Q&A: Howard Rheingold on Using Technology to Take Learning into Our Own Hands


Photo / Joi Ito.

5.14.13 | Critic and educator Howard Rheingold is author of Virtual Reality, The Virtual Community, Smart Mobs, and Net Smart. As he puts it he’s been “on the web since the beginning, and long before.” He was among the first to see the potential of computers, and then the Internet for forming powerful new communities. Rheingold has taught at University of California Berkeley, Stanford University and online at Rheingold U, an online learning community.

This is the first in a series of conversations with thought leaders on digital media and learning, then and now. In conversation with journalist Heather Chaplin, leaders reflect on how the field of digital media and learning has changed over time, and where it’s headed. The conversations are being collected for an e-book that will be published by the MacArthur Foundation at the end of 2013. Interviews have been edited for clarity and brevity.

Spotlight: What’s your background with digital media and learning (DML)?

Howard Rheingold: I started about 20 years ago. About nine years ago, I started teaching at a university, but it didn’t seem to me the school was addressing the issues raised by the use of social media—issues of identity and presentation of self, community, collective action, the public sphere, social capital. These things are really about people’s day-to-day experiences, especially students. It only made sense to me to start studying it, and it only made sense if we were studying it, to use it. So from the beginning I used digital media in and out of the classroom.

Spotlight: You’ve been interested in new kinds of online learning since before you started teaching university, though.

HR: I got interested as early as 1987—that was before the Internet. I was using a modem! “The Virtual Community” was about the kinds of informal peer-to-peer learning that was becoming possible. If you know what other people in your virtual community are interested in, and you find something that would be of interest to them, it doesn’t cost you much in terms of time or energy to send it their way. And if you’re doing it for 10, or maybe 100 people, and they’re doing it for you, you really start to get a huge benefit of targeted attention.

Also, my daughter is a millennial—she’s 28 now—and she really came of age as the Web was coming of age. I became interested as a parent not just in terms of wanting her to develop important skills but also in terms of wanting her to learn critical thinking about things like “search.” “Search” is really about figuring out the difference between good information and bad information online.

Spotlight: I’ve heard you use the word “peeragogy.” Can you talk about that?

HR: When I started teaching I was really curious how my students would react to doing things in a new way—I asked them to do things like carry on class discussions through an online forum, write blogs, and do collective document creation on Wiki. This led me to think about radically redesigning what I call my peeragogy,” which is student-centered and based on collaboration and inquiry. Of course, I later realized this was not something new brought about by technology, but actually went back at least to John Dewey. 

Spotlight: So how does new technology play into these ideas?

HR: The technology affords an environment in which students take on more of the power and responsibility for their own learning. It’s important to remember, of course, that this is scary for teachers. I think it’s scary to admit you don’t know everything and to be open to learning. But now, my students regularly divide into teams and co-teach with me, and, increasingly, we’re doing more collaborative projects based on the student’s own interests.

Spotlight: You teach at the university level. Do you think some of these things are applicable for younger people?

HR: I’m writing a blog post now for DML Central about a second-grade teacher whose students are learning how to blog and how to leave comments for blogs. She has open and moderated comments and has parents and grandparents participate. You have to do it in a thoughtful manner, but it’s incredibly empowering. Not only is it important preparation for the kind of lives they’re going to live but also it gives kids a sense of agency. If you write a paper and only the teacher sees it, that’s one thing, but when you write a blog for all the people in the world to see it, I think that’s far more empowering—and better preparation for the kind of world they’re going to live in. I mean pretty soon eight- and nine-year-olds will have their own phones and be on Facebook and certainly have a digital footprint.

Spotlight: What do you mean when you say it has to be done thoughtfully?

HR: Well, I always preface these discussions with a disclaimer that there is a lot of magical thinking out there about technology and education. I am not one of those people who thinks you’re going to solve the problems of our education system by throwing technology at it. But I am a big fan of those educators who have learned that you can use these tools, together with critical thinking, as a means of empowering students to take on their own learning.

Spotlight: What do you mean by magical thinking?

HR: Like I said, I go back a long way. In the early 1980s, there was this idea that “oh, if we can only put personal computers in classroom, that’s going to solve all our problems of kids being disengaged.” But back then, the computers weren’t very powerful—there wasn’t much software, there wasn’t the Internet, and there wasn’t any teacher training. So these things ended being used as doorstops. And now, we have all this hoopla about MOOCs—which certainly have their value, but they’ve just been way overhyped. Basically, there’s a hype-and-bust cycle that goes back to the personal computer. Look at all the marvelous things technology is going to do! And then it doesn’t happen.

