Twas The Rant Before Christmas… What Makes The COOCs Initiative Succeed Where Others Fail

The language of failure is a tricky one to use without creating unhelpful tensions which can compartmentalize the spirit and function of education and social projects. When walking through the surreal world of policy-town, phrases take root and oblige people to think and act in ways which conform to the language that is giving shape to their thoughts. Policy and it’s language has come to possess people’s practice.

Community Open Online Courses Logo

“For one can fall victim to possession if one does not understand betimes why one is possessed. One should ask oneself for once: Why has this idea taken possession of me? What does that mean in regard to myself? A modest doubt like this can save us from falling head first into the idea and vanishing for ever.” Carl Jung from ‘The Spirit in Man, Art and Literature’ p.48


I am raising doubt about individual’s and communities being described as “hard to reach”; here I am to suggest that it is worryingly often that institutions, projects, resources and policies which are ‘hard to reach’ for those whom they are were designed to serve.


This starting point provides context to why I think a particular person’s educational-social philosophy (Peter Shukie) is innovating where so many fail.  Through using technology to create the infrastructure which enables open, undominated learning networks that are not hard to reach, COOCs takes back ‘learning’ from a locus which is dominated by opaque economic and political agendas back into people’s lives and owned deeds.


scene of a crime

Setting The Scene

I have been analysing projects, institutions and the reign of policies which impact on community led activities for the last several years as part of my project of education learning (i.e. discovering what this means to me in my context in relation to others).


This analysis has been in part to understand and identify what works and what does not work; what helps and what hinders in trying to lead a civic life in which learning and education is situated in a commons rather than behind a paywall.


In taking time to study these things certain issues have become conspicuous because they are not commonly openly spoken about – at least not in any formal sense because problematising can often lead to being perceived as problematic by those who are driving agendas.


The trend for the practice of managerialism imposing itself on various domains of life has been on the increase.  Locke and Spender do a good job of articulating this rise of managerial practice in their book ‘Confonting Managerialism; How the Business Elite and their Schools threw our lives out of Balance’.  They implicate the emergence of business schools which have created a ruling bureaucratic elite asserting their ‘scientific management’ practices on all areas of life.


It is in great part by the dominance of bureaucratic and financial ruling practices (as Dorothy E Smith suggests), that the depersonalization and homogenisation of everyday life has occurred.  Our communities, and our abilities to associate with each other as peers in groups and networks, have become regulated and organized by a compulsion to formalise, financialise and regulate what goes on in the name of community or civic activity.
Thus community activities are reshaped in the image of the formalistic outcomes that do not reflect the lives or experiences of people.  Instead the activities which go on in communities have come to represent the objectives of funders, policy makers and commercial forces who control the resources that would otherwise facilitate civic activity.


This is a formulation of my personal experience and the encounters I have had with others in neighbourhoods who run a mile from the missionary like education and social projects that parachute into communities ignoring who and what is to be found in the terrain and proceed to colonize what exists there without valuing it.


The way that people and their lives are perceived and framed is reductive and diminishing.  It seems that sometimes people confuse the amount of money they have with the value of their opinion and the practice of PRINCE2 (etc) with an authentic relationship with the people they are impacting on.  Having lived in sink estates for most of my adult life, I have seen many socially oriented projects run by well intentioned people come and go like tumbleweed.  ‘Bloody do-gooders’, as my friend Beau would say ‘patronising ignorant ********’…


My observations are that dominantly nice people mostly from privileged backgrounds define the third sector, socially oriented projects and what happens in some of the intrapersonal spaces of peoples lives.  I have noticed – through trying to engage with such projects – that the people trying to do something positive in communities are hampered by the kind of outcome and ‘impact metric’ culture which encourages perverse incentives.  A large number of people who get lumped under the phrase ‘hard to reach’ are Brassed Off from situations where their human capital is ignored along with their contributions which are side stepped in favour of distant policy agendas which ultimately serve other interests.


