Beyond the group: how education is changing and why institutions need to catch up

Understanding the ways people interact in an online context matters if we are interested in deliberate learning, because learning is almost always with and/or from other people: people inform us, inspire us, challenge us, motivate us, organize us, help us, engage with us. In the process, we learn. Intentional learning is now, more than ever, whether informally, non-formally or formally, an activity that occurs outside a formal physical classroom. We are no longer limited to what our schools, universities, teachers and libraries in our immediate area provide for us, nor do we need to travel and pay the costs of getting to the experts in teaching and subject matter that we need. We are not limited to classes and courses any more. We don’t even need books. Anyone and everyone can be our teachers. This matters.

Traditional university education

Traditional university education is all about groups, from classes to courses to committees to cohorts (Dron & Anderson, 2014). I use the word ‘group’ in a distinctive and specific way here, following a pattern set by Wellman, Downes and others before and since. Groups have names, owners, members, roles and hierarchies. Groups have purposes and deliberate boundaries. Groups have rules and structures. Groups embody a large set of highly evolved mechanisms that have developed over millenia to deal with the problems of coordinating large numbers of people in physical spaces and, in the context they have evolved, they are a pretty effective solution.

But there are two big problems with using groups in their current form in online learning. The first is that the online context changes group dynamics. In the past, professors were able to effectively trap students in a room for an hour or more, and to closely control their activities throughout that time. That is the context in which our most common pedagogies evolved. Even in the closest simulations of a face-to-face context (immersive worlds or webmeetings) this is no longer possible.

The second problem is more significant and follows from the first: group technologies, from committees to classrooms, were developed in response to the constraints and affordances of physical contexts that do not exist in an online and connected world. For example, it has been a long time since the ability to be in hearing range of a speaker has mattered if we wish to understand what he or she says. Teachers needed to control such groups because, apart from anything else, in a physical context, it would have been impossible to otherwise be heard without disruption. It was necessary to avoid such disruption and to coordinate behaviour because there was no other easy way to gain the efficiencies of one person teaching many (books notwithstanding). We also had to be disciplined enough to be in the same place at the same time – this involved a lot of technologies like timetables, courses, and classroom furniture. We needed to pay close attention because there was no persistence of content. The whole thing was shaped by the need to solve problems of access to rival resources in a physical space. 

We do not all have to be together in one place at one time any more. It is no longer necessary for the teacher to have to control a group because that group does not (always or in the same way) need to be controlled.

Classrooms used to be the only way to make efficient use of a single teacher with a lot of learners to cater for, but compromises had to be made: a need for discipline, a need to teach to the norm, a need to schedule and coordinate activities (not necessarily when learners needed or wanted to learn), a need to demand silence while the teacher spoke, a need to manage interactions, a perceived need to guide unwilling learners, brought on by the need to teach things guaranteed to be boring or confusing to a large segment of a class at any given time. We therefore had to invent ways to keep people engaged, either by force or intentional processes designed to artificially enthuse. This is more than a little odd when you think about it. Given that there is hardly anything more basically and intrinsically motivating than to learn something you actually want to learn when you want to learn it, the fact that we had to figure ways to motivate people to learn suggests something went very wrong with the process. It did not go wonderfully. A whole load of teaching had worse than no effect and little resulted in persistent and useful learning – at least, little of what was intentionally taught. It was a compromise that had to be made, though. The educational system was a technology designed to make best use of limited resources and the limitations imposed by physics, without which the spread of knowledge and skills would have been (and used to be and, in pockets where education is unavailable, still is) very limited.

Online learning

For those of us who are online (you and me) we don’t need to make all of those compromises any more. There are millions of other ways to learn online with great efficiency and relevance that do not involve groups at all, from YouTube to Facebook to Reddit to StackExchange, to this post. These are under the control of the learners, each at the centre of his or her own network and in control of the flow, each able to choose which sets of people to engage with, and to what attention should be paid.

Networks have no boundaries, names, roles or rules – they are just people we know.

Sets have no ties, no rituals of joining, no allegiances or social connections – they are just collections of people temporarily occupying a virtual or physical space who share similar interests without even a social network to bind them.

Sets and networks are everywhere and they are the fundamental social forms from which anyone with online access learns and they are all driven by people or crowds of people, not by designed processes and formal patterns of interaction.

