Learning 2.0 : User Generated Contents or User Generated Contexts ?

During a workshop organised to review a study on Learning 2.0 at IPTS in Seville, in order to express my vision of what Learning 2.0 might be about, I proposed to reflect on the concept of User Generated Context.

There are currently many discussions and initiatives relative to User Generated Contents, and this is often presented as one of the great achievements of Web 2.0. My position is that, while this is a good thing, this is not revolutionary: when I was a student, many of the polycopiés (printed course notes) were produced by students, often reviewed and validated by professors. And the Web 1.0 was very good at supporting and generalising this kind of practice. What has now changed, with technologies like wikis, is that it is easier to create course material collaboratively, keep it updated, connect it to many other kinds of resources and documents. For example, it is easy to cross-reference the portfolios of students who have worked on the contents of a particular course with the contents of the course itself, making the course material a kind of ‘learning magnet’ (rather than a ‘learning object’, but his is for another conversation), an attractor, an aggregator of ongoing intellectual production. The learning material becomes the result of a percolation process where the best of individual and collaborative production is being identified, recognised and celebrated.

I see what is happening with User Generated Contents, the ability to create, co-create, cross-reference knowledge as a first order learning. And moving from a system where learners as seen as mere consumers of contents, to a world where they are valued and celebrated as knowledge producers is certainly a worthwhile mental step. What I’m really interested in to explore is a second order of learning, where learners are not only the creators of contents but contexts, where learning outcomes are not simply contents but contexts, where the learning situation is flexible enough to be transformed in the very process of learning, where reflexive learning transforms learning—learning about learning.
EIfEL defines learning as the combination of individual, community, organisational, territorial and societal learning, which means that it is a transformative process which happens simultaneously within all these dimensions, each with their own rhythms of transformation. The context in which learning happens is not an invariant — group, institution, community etc. — but the outcome of previous learning and the starting point for further learning. But while we have some understanding of what a learning individual or organisation is, they are generally discussed in different communities, and rare are the teachers or parents that (want to) see the school as a learning organisation.

Moreover, the learning situation itself is a learning situation. While this sounds like a tautology, what I want to express is the idea that learning about learning, reflective learning transforms learning. The learning context is changed by the learning itself. This is not as elegant and striking as James Glieck writing “Life learned itself into existence”, who conveys the idea that learning and life are the two sides of the same object, but this is the same kind of idea that I would like to elicit by what will sound like a double tautology: “learning learned itself into learning”.

By moving the reflection from contents to contexts, we might have an opportunity to better connect individual and organisational learning, creating the conditions for institutional transformation, inviting pupils and parents to invent the school of tomorrow.

This also has an implication on the way we use technology, how learning environments are being constructed. The experience of pupils and students moving from the technology they use in ‘real life’ to the one used by institutions is often extremely frustrating as institutions are generally incapable of (or don’t want) providing state of the art technology — many school and university digital learning environments are wonderful time travel machine… to the past (in terms of technologies as well as pedagogies).

Why not use pupils and students to create the contexts in which they learn, using state of the art technology, inventing tomorrows technologies and practices. What we have today with digital technology such as social computing, virtual worlds, ePortfolios (individual and organisational) is the ability to create our own contexts and transform the contexts in which we operate. The context itself can become the artefact produced as outcome of a learning process. It should.

Of course, the very idea of User Generated Contexts renders obsolete the programme assigned to Learning Design (in the sense of IMS-LD and other Educational Modelling Languages – EML), unless EML had the ability to transform itself through some kind of auto-coding, while learning takes place. IMS-Learning Design being incapable of supporting such vision, it might be time to send it once for all to the dustbin of technology history.