in Learning, Presentations

Learning. Who is responsible?

A hero: Ivan Illich

A hero: Ivan Illich

Just now I delivered a keynote at the 20th Annual Israeli Learning Conference. I was there at the kind invitation of HR Israel and Amir Elion.

My talk was pitched as follows:

Over the next few years the role of the learning organization will shift, moving away from the current focus on course and curriculum design. Two new responsibilities will appear: 1. Supporting individuals with their self-directed learning and 2. Creating behavioral change interventions for smaller and larger teams. Hans de Zwart will take a fresh perspective on the underlying causes of this shift (like the increasing percentage of knowledge workers or the easy availability of global virtual collaboration tools), he wil give a wide and historical range of examples of existing “do-it-yourself” learning and he will share his thoughts on what this means for you as an HR professional.

I have come to believe that SlideShare is fundamentally broken, so while is hopefully working on providing the ability to show PDF files inline in my posts I’ve decided to just post a PDF version of my slides online.

The slides can be downloaded here (or here for a Dutch version)

The talk was divided into three parts:

Why is DIY Learning relevant?

Firstly I showed that the accelerating change of pace is not just a clich√©, but that technology actually does progress exponentially. I showed some of Kurzweil’s graphs to back this up.

This means that we are increasingly living in a complex world. According to the Cynefin framework the sensible approach to problems in the complex domain is to first probe, then sense and finally respond. This aligns nicely with Peter Drucker’s definition of the knowledge worker who necessarily is solely responsible for their own productivity: they are the only ones who can understand their own job. For me a logical consequence of this is that you cannot create a learning curriculum for a knowledge worker. With the increasing mobility of labour, you could even argue that businesses will not want to invest in training a knowledge worker but that they will just assume competence.

Next I talked about Ivan Illich and his book Deschooling Society. We are institutionalizing students through the school system. We mistake teaching for learning and diplomas/certificates for competence. Illich’ solution is radical: to replace school with what he calls “learning webs”. He had some very practical ideas about this, that have become easier now that we have the web.

Another reason for DIY learning to come to the forefront is the ubiquity of free (mostly in beer, but also in speech) tools that enable us to connect with each other and organize ourselves. It is simple to set up your own website with something like and tools like Google+ (hangouts!), Facebook and Twitter are amazing in enabling people to take charge of their learning.

Examples of DIY Learning

I shared a set of examples of existing DIY learning efforts from a wide variety of fields.

The first example was from the European Juggling Convention in Lublin. People organized workshops there by using a simple central board and a set of activity templates.

Sugatra Mitra realizes that there aren’t enough good teachers to teach all the children in the world. He is therefore looking for a minimally invasive pedagogy. He has found a simple method: give groups of children a computer with access to the web, ask them an interesting question, leave them alone (maybe give them a bit of “granny pedagogy” support) and come back to find that the children have learned something. Do check out his wiki on Self Organising Learning Environments (SOLEs).

The original Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs (as first run by Stephen Downes, George Siemens and others, now known as cMOOCs) are great examples of learning in a decentralized fashion.

Open Space technology (with its four principles and a law) is another example of how people can learn in a completely self-organized way.

Yammer groups are a great way for communities of practice to construct knowledge together. Anybody can start a group and these are often on topics that are relevant, but don’t get addressed top-down (an example I know of is a group of Apple users in a Microsoft-only company sharing knowledge with each other on how to use Apple products in that situation).

Dale Stephens has shown that there are alternatives to a formal college education with his Uncollege platform.

The reading group I organized in 2010 was the final example I used of a group of people getting together to learn something.

What should you (= HR) do?

All of this means the role of the HR Learning department will need to change. I see three imperatives:

  1. It is crucial to devolve the responsibility for learning to the learner. Stop accepting their “learned helplessness” and stimulate everybody to become truly reflective practitioners.
  2. Make sure to provide scaffolding. You should build things that will make it easier for the learners to build their own things. This only works if your approach is very open. Both for the learning materials (think Creative Commons and OER Commons) and for who can join. Efforts should be across organizations and across businesses. Don’t accept the naive (layman’s) idea which always seems to equate learning with content. Instead focus on designing learning experiences. Nurture any communities of practice and invest time in moderation.
  3. Finally, change the unit of intervention. You should never focus on the individual anymore. The unit of change is now the team (at minimum).


I’ve used the fabulous Pinpoint to create this presentation. This allows me to just get a set of image files and write the presentation in a very simple text based format. The PDF output doesn’t quite look like I’d want it to. Does anybody know whether it is possible to set the width/height ratio of the PDF export (4:3 rather than 16:9)?

I started collecting the licenses for each of the images in the slidepack so that I could attribute them correctly (find my incomplete list here). At some point I just couldn’t be bothered anymore. My blog is just too insignificant and I really do believe I can have more positive impact on this world by doing something (anything!) different with my time. If your picture is used and you are very disgruntled then I would be more than happy to make amends.