Many years ago Chambers, then head of Cisco, was ridiculed for suggesting that e-learning would make email look like a rounding error. He was absolutely right, though, if not in quite the way he meant it: how many people reading this do not turn first to Google, Wikipedia or some other online, crowd-driven tool when needing or wanting to learn something? Who does not learn significant amounts from their friends, colleagues or people they follow through social networks or email? We are swimming in a sea of billions of teachers: those who inform, those with whom we disagree, those who act as role models, those who act as anti-models, those that inspire, those that affirm, those that support, those we doubt, those we trust. If there was ever a battle for supremacy between face-to-face and e-learning (an entirely artificial boundary) then e-learning has won hands down, many times over. Not so’s you’d know it if you look at our universities. Very oddly, even an online university like Athabasca is largely trapped in the same constrained and contingent pattern of teaching that has its origins in the limitations of physical space as its physical counterparts. It is largely as though the fact of the Internet has had no significant impact beyond making things slightly more convenient. Odd.

Replicating the wrong things

Those of us who teach entirely online are still, on the whole, making use of the single social form of the group, with all of its inherent restrictions, hierarchies and limitations inherited from its physical ancestors. Athabasca is at least a little revolutionary in providing self-paced courses at undergraduate level (albeit rarely with much social engagement at all – its inspiration is as much the book as the classroom) , but it still typically keeps the rest of the trappings, and it uses groups like all the rest in most of its graduate level courses. Rather than maintaining discipline in classrooms through conventional means, we instead make extensive use of assessments which have become, in the absence of traditional disciplinary hierarchies that give us power in physical spaces, our primary form of control as well as the perceived primary purpose of at least higher education (the one follows from the other). It has become a transaction: if you do what I say and learn how I tell you to learn then, if you succeed, I will give you a credential that you can use as currency towards getting a job. If not, no deal. Learning and the entire process of education has become secondary to the credential, and focused upon it. We do this to replicate a need that was only there in the first place thanks to physics, not because it made sense for learning.

As alternative forms of accreditation become more commonplace and more reliable, it is hard to see us sustaining this for much longer. Badges, social recommendations, commercial credits, online portfolios, direct learning record storage, and much much more are gaining credence and value.

It is hard to see what useful role a university might play when it is not the best way to learn what you want to learn and it is not the best way to gain accreditation for your skills and knowledge.

Will universities become irrelevant? Maybe not. A university education has always been about a lot more than what is taught. It is about learning ways of thinking, habits of mind, ways of building knowledge with and learning from others. It is about being with others that are learning, talking with them, socializing with them, bumping serendipitously into new ideas and ways of being. All of this is possible when you throw a bunch of smart people together in a shared space, and universities are a good gravitational force of attraction for that. It is, and has always been, about networks and sets as much as if not more than groups. The people we meet and get to know are not just networks of friends but of knowledge. The sets of people around us, explicit and implicit, provide both knowledge and direction. And such sets and nets have to form somewhere – they are not mere abstractions. Universities are good catalysts. But that is only true as long as we actually do play this role. Universities like Athabasca focus on isolated individuals or groups in boundaried courses. Only in odd spaces like here, on the Landing, or in external social sites like Twitter, Facebook or RateMyProfessor, is there a semblance of those other roles a university plays, a chance to extend beyond the closed group and credential-focused course process.

Moving on

We can still work within the old constraints, if we think it worthwhile – I am not suggesting we should suddenly drop all the highly evolved methods that worked in the past at once. Like a horse and cart or a mechanical watch, education still does the job it always did, in ways that more evolved methods will never not replicate, any more than folios beat scrolls or cars beat horses. There will be both gains and losses as things shift. Like all technologies (Kelly, 2010), the old ways of teaching will never go away completely and will still have value for some.  Indeed, they might retain quite a large niche for many years to come. 

But now we can do a whole lot more as well and instead, and the new ways work better, on the whole. In a competitive ecosystem, alternatives that work better will normally come to dominate. All the pieces are in place for this to happen: it is just taking us a little while to collectively realize that we don’t need the trainer-wheels any more. Last gasp attempts to revamp the model, like first-generation xMOOCs, merely serve to illustrate the flaws in the existing model, highlighting in sharp relief the absurdities of adopting group-based forms on an Internet-based scale. imposing structural forms designed to keep learners on track in physical classrooms have no sense or meaning when applied to a voluntary, uncredentiallled and interest-driven course. I think we can do better than that.

