Self-Directed Education and the New Shape of Knowledge
How the “information age” has transformed how knowledge works in a way that makes SDE all the more feasible, urgent, and relevant.
A diagram of a snake
Photo by Rooij, Nelly de 1917 Reptiles of the Indo-Australian archipelago. E J Brill {{PD-Art}}

The internet and the technologies surrounding it have fundamentally changed how knowledge works, and that should have everything to do with how we think about learning. Let me illustrate with a story:

Recently, my family and I went on a trip to visit relatives. While outside, my wife noticed a snake, but she didn’t know what kind it was; neither did our relatives. We have a young son who loves playing in the yard, so we wanted to make sure that the snake wasn’t potentially poisonous. Since we had no idea how to identify the kind of snake, my wife perused Facebook for any snake identification groups there that could help us. There was, so she took a picture of the snake, posted it with her query, and within minutes, group members identified the snake for her. (To our relief, it wasn’t a poisonous type.)

The story seems unremarkable, almost commonplace, today. But if we were vacationing in the 1980s, it wouldn’t have been possible. We’d have had to either know how to identify snakes ourselves, know someone (or find print resource) to help us, or simply stay away from that part of the yard. What my wife was able to do that day is part of a revolutionary shift in how knowledge works. This shift has everything to do with changing how we think about education. It makes Self-Directed Education more viable, and puts conventional schooling in danger of being obsolete. To see how, let’s examine some elements of the story.

Information is More Available than Ever

The first thing we might note is that my wife was able to access information she needed quickly and conveniently. It will come as no surprise that the internet has drastically increased the availability of information.1 Yet, this fact should induce a seismic shift in how we think about education. Conventional schools are largely about preparing young people with the things—like facts and procedural knowledge—they’ll need to know in the adult world. That probably made good sense in a world where if you, an adult, needed to know something, you either had to recall it, or go with the more costly options of finding someone who could recall it or locating a resource that explained it. If you couldn’t, you had to do without.

But there are two big problems with the “teach it now, so you can recall it later” approach. First, schools just can’t easily predict what students will need to know thirteen (k+12) years later. So most of what gets taught in schools either turns out to be false positives (knowledge the school thought you’d need but you never did) or false negatives (knowledge the school wrongly never thought you’d need). To use myself as an example, when I was in school I was taught to write in cursive and understand the periodic table of elements (false positives) but nothing about how to navigate the internet or edit picture files (a false negative, because the internet wasn’t “a thing” yet; it was only in my college years that “regular” folks started using the internet.)

The second problem with “teach it now, so you can recall it later” is that even when schools do get it right, there are often many years between when you learn something and when you need to recall it. Had the schools my wife and I attended taught us to identify snakes, they would have predicted correctly what we’d need to know. But in the decades between when we learned the information and when we needed to recall it, it’s likely that we would have forgotten the information.

Happily, the reasons we have for teaching things because students might need to know them in the future are outdated. It has gotten much easier to find what we need to know when we need to know it. We can think of education as less about equipping people with what they might need to know later, and more about preparing people to learn as they go. Think of learning today as preparing for a life of continually Self-Directed Education. It’s not that we no longer need to, or won’t, learn things. It is just much easier to learn things when we want or need to learn them, which is arguably the time when we are most primed to remember those things.

Accumulating Information is Easier than Ever

The next remarkable thing about my wife’s story is a bit more subtle. Not only was my wife able to find a quick answer to her question; she was also able to put the question out to a vast number of people who somehow found each other and formed a “community of practice” (a group that shares information based on a common activity or interest). Not only is knowledge more available than ever; it’s easier to locate than ever.

To appreciate this, let’s think about what economists call “information costs,” or the costs of seeking out and finding information. If someone had this snake-identification problem in 1952, the information to help solve the problem surely existed; it’s just that it might have been very costly for anyone to locate and access.

First, they’d call local libraries looking for such a book and have the librarian try to locate it. Then (if any local library has it) drive to that library, check the book out, and bring it home, and so on. And it’d be harder for those who wanted to meet others with an interest in snake identification. Besides asking around, putting an ad in the local paper, or checking local bulletin boards, the costs of finding such people would be quite high.

