Monday, 31 August 2009 goes live as reality bites for this summer's education leavers

Back in the early weeks of this year, I wrote a couple of things about how we could use the internet to help people handle the personal impact of the recession. Those posts generated a lot of conversation and several projects.

Thanks to the huge dedication of my friend Colin Tate, one of those projects has now hit reality. Signpostr is a site aimed at anyone who's not in secure employment - and particularly at those who've left education this summer into the toughest job market in a generation. It was inspired by my proposal for "digital resource-maps for people who have lost access to the market as a source of resources". Resource-mapping remains a key element of the site, but it also offers a place for people to talk honestly about how they're finding the search for work, and to get together and develop projects which make use of their skills in the mean time.

It feels like a long time since I was writing that "What you do when you find yourself with a lot more time and a lot less money on your hands than you’re used to... may be the most important question of 2009." Back then, people were still struggling to get a sense of the shape of the recession. Today, there's much talk of a rapid turnaround in confidence and a return to economic growth. In terms of unemployment, however, the hard times remain ahead for a great number of people. The latest figures show a record fall in the number of people in work, with under-25s particularly badly hit.

And for this year's education leavers, the reality of being out of work is starting to bite - a point made well by Lucy, one of our Signpostr bloggers, who graduated from the University of London this summer:

The summer days have ducked and slipped past us. It is September, and for those graduated this year, it’s a moment of horrible clarity. While failing to have a plan or concrete employment during July and August seems like a usual and fluid state of affairs, facing down a long winter in the same position is a truly unnerving experience. This is the first September in several years to be absent from reading lists and timetabled commitments, and it has arrived.

Hopefully Signpostr will prove useful for Lucy and others in her situation this autumn. We'll be doing our best to help users connect with each other, with potential employers and with other groups and organisations. And we'd like to invite you to sign up and explore it for yourself - and, particularly, to pass on that invitation to anyone you know who's looking for work, has just left or will soon leave education.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

School of Everything: Time to Unplug?

It's been ages since I've written anything about School of Everything on here. That's a reflection of the direction my life has taken since the start of 2009: I've gone from full time involvement with SoE to spending two days a week there and the other five starting all kinds of new projects. But for the next few weeks (and possibly longer) I'll be going back to basics and hosting School of Everything: Unplugged! on Wednesday mornings (10.30-12.30) at the Royal Festival Hall in London.

The only way is up: Paul, Pete and Mary at BedZed in October 2006, the day we started work on School of Everything

There were five of us who started School of Everything - Pete Brownell (aka Greenman), Andy Gibson, Mary Harrington (aka Sebastian Mary), Paul Miller and me. We met through a series of experiments with online/offline culture and DIY education - particularly the Pick Me Up email zine and the London School of Art and Business. (Bryony Hendersen, who helped start LSAB, remembers it as "a playful meeting place for established and emerging artists and businesses to meet, challenge each other and provoke learning systems.")

Individually or collectively, we'd also been involved in things like the University of Openness and the Boxing Club at Limehouse Town Hall, Access Space media lab in Sheffield and the Knowledge Lab events at Lancaster. It was those experiences which inspired School of Everything - along with the ideas of Ivan Illich's Deschooling Society and the story of the Free U at Palo Alto.

Over the past three years, the five of us have taken that inspiration and created a website which does some of what Illich envisaged when he wrote about "learning webs" and "peer-matching networks". We raised two rounds of funding from Channel 4, the Young Foundation and some great individuals who believed in us - and won a New Statesman New Media Award, a UK Catalyst Award, and were Honourees in the 2009 Webbys. The site now has over 20,000 members and thousands of people come to it every day, most of whom are looking to learn something new in their local area.

Along the way, I've tried to stay grounded in the culture of self-organised, curiosity-driven learning that School of Everything grew out of. Those roots have been nourished by experiences like the Illich colloquium in Cuernavaca in 2007 and the Temporary School of Thought this January, as well as working with organisations like Personalised Education Now and the Blackden Trust.

