Learning about Peer Learning: Things Kamp

This weekend I had the pleasure to join Things Kamp 2015, organized by TechSoup Europe, in Istanbul.

The event was the culmination of a series of projects on social technology. It was fascinating to meet activists and technologist from Turkey and learn more about the current situation.

things istanbul banner

Here’s a transcript of the talk I gave:

Turn and Talk

It’s always fun to start an event by meeting someone new.

I’d like to invite everyone to introduce yourself to your neighbor and ask them what they hope to get out of the weekend.

This is a beautiful sound. It’s the sound of peer learning in action.

My name is Michelle, and what I’d like to get out of the weekend is to share a theory of change. Hopefully these thoughts can provide inspiration for this weekend and reflection on our projects so far.

A Theory of Change

My theory of change has three parts:

  1. Learning and making are political.
  2. Technology will replicate the power dynamics of the past unless we learn and make with technology differently.
  3. The way we’ll create social change is through peer learning that is served by, but not subject to, technology.

Transformative Learning:

Let’s begin by understanding how learning and making are political.

My journey begins with a circus of misfits in Zagreb a few years ago. I was invited to a workshop with 40 technologists, social activists, and linguists

There I was, sipping strong Croatian coffee, with a very diverse group of people: someone who could speak African click languages and a political Pirate who looked more like his naval counterpart.

At the event, the expectation was: we’re learning together. So find out what you want to learn, share it with the group, and help others do the same. It was a magical formula.

We weren’t expected to listen. We were given the space to act, together. We co-created the event.

The process flipped the dynamic of the event. Rather than sitting quietly while some authority spoke their truth, we were given the framework to make collaborations we wanted to have.

There in the workshop realized that the process was more important than the outcome. It was liberating to have the permission to learn from everyone.

Before that, I had been such a passive activist, if you can forgive the oxymoron. I read lots of books, watched lots of documentaries. I basically cheered on my cause from afar. Until that event, I didn’t put myself out there. I didn’t make myself vulnerable in order to really learn.

That event in Zagreb transformed me.

Years later, I appreciate and understand more deeply what the event organizers did to make that happen.

The power dynamics of the workshop were a revelation. I had never been to an event before where you were encouraged to — and in fact the only thing to do was — talk with whomever you wanted. And what we ended up doing was deeply collaborative and socially motivated.

For me, that event became by gateway into more activism and community participation.

It was also my gateway to learning about learning. It also fueled my understanding that how you learn and make things is just as important as what you learn and make.

The Authoritarian Expert

Now, if you’re like me, “learning” can at first glance sound unbearably dull. One thinks of stogy classrooms and outdated textbooks.

In the past, teachers had all the power. They were the authority figures. Their role was to fill the students, the containers, with knowledge. They are experts.

It was a simple transfer, power flowing in a single direction. People imagined learning like a bank, putting a deposit of knowledge into the students’ brains.

The powers of the society formed and shaped the teacher, who then past it on to the students, enforcing a discipline and an assimilation

This is what’s correct, this is what is right, this is how to do it. And I, as the teacher, am the source of this knowledge. You can achieve success by mirroring me, or be punished when you don’t.

This behavior, the authortian expert, was observed in schools and was internalized and repeated as students grew up. People were trained in school to follow, to be subjects to authority, to not have control of their own learning.

This is an example of why the “how” of learning and making matters. The process informed the results. The politics, the power dyamics, of the past replicated themselves — because the process itself was authoritian.

We see this in classrooms, but also in collaborations and technologies. They can be authoritarian and controlling, or empowering and awakening agency in all participants.

An Alternative

Peer learning is an alternative.

It might’ve been a while since we were in school, and things are changing. The understanding of how people learn best is evolving. The role of the expert, the teacher themselves is changing.

Today, with peer learning and other progressive pedagogy, the teacher is a facilitor. They create a framework for their learners to take control over their own learning. The teacher is not an expert. The teacher helps peers find each other to learn together.

They make collaborations possible, and they learn as much as their students do.

They are there to help students articulate and achieve their learning goals, to help them have transformative learning experiences. Teachers encourage the students to try things out for themselves.