Today, these types of information costs are really, really low. Have a question, or have an interest you want to find others who share? Do a search in a search engine or post a message online where interested parties can locate it through a keyword search. Surely, that’s how “members” found out about the snake identification group. It’s also how my wife discovered them, and how they discovered her query.

A child looking at a tablet device

What does this mean for thinking about learning? Well, conventional schooling is most valuable when it is “expensive” to amass information (in an information cost sort of way). The school’s (and teacher’s) job is basically to serve as a centralized place where learners can get information. The learner interested in snake identification and the study of reptiles could travel around and collect information from various places, creating a course of study for themselves. Or they could more conveniently enroll in a course or school to study herpetology, where all that information is in the heads of the teachers and books in the library, organized into a course of study.

The easier (the less costly) it is to find all of that scattered information, the less valuable will be the schooling option and the centralization it provides. Today, if I want to learn about snake identification, it is fairly easy to find virtual (or real-life) communities where I can learn about it, and that means it is less likely that I’ll feel the need to enroll in a school that teaches it. (I might still want to enroll in school, but informal learning is an increasingly viable option.) Education researchers John Seely-Brown and Douglas Thomas have written about this type of thing: what they call “learning in the collective: “Unlike a classroom where a teacher controls the lecture,” they write, “the organic communities that emerge through collectives produce meaningful learning because the inquiry that arises comes from the collective itself.” Not only is it easy to meet and learn from those who have interests you do, but it’s also easy to find answers to questions you have, and to share knowledge others might want, making it much easier to be a self-directed learner.

Learning Can Come From Anywhere

Learning can come from anywhere, not just professional teachers. The third thing to notice about my wife’s experience using a Facebook group for help identifying a snake is that the information gotten did not come from anyone we’d call a professional teacher or professor (at least, not that we know of). It didn’t even come from one person at all, but from a collection of people.

In his book about how the internet has changed the shape of knowledge, technologist David Weinberger has written extensively about this. Before the internet changed how knowledge works, Weinberger suggests, “experts were a special class.” If you published a book or became a teacher or professor, he argues, you had to go through special channels that not everyone could get through. To be published, you had to go through a filtering process set up by publishers to make sure your book was worthy, and to be a teacher meant going through some sort of teacher training and certification program.

While this gave us some assurance that only the “good” writing or teachers made it through the gates, it also meant that teachers and knowledge were made artificially scarce by the filtering process. In his classic work Deschooling Society, cultural critic Ivan Illich argued that whoever has skills to offer should be able to advertise as a teacher and find willing students. Students, in turn, should be able to learn from whoever wanted to teach them.

Well, Illich’s vision basically describes what my wife was able to do in using a Facebook group to help her identify a particular snake, and likely what the snake-identification group’s members do when they share information. Experts still exist, of course, and we can seek them out when we’d like. But when everyone is free to share information, there are more channels through which we can gain knowledge, making it easier for self-directed learners to find and share information outside of a conventional school setting.

Knowledge is Plural and Unstable

The last thing to note about my wife’s snake-identifying experience is that she could have been given wrong information. The first responder could have been mistaken in their identification of the snake. While that could have happened, there were other members of the group, and it is likely that someone would have corrected that information. (In fact, to check the information she received, my wife took the name of the snake she was given and looked it up online to see what pictures came up and whether they look like the snake she saw. They did.)

In other words, no expert holds any sort of monopoly on information. In the pre-internet age, writes David Weinberger, “expertise preferred to speak in a single voice.” Books have editors who make sure all of the information is “accurate.” Experts—teachers, professors, and other authorities—like to present firm answers and will more often present what they think they know for sure rather than what they are unsure about (or what there is disagreement about). On the other hand, Weinberger writes, “networked expertise is more like a raucous market of ideas, knowledge, and authority.”

