre Lévy in their book “Les arbres de connaissances” [See the interview of Pierre Levy]. This work involves mapping the competences of the members of a given community and includes a mechanism allowing employers to feed in their requirements in terms of competences. Individuals can get an overview of their own competences and compare them to those of the whole community as well as to respond to requests for competences from employers. Despite the apparent attractiveness of such a self-organising solution, it didn’t seem to have caught on, partly perhaps because it appeared to undermine the power of institutions that saw their “raison d’être” in the marshalling of the acquisition and the certification of competences.

An immense institutional challenge

School was instrumental in generalising the idea that significant learning best takes place in an organised way using convenient pre-digested bundles of knowledge delivered in a predetermined sequence in prescribed places at set times by certified experts. School contributed to the industrialisation and commoditisation of learning, and it did a very good job of raising the general level of knowledge of the population. Times have changed, however. Learning has taken on a more central role in the so-called “knowledge society”. No matter how we try to modernise schooling, so long as it is based on the idea that others know better than you what and how to learn, it will not be able to produce the flexibility and the individual capacity to learn and change that our fast changing, complex society requires. The ambient schooling of the future will have to break with the industrial schooling paradigm and contribute actively to supporting learning as an integral part of life that accompanies us in all out acts in such a way that the power and the responsibility to learn lies with the individual and the group.

The emphasis put on innovation is not just about fuelling the economy by stepping up the rate at which we make (and buy) new commodities and services. It addresses more fundamentally the question of the speed at which we develop appropriate new knowledge and new ways of doing things.

In foreseeing the scenario of this future “ambient” schooling, the central challenge is managing institutional change. By “management” I don’t refer to a small group of people dictating how things should be done, but rather to how the institution as a whole organises itself (rather like a living body) to make the best choices in possibly turbulent change. Such a mutation of the educational establishment from a mass teaching institution to a distributed learning organisation and beyond is daunting. It involves a fundamental shift in role from providing pre-packaged formal knowledge according to a pre-determined path to facilitating a multitude of individually (or collectively) decided learning processes embedded in activities not necessarily initially undertaken with a view to learning. If schools cannot take this monumental step, they may well be replaced by something else that is less driven by a vision of the good of society as a whole and young people in particular.

Developing a vision for the future of institutionalised education

The following text is based on discussions in one of the working groups (education) at the Swiss Academy for Science and Technology (SATW) two-day meeting in Gwatt, Switzerland in February 2003. The aim of the meeting in Gwatt was to take advantage of the preparation for the forthcoming world summit about the information society (WSIS) to bring together some sixty key actors from the areas of education, health and government to explore ideas and make recommendations about the future of the information society. The texts in italics come from the report on the education working group’s activities. The subsequent text expresses my own personal ideas on the subject. Particular thanks go to Raymond Morel who organised the Gwatt meeting and to Ton van Weert who chaired the education working group.

1. The introduction of ICTs is causing considerable tension between systems like those of education, health and democracy and what is happening outside those systems.

One of the major challenges of the Information Society is institutional change. Institutions are the building blocks of society and, as such, the future of society depends on our ability to adapt and/or develop institutions that structure and give sense to our lives. Metaphors based on living organisms and recent theories of self-organising systems help understand the functioning of our institutions in a more satisfactory way than earlier models based on machines and computers. However, much thinking about institutional change is still based on what Edward de Bono called “rock logic”, that is to say the discrete nature of parts of the system that are seen as capable of being moved around and manipulated without affecting the rest of the system.

2. Much important learning takes place outside the educational systems. This situation fundamentally challenges the pertinence of institutional based learning.

Studies have shown that much learning using ICTs takes place outside schools. Educational institutions have considerable difficulties reconsidering their relationship with learning taking place outside their own limits. The question challenges one of the unspoken central tenets of school: school is the privileged place for learning. Correctly speaking, school is the privileged place of teaching, but not necessarily of learning. Learning and teaching are not at all synonymous. In their difficulty to recognise the challenge that comes from increasing non-formal learning, schools run the risk of being seen as marginal by society and loosing their essential role in helping to structure our understanding of what learning is about.

3. Educational goals need to be redefined to take this into account. Redefining goals needs to be related to defining competencies, integration into education and forms of evaluation.

In redefining the goals of education because of the challenges of the current situation and innovating in the structuring of learning, changes need to be directly related to competencies and how the acquisition of these competencies can be integrated into the curriculum and the evaluation system. This area represents one of the major axes of work for the future: defining goals, devising new structures, identifying competences, elaborating ways of developing these competencies, creating suitable forms of evaluation.

