Self organised learning spaces

"I never teach my students. I only provide them with the conditions in which they can learn." - Albert Einstein

The social web is replete with self-organising spaces. Take Wikipedia for example. It is now the largest single repository of knowledge on the planet and continues to grow with over 4.2 million articles in English, and many more in other languages. Currently, 750 new pages are added each day on just about every topic known to humanity. It's the first port of call for many web users when they wish to check a fact or statistic. Who creates and maintains this huge, ever expanding repository of knowledge? We do. You and I. Us and an army of similar minded volunteers who love learning, and want to share their knowledge. All Wikipedia has done to promote the vast ever expanding storehouse of knowledge, is to provide the environment within which it all takes place. And that should give all of use some clues as to how to facilitate self-organising learning spaces.

Self organised learning - where learners control their own pace and space or learning, and often decide on what content they wish to consume - is a growing force in education. From individual students learning informally by browsing on their handhelds, to small flipped classrooms, to vast groups of learners following a programme of study on massive online open courses (MOOCs), education is changing to become learner driven. Yet many academics and teachers struggle with the concept of self-organised learning. Often this is because it is something of an alien concept to them. When they were in school, college or university, they were probably required to attend lectures and classroom teaching sessions where they were expected to 'receive knowledge' and then go away and attempt to make sense of it in an essay, project or examination. Clearly, the temptation is to perpetuate this kind of didactic pedagogy approach when one is expected to teach. Many however, are breaking out of this mould, and are launching into new kinds of pedagogy which enable learners to take control, and where teachers are another resource to be called upon when needed.

Wikipedia facilitates knowledge generation, sharing, remixing and repurposing because it is an open, accessible space where everyone can participate. It may be error ridden, but these errors are usually addressed and content revised, deleted or extended accordingly, and often within a short space of time. Yes, there will be disputes, just as there are 'edit wars' within Wikipedia, but hopefully, learners will also learn from this how to gain confidence in their own abilities, how to defend their positions and how to think critically. If this kind of learning occurs within a psychologically safe environment which is blame free, success can be achieved. Self-organised learning spaces should be similarly founded on psychologically safe principles, where if errors are made, those who made them can learn and adjust as they discover the 'correct approach' or the 'right answer'.

Working within self-organised communities enables a vast amount of learning to take place, but it also allows for individual differences and personalities to flourish. Teachers who adopt the approach of facilitating self organised learning must be willing to allow learners to take their own directions and find their own levels. Exploration, experimentation, taking risks, asking 'what if?' questions and making errors, are all essential elements of self-organised learning. However, probably the most important component is the ability of the learners themselves to direct their own learning, and to be able to call upon the resources they need, when they need them. We can learn a lot from Wikipedia, and not just from the knowledge it contains.

Photo from Fotopedia by William Murphy

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Self organised learning spaces by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.


Donald Clark said…
Totally agree. Worth seeing this in the wider context of Wikis a a whole, including Wikispaces
Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for the link Donald. I use Wikispaces a lot with my students. It preferential to the alternative clunky Learning Management Systems. They use it to organise their content, share their ideas and discuss their learning.
peter shukie said…
Hello Steve

A nicely developed post this and does ask some pertinent questions and does capture some of the euphoria of each of us accessing our own pietntial, seeking our own paths. The idea of self directed learning is exciting and liberating, and always has been I suppose? While Wikis offer a greater than ever opportunity for mass collaboration, does wikipedia take us away from the potential found historically (not overly hsitoric though) of the public library? I am not suggesting it is not a massive development, a shift in how information is accessed easily and instantly (given the right technologies and networks). However, is the issue now, as always, the ways that learning is seen as a currency, a means to an end, a 'ticket to ride'?

While we can attempt expert knowledge in a range of ways based on our own interests, is that 'expertise' recognised if it is not aligned to institutional accreditation? In the future, perhaps, accountability will be formed alongside presence and reputation. The necessity of Dr or professor, published or not, acreditation over experience do bring people back to the institutions.

New ways of thinking will develop alongside the ways we access information, for sure. I guess the challenge is that may increisngly move away form established institutions into other forms of delivery.

That said, I did some research last year into student uses of technology expecting them to embrace S.O.L.E and 'alternative' pedagogies (University of the Forest - ( but the ober-riding use was based on traditional teaching, based in a classroom and with defined tutor-student roles.
I am sure the experience of years of that form of education have indoctrinated us all into believing that is the norm,

Off to your webinar now
, see you there

Steve Wheeler said…
Thanks for sharing the link Peter. I'm not sure that the current paradigm will stand for ever. I know that universities are edifices of tradition, but society and culture are developing at a pace, and seats of learning are in danger of becoming anachronisms in the fast changing landscape. How long will it be before many other universities take the plunge and follow Harvard, MIT and other giants into the uncertain world of the MOOC for example? I think we will witness radical change in the next few years and these kind of student centred pedagogies will be dominant features. Not only that, but the students will demand them.
Simon Ensor said…
While I am sure of the need to provide students with the conditions in which they may learn I am not convinced that many institutionalised students (or teachers for that matter) have learning as their primary objective...
Steve Wheeler said…
Thought you might say that Simon :)

I'm preaching heresy here (at least in traditional university terms). We need to do something different, because patently, the traditional model isn't working. Hence, let them self organise, and support them in the process. Agreed?
Simon Ensor said…
They are often never so self-organised as when they demand someone to organize them...
Of course its/they are not working.
Agreed heresy is much more fun :-)
Simon Ensor said…
Comment should not be empty! I am informed. (in scary red)
Ok what I just said Mr Blogger was that they are never so self-organised as when they are asking for somebody to organise them. Echoes of Fromm?
Anyway as an unrepentant heretic, I shall enjoy the disruption and avoid the inquisition :-)
Steve Wheeler said…
Good man. I'm with you on this. Standing right next to the fire escape.
Anonymous said…
Nice post - very important question. How do we balance between "lecturing" stuff and letting the students curate, create and organize themselves?

I have recently set up a small course with WP Courseware, ( but maybe it is a wrong approach. Too much 'top-down' thinking, too little interaction. A quiz is not good enough.

Which "LMS"/platform do you use with your students ? Is class-Wikispaces maybe the way we should go?

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