Chris Noessel > Masters Project: Free Range Learning Support> When did learning become mobile?
Introduction  |  Process  |  The Service  |  Experience Prototypes  |  Conclusion  |  Appendices

When did learning become mobile?

  The question that begins this section is somewhat insincere. Since humans evolved from animals, who certainly learn, we can safely say that learning was "originally" mobile. That is, as prehistoric man roamed his environment, he had all the learning tools he needed: His body and his mind. The real question, then, becomes: when did learning become fixed?

Detail from Raphael’s <em>School of Athens</em>
Detail from Raphael’s School of Athens
Fixed in this sense does not mean that the subject is fixed. It is easy to imagine cavemen leading the young of their tribe to a certain tree to learn about it, or even groups of Greek men dressed in their chitons traveling to wherever Socrates happened to be to hear him speak. These would be properly described in learning theory as situated. Interestingly, one must be mobile to engage in such situated learning.

What I mean by fixed is rather that the learning takes place in a fixed location, regardless of the subject, as in a school. And it is in surveying the development of modern schooling that we can see how the concept of learning, originally situated in our experience of the world, slowly became rooted to the place of education.

Though some schools and universities existed in antiquity, such as Al-Azhar University in old Cairo c.970 BCE, the University of Fez in Morocco c.850 BCE, Pythagoras' Institute in Kroton in southern Italy c.520 BCE, and Nalanda University in old Bihar, India c.500 BCE, the modern Western concept of schooling grew more directly from European monastic tradition.

10th c ivory book cover depicting St. Gregory the Great in his Scriptorium
10th c ivory book cover depicting St. Gregory the Great in his Scriptorium
Since the writing of the Benedictine Rule in 529 CE, Western monasticism formally sought to remove itself from the outside world, choosing instead to focus on a life of religious contemplation and the reading and copying of sacred texts for posterity. Notably, the isolation of monasticism afforded study of subjects that were abstract and disconnected from the world. When Charlemagne in 819 CE and Pope Gregory IV in 1079 CE each sought to extend the church’s influence, they decreed that monasteries, by virtue of the knowledge contained in their scriptoria, must establish schools to train priests and clergy. These schools focused on study of the trivium (logic, grammar, and rhetoric) and the quadrivium (arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy), which graduates would then apply to the real circumstances of their parish. In this we have the first example of a location dedicated to teaching abstract concepts to students who are meant to leave and apply the knowledge gained.

Bas-relief of medieval students at University
Bas-relief of medieval students at University
The year 1088 saw the establishment of the first European university that was independent of direct religious or governmental control. Called the Studium, this institution of learning was located in Bologna, Italy. Students here added the study of law to their more traditional studies of the trivium. The university model further evolved in the 1100s, as students in the monastic schools in Paris’ Latin Quarter sought to expand the curriculum into different areas of knowledge, notably philosophy, debate, and logic. A century later the students in this district wrested control of the school from their chancellor and thereby the direct control of the church, cementing the tradition of the university as an intellectually independent institution.

As the industrial revolution popularized university learning, the baccalaureate degree gradually displaced apprenticeship as the preferred method of professional training. ¤ ¤ This trend further spread the association of fixity with learning in higher education.

But the university is reserved for adult and young adult learners, and for a majority of its existence, specifically: affluent, white, male, adult and young adult learners. To discover how schools came to dominate younger and broader levels of learning, we must trace a different thread beginning with Johannes Gutenberg and his printing press.

Johannes Gutenberg
Johannes Gutenberg
It was only in the 1500s and 1600s, the two centuries after the distribution of Gutenberg's printing technologies across Europe, that Western society became a reading society. Simultaneously, people came to realize that learning to read was easier if you did it at the same time you were acquiring oral language. Subsequently, over the course of the 18th century, childhood was culturally constructed as a time to be set aside for learning, and specifically, to become literate.¤ This reached a culmination in the decades between the mid 19th and early 20th centuries, when mandatory education became widely legislated for all youth across the United States and Europe. Over the course of the century, the length of schooling (called school life expectancy in education statistics terminology) extended to an average of 16 years as of 2000. (UNESCO Institute for Statistics)

Many students continue straight from mandated schooling into four or more years at university, and thereby spend the first quarter of their lives in schools. As a result, most citizens in modern Western societies associate deliberate learning with schooling even though, as we have seen, they are not the same thing. It is in this sense that learning has become fixed over the course of the 20th century. The increased speeds of technological and societal change have, since the 1970s, been pressuring societies to decouple learning from schooling (as it is currently practiced), and to enable and encourage lifelong learning.¤ But, as a system, education is massive and difficult to change. Additionally, proposed alternatives may have been theoretically sound, but neither affordable nor scalable. Only the recent rise in popularity of mobile devices and their "anytime, anywhere" wireless connections has given us the technological foundation on which to develop scalable mobile learning support.

The time is right for a free range learning support.

NEXT> What does free range learning support mean?

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