The Politics of Learning 2.0

From Governance to Capacity Building
Charles Taylor Kerchner
Claremont Graduate University

The research that preceded this policy analysis began with the observation that education reform, particularly in Los Angeles but generally across the nation, was in a state of permanent crisis. The waves of education reform had failed to produce an institutional turning point or a big winner, either politically or educationally.

The permanency of the crisis has been caused, in part, by the politics of education reform. For the past 40 years, the politics of public education has concentrated on governance and consequently on the rules, regulation, and compliance that governance produces. In this context, education reform has largely become an effort to create organizational governance in which flexibility is possible. But instead of transformation, these reform efforts have largely produced seemingly endless auditions of new ideas. Each deviation from rule violates someone’s interest and, more importantly, someone’s sense of what is right, proper, and legitimate.

It is time to shift attention to capacity building.

The approach advocated here is to invest in changes in the system’s capacity: build educational infrastructure; create incentives and agency, particularly for students and teachers; ease adoption through regulatory relief for school districts; and finance and study those who are working on the leading edges in district schools, in charters, in public and private ventures that constitute the country’s education development laboratories.

I researched schools where people think outside the conventions of the century-old acquisition and storage model of learning, Learning 1.0, and where learning is organized in unconventional ways, providing a glimpse of what a new learning system might look like.

Just as the Progressive Era educators did a century ago, we need build an education system around the learning system—call it Learning 2.0. It is a full-scale update of the old model, not destroying it but standing on its shoulders.

Although the new system uses and relies on computer and Internet technology, its design relies as much on rearranging human activity as it does in introducing smart machines. Learning 2.0 is composed of five elements.

  1. A remix of acquisition and practice in project-based learning and other immersive pedagogies.

  2. An individual education plan for everyone.

  3. A realization that students, not adults, are the workers in the education system.

  4. An unbundling of teaching, learning, and the assessment of competence.

  5. A redefining of the basic skills to add such 21st century skills as learning how to solve difficult, ill-defined problems, and learning how to collaborate.

The vignettes in this report illustrate Learning 2.0’s principles. At High Tech High in San Diego, New Tech at Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, and the Avalon School in St. Paul, students learn by designing and completing projects. At the California Virtual Academy, parents tutor their children and the school integrates a highly structured curriculum with family life and experiences. As demonstrated at the Los Angeles Unified School District’s technology fair, hands-on learning motivates students who had been “ganged up” and lost to any form of schooling, letting them recreate themselves as designers and graphic artists. At Rocketship, Claremont High School, and other schools, blended learning—“clicks and bricks”— bring together technology and face-to-face experiences using Moodle and other software. Games, simulations, apps, and the burgeoning world of open lectures and courses grows daily. In Scotland, the country has invested in the world’s first national education intranet, Glow, with the capacity of linking every student, classroom, teacher, and family in the country.

Each of these examples illustrates a new production system that differs in two ways from Learning 1.0’s industrial batch technology. First, the system employs a form of flexible specialization, a means of production capable of responding to the needs of individual customers quickly and economically. Second, many of the illustrations rely on peer production, social sharing and exchange to build things of value.

In the growing world of peer production, individuals cooperate to create goods and services without the intervention of firms or government agencies, although they may be enabled by them. Individual self-identification rather than management authority determines the division of labor in ventures, such as Moodle, Wikipedia, or the virtual reality system Second Life. Peer production is possible because the Internet is different from other technologies in that it passes into the hands of individuals the power of production and the ability to collaborate in production. This does not mean that all the capital necessary to process, store, and communicate information is under individual control. That is not necessary. But with a very modest investment, individuals gain the ability to access information, take from it, rework it, and submit it back to the commons.


The relevant policy question is whether California can feasibly take steps that use the new production system to bring Learning 2.0 into being and to use the new production technology to build the capacity of the state’s education system. I believe it can.

California needs to invest in a learning infrastructure for students, one that uses the new network production technology. Think of it as a combination of Facebook for school, the best computer game you ever saw, and a smart app for your mind. By thinking of the student as the end-user rather than designing educational products that will be attractive to a textbook adoption committee, the state can vastly open up learning to new participants, approaches, and ideas.

Learning would contain information necessary for students and their parents to navigate schooling, teaching, and tutoring in different modalities and styles, and the ability for students to test their knowledge and gain credit.

For students and their parents, information lights the pathway to college and career. By when should a child be redesignated as English fluent to have a good chance of getting into college? Why are class placement tests at a community college important? At a minimum, students and their parents ought to have online access to reliable information about where they are on a pathway, an educational GPS function.

The second part of Learning would offer a variety of learning experiences or access to them. The number learning applications grows almost hourly. In fact, there is so much learning material on the Internet that Learning should function as an aggregator. Also, it should assist the development of particularly sophisticated applications, social, or scientific simulations. And it can be the site for collaborating teachers and students.

The third part of Learning would allow students to take tests and get credit for learning. Students could take tests and pass courses when they were ready, and could take tests as formative feedback. Unbundling teaching and testing also allows the whole education system to become more productive. If the financial rewards for school systems were correctly managed, it might also incentivize schools and districts to accelerate learning. And instead of drawing students away from substantive learning, substantive tests would motivate students and place the teacher in the position of a supportive tutor and coach to help them reach their goals.

Creating a Politics of Winners

Learning would change the politics of education in California by changing the way students interact with the tools of learning. By changing the way students and teachers work, it would activate new interests in education, and reshape the interests of well-established parties, such as teacher unions, parents, and school districts. It would activate student and parent expectations of schooling. It would allow teachers to have field trials of new ways of arranging their work without frontally attacking the idea of a class or student-teacher ratios.

No state agency or district would demand its use as a matter of system design. Learning’s growth would come about through practice adoption rather than mandate. Learning allows teacher unions and school districts to embrace technology without forfeiting the students, the revenue they bring to a school district, or the teacher jobs that revenue allows. Students would remain enrolled in their home school and district.

Learning could also serve an important educational laboratory function. All the new modes of learning are in their infancy and they need more of the d(evelopment) part of R&D. Instead of a standard design, California needs many laboratories. It would help preserve a legal commons so that the intellectual property of schooling stays in the public domain. And it would allow attaching school-finance and human-resources politics to productive changes in learning.

And more than anything, Learning will allow existing schools to be winners, politically and educationally.

Suggested citationKerchner, C. T. (2012, January). The politics of Learning 2.0: From governance to capacity building [Report]. Policy Analysis for California Education.