As I continue to follow the debates and developments around open badges, the most disappointing element for me has been that we have yet to see significant traction around digital badges as means of democratizing credentials. That is about to change. It is only matter of time before the right people connect open badges with the spirit of a century-old concept known as the study circle (and many modern day derivatives). When this happens, I believe that we will see a true learning revolution.
What are study circles?
The concept of a study circle goes back well over a hundred years. The idea is simple. People gather to explore a topic of common interest. It is like a book club, only the focus is not a book but a shared area of interest and exploration, oftentimes something of civil interest. There is no red tape, no formal curriculum, no tuition, no teacher, and no credential to verify or document learning. It is a standalone, grassroots learning community.
At the same time, there are many past and present examples of study circles that were coordinated by a central organization with a civic goal in mind. Even in those instances, study circles are democratic in nature, and usually less commodified approaches to education than what we find elsewhere. They reside largely outside of the otherwise highly regulated world of education policies, government oversight and requirements from accrediting agencies.
While some have suspicion about study circles, at the most basic level, they are just gatherings of people to learn something or improve their community. Because study circles were used early on by people like Stalin, I suspect that some might be quick to dismiss them as somehow tied to a socialist agenda, but there is no real evidence to support such a claim. In Sweden, these emerged as a free and open means to cultivating an increasingly educated citizenry. In US history, they served as a means for people with limited formal education to continue their learning throughout life. Today study circles continue in the United States, Sweden, South Africa, Slovakia, Australia and other parts of the world. For more in-depth and excellent articles about developing and understanding study circles, see the education section of the Everyday Democracy web site (previously called the Study Center Resource Center). While the articles at Everyday Democracy focus on the potential and use of study circles for community engagement, there is no reason to limit to concept to that narrow but important purpose. For another twist on the history of study circles, you might also be interested in the Chautauqua Movement.
From a 1992 article on the resurgence of study circles in the US, Cecile Andrews wrote the following:
This growing interest in study circles is part of a larger movement. People are discovering their own authority in education just as they are in medicine and religion. This reflects a growing conviction that there is a collective wisdom in groups, that education and understanding go hand in hand, and that learning can truly be available for all.
Study Circles Today
As I’ve written before about formal education, life in an information-rich and connected world continues to open more people’s eyes to the possibility of increasingly democratized forms of education. Study circles have been around for over a century, but now we also have informal gatherings in Google Hangouts around topics of shared interests, open hackathons (like EdCamps), online communities of practice, and countless other grassroots gatherings focused upon learning in community.
So far these efforts have mostly focused on learning and education that does not require formal credentials or verification of learning. Instead, the evidence of learning is the participant’s ability to use what they have learned or the impact they had on the community through their gathering. These are learning context that are truly about learning in a rewarding social context, not credentialing.
When Study Circles & Open Badges Come Together
Yet, alongside the existence of democratized efforts like study circles and hackathons, we have open badges, a newer form of micro-credential that offers the possibility of democratized credentialing. It is only a matter of time before people figure out how to combine these two strands of education. It will happen, and it doesn’t require oversight from government or regulatory agencies. The emergence of open consortia that help define or regulate badges may well be part of this development, but I remain hopeful that this can and will be a system that is far more open and democratized than what we see in most other educational systems that include credentials valued by employers and others in society.
All the pieces are here. Many of the affordances are in place. More people are connecting these pieces and considering the possibilities. It is just a matter of time before these things to come together. Combine the vision of study circles and open badges, and we have what might be an unstoppable movement in open education.