E-Learning Needs Cultural Change

John Seely Brown (2007) says that there needs to be a cultural shift in the way teaching and learning takes place that integrates, or even better, makes central the use of information technology and social media. He calls this process enculturating: emersion into a community and practice to become a practitioner.

He says that understanding is socially constructed and these new Social Networks, including blogs and wikis, encourage people to form communities of practitioners and thus extend the reach of instructors and education. For this to happen there needs to be a major retraining of teachers for e?learning to work. Mentoring, rather than teaching, needs to be brought into the process and there should be a merging of the teacher/learner distinction. Sfard (1998) might point out that Seely Brown adopts the Participation Metaphor (PM) and neglects the Acquisition Metaphor (AM), with AM being knowledge as commodity and PM being learning as activity. Social media falls very much into the PM style of learning where the acquisition of knowledge is based on the the act of becoming a participant. Sfard importantly points out, with reference to the “learning paradox” that learning cannot take place solely through adherence to he Participation Metaphor as it cannot account for the transmission of knowledge and can lead to a gradual disappearance of a well defined subject matter. Use of the Acquisition Metaphor style of teaching and learning is necessary. Sfard describes them as differing perspectives rather than competing opinions. Seely Brown does hint though that the role of the mentor is a subtle balancing act: shaping and directing learning, especially at the outset, but recognising the need to abandon that role and join the developing community and participate in the knowledge creation. This idea corresponds with Wenger (1998) who identified two key elements in the creation of a community of practice: participation and reification. Participation merely involves the engagement of an individual with other members of the group as part of the process of creating meaning. Reification is the process of turning practice into a “thing”. This “thing” could take the form of anything but has to be practice that is formalised so it has some independent life.

Similarly, Weller (2007) says the Internet was constructed around three design principles: robustness, decentralization and openness. These design principles became social characteristics. E?learning would naturally follow the community norms of the Internet. The challenge for educators is how to accommodate this way of working, a way of working and communicating that is increasingly comfortable for a new generation of learners, into formal education.

Seely Brown cites Free and Open Source Software as an example of what he is talking about, describing it as a participatory learning platform – a form of distributed learning. In fact the leading blog and wiki software, WordPress and WikiMedia, are both Free and Open Source Software. Their source code is freely available to download to examine, learn from, modify and contribute back to the community. This idea of sharing and community building that blogs and wikis help to create is not a new idea. As a formal theory it can be traced back at least as far as Mutual Aid by Peter Kropotkin (1902) where mutual aid is put forward as an evolutionary imperative, which more than corresponds to what Seely Brown is proposing about moving into a new kind of economy – a creator economy, and a new kind of culture – a culture of co-operation.

The most famous and ardent proponent of Free Software is Richard M. Stallman, who set out to create a free Unix-like operating system called GNU in 1983 (GNU stands for Gnu Not Unix) after restrictions were put on the sharing of software source code by software companies, and then founded the Free Software Foundation in 1985. His motivation was not to be able to go on not paying for software but to be able to see the software code to help himself and others learn how to make better software.

Eric Raymond, in his essay The Cathedral and the Bazaar (1999), examined the Free Software process of developing software through the sharing of code and co-operation. He described the process as bottom-up and likened it to a bazaar, and compared it to the top-down, closed, corporate model of software development which he liked to building a cathedral. The essay has proved very influential and was a contributing factor in Netscape making their internet browser “open source”, a phrase coined by Raymond to better describe the process of Free Software development. The Netscape browser eventually became the current Firefox browser, one of the most successful Free and Open Source Software projects.

The open sourcing of Netscape is examined in Glyn Moody’s Rebel Code (2001) which describes the evolution and significance of Free and Open Source Software and in particular the Linux operating system which started life as a student project released as Free and Open Source Software and has since gone on, with the help of numerous contributions by volunteer enthusiasts to become the operating system that now runs most of the Internet.

In 2009, BBC Radio Four broadcast the documentary “Inside the Virtual Anthill: Open Source Means Business”. As well as looking at how Free and Open Source Software rivals and excels more commercially developed software, the programme looks at how the ethos of sharing, co-operation and participation is spreading to other businesses. This is how things like blogs, wikis and e?learning in general should be deployed. As Seely Brown in particular advocates, education needs to change to embrace e?learning, and that means changing the way teaching and learning is approached: it needs to be about participation, community building and co-operative knowledge building, it needs to be Open Source.


  • Inside the Virtual Anthill: Open Source Means Business, (2009), BBC Radio 4, 1 June. (Accessed online 19th August 2010: http://www.bbc.co.uk/i/kp806/)
  • Kropotkin, P. (1902) Mutual Aid: a Factor of Evolution. Reprint, Montreal: Black Rose Books, 1989.
  • Moody, G. (2001) Rebel Code: Linux and the Open Source Revolution. London: Allen Lane: The Penguin Press
  • Raymond, E. (1999) The Cathedral and the Bazaar: Musings on Linux and Open Source from an Accidental Revolutionary. O’Reilly and Associates, Sebastapol, CA.
  • Seely Brown, J. (2007) ‘Learning 2.0: New Modes of Learning and Scholarship’ – Open University’s Open Learn Conference, Milton Keynes, England, 31 October 2007
  • Sfard, A. (1998) ‘On two metaphors for learning and the dangers of choosing just one’, Educational Researcher, vol.27, no.2, pp.4–13.
  • Wenger, E (1998) Communities of Practice: Learning, Meaning and Identity, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press
  • Weller, M. (2007), ‘The distance from isolation: Why communities are the logical conclusion in e-learning’, Computers & Education, No. 49, pp. 148–159.
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