The 'Why Don't You?' Web

We see School of Everything as part of a larger shift in the way people are using the web, away from spending more and more of our lives in front of screens, towards making things happen in the real world. Here's an article I wrote about this for the latest issue of the Learning and Skills Network briefing:

Over the past decade, the internet has changed the way we organise whole areas of our lives. From email to online reference resources and newspaper websites, it offers cheap and easy access to information and people around the world. With online shopping and banking, services you once had to go to now come to you. These examples have one thing in common: each offers a way of doing things we were already doing, but with distance – and the associated effort or cost – removed from the equation.

More recently, however, another way of using the internet has emerged. An increasing number of sites harness the power of the internet to help us do things we didn't do before in the places we're already in.

Around the UK, 1.6 million people now belong to a local Freecycle group, offering their unwanted possessions or posting requests for items they need. This simple network can be just as invaluable to a young person furnishing a flat on a shoestring as to those downsizing towards retirement, while many voluntary organisations have discovered its potential as a source of free equipment and materials.

The American site, Meetup.com, allows anyone to start a group, organised around a shared interest, which meets up regularly in their town or city. (Interestingly, the most active early users of Meetup have been ‘stay at home mums’, with nearly 2000 groups and 100,000 members – an experience which echoes that of the Open University, nearly 40 years ago).

Where the first generation of internet activities resembled television, in that they encouraged us to spend more hours of our lives in front of a screen; this second group has more of the spirit of the programme the BBC used to show in the school holidays, Why don't you just switch off your television set and go out and do something less boring instead?

So what are the implications of all this for education and training? From its early days, the web has been seen as a means for learners to access information and for learning providers to deliver content. More recently, the potential has begun to be recognised for learners themselves to create, share and discuss in virtual learning environments. But the growth of the 'Why Don't You…?' web suggests another possibility: the internet could become a means to find others to learn with or from in your local area.

That is the possibility we're exploring with School of Everything, a new website developed with funding from Channel 4 Education and the Young Foundation (which carries on the work of the founder of the Open University, Michael Young). People use the site to offer their knowledge and expertise, to arrange paid teaching or informal skill-sharing, or to post requests for learning.

The site launched in September and already has thousands of teachers and learners listed. Our hope is that it can play a similar role to Freecycle or Meetup, making accessible the resources of formal and informal learning providers and of the community as a whole, leading to richer webs of learning relationships.

(Original here.)