Philipp Schmidt. Social Open Learning: Can Online Social Networks Transform Education?

Notes from the conference Social Open Learning: Can Online Social Networks Transform Education?, held at the MACBA Auditorium within the framework of the Debates on Education, initiative of the Jaume Bofill Foundation and the Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, in Barcelona, Spain, 11 December 2014.

Social Open Learning: Can Online Social Networks Transform Education?
Philipp Schmidt, Director’s Fellow at the MIT Media Lab

The Internet changed how talent is distributed. And talent is distributed equally, but opportunity is not.

If we take 1088AD as the foundation of the University — the year of the foundation of the University of Bologna —, it is a huge achievement that it has lasted that long, but it also means that there are many tensions piled up along time, as its model has remained mainly unchanged. And engagement seems to be at its lowest levels when we measure lectures, accoding to Roz Picard’s work. When facing the future of education, we should certainly challenge the concept of the lecture.

How do we learn? How do we create an engaging learning experience?

4 Ps of Creative Learning:

  • Projects. Does not necessarily mean “building” something, but the idea of setting up a project with goals, processes, tasks, milestones, etc.
  • Peers. Sharing, collaboration, support.
  • Passion/Purpose. Connection with your personal interests, so you’re engaged by the idea. Attach people to the things they are already interested.
  • Play. Taking risks, experimenting, not being afraid to fail.

What about open social learning? We have to acknowledge that most of the “advancements” and “innovations” in education have limited themselves to replicate the actual educational model. Are open social learning communities the future of education?


  • Contribute over consume.
  • Peer to per over top down.
  • Discover over deliver.

The future of education is not technology. The opportunity of internet is not connecting computers but people. It’s the community what matters.

Success criteria of the MIT Media Lab:

  • Uniqueness. If someone is already doing it, we do not do it too.
  • Impact. It has to change people’s lives.
  • Magic. It puts a smile on your face.

The Learning Creative Learning began as a course and ended up as a community. The course itself enabled community building through individual, decentralized participation. A report on the experience can be accessed at Learning Creative Learning:
How we tinkered with MOOCs
, by Philipp Schmidt, Mitchel Resnick, and Natalie Rusk.

Organization of an Edcamp in the line of barcamps or unconferences, but online, using Unhangouts. Unhangouts leverages on Google Hangouts, enabling splitting in several “rooms”.

Most of the times, the online experience ended up in several offline meetings, so it’s good to combine both ways of communicating and organizing. On the other hand, the experience proved to be highly engaging, as people would be much more prone to participate.

It’s all about networks and communities.

Discussion. Chairs: Valtencir Mendes

Q: how can you explain why the US is so advanced in learning and, on the contrary, it performs so poor in PISA tests? Schmidt: we should be careful about taking PISA as the measure for everything. That said, there’s a huge problem of underinvestment in public schools and universities, thus the bad scores.

Ismael Peña-López: when we talk about MOOCs, and most especially cMOOCs, we usually find that participants have to be proficient in technology, have to know how to learn, and have to have some knowledge on the discipline that is being learnt. The intersection of these three conditions usually leaves out most of the people. How do you fight this? Schmidt: there does not seem to be a single solution to scaling cMOOCs, and maybe one of the solutions is to take some compromises while keeping the philosophy of the cMOOC. For instance, use some common technologies even if they are not the best ones or the preferred by the leaders. Stick to few tools, good (somewhat centralized, planned) moderation, etc.

Q: how this specific example influenced schools? Schmidt: Learning Creative Learning courses was a course for teachers. That was a way to infiltrate schools from the backdoor. Same, for instance, with Scratch, which is used widely and carries embedded most of the philosophy of the MIT Media Lab.

Q: people usually neither like nor know how to work in groups or collaboratively. If groups work it usually is because there is a strong leader. How do you do that (leading or setting up a leader). Schmidt: we know some of the reasons why groups do not work. But the solution may not be that there needs to be a leader, but leadership. And this leadership can take different forms. Facilitation, the group fabric, etc. can be ways to approach the point of leadership.

Valtencir Mendes: how can we assess and certify what is being learnt this way? Are open badges a solution? Schmidt: certification is very important, as most of the people that approach these initiatives already have a degree. How do we reach people that are looking for a certification and would never participate in such initiatives unless they issue certificates? Communities are extremely good at figuring out who is good at what, who you go to ask a question, etc. Portfolios, portfolios of the projects they have done and the network of people you’ve been working with. Last, the monopoly of certification may have been a good idea in the past, but it may already not be a good idea any more, and it would be better many more ways to get/issue a certificate.

Q: how do you work with soft skills, how do you introduce open social learning in the corporate world to learn these skills? Schmidt: some things are very difficult to teach, but are easy to learn. Many of these soft skills are easy to learn if you create the appropriate context, even if they would be very difficult to teach. But it still is a very hard to solve problem.

Q: can these initiatives work in crosscultural contexts? Schmidt: this is a very complex question. For instance, authority if very related with culture: how do you manage authority in a crosscultural setting? Or, for instance, addressing elder people is differently regarded depending on the culture. So, there are no systems to support crosscultural learning and thus we have to see it case by case.

Josep Maria Mominó: are we now witnessing the end of the hype of technology in education? did we have too much expectations and we now see the impact is poor? Or what will come in the future? Can we really trust the initiative of teachers? Will that suffice? Schmidt: we usually have to wait a whole generation to see impacts in society, and this generation is just now coming of age. On the other hand, we should be expecting not a technology driven change, but a socially driven one. And this may already be happening.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2014) “Philipp Schmidt. Social Open Learning: Can Online Social Networks Transform Education?” In ICTlogy, #135, December 2014. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
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