That said, the process of building a commercially-sustainable organisation means that the big picture can sometimes disappear from view. This was brought into focus a couple of months ago, by the lively discussions on TechCrunch when we were nominated for the Social Innovation category of their Europa awards. Dejan from asked what was so socially innovative about "aggregation of teacher ads"? At the time, Pete wrote a piece on the company blog which set out the difficult questions we've asked ourselves, as we've tried to balance vision and pragmatism:

School of Everything was founded on extremely lofty goals - we wanted to change the face of education... It is very important to us that our work is more than just a commercial enterprise - but it is just as important to us that it is a commercial enterprise. At the moment we are hard at work building the tools that will allow us to survive as a project... Perhaps we have been too quiet about our big idea, or does it make sense to quietly go about changing things step by step?

There's no easy answer to that, but as the guy with "strategy" in his job title - and standing a little further back than the full-time members of the team - I guess part of my role is to hold that long-term vision. So when one of our photography teachers, Tony Hall, suggested starting a face-to-face meetup in London, it felt like an opportunity to renew our roots in the sociable, playful, improvisational learning culture of Pick Me Up, the LSAB, the University of Openness and the rest.

That's why Tony and I have started School of Everything: Unplugged! on Wednesday mornings in the foyer of the Royal Festival Hall. Quite how these meetups will evolve neither of us knows. One inspiration is the simple, open format of Tuttle Club, the weekly meetup Lloyd Davis runs at the Institute for Contemporary Arts. We can talk about free-schooling, deschooling and e-schooling, about our own experiences of teaching and learning, or about anything else that's on our minds. There's free wifi for anyone who wants to bring their work with them, and there's coffee from the RFH cafe - though it's also the kind of place where you can hang out for hours without anyone expecting you to buy something. Various other members of the SoE team will be coming along over the next few weeks, so there will be a chance to talk about what we should do next with the site, as well as getting a makeover for your teaching profile - or advice on how to create one.

This is an experiment. If it works, Tony and I will make it an ongoing event, and we can look at working with others to start meetups at other times of week or in other parts of the country. If it doesn't, that's OK! Whatever happens, going by my experiences to date with School of Everything, I'm confident that we'll learn a lot along the way.

* Directions to the Royal Festival Hall are here. Once inside, we'll be in the foyer area, to the left of the dance floor, from 10.30 till 12.30. I'll take the big orange furry Every Thing along to make us easy to spot - but if you have difficulty finding us, give me a ring on 07810 650213.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Arrr... Come Be A Pirate With Me!

Avast, me hearties! In my continuing career as a professional amateur, stumbling through other people's specialisms, I've joined up with The Beekeepers - a remarkable crew who "design games, interpret history and create unique events".

My first voyage with them will be this Sunday, when we're organising Pirate Day - a set of events across London:

Join The Beekeepers and assorted seadogs as we mount expeditions along the dark arteries of London’s past, recovering tarnished treasures buried beneath the City’s streets. Wearing an eye patch and going ‘yarrr’ makes you feel like a pirate, but real pirates also have adventures.

We’re all headed for Treasure Island: a pirate village that’s sprung up, as if by magic, on the banks of the Regent’s Park boating lake. We’ve moored two mighty vessels there: the Queen Bee with its precious cargo full of books containing the world’s knowledge; and the Sea Hawk, with a viewing platform from which you can see London anew. Who’s with us, ye landlubbers?

Come and shiver your timbers with us! Get all the salty details here.

Come to the GlueSniffers summer party!

Over the past six months, I've been helping organise a regular London meetup called GlueSniffers, bringing together people from the tech industry and people from the world of development and NGOs. The aim is to build better connections between interesting people on both sides - and to generate new thinking about the questions that have historically been framed in terms of "development", particularly in the light of the internet, mobile and social media technologies.

Tomorrow night, the GlueSniffers gang will be letting our hair down with a summer party at the offices of the Movement Design Bureau in Bermondsey. Please come and join us!

There's more information - including directions - on our Meetup page, here. Please sign up there, so we know you're coming!

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