Democratisation of Learning

Democratisation of Learning

In a presentation recently a learned scholar dropped the phrase a true “Democratisation of Learning”.
I wanted to better understand the expression’s application from an academic perspective and  how it applied to the work I was presenting.

Firstly the term it is not the study of Democracy but instead the principles of democracy as applied to learning.
It has a generally defined meaning but I found it hard to locate a precise definition.

In the not “black and white” world of psychology I felt further exploration was warranted.  The results of which are this article.


There are traditional learning models called pedagogies but the models don’t fit every scenario or every person.
Application of modern technology can propose completely new models and new approaches.  Which approach is the best way?
The short answer is that the solution is often unique to the learner.

So how can technology empower the individual to make their own free choices?  Once you understand the meaning of “Democratisation of Learning”, how do you power it?


What is Democracy

Firstly I started with a definition of Democracy itself.

Merriam-Webster defines democracy as

  • “a government in which the supreme power is vested in the people and exercised by them directly or indirectly through a system of representation usually involving periodically held free elections”

From that we pick up “supreme power” and “system of representation”.  The way it will be done for all through a representative.

However what I was looking to accomplish was broader in ability than this.


Freedom of thought

Let’s take a vote. You have Candidate A and Candidate B. You choose who’s best. Democracy in action.

But from an educators point of view, what about Option C? And I do mean Option, not Candidate.

Democracy comes with the boundaries of whoever frames the question to allow you to choose and how you choose. You’re guided in someone else’s system.

There are invisible guide rails to keep you on track.


As Henry Ford said about the Model T. ‘Any customer can have a car painted any colour that he wants so long as it is black.

So fundamental to the Democratisation of Learning is the consideration: how broad a scope for choice is there in this democracy?


The key phraseology comes down to “free choice” vs. “free will”.  As John Hayes eloquently wrote  on Quora:

Free choice is the liberty to decide whether or not you wish to do something. However, someone defined the possible choices for you, or set the context of the choice. You could choose not to make any choice, but that is still a constraint placed upon you.

Free will has no such constraints. You can do whatever you want, unconfined by the limits of choice or the barriers of thought. I think of it as making decisions in a perfect vacuum.

Which opens up a rabbit hole of psychological debate do we even have free will?

I’m avoiding going down that rabbit hole on purpose but acknowledging it exists.  Therefore for this discussion I accept that democracy means free choice.


Making useful workers and choosing the right model

Timothy 6:10 of the King James Version of the Bible “For the love of money is the root of all evil”.
This quote has become oft misquoted as “Money is the root of all evil” changing the meaning from a desire to the object.

Who is paying the money to make useful workers as they decide what is taught!
So how does a person have the freedom of free will in education, when all they’re offered is the free choice to complete the education focused on a single goal.

As Sir Ken Robinsons talk on TED highlights, the systems that created schools were designed to produce workers for industry.
Yet in a modern technological world the requirements are constantly changing, so how could anyone predict the skills needed.

So at this point it is important to separate two concepts.

  • A. How we learn?
  • B. What we learn?

A. Democratisation of Learning:  How we learn?

Money dictates how we learn. As the expression elucidates “time is money”.

All the associated costs add up (time, resources, people) and consequently all learning has a cost.


How we learn is dealt with by the term “Pedagogical models”. Different models have different success rates for different types of knowledge and different price tags.
I explored jargon in this area before. 

A very quick summary goes like this

  • Behaviourism worked wonderfully well at producing soldiers. Beat it into them till they remember it.
  • Where Cognitivism allows a teacher stand at the top of the room and construct the lesson and the students job is to learn from that delivery.
  • The dictionary and the encyclopedia enabled people to bounce to words they didn’t know. The student through Constructivism, learned whatever interested them.
  • Connectivism is possible with hyperlinks in documents. Now the student could bounce around quickly with their learning if the educator made a link.
  • Social connectivism / social constructivism is where a friend recommends me to have a look at something “Check this out”


B. Democratisation of Learning:  What we learn?

The “what” we learn is surprisingly repetitive.
As Shakespeare wrote in the play Romeo and Juliet  “What’s in a name? that which we call a rose. By any other name would smell as sweet;”
So we need clarity around what we’re learning not just some fancy name or way it’s taught.

Most literate students learn mathematical times tables off by heart.

How a student learns their tables, is unique to them.  Yet the output is identical for every student (if learnt correctly).

All that differs is the speed and by association the cost to get the student to achieve this.


The democracy of technology and modern marketing psychology

Marketing lives and dies by the sword of cost.

Modern marketing uses psychology to draw attention and focus it so that we learn the message “they” want to teach us.

Social media delivers for marketers easy to consume / “bite sized” chunks of learning.