4. People need to ask fundamental questions – this is the main purpose of education.

This thought reflects the shift away from the image of education as the “mechanical” transmission of knowledge towards a more constructivist approach to learning in which individuals need to construct their own understanding. Such a position inevitably challenges the idea that knowledge can be handed readily from one person to another. The constructivist approach introduces the idea that exchange and processes are the keys to learning. It also challenges the validity of the sytem whereby experts develop knowledge in lieu of others and then “transfer” this knowledge to those who need it.

A second thread of thought can be seen in this statement: learning has to do with asking questions more than providing answers. Much institutional learning is rooted in providing answers. Providing answers is reassuring. Being able to provide convincing answers has become an essential part of the identity of many people and many institutions. The “half-life” of ready-made answers is getting progressively shorter as our understanding of society becomes more and more complex and change accelerates. This phenomenon reduces the value and the usefulness of such answers and threatens individuals and groups in their perceived identity.

Assumptions are extremely convenient and absolutely necessary if we are to function in a complex world. Very many things have to be taken for granted. If fundamental choices were continually challenged, nothing would ever get done. Yet, at the same time, when change accelerates, foregone conclusion and the self-evident can lead to serious mistakes of judgement in a fast changing world.

There is an art to asking questions that has something akin to childlike wonder and naivety. So we need to cultivate a certain “enraptured detachment” that marvels in seeing the self-evident as something new and strange.

5. Answers to such questions are sometimes available elsewhere but are not always accessible.

The reference here is to the barriers between areas of activity when it comes to the flow of information. This is particularly the case between research and teaching practice. The dynamics of the research context are often such that there is little incentive to communicate results to anyone other than fellow researchers. This situation is unacceptably wasteful. We need a more “ecological” approach to knowledge and its development.

There are often fundamental differences in perspective between researchers and those working in the field, like teachers, requiring a considerable effort to establish exchange of knowledge and experience between these actors. A possible answer might lie in some form of “co-learning”.

6. All projects should be based on the idea of action research : Integrating programming, content, research and use.

Following on from the conclusion of the European eWatch project, it is argued that all activities in education should be organised around “research communities” involving software developers, content developers, teachers, supporting staff and research workers. From the research perspective this would be called “action research”.

7. The first step to shaping the modern world is developing a shared vision based on a clear idea of what is happening.

The idea of developing a “vision” was put forward in Gwatt as the first step towards launching appropriate activities in the so-called “Information Society”, in particular as far as the digital divide is concerned. Note that there is not one “digital divide”, but many. For example North/South, East/West, poor/rich, men/women, young/old, town/countryside, trained/untrained, … The word “vision” – whose impact has become somewhat blunted through overuse and abuse – refers here to the need to address the underlying values and goals that shape action. The question of ethics was discussed in a separate group in Gwatt. It would seem that that discussion was more centred on the meaning of “ethics” than the role of clarifying values in change processes.

The aim of having a “shared” vision is above all to promote the transparent discussion of values and goals in a world where much of the driving motivation behind action goes unchallenged and undiscussed. A “clear idea of what is happening” proves necessary as many claims to truth turn out to be based on beliefs or wishes rather than “hard” facts. Science was put forward as a paradigm of objective truth, but unfortunately science is not always as objective or as truthful as scientists would wish and this for reasons that are themselves quite scientific.

Practically speaking, developing such a shared vision requires the promotion a culture of open, transparent exchange about values and goals. It requires cultivating a “naïve” approach that challenges foregone conclusions and the self-evident in a drive to understand the values and goals that underlie our action.

8. A core group of universities be set up who agree to evolve such a global vision and implement it in institutional strategy and practice.

To give body to these ideas and to translate them into concrete actions, a couple of suggestions were put forward. One, from Francis Moret, concerned the North-South twinning of schools using ICTs with a view to developing a relationship that seeks to avoid “neo-colonialism”. That is to say, the setting up of two-way exchange of ideas and knowledge that not only respects diversity but considers it as an immense source of richness. It would be interesting to explore what concrete effects such a value system would have on learning and on teaching institutions.

Another action, put forward by Tom van Weert, concerned mobilising universities to implement the propositions given here. Universities were singled out because they represent a key step in providing skills and knowledge for professional activities and are relatively close to the professional world. One could argue that the whole education system should be concerned, but universities have greater freedom than schools or colleges in determining their policies and obtaining additional funding and as such are more able to implement the necessary changes. The major question is going to be to what extent existing academic culture and the related ways of working can be modified through a process designed to elaborate a shared vision.