The teacher is a guide. They mediate and support, not preach. And as their students learn and grow, the teacher fades into the background.

The teacher, like a social activist or technologist, is a mediator. They are in service to others. They care about empowering others to succeed.

As activsts and technologists, we have a lot to learn from progressive pedagogy. And we can be facilitative leaders, like modern teachers are.

Today, I invite you to ask yourself: what can I learn from the faciltative teacher?

How can I be an ally and support others as they learn? How can I make things that empower others? And also, how will enable myself to be vulnerable and learn with them?

Learning your lifelong

These themes remind us that learning doesn’t just happen in the classroom. The important poltiical process of how we learn and make, extends beyond the school.

And actually, some of the most important learning is out of school Its informal, its experiences in the real world. It takes place in events like these, in communities like these.

Learning happens throughout your life.

This can seem like common sense, but it’s radical when you think it through.

You are empowered to continue learning your whole life. You have permission to learn whenever, wherever and with whomever you want. School is not the only authority on what to learn and how.

And you as individuals have incredible tools, peers and communities to support your learning.

Thanks to the web, we can learn together more easily than ever before. There is an unbelievable path to knowledge, to empowerment, to opportunity. More people know how to wield the web, to connect with peers, to make things for fun and profit.

Technology is in service to us, to that connection.

Soon, a billion people will come online for the first time. And this opportunity will literally be in their hands, in their mobile phones. That’s powerful.

And yet.

Millions of people think that Facebook is the web. Their ability to learn and make, to participate in society, will be restricted by one corporation.

That’s the limitation of the status quo. The people who are already in power will stay in power.

Technology will replicate the power dynamics of the past Unless we learn and make with technology differently.

We are at a crossroads.

Will we let technology be controlled by the powers of the past? Or will we learn, make and teach in a way that gives agency and opportunity to more people.

We can empower ourselves and our communities to participate in our own learning and to become makers and advocates themselves.

Peer learning is how we’ll create social change

This is a path we can choose. The spirit of it is already strong here.

The way we’ll create social change is through peer learning. Served by, but not subject to, technology.

We are a tribe of makers. We understand that if you can’t open it, you don’t own it.

We know that DIY (do-it-yourself) is empowering, And that it’s even stronger when it’s Do-It-Together.

And we know that if you learn something by making it, Then it’s rewarding to share how you did it. Not only to help others, but to solidify that knowledge for yourself.

Maker culture is a perfect example of what peer learning is like.

Inspired by makers, here are five steps to enacting peer learning. So that we can reflect on and apply it today, towards that greater social change:

Five Steps of Peer Learning:

Peer learning is:

  1. Learning by making. — It’s experiential, transformative. The world is your classroom and laboratory, so learn by participating, applying.

  2. Learning together. — It’s social, collaborative. Everyone has something to learn and something to teach. We are networked and helping each other succeed.

  3. Learning openly. — It uses and creates open content, open technology. And it also implements open practices. Reflect in the open and share back, so that others can build on your learning.

  4. Learning across difference. — It’s a rejection of assimilation. Peer learning is inclusive, participatory. Diversity matters. There are many pathways.

  5. Learning with a purpose. — Set a goal. Be driven by a change, whether its personal, for your neighborhood or something bigger. The process matters, so harness that power for good.

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p>In all these cases, technology is a tool. Not an ends in itself. Technology supports our human connection and amplifies our lifelong learning.

Technology should always be in service to humans. And the process to make it should be in a similar spirit.

Events like this are a microcosm of the future we want. The opportunity we have today is to reflect not just on what we make, but how. And with whom. And for whom.

Are we learning through co-creation and participation? Are we making things together, in an inclusive way that benefits from our diverse perspectives? Are we thinking out loud and documenting our process so others can learn with us?

And finally, are we here with a purpose?

As we head into the event, I invite you to reflect on this theory of change:

  1. Learning and making are political.
  2. Technology will replicate the power dynamics of the past unless we learn and make with technology differently.
  3. The way we’ll create social change is through peer learning served by, but not subject to, technology.

All of us have the power to make a difference. Let’s do it!

Image: “Things – Designing Social Innovation” by Things Istanbul available under a CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 license.

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