Depending on a style of delivery, marketing build brands develop “a feeling” around them. Similarly you trust the brand, as you would a teacher, with a certain look and feel.

As you develop a relationship with the brand as a student does with a teacher. Consequently you begin to trust the teacher.


In an academic setting the teacher is chosen for you.  What they choose and how they choose to deliver it isn’t up to you to debate.  The only option generally available is changing school or potentially class if the school is big enough to support that.

The teacher works to a curriculum but has scope within that on how to deliver the knowledge.

The teacher installs the invisible barriers that guide your learning.


Social media is a powerful force for change.  How does it influence the Democratisation of Learning.

Social media however lets you swap brands as often as you like. It lets you explore. For this reason it takes up time.

The challenge for educators is to have at their disposal the level of interest of social media to teach common usable knowledge and skills and not just the benefits and features of a single product or brand.

When was the last time you saw an ad on tv teaching the times tables.  The money isn’t there but if you’re going to introduce free will to learning, then someone has to invest somewhere.


Standing on the shoulders of giants

New thought changes the world. Taking a new thought from just a thought into something usable is quite a daunting task.

Often it’s too much even for the original creator and therefore the public has to grow it.


Upon the Internet’s launch, the British scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, released the web’s source code for free, asserting the internet must be an “open and democratic platform for all”.

Democracy, Berners-Lee later explained, “involves people being informed, being able to communicate, [and] being able to hold each other accountable”

However nowhere in the definition of democracy, does accountability feature as a requirement.  Therefore does Democracy imply some form of accountability?


Social connectivism, like the brand of a company, carries with it the reputation of the sender.

Like trusting your teacher to have something useful for you.


Libraries stand still and quiet, not screaming for your attention but instead pleading with you to come visit.

The shelves of knowledge bow and sag under the weight of knowledge they carry.

Therefore how do you translate that knowledge into a modern electronic world?

As a result, one person walks in, goes “wow this is cool” and then shares it with the world.

Welcome to a new way of doing things?  Yet who are they to frame your choice?


In short, we empower them by reading their materials and then deciding for ourselves if it is worthy of our attention and learning.

Free will comes with the danger of abuse.

Free choice has reduced risk but still means we picked someone to do our thinking for us and frame the construction of the knowledge.  What if the teacher is wrong?


The conceptual four borders of “Democratisation of Learning”

So if that one person walks into that library, how do we make it fair to everyone to be heard equally.

In April 2017, Todd J. B. Blayone and his team released a paper with the title “Democratizing digital learning: theorizing the fully online learning community model”

Within the paper they postulate the following definition.

If this is an accurate definition of the term, then the world needs a new platform and way of communicating.  One that is tending towards free will rather than free choice.


Definition of the term “Democratisation of Learning”

Let us imagine rules around the definition of the term “Democratisation of Learning”

1. It addresses processes of learning, not learning or teaching about democracy.

2. It functions as a response to a paradox – namely, that education is considered vital for the development of democracy and human rights, yet, at the micro-level of learning, education tends to be authoritarian—even in so-called developed democracies.

As Bivens and Taylor (2008) observe, traditional learning is: premised on the assumption that students are empty vessels that need to be filled up with information.
The flow of information is one way, from teacher to students.
The teacher controls the … experience, while the role of the student is to receive knowledge passively (p. 282).
Levin (2000) offers a similar assessment in relation to educational reform, suggesting that it represents a history of doing things to other people, supposedly for their own good.

Each level in the hierarchy of education believes it knows best what those at lower levels need to do, and has little shyness about telling them or, just as often, forcing them (p. 155).

3. It can be situated within the broader academic discourse of deepening democracy, as opposed to the triumphant discourse on the ascendency of democratic nation states.
As Gaventa (2006) notes, the discourse of “deepening democracy” challenges the reduction of citizens to consumers who express freedoms through market choices rather than through critical deliberation and emancipatory praxis.

4. It gains strength through digital technologies, which are construed as powerful amplifiers of human empowerment and learning, when inequalities of access and competency are addressed.



Motivation and Why we learn

Understanding personal motivation for learning is often key to the success or failure of learning regardless of cost, pedagogy or material.

As David Blake discusses the reasons for “learning” not working in a corporate environment are common enough.

  • Not enough time for L&D
  • Also not enough guidance or direction
  • Furthermore not enough recognition or reward

The list above are motivational based factors for the individual.  Each possible to overcome with the right motivation.

Yet as Tony Robbins postulates if you can identify your motivation the above “reasons” would become redundant.

It is not for education or educator to provide motivation, that is a personal requirement unique to the individual.

The success of learning is however incumbent on the recognition of what, how AND the why we are learning.