Are we learning or managing competences?

Without some form of feedback and subsequent evaluation, no learning – in the very broadest sense of the word – can take place. Life is not possible without learning, as life in all its facets involves ongoing processes of change and adaptation that require us to learn. Most of this learning requires no conscious intervention on our part. Generally, however, when we think of learning we think in terms of institutionalised learning as in schools and courses, and more recently also in the individual “life-long” learning. This article sets out to explore two institutional forms of evaluation – sommative and formative – and to see how these fit into learning in a broader context. In particular, what light these ideas could shed on project evaluation and management.

Sommative evaluation

The most common institutional form of evaluation, the one that has been deeply ingrained in our minds by the experience of school, is that which seeks to indicate the level of our knowledge or ability in relationship to predetermined standards or criteria. Called “sommative” evaluation, this form is epitomised by the test or examination. Sommative evaluation can be limited to indicating that the required competences have been acquired or not. In many cases, however, sommative evaluation goes much further as performance is equated with a number (“accurate” to the decimal point) via an elaborate, but none-the-less extremely imprecise procedure, that one could call the “school bookkeeping system”.

Marks uber alles

The procedure of attributing marks can play such a central role in schools, that preparing and doing tests takes up a major part of the time. At the same time, pupils rapidly end up seeing their activities essentially in terms of the marks they are attributed, the averages of which dictate their success or failure in school, if not in their future life. Such is the importance of testing and examinations, that one wonders if they haven’t replaced learning as the main activities in schools. In many cases, information is delivered in schools and then subsequently tested. The “learning” itself is done elsewhere: at home for example, with school children memorising what has been dictated at school.

Bookkeeping or learning?

The cynic might say that this form of “bookkeeping”, with the “arbitrary” attribution of a quantity to a quality, is the major lesson taught by schools. That it prepares the way for acceptation of the logic of the market place, where a monetary value is attributed to anything and everything the market can lay its hands on. The relationship between market logic and the attribution of marks becomes all the stronger as we move to the so-called “knowledge economy”. In order to be able to trade in competences, market logic requires there be some form of equation between competences, which are fundamentally qualitative, and payment, which is “purely” quantitative. This is why there is such interest in certification in relationship to so-called “life-long” learning. This is also why others, less numerous and less vociferous, argue in favour of a parallel non-monetary economy.

Formative evaluation

“Formative” evaluation, as its name suggests, has to do with learning as a process and not with the certification of end results, nor the attribution of a prize or a price. There are no grades or marks with formative evaluation. The aim is for each actor or group of actors to take a closer look at competences and performance with a view to improving them. There should be no judgement for failings and inadequacies pointed out during formative evaluation lest it be the longer-term sanction of not being able to understand, decide or act appropriately when the time comes. As such, formative evaluation comes much closer to the natural course taken by learning, as far as evaluation is concerned, in which we continually assess what we know and what we do in relation to the world around us so as to be able to understand and act more appropriately. If formative evaluation does differ substantially from the way we “naturally” evaluate what we do, it is in the attention given to the process of learning itself. The hypothesis behind this position is that being aware of how we learn speeds up and improves our ability to learn. A philosopher might well ask “Whence and wither this desire to accelerate learning?”

Learning or administering learning

A serious difficulty arises when the distinction between sommative and formative evaluation is confused, misunderstood or ignored. Successful use of formative evaluation requires a relationship of confidence. It involves taking a risk on the part of the learner, accepting that he or she does not know all. This is a quite different perspective from proving that you know what you were supposed to learn. When the comments made in the context of formative evaluation are (mis)used for the purpose of certification, the learner may well have the deep-seated feeling that he or she has been seriously misled if not abused and any further use of formative evaluation becomes much more difficult. In the long run, sommative evaluation is not concerned with learning so much as with administering a defined number of circumscribed competences. And, as mentioned above, there is a very strong tendency to replace learning by the administration of units of competence. These comments apply not only to the school context but also to the way European Union and others evaluate projects. Learning in this project-based context could be epitomised by the development of best practices, but the latter are generally seen more as shortcuts, discrete recipes to be applied systematically, rather than an increasing awareness and understanding of on-going processes. “More haste, less speed” the adage says.


