openness

The Dispossessed describes events on a alien moon and planet, the former occupied by banished anarchists, and the later inhabited by several Earth-like societies. The desert moon is rife with survival challenges, and bureaucratic structures to allocate resources (human and otherwise). The protagonist, a brilliant physicist, engages in research regarding the fundamental nature of time, punctuated by trips to dig ditches to prevent brush fires, garbage collection, and countless other menial duties that contribute to the community. As the title of the book suggests, members of the lunar anarchist civilization struggles to advance technologically because they have been denied access to the natural resources on their home planet due to their political and social ideology.

The above parable, written by Ursula K. Le Guin, came to mind as I processed the lessons from the 5th session of Learning Creative Learning: Open Learning. We read a number of passages that were, quite frankly, anarchistic in their ideal of a learner and/or software developer as an independent agent, constrained by the authoritarian system in which they are typically embedded.

I suppose all of this is getting at the heart of what “creative learning” really is anyways: the agency of individuals to acquire knowledge and understanding, in a way that is personally relevant and generally practical. Essentially, the apprehension has little to do with the framework external to the learner’s own mind-space; it occurs inside an individual’s brain, as a consequence of that brain’s activity and functioning, and not because of some external pipeline of information. A brain can learn the skill of teaching itself with the help of such a pipeline, but even in the presence of a teacher, software guide, or curriculum the neural connections occur only within the brain.

If the goal of education institutions and educational products is to foster this immediate and precious phenomenon, should they not be flexible and open to hacking? The greatest power that an independent learner has is the meta-cognitive ability to hack zir own learning style, and thus learning tools should be infinitely customizable, and in fact, encourage customizability.

Focus on the structures that support learning should first start with how the learner can optimize them, and secondly on how to make them as translucent as possible. Like a web browser that displays any information requested by the webnaut, a web-based or meatspace learning structure should provide intuitive browsing and indexing tools, plug-ins that extend its usefulness in what ever direction the user desires (and perhaps even implements on zir own). Modular content can be connected in the most practical way, and served up to fit best within the learner’s universe of prior knowledge and thus strengthen neurological connections.

Contemporary learning structures ignore or deny this prerogative and the execution of the curriculum becomes the content. A student’s eviction from the wealth of available knowledge can be the only thing signified by an instance of “teaching to the test.”