The Education We Deserve - Pamela Mclean

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This is an entry in The Future We Deserve - a collaborative book project about the future. See all the entries or talk about this entry.



Everyone deserves the opportunity of a good education. I am fortunate. Thanks to the Internet I have spent ten years enjoying educational opportunities that would otherwise have been impossible for me.

The story of a “social learner”

This is my story - the learning journey of a “social learner”- someone who uses the Internet to learn from others and with others. We are a growing group, and I believe we point towards a future trend in education.

I like to learn in the company of others. When I was an undergraduate with the Open University (OU) the highlight of my study year was the week of Summer School: that precious opportunity to be with other people who were working on the same courses. The rest of the year I was in the depths of rural England, miles from any fellow students, working through the course units (and it was back in the days before the Internet). How I craved the opportunity to interact with other learners.

It was through the OU that I got interested in computers, and also through the OU that I developed the confidence to be a self-directed learner. I believe these are the two key ingredients for access to higher educational opportunity on the Internet:

  • Competence with the technology
  • Confidence as a learner.

Ten years ago, when I suddenly needed to learn a lot of new information, I turned to the Internet, and gradually discovered the joys of being a self-directed “social” learner there.

OU research on social learners

It is only in the last few days that I have learned the term “social learner”[1] to describe my learning style. Appropriately I learned it from research that has been undertaken by the Open University, related to use of their OpenLearn resources. The OU research found two distinct kinds of learners. Some engage primarily with the course content, not with other people. Social learners on the other hand are much more concerned to find other people who share their study interests.

Relationships that support learning

To me the social element is a key point. Learning on the Internet is not just about availability of content (note - excellent content is increasingly freely available). It is also about the interpersonal relationships that support learning. The importance of social interaction may vary depending on what is being studied (with some studies needing more emphasis on practical skill development, and others benefiting more from exchanging ideas). Whatever the balance, social learners appreciate supportive learning groups.

Top down or peer-to-peer

Back in 2000, when I was first using the Internet to learn, most content was on websites, very top-down, very Web 1.0. Then I came across a website that pointed me to an online conference[2] and things were never the same again. I had discovered the power of online social learning. People shared their knowledge and perspectives, behaving sometimes like a learner and sometimes a teacher. They slipped easily back and forth between posing questions and discussing possible answers. It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a professor. It didn’t even matter that I wasn’t at a university and had no “organisational title”. There was equality of access. I was allowed to join in.

Once I had tasted the intellectual stimulus of online discussion of ideas, I wanted more involvement. Like all social interactions, after making the first contacts it gets easier to find more and to find ones that have good overlap with your own interests.

In recent years, with the development of the social web (Web 2.0 - Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and suchlike) there is much more emphasis on the social aspects of Internet use, rather than just the content. The emphasis is on enabling peer-to-peer relationships, and they do not have to be exclusively online. Meet-ups already demonstrate how the Internet helps people to form local shared-interest groups.[3]

Future learners

In future I expect to see the development of a social site that will be designed specifically to help social learners - a natural entry point to the connected world of independent learning. Signing on will be similar to freshers week in a traditional university. Newcomers will be welcomed by experienced learners and helped to find their way around.

The big difference

The big difference is that learners won’t be looking for set courses. They will build a personal portfolio of their interests - what they bring, and what they need. They will look for a mixture of collaborations and content, developing their own learning ecosystem, in relationship with other learning ecosystems. There will be a big flip-over from content-centred courses to learner-centred learning, and entry will be free and open.


  1. OpenLearn - http://openlearn.open.ac.uk/
  2. RIDE 2010 presentation - Improving the Learner Experience: From Web 1.0 to Web 2.0, by Philip Butler. http://www.slideshare.net/CdeLondon/cde-presentation-5607624
  3. London Meetups - http://www.meetup.com/cities/gb/17/london/