One form of evaluation often used by the European Union in judging projects is the “periodic review”. An expert or a group of experts study the project documents and may question the people involved in the project. On the basis of what they apprehend, they evaluate the project, generally pointing to a number of aspects they consider need to be improved. Having been both reviewer and reviewed, I have to admit that the procedure leaves me ill at ease. The source of this discomfort no doubt lies in the discordance between the perceptions and judgement of the reviewers and those of the actors involved in the project and the relationship of both parties to those who provide the funding. Reviewers are chosen because they are not directly involved in the project although they generally do have experience in the same field and/or in similar projects. This mixture of expertise and ignorance (their knowledge of the project being limited to what they can read about it and to the brief answers participants can provide) is supposed to produce a sound, unbiased judgement. Is this really what happens? Although reviewers very often raise stimulating questions about the project, these questions are only fully pertinent in an absolute context. Trying to apply reviewers’ suggestions in the real-life constraints within which the project took place can turn out to be quite inappropriate. In other words, as long as this review work remains within the context of formative evaluation, its value can be considerable. The moment, however, it becomes a tool for judgement the outcomes of which dictate the completion of the project, there should be serious doubts about its usefulness. I can hear my philosopher friend asking “Why do other people seek to control what and how we each learn?” Certainly in the case of project reviewing, it is a question of trying to get best value for money. “Natural” you might say. But what if that desire to control insidiously gets in the way of learning, innovation and creativity and, as a result, hinders finding the best solutions?

Towards a new system of values?

The very nature of the evaluation and the requirements put on project evaluators, biases everybody’s perceptions of the project and the judgements reached. There is a tendency to think in terms of discrete elements that can be weighed up and which are dissociated from the overall context of which they are, in reality, an integral and inseparable part. Talking to Andrea Ricci the other day about potential projects for the European Union, he insisted that “you need to provide tangible, quantifiable results when doing a project so that those who pay are reassured that their investment has been worthwhile”. This is even more the case when the return is not financial but “political” or “strategic”. No doubt Andrea’s advice is indeed wise in the current context. But I can’t help wondering about the impact of such a logic on the nature of projects themselves. If the sole measure of value is quantitative, or at best qualitative but in terms of discrete disconnected parts, many “valuable” activities risk being seeing as valueless. In addition, this piecemeal perception cannot but mislead in a context which is essentially systemic in its nature. Is there not an extremely pressing need to reintroduce or invent a more extensive system of evaluation based on values that cannot necessarily be reduced to numbers and which takes into consideration the process seen as part of whole? My philosopher friend would no doubt say “You may well be right, but why all this hurry?”

Building for the long-term … moving beyond assumptions in decision-making

The following text was very much inspired by Peter M. Senge‘s book The Fifth Discipline. The Art and Practice of the Learning Organisation published by Doubleday. A book that is well worth reading! Thanks to Stuart Goold for pointing the book out to me.

Decision making is not only based on concrete facts but also depends very heavily on our perceptions and understanding of the situation. Very often these perceptions are influenced by a number of underlying mental models or assumptions that are not always clearly perceived as such. By their very nature, such assumptions generally go unquestioned. They are seen as true reflections of the way things are. They are often taken for granted to such an extent that we may not even be aware of them. When such assumptions are called into question, those holding them often feel personally attacked and go out of their way to defend their point of view.

When winning can be losing

Attacking other people’s positions has become one of our main ways of reaching decisions. Each party defends his or her point of view. In many cases the identity and credibility of parties involved depend on their maintaining a conflictual situation. The negotiations between trade unions, management and government spring to mind as a typical example. The theory being that the best idea will win out. But what happens if the best long-term idea – as is often the case – involves parts of several different people’s ideas? Reaching such an idea is nigh on impossible in the confrontational mode.

Questioning assumptions

Could not the decision making process be favourably transformed if we were able to surface and discuss differing ways of perceiving the world? What would such a way of doing things entail? First of all, being on the look-out for our assumptions. For example, when I write above that trade unions, management and governments necessarily negotiate in a conflictual mode, that generalisation may well prove to be untrue in a number of cases. I honestly don’t have the information to assert it as true. We constantly need to question what we say and our motivations in saying it. To have the courage and determination to do so is not easy. And doing so, if the context is not conducive to such a questioning, the result can be quite counterproductive. It requires a shared vision that the quest for “truth” is worth it in the long run and amongst other things the conviction , that, in knowing the “truth”, better decisions can be taken.