I say Brassed Off because the feeling of communities and individuals is very well expressed by the film where Pete Postlethwaite, who plays the character Danny, speaks about how damaged communities have been by the kind of offensive managerialism that imposes its own agendas regardless of the “consultations”.  Before you relegate this to a fiction, consider I have spoken with people from Grimethorpe who’s real story the film is based on.  Here is a clip:



So, I hope that I have managed to paint the picture of some of the emotions and feelings which make so many dispossessed people avoid yet another bloody scheme cooked up and rolled out only to vanish again when the funding pulls the rug out from under its feet.  At the moment technologies are the buzz words and get flaunted as magical cure all’s for everything from loneliness to unemployment.  What I am seeing on the ground is that projects are having to sell modes of getting people into a ‘Digital by Default’ system of benefits as ‘tackling the digital divide’ – a perverse outcome which is very real.


This is an example of how policy pushes covertly drive projects from the rear (so to speak), and this is what perverts so many initiatives with potential. They who pay the piper names the tune… The issues which come of this perversion of technologies from being tools for emancipation and human development are touched on in the film ‘I Daniel Blake’ and at depth in ‘Digital Deadend’:



Wanted Urgently: Innovations and Innovators in Education

In the midst of many problematic ways of working comes COOCs as a project conceived of and stewarded by Peter Shukie. I see the searching philosophy behind this as one which is pathfinding for all futures as the constraints of our current cultural configuration are being banked up against. Community Open Online Courses does an interesting thing with the open source Virtual Learning Environment technology of Moodle which a number of universities and colleges use to deliver online learning environments.


Peter has formulated COOCs in a way which flips the current paradigm of MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses) and counterintuitively opens the organisational structure reflecting learning and knowledge as diffuse in the landscape, unaffected by the artificial categorisations which formally get imposed.


At the heart of what I perceive the development of the COOCs philosophy in doing is a shift from a teleological casting of education to one which is appreciative. I see it as decentering teaching/learning from something which instrumentally functions towards an end purpose or goal (such as the reductive view of education as a production line servicing the financial economy) to a life world described and constructed by the people who inhabit it as inherently valuable.


Education must go through the necessitated shifts in the ways of operating that we are seeing in fields like International Development, Sustainability or Psychology (as examples), to ones which are compelled to acknowledge, learn and evolve from the failures of the ways they have been doing things. I see COOCs as being a part of the embodiment of a necessary shift in the culture of education if it is to represent everyone in society in context with a healthy socio-environmental-economic landscape.


It is important to include in all our discussions those things not made of human culture; the things we find in the natural environment which are grossly undervalued in dominant practices which as a result get displaced, consumed, or destroyed. What good is a toxic, denuded world where we can get places faster in say the cult of the car ? A lesson related to the monocultures which are coming to define the human social ecosystem.


These are the questions I see being represented in the discussion of those who are taking onboard that education in its current configuration is failing a great number of people and communities, common stock and social traditions.


How Has COOCs Managed To Innovate ?

My feeling is that Peter better reads the landscape because he is directly involved in it (the people, the places, the interpersonal relationships, the informal) and does not feel the compulsion to re-form what happens in these junctures to what is visibly the most recognised practice of our era.
Due to his authentic relationship with the world he is afforded a better position to acknowledge what makes up the rich social and intellectual world all around us. I believe that it is this vital connection between his social nature as an individual and people around him (who make up ‘the community’ including ‘the stranger’) that has enabled a vision of education in the wild to emerge.


Over the last few years I have been investing time to connect with Peter’s work and philosophy through spending as much contact as I can with it and him. I make no apologies for intellectualizing my experience of it as I – along with everyone else – share ownership in this domain of meaning making, experience and discovery.


I identify with COOCs because it apprehends that I am an actor and an agent independent through the first principles which I and everyone has access to, and engage with on a regular basis. I can be a teacher and tell a story of something which I have learned or learn through trying to teach discovering new language and knowledge on the journey. I can develop my learning in an ad hoc way which maps to the changing pathways and opportunities of my life rather than a single opportunity (if that) to get things correct in exams.


In the COOCs scheme of things I am not discounted from taking part in conversations about knowledge which is professionally demarcated – such as medicine; or I am accepted if I make my focus non-traditional such as a course on how to break up with your partner or counteract loneliness.


