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 aleveo.com 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.


David Gauntlett said...

Wonderful stuff, Dougald. I'm not able to come tomorrow but hope to make it along one week - and/or I hope we can connect on this anyway. I am also an Illich fan and tend to feel rather lonely in that role. I am keen on creativity & learning as general issues, of course, but also as the father of a little boy I am increasingly worried / concerned / curious about what school might want to do to him! So anyway, on this and more, would be great to hook up sometime.

Best wishes, David

Dougald Hine said...

Thanks, David - it would be great to hook up and talk more about this, hopefully one Wednesday morning! The network of Illich fans reaches some surprising places, but it's mostly underground and not that well linked up. I've wondered about organising some kind of event(s) to create more connections around his work. More generally, I'm interested in finding ways to collaborate with others who are exploring this cultural terrain - so yes, look forward to talking more soon.


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This blog was my online home between 2006 and 2009. Today, you'll find me scattered across the internet. To start looking, go to my personal website: http://dougald.co.uk/

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