The technology affords an environment in which students take on more of the power and responsibility for their own learning.

Spotlight: What is the biggest hype right now? What do you find yourself worrying about?

HR: I think we’re going to automate our way out of teachers with MOOCs. The upside is if you’re a student somewhere where you can’t really afford to go to a decent brick-and-mortar school, but you’re very, very smart, you can take courses on artificial intelligence from Stanford and MIT. These are tremendous opportunities. The thing is, these courses only work with subjects in which there are definite answers. Two plus two is four. Yes. But what were the causes of the First World War? That’s a more complex question. So the magical thinking is “okay, computers are going to be able to grade and let students pace themselves. We can put our lectures on video and do away with the classroom.” I think that’s wrong. I think it offers an additional pathway for people who don’t have access to good classrooms, but it doesn’t solve the problem of disengaged students.

But all of this really goes back to what the classroom is actually for—the secret, or maybe not so secret, agenda, which is that the classroom is really for teaching compliance. That was useful when societies were transforming from agrarian to industrial, but it’s less than useful in a world where you’re going to need to be thinking critically about the information you find.

Spotlight: Considering that, are you surprised by how big DML has gotten?

HR: Well, I guess I’d say I’m pleasantly surprised. It’s been coming for a while, you know. In terms of where it’s going, maybe the next step is not turning more responsibility over to the computer but rather to the students. What about eliminating the teacher entirely? Could a group of people who are knowledgeable about online media learn something together? I started teaching courses online at Rheingold U a couple of years ago and that quickly became an exercise in co-learning. I certainly facilitate the formation of learning communities, and I lecture and do a lot of things traditional teachers do, but what’s different is that in cooperative learning we are all responsible for each other. It seemed to me that this was a natural next step.

Spotlight: Does this get to the Peeragogy Handbook?

HR: Yes. I went to UC Berkeley recently to give the Regent’s Lecture, and I proposed that we actually did something, so we invited people from all around the world to help us create a handbook for self-learners, which became the Peeragogy Handbook.  So now, for people with access to digital media and networks who want to learn about a subject, they can find and qualify resources, learn how to organize those resources into a syllabus, create learning activities, and think about how to assess and divide the labor of facilitating. I think that’s looking into the future.

Spotlight: So you see peeragogy being the future of education?

If you want to learn something these days, there’s probably a teenager who has posted a tutorial online. I’m interested in the self-empowerment enabled by access to all this knowledge and all these tools.

HR: No, I’m not projecting this as the future of education. I think independent and interdependent learners are necessarily going to be a minority in a world in which schooling is about compliance. But there are more and more of them. If you want to learn something these days, there’s probably a teenager who has posted a tutorial online. I’m interested in the self-empowerment enabled by access to all this knowledge and all these tools. Certainly teaching is an art and a craft and an expertise. But I think we’re going to see a larger percentage of the population use available technologies to take learning into their own hands.

Spotlight: So what happens to the people who aren’t so good at being self-directed?

HR: They’re in trouble.

Spotlight: Do you think it’s part of the DML community’s job to help figure out a way to reach those people who aren’t self-directed? I mean we’re talking about a huge swath of the population getting left behind. What should the DML community be doing?

HR: It’s important that it’s called “digital media and learning,” as opposed to “digital media and education.” Education is a public institution and it’s a political football. By it’s nature, it’s conservative. It’s about compliance—sit still, be quiet, follow orders. That’s a social issue. I don’t think technology is a solution to a social problem.  Many people don’t want their kids to think for themselves. At the same time, learning is what people do. Educational institutions used to have a monopoly on that. Now, there’s the Internet. There’s a lot of knowledge out there and there are tools for finding it that were never available before. So I think encouraging learning from the bottom up will ultimately help transform educational institutions. Don’t ask me what’s the solution to the political problems of the education system.

Spotlight: Who are you watching right now? Whose work is interesting to you?

HR: I’ve always been a follower of Cathy Davidson. She does great stuff. Also a lot of my interest in all this has been supported by the work of Mimi Ito. I’ve followed her for more than 10 years. I have a personal learning network, which was one of the things I learned about when I started teaching on social media—so I got to know the work of people like Sherry Turkle and Dean Shareski.

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