The key steps are to disaggregate learning and assessment, and to do away with uniform courses with fixed schedules and pre-determined processes and outcomes. Outsiders, from MOOC providers (they are adapting fast) to publishers are beginning to realize this, as are a few universities like WGU.

It is time to surf the adjacent possible (Kauffman, 2000), to discover ways of learning with others that take advantage of the new horizons, that are not trapped like horseless carriages replicating the limitations of a bygone era. Furthermore, we need to learn to build new virtual environments and learning ecosystems in ways that do not just mimic patterns of the past, but that help people to learn in more flexible, richer ways that take advantage of the freedoms they enable – not personalized (with all the power assertion that implies) but both personal and social. If we build tools like learning management systems or the first generation xMOOC environments like edX, that are trapped into replicating traditional classroom-bound forms, we not only fail to take advantage of the wealth of the network, but we actually reinforce and ossify the very things we are reacting against rather than opening up new vistas of pedagogical opportunity. If we sustain power structures by linking learning and formal assessment, we hobble our capacity to teach. If we enclose learning in groups that are defined as much by who they exclude as who they encompass (Shirky, 2003) then we actively prevent the spread of knowledge. If we design outcome-based courses on fixed schedules, we limit the potential for individual control, and artificially constrain what need not be constrained.

Not revolution but recognition of what we already do

Any and all of this can change. There have long been methods for dealing with the issues of uniformity in course design and structure and/or tight integration of summative assessment to fixed norms, even within educational institutions. European-style PhDs (the ones without courses), portfolio-based accreditation (PLAR, APEL, etc), challenge exams, competency-based ‘courses’,  open courses with negotiable outcomes, assessments and processes (we have several at AU), whole degrees by negotiated learning outcomes, all provide different and accepted ways to do this and have been around for at least decades if not hundreds of years. Till recently these have mostly been hard to scale and expensive to maintain. Not any more. With the growth of technologies like OpenBadges, Caliper and xAPI, there are many ways to record and accredit learning that do not rely on fixed courses, pre-designed outcomes-based learning designs and restrictive groups. Toolsets like the Landing, Mahara or LPSS provide learner-controlled ways to aggregate and assemble both the process and evidence of learning, and to facilitate the social construction of knowledge – to allow the crowd to teach – without demanding the roles and embodied power structures of traditional learning environments. By either separating learning and accreditation or by aligning accreditation with individual learning and competences, it would be fairly easy to make this change and, whether we like it or not, it will happen: if universities don’t do it, someone else will. 

All of traditional education is bound by historical constraint and path dependencies. It has led to a vast range of technologies to cope, such as terms and semesters, libraries, classrooms, courses, lessons, exams, grading, timetables, curricula, learning objectives, campuses, academic forms and norms in writing, disciplinary divisions and subdivisions, textbooks, rules and disciplinary procedures, avoidance of plagiarism, homework, degrees, award ceremonies and a massive range of other big and small inventions and technologies that have nothing whatsoever to do with learning.

Nothing at all.

All are contingent. They are simply a reaction to barriers and limitations that made good sense while those barriers existed. Every one of them is up for question. We need to imagine a world in which any or all of these constraints can be torn down. That is why we need to think about different social forms, that is why we continue to build the Landing, that is why we continue to explore the ways that learning is evolving outside the ivory tower, that is why we are trying to increase learner control in our courses (even if we cannot yet rid ourselves of all their constraints), that is why we are exploring alternative and open forms of accreditation. It is not just about doing what we have always done in slightly better, more efficient ways. Ultimately, it is about expanding the horizons of education itself. Education is not about courses, awards, classes and power hierarchies. Education is about learning. more accurately, it is about technologies of learning – methods, tools, processes, procedures and techniques. These are all inventions, and inventions can be superseded and improved. Outside formal institutions, this has already begun to happen. It is time we in universities caught up.


Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: social media and distance learning. Athabasca: AU Press. 

Kauffman, S. (2000). Investigations (Kindle ed.). New York: Oxford University Press. 

Kelly, K. (2010). What Technology Wants (Kindle ed.). New York: Viking. 

Shirky, C. (2003). A Group Is Its Own Worst Enemy. Retrieved from




I am a professional learner, employed as a Full Professor at Athabasca University, where I research lots of things broadly in the area of learning and technology and teach mainly in the School of Computing & Information Systems, of which I am the Chair. I am married, with two grown-up children, and live in beautiful Vancouver.

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