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Opening the education system through decentralisation

Unnoticed by many in the established institutions, some time ago another education system has established itself alongside the dominant formal one: It is the World Wide Web, a part of the Network Society (Manuel Castells), where for many years now, a growing number of people have been involved in a very lively exchange of talks and ideas. In doing so they have also been engaged in a course of lifelong learning, without in the slightest following the traditional pedagogical path of learning (definition of a learning goal – transfer of knowledge through a mix of methods – evaluation of what has been learnt).

Despite all political intents and purposes, access to education has therefore long since been decentralised. Furthermore, some form of a new non-formal sector has been established alongside the public education system, privately financed and either non-profit or profit-oriented, that digitally closes the gaps the public system no longer cares to serve: A wide range of Citizen Science projects are developing from meaningful hobby projects, nurtured by the new collaborative, ecological values of a broad, global, digitally literate middle class, even if, in economic terms, they could be more aptly ascribed to the precariat.

As we can see, to some extent, the collaborative accumulation of knowledge (take, for instance Wikipedia) has even shown itself superior to traditional forms of collecting knowledge. Single experts often can’t match the force of collective intelligence, even if their old fashioned arrogance makes them unwilling to admit this. In other words, the present education system already resembles a patchwork quilt which state education policy-making should pay closer attention to if it wants to create better framework conditions for real-time learners.

This is really a big issue. It’s the central switch, we have to recognize for the 21st century: It’s no longer about the institutions anymore. It’s about the self learners, which must be accompanied wherever they are going. We have to change our perspective.

So, if we look less from the standpoint of institutions and their stakeholders as is usually the case and more from the standpoint of self learners (and these, if there is any doubt, are essentially all people in the future), one central conclusion comes upon us in the age of the Network Society: The outcomes of state-funded education must be basically open, unconditionally accessible and as reusable as possible. They are property of the general public which has financed their evolution with their taxes. Only if these fundamental conditions are given, the public can assess and exploit these outcomes in various different contexts, and reclaim them for other thematic fields.

Now, if you would like to complain about the intellectual property rights of masterminds in those institutions, you have to be aware:

In many government-financed institutions we can now observe that the transfer of knowledge has undergone a dramatic reversal. Progressive knowledge is increasingly flowing from the web based Civil Society into public institutions rather than the other way round. In times of the Network Society, the welfare principle has transformed at many places: Civil Society is now pressing for manifold changes in policy-making to bring it into line with the real world. This is yet another sign of how collective intelligence is trumping individual competencies based on old certificates. Therefore, the whole issue of intellectual property rights needs to be rethought – with all the legal consequences that this entails.

Who is a producer? Who a consumer? Who pays whom for what – and how do we want to define fairness and welfare under such conditions?

Consequently, the opening up of the education system has much more far-reaching implications than just freely distributing the know-how generated in a hermetic system. State structures themselves must open up and form hybrids with the initiatives of Civil Society. Maximum diversity in types of collaboration must be encouraged, at least when certain developments are financed by the public purse.

Equally, in view of the present need for lifelong learning, what we need are publicly accessible co-learning spaces without any conditions, which, as rethought modern “libraries” must become places of open exchange and further education in the broadest sense of the term. Indeed, the whole old concept of educational places is generally to be rethought. Nowadays education takes place everywhere! Education policy-making must seek to satisfy this claim if it is to retain its formative influence.

This article was first published at Medium.

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