The baby and the bath water

Multiple correct answers

Democratisation of Learning implies there’s going to be more than one solution.  If one solution doesn’t work for you personally it does not mean that all the solutions should be disregarded.


It is important for student and educator to realise that pedagogical techniques work / have their place and that they are not exclusive choices.

No one approach is exclusively better than another for all students.  Hence it is important to consider all approaches in all occasions.

Time and money will limit the capabilities but there is no need to throw the baby out with the bath water just because there is no one single perfect solution.


Modern social media and marketing techniques are equally effective at drawing attention in different ways.

They use a variety of techniques as there is no one size fits all for every customer.


Tacit Knowledge

Considering David Blake’s presentation again, when it comes to Tacit Knowledge there is no substitute for doing it and “getting your hands dirty”.

Tacit knowledge is the kind of knowledge that is difficult to transfer to another person by means of writing it down or verbalizing it.
For example, that London is in the United Kingdom is a piece of explicit knowledge that can be written down, transmitted, and understood by a recipient.
However, the ability to speak a language, ride a bicycle, knead dough, play a musical instrument, or design and use complex equipment requires all sorts of knowledge which is not always known explicitly, even by expert practitioners, and which is difficult or impossible to explicitly transfer to other people.


The personalised experience

For explicit or tactic knowledge a personalised experience is what will help the person learn best.  The educator’s task is making numerous approaches and choices available to the student.

This could evolve the definition of “a learning process”  being:

  • a unique experience based on a number of distinct components blended together
  • the selections and choices enabled by the educator,
  • the location and social impacts of the experience on students and educator,
  • a pedagogical approach,
  • the knowledge and the skills acquired through experience
  • all influenced by the current mood, setting, life experiences and existing acquired knowledge of the student

Easy to say! Not!

So how does an educator adapt to each learners needs to make it perfect.

Short answer, with today’s technology and knowledge repositories you can’t do it perfectly but we can deliver generally.


Enable numerous educators to share numerous approaches (the hows) about the same material (the same what). 

From which students have free choice to explore the different methods to find an approach that works best for them. (discovering their why)


Offering up a selection of different approaches to the learner to let them choose which ever motivates them most effectively in the moment they’re in.

Give the learner a choice:

  • It may not be the best for them but it is the learner’s choice.
  • In this way we democratise their choice using free choice.


The best worst idea.

The application of Democracy

As Churchill said in the House of Commons on the 11th of November 1947:

  • “Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.
    No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise.
    Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

The same is true for pedagogies. So with a few minor edits.

  • “Many forms of pedagogy have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe.
    No one pretends that the democratisation of learning is perfect or all-wise.
    Indeed it can be said that the democratisation of learning is the worst form of pedagogy except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…”

Yet even with these worries and objections, modern business and teaching is attempting to integrate the possibilities and capabilities of a new approach.

A genuinely new paradigm. ( I hate that word but it is correct in this instance )


The influence of democracy in modern industry

Ann Schulte (Procter and Gamble’s Chief Learning Officer) said

  • “You are not giving up control to the learners. You are sharing control with the learners”

Google has implemented a Googler To Googler or G2G approach.

Subsequently many other modern businesses are attempting this new approach including Tesla, Mastercard and Bank of America.

Yet they all have one arm around their solutions for keeping it internal.  By keeping it all internal the company must create all the different ways in isolation on their own, with the bias of their own educators influencing the free choice.

Moving the world from paid only solutions to free solutions requires something very new.


Quality and Tuning

I have worked in and for different businesses who take different approaches to processes.  The idea that you can polish it, till it’s perfect.

Learning and Learning Methodologies include ADDIE and The Tuning Approach.

These are iterative processes to refine to perfection that which already exists.

Please do not misunderstand me, there is a time and a place for refinement.  However if we are only refining Candidate A and Candidate B, we don’t necessarily open our thinking to Option C.

Broadening the scope of thinking to allow multiple versions which address multiple needs can offer a potentially better way than circular refinement of the same materials.


Democratisation of Learning, so what?!

To fully embrace the “democratisation of learning” we accept there is no one right way, it is about providing free choice, not necessarily free will.

Democratisation of Learning embraces the fact of what and how, but making it free, it hopes to encompass more of the “why” of learners.

Throughout Democratisation of Learning requires the “brand” of the educator to steer the abuse or lack of abuse of any solution.

Democratisation of Learning requires an open, free platform which embraces the idea that there will be a choice of ways to learn the same material and none of the approaches are wrong if the student can produce the correct result from this approach.


So from the dropping of a single phrase in a presentation this entire school of thought and exploration of options was born.  Words are powerful.

If there’s anything in this article you’d like to chat to me about you can contact me here or on social media.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.