Spaces wild: The critical importance of protecting London's wild... an initiative run by London Wildlife Trust
Spaces wild: The critical importance of protecting London’s wild… an initiative run by London Wildlife Trust

The World Beyond The Gates

I have an intellectual life beyond the reaches of a formal system of education – as everyone does. Communities have grown weary of being regarded as unintellectual, uneducated, or incapable. Particularly those communities who have been structured out of participating in formal processes – consciously or unconsciously. This is the bitter pill of medicine which institutional spaces are unsure of seeking.


Only a system which represents an open and free community will have a chance at success in becoming valued by those people who constitute it. As is famously said about the social capital which speaks of the social relations which exist as the living interactions of a population; ‘if you dont go to someone’s funeral, they wont go to yours’. Within this quip is conveyed the notion of reciprocity. A non-reciprocal relationship is one without vitality, one which is unhealthy.


It is because Peter is a social actor that he has managed to understand and value the world around him, and as an educator learn from it. From his authentic experience and I would argue enjoyment of this process causes generative things to flower. Having been in proximity with Peter I would argue he and his partner Alexandre are in constant development as individuals, both entwined in an eternal golden braid of being both teacher and learner; learner and teacher – such that they are equipped in both discovery and exposition rich and real enough for others to relate to.


COOCs in an astute use of a technology to extend a living philosophy by a toolkit which allows the creation, recreation, and reclaiming of public space as commons in which we can play with knowledge and communicating such that the dormant has the environmental conditions to develop.


COOCs I see as an apparatus which affords opportunity for individuals like me to explore, and through what is realised by play, commune with both the tools and the peer group who underpin my development. Essentially, the environment does not start from a position that ranks and values me from the view of my deficits (these might be those of not having any money or not being validated by what I might have produced), but takes an asset based approach.


Without cost and without prejudice I gain the opportunity to use the same technologies which university academics and administrators use to engender a course or curriculum. In this respect it is aligned with what we find already validated in the world. I can gather and curate knowledge resources in the space over time to communicate what I think will be valuable to others in their journey to an understanding of the areas which I have invested in.


The way in which he has configured the technology has resisted the compulsion to impose rigid and artificial demarcations of knowing. The notion that biology stops and chemistry starts, or chemistry stops and sociology starts has the administrative effect of limiting the syntheses of knowledge we need. Such administrating of knowledge is what I have come to see as ‘regimes of truth’, as Michele Foucault coined. Just as Foucault suggested that power is diffuse and distributed, so too is knowledge and understanding such that any regime is merely a human overlay put upon a natural un-administrated landscape.


Rewilding Education: An Alternative To Colonial Projects

The open and organic appreciation of knowing/knowledge which Peter is nurturing allows for the meta-categories and expressions of knowing which better represent people’s experience. He is resisting the mechanistic translation of everything into a standardized form without denouncing the value of categories. This speaks of a democratic intellect which relates to older, less industrialised traditions of learning (i.e. specialised through application of the concept of division of labour) we find in the European continent.


We need such contributions from such people which enable and retain the value of the individual in the face of the urge to monetize a ‘lifestyle product’ (as education gets described in some managerial contexts) being wheeled out under the name of public goods.


It is because Peter’s educational philosophy concords with his life and open ended social network, and because his life informs the use of the technology that COOCs reaches me, and I suspect so many others who have not engaged with traditional formal education processes or projects. I am confident in saying that thus far in terms of an embodied inclusive education initiative, it is COOCs which has the greatest integrity and meaning for my context. It does not blow smoke up my arse, and as such does not feel uncomfortable in trying to make it fit.


Prof Ray Oldenburg describes third places in his book ‘The Great Good Place’ revealing the importance of places to socially interact. He specifically says that digital spaces are not third places, however I feel that COOCs is clearly a tool to facilitate the communities which inhabit them. With a disappearing physical habitat in which communities can meet, share and ‘chew the cud’, infrastructure like COOCs will become increasingly important in organising beyond the corporate compulsion to own and control space.


For a discussion on how public spaces are increasingly being bought and owned by private interests you can listen to the first article of the following podcast The Week Unwrapped by Olly Mann


Peter Shukie and COOCs is an important part of a vanguard which is rewilding education and civic life, creating learning habitats for people who live beyond (as well as in) the institution.

by Alex Dunedin