Pushing back horizons

One of the difficulties with assumptions is that they are invariably based on partial information. We see what we want to see. Unfortunately, deciding on local, short-term perspectives can produce long-term results that are quite the contrary to what was planned. There is a need to situate our understanding of a particular situation in a wider perspective especially when it is a question of complex issues. There is a need to adopt a more systemic approach, going beyond a logic based on the one-way move from cause to effect, to seeing things as constantly inter-related in on-going processes.


Another condition necessary to improve decision-making in a changing world concerns the nature of the exchange of ideas and perceptions. Much exchange goes on already, thanks in particular to the use of the Internet, but that exchange is often centred around advocating ideas where the most forceful idea will win out. Such a strategy leads to little energy being given over to questioning one’s own ideas or listening to alternative ideas of others. There is however a more philosophical sub-culture on the Internet even if it is in the minority. What is also required, for satisfactory decision-making and the subsequent implementation of those decisions, is the possibility to mutually question ideas and perceptions without feeling personally attacked. The conviction here is that, given the right conditions, a group of people can reach a clearer collective understanding of the situation than individuals could on their own and that this understanding enhances decisions.

The open quest

Learning – for decision-making is above all a learning process – involves constantly questioning the way we see things; a sort of quest for truth, knowing that truth is not an absolute value, once found, always the same. This quest for truth is an on-going enquiry in which we continuously question the evident, especially in our own thoughts and perceptions. In accepting that our assumptions may not necessarily be an accurate representation of reality and being open about that uncertainty, we also accept to be vulnerable. Accepting to be vulnerable requires a certain feeling of security. Not the kind of security that springs from (self-)complacency and mutual avoidance of difficult questions. Rather the security that comes from a common quest, a common vision of the road to follow. Two things can wreak havoc in these efforts to understand together: competition and judgement.


Competition is often seen as a motor for learning. While knowing is essential to winning out over others, seeking to always be the winner is not always conducive to learning. Being able to learn means recognising that we do not know all and that we can learn a great deal from all sorts of people including those who are “not so good as us”. That doesn’t mean that we should not continually strive to be better, but that competition needs to be set aside in learning. Clearly the word “learning” here does not refer to the accumulation of facts and figures, but rather to an on-going process in which our ever deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us stands us in good stead to act and be.


“Learning” is commonly seen as the result of “teaching”, where teaching involves imparting knowledge and learning means accumulating that knowledge. One person knows, the other doesn’t. The process is one-way. And to certify that the person has “learnt” correctly the teacher judges the learner’s knowledge. Much emphasis is put on this evaluation, often more than is put on learning itself. [Isn’t it difficult to argue a point without basing our arguments on deep-held assumptions – in this case, an in-grained negative vision of school and a distaste for its marking systems.] I am aware that there are teachers who don’t act this way, but the schooling system as I have experienced it in England, France and Switzerland still very much follows this model. As the idea of adult learning gives way to the concept of life-long learning [at least, that is what a number of major players would like to see], the learnt knowledge is seen as a commodity, a saleable object and as such the employer/buyer needs the value of that knowledge to be certified. Much work is being done on how to evaluate and certify life-long learning. Yet my hypothesis is that judgement, in which the idea that the person judging is in some way superior and knows better, is not conducive to mutual questioning of the models that underlie our thinking about a particular issue. It associates far too strongly the idea of learning with that of being evaluated. That doesn’t mean that the ideas developed in dialogue should not be evaluated, but that there are moments when judgement has to be suspended to be able to appreciate the perspective of others and to be able to perceive what there is of value in that perspective.

The need for another level of thinking

In being explicit about our assumptions and in talking about mechanisms involved in reaching decisions, we shift momentarily the discussion to a quite different level: thinking about thinking. This meta-level thinking can irritate those people whose credo is “action”. They have no time for such things. Time is short. Such thinking gets in the way. Results are what is needed. Is not this “action” perspective a good example of how an apparently well-meaning strategy may turn out to be misguided in the long run? In not taking the time to question the tacit mental models that underlie their action they run a serious risk of misinterpreting information available and making inappropriate decisions.

So what now?

So what is required to improve decision-making in our complex, fast changing world?

  • Realise that decisions are very much effected by personal perceptions and tacit mental models even those that seem quite objective.
  • Create contexts in which people feel safe to uncover their assumptions and question them.
  • Base this “context” on a shared vision of the need for an on-going quest for “truth”.
  • Suspended competition in this context and momentarily set aside judgement.
  • Start simply from people’s perceptions of the way things are and the words they use to express them.
  • Adopt a systemic approach, situating things in a larger, longer-term perspective.
  • Seek to spread the culture of this quest for a clearer understanding of the way things are in decision-making.