The classic example is Wikipedia. Unlike traditional encyclopedia, Wikipedia articles don’t have an author or an editor. Anyone can write an article, and anyone can make changes. You’d think that this would increase the likelihood that Wikipedia would produce wildly inaccurate articles compared to more centralized encyclopedia. Nope. Study after study has shown that wikipedia is as accurate as other encyclopedia. Why? Because many eyes are looking at it, which increases the likelihood that errors will be spotted and changed.2

A person's hands typing on a keyboard

Wikipedia is accurate, but at a slight cost of being unstable. When an encyclopedia is printed, for instance, it won’t be rewritten until the next edition comes out, often years away. This could be good in that, unlike Wikipedia articles, what is in a particular encyclopedia entry today will be there tomorrow, next week, and next month. Of course, that could also be bad, because any errors that exist today will also be there just as long.

My fear is that since the world we live in sees knowledge function a lot more like Wikipedia than the Encyclopedia Britannica, conventional schools aren’t well equipped to treat knowledge like this. In the words of education researcher Kristen Olsen, conventional schooling is organized around ideas about how knowledge worked from the Enlightenment period:

...when the intellectual project was to formulate general laws of knowledge—guidelines based on observation and experiment. Out of this quest for certainty came a kind of intellectual authoritarianism in schools—if we could generate knowledge that was absolute and unchanging, without legitimate alternatives to it (a valuable philosophical project), the role of the teacher was to impart factual knowledge to vessels waiting to be “filled.”

One story from my own (college-level) teaching illustrates the point. One day I was lecturing to my students (back when I was more of an educational traditionalist), and I mentioned a particular fact. Hands went up, and some confused-looking students informed me that what I’d told them was inconsistent with what they learned in another class. We talked about it a bit, and I suggested that we all look it up before our next class session, where we’d clear the matter up. We did that, and when we got together next class, we concluded that experts simply disagreed on which interpretation of the fact was correct.

My students expressed some satisfaction in that answer, but still wanted to know what answer they should remember for the test. I do not say this to disparage the students, because the more I thought about it, they were doing what is rational to do in a school where learning is judged by performance on the test. When the teacher says the fact is x, students know they are to remember x. Even if they have heard a different version of the fact, school will not consider that they’ve learned unless they go with the school’s preferred answer.

I believe that conventional schools—with their textbooks, teachers, and approved resources the students may use to learn with—inadvertently teach children to experience knowledge as a fairly static thing that only authority figures have. I believe that has very little resemblance to how knowledge works in a world of networked knowledge that Weinberger (and others) describes and Wikipedia represents. Once again, Self-Directed Education seems to be the type of education which most likely prepares students for this world, where it is more important than ever for learners to evaluate the knowledge they receive and keep learning in a world where “what we know” continually changes.

In a book on the consequences of this new shape of knowledge, technologist Clay Shirky writes the following: “In particular, when a profession has been created as a result of some scarcity, as with librarians or television programmers, the professionals are often the last ones to see it when that scarcity goes away.”

Shirky wasn’t talking about schools here, but I think that what he says applies to them. Like libraries, conventional schools are based on the idea that knowledge will be centralized in these particular establishments and the way people get knowledge is to show up. That can work and surely had more rationale in the days where compiling information oneself was a costly endeavor. But today, knowledge is everywhere and is easier to get than ever before. Knowledge doesn’t have to come from a professional class of certified teachers, and doesn’t necessarily “speak with one voice.”

If conventional schools aren’t likely preparing learners for this world of knowledge, what can? I believe this new knowledge landscape makes Self-Directed Education both more feasible and more necessary. It is easier today for learners to learn what they’d like when they’d like. It is also more imperative than ever that children’s education prepare them less for amassing a head full of facts and how to remember what teachers teach, and more for a world where they must seek out the information they need.

[1] Sadly, not everyone has access to the internet, but the good news is that the number who do is steadily increasing by the year. For instance, the increased availability and affordability of smartphones has helped close the “digital gap” between people of color and white users.
[2] Wikipedia is by no means the only organization to function this way. The entire Linux computer operating system, and open software movement, allows anyone, expand, and improve computer code. Galaxy Zoo/ZooUniverse similarly harnesses this “wiki” technology to aggregate images of the galaxy. Books like Wikinomics and Big Mind chronicle and explain many other examples.