The Learning Society's Global Ambitions

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By Sara Bernard

If we want our education system to adapt to the 21st century, we need to re-imagine the entire thing -- not just build more of the same. So claim the thought leaders behind The Learning Society, a concept launched as part of Cisco Systems' Global Education initiative at the 2010 Learning and Technology World Forum in London last year.

Their big idea is this: Education can no longer be isolated from the rest of society. Learning is no longer confined to the hours of the school day, the walls of the school building, or even the duration of our time "in school." It's everywhere, all the time, involves everyone from all walks of life, and requires constant tinkering and improvement.

The Learning Society project, led by Richard Halkett, Cisco's director of Strategy & Research for Global Education, is, so far, just a white paper and a video. Their hope, however, is that its recommendations will generate enough buzz to get a global foothold.

Key recommendations include:

  • Offering a mixture of learning providers -- public, private, and third-sector organizations and individuals
  • Soliciting strong stewardship from a new coalition of governments, businesses, NGOs, and social investors
  • Ensuring that Telecom providers (supported by governments) enable universal access to a shared learning infrastructure
  • Building legitimate, standard credentialing systems that create qualifications that are recognized around the world
  • Innovating new ways of managing lifelong support relationships with the learner

Rather than ask if the system is operating efficiently, the questions become: "How is learning really happening? How are students actually engaged? How are we getting new players to now become involved?" says Mary Anne Petrillo, Cisco's senior marketing manager for corporate affairs in education the Learning Society.


"As we move into social media as a learning tool, what does that mean for education?" she says. "If you were in the private sector and you were developing a Web site, you'd have a community manager; that's a given. That's not a term often used within the education system today, but that's a new role that could be developed."

According to Petrillo, it's not feasible to simply build more buildings and hire more teachers. "The amount of knowledge that needs to be shared and understood and embraced [means that] we need to make learning really personal and flexible, and understand that it's a lifelong experience," she says. "We've become an on-demand society, always looking up information because we need it right there and then. I'm not advocating that that's the only form of learning; there is value in the traditional, academic approach, but you have to be open when you're talking about moving from education systems to learning societies. We have to open the door to this kind of informal learning."

In terms of current applications of the Learning Society concept, Petrillo points to the thinkers behind the 21st Century Schools Initiative and New York's Innovation Zone.

She also suggests visiting -- an online community for education leaders that's already deep into Education 3.0 -- and joining in the discussion. "We're all creators, developers, advocates. We can all work with these systems and encourage them to think about learning differently," she says.