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.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *