I have spent the last couple of days in London with the Learner Generated Contexts group - a motley collection of my academic pals. I got interested in Learner Generated Contexts (LGC) when I heard Fred Garnett (formerly of BECTA) giving a presentation about it last year at the computer assisted learning conference. I didn't understand one word in five, but it intrigued me. I was invited to join the group (who have been described as cute English anarchists) and have been to various events. Actually, I am an undeserved co-author on a recent article submitted to JIME about it. But it has taken me two days shut in a room with the group to understand the thrust of the argument. As practice I am going to try to explain it here with the extra challenge of not resorting to too much jargon.
Maybe you've heard of "learner generated content". It's a buzz phrase at the moment, along with Web 2.0. It's the idea that it's useful for learners to make their own material- write their own articles, record their own audio or video and such - and then share it with other learners online. Instead of consuming what their teachers or text book publishers give them, they produce their own learning resources. In the process of making the materials they make sense of their own knowledge about the topic. There are various good examples of learners contributing the wikis, posting blogs, making podcasts in primary schools within Scotland (and abroad, obviously). There are various advantages but one I like is that the learners now have a genuine audience for their work. For example, I know a teacher in Australia whose class blogs about computer games they have made and share the games online. People who download their games leave comments which help them to improve their work. A good place to start learning about blogging in schools is Ewan McIntosh's blog.
Learner generated contexts goes a step beyond this. LGC is a kind of manifesto for a form of education where learners have more say. We're arguing that learners would benefit from not only creating their content with other learners, but also from having a say in the way they learn and what they learn. The difference is that just now often the teachers would tell the learners what content to produce to support particular learning goals. In a learner generated context, the learner would have negotiated with the teacher or other learners about what the learning goals were and how they could achieve them. Note that we're not saying that we should get rid of teachers. We're arguing, as others have before, that teachers have more of a mentoring or guiding role.
It starts from what learners are already interested in, and "unleashes their desire to learn" (yes, I know that sounds like a dodgy radio jingle :-) ). So the role of the teacher would be to find out what learners are interested in learning, help them to learn more about it and then help them to relate their learning to the wider world. There would be shift in focus from teachers/lecturers being subject matter experts to being experts in guiding learning. It's a subtle point which I didn't notice at first, but the question wouldn't be "How on earth can we motivate these students?" but it would flip to be "What motivates these students already?"
The teacher and learner would decide together what the learning goals would be, and the next step would be to decide how to learn using the resources available. (Rose Luckin's Ecology of Resources comes in here). The resources could be printed materials, or digital technology (including computers, pdas, phones, GPS devices) or software (blogs, wikis, media authoring programs), other learners, experts and even places (how the class is laid out, playing fields, field trips and so on).
If you work in primary school education or further education, or informal education you might be thinking "big deal - we do this stuff already". If, like me, you work in a more formal institution like a university you might be thinking "is she mad? Never in a million years could we do this!". In fact, we are collecting examples of places where LGC works - so let me know if you have one. A good example is the South Downs Learning Centre where secondary school aged kids manage their own learning with tutor support. Here the learners are responsible for deciding their learning goals, making their own timetables for the week, and planning out what resources they will need, whether they can get it on-site or whether they need to go on a field trip. From the case studies we have so far, it can be a really good way to work with young people who have been failed by the educational system, or who haven't succeeded in it yet. And there are a lot of people like that in the UK - e.g. 15% of 18 year olds are not in education, employment or training.
Don't be put off if your setting is less flexible than this. I am stuck in a dinosaur of a university where we work on geological time scales. It takes a year to change a learning objective or syllabus, and all assessment is closley monitored by committees and external examiners. The estates department rules all the classrooms and furniture, and the IT services department would probably prefer it if the users didn't exist. The timetablers have decreed that learning takes place in one hour slots. Despite this, it's possible to make small changes. If you're wiley. If you don't mind working around your institution rather than waiting for it to start supporting learning. You can work towards some aspects of an LGC and still get some rewarding results. For example, my students usually have a choice about what they want to produce in their portfolios and which resources to use to learn the skills. I have had success in small classes where students plan out sessions (such as they invite users to visit the lab to take part in user centred design).
I have two main interests in LGC at the moment. The first is whether young learners have got the cognitive capacity to learn in this way, as it does require some meta-cognitive skills. I would like to think they can, but we need to confirm this, or some children would be left out. The second is how to design physical learning spaces to be flexible.
As I say, this is a manifesto. We believe it is worth aiming for, and we are gathering research evidence to support it. Join us! The next face to face event will be in Brighton on July 7th.