The Case for Decentralized Connected Learning (Part 2: The Learning Exchange)

The Learning Exchange

In May of 1971, two college students at Northwestern University named Denis Detzel and Robert Lewis who were inspired by Ivan Illich’s book “Deschooling Society” gathered a small group of students and local community members and founded The Learning Exchange. The Learning Exchange was later described by John McKnight (the founder of Asset-Based Community Development) as a local capacity listing and referral service.


The most simple local capacity listing and referral service consists of a method of gathering information; an information input, storage, and retrieval system; an individual or group who manages the information; and some method of public access to the information. To use the service, area residents who want to teach, learn, or share their interests simply contact the organization and indicate the kind of educational or recreational relationship they would like to develop with another individual or group. This information is then recorded, categorized, stored, and used to refer individuals to one another: teachers are referred to learners, learners are referred to teachers, and people with similar interests are referred to each other. Follow ups are made, and feedback is given about each experience.


The Learning Exchange started in 1971 with $25 which paid for printing and distributing 1,000 fliers. At the end of the first week, a total of three people had registered. By the end of the first year, they had a total of 1,000. Ten years later, Detzel and company had roughly 30,000 local participants in The Learning Exchange all teaching and learning from each other in Greater Chicago, both in small groups and as individuals. The amazing technology they used consisted of 3×5 handwritten notecards and a telephone.


The individuals’ information was kept on notecards to keep track of what skills they can teach and what they want to learn, and members would call in to search or update. Thousands on thousands of matches were made, all matched individually by hand. People who want to learn how to knit, speak Spanish, ride a unicycle– thousands on thousands of lessons went on in one-on-one settings and small groups taught by others in The Learning Exchange community. Their organization got members to sign up and pay for member status to keep it going, grossing about $100,000 annually. Overall, the organization was a huge success when it came to meeting the needs of the community, yet it was discontinued after ten years and sold to a classroom outfit called The Learning Center.


So what happened? According to Denis Detzel in an interview I had with him last year, two things: First, the leadership had mostly moved on and were doing other things. Second, they got too big and tried to automate the system with computers. “Back then,” he said, “computers were the size of a suitcase, and often not reliable.


In that interview, I was not only struck by how much they did with so little, but also reminded that while technology is great for scaling, it isn’t necessary for creating engagement and building communities. Individuals and communities with no technology, internet or cell phones can equally benefit from a local capacity listing and exchange. In fact, according to John McKnight, taking a “skills inventory” of each individual and setting up this kind of exchange (which he calls appreciative inquiry for individual asset building) is the first step to ABCD (Asset-Based Community Development).



While one would hope that more research and capacity exchanges will be implemented across the globe on both micro and macro levels, I can tell you on a personal note, I’ve never yet seen the capacity exchange concept fail to create social engagement between participants in any community where people have access to each other. Appreciative inquiry about each person’s strengths and aspirations regarding skills and knowledge always seems to increase interaction once participants are made aware and enabled to connect. (See Houston Language Partners.)


It would be interesting to see or some similar neighborhood solution using a capacity exchange system to facilitate ABCD and measure interaction. It would be interesting to see try their hand at facilitating and measuring increased social interaction between speakers of different languages in a closed geographic community. It would be interesting to see college campuses use a capacity exchange system to increase engagement between international and domestic students, or students from different socio-economic backgrounds, or all students for that matter.


Using learning between humans as a social tool to create engagement in communities may just be the most effective yet underutilized way to promote healthy interaction and bring people together—online or off.

I can’t wait to see what happens next.



Read part 1 The Case for Decentralized Connected Learning (Part 1: Should We Teach & Learn Without Regulation?)


Contact us to volunteer or Donate and help the LRNGO worldwide directory become a community.

The Case for Decentralized Connected Learning (Part 1: Teaching & Learning Without Regulation?)

Group of people ziplining

Since the future of learning is a hot topic these days (it’s about time), I wanted to write a personal and community development perspective about some of the positive side effects that have been documented by individual adult participants in communities who have created or used systems to connect informally to learn from each other.


However, as I started to write, it became evident that I couldn’t get far without addressing the elephant in the room that is credentialing.


This is not a commentary on institutions or traditional learning, and should not be looked at in “either, or” terms.  Rather, the focus is on “why not?”, and looking at the positive benefits of encouraging institutional education, while also encouraging people to access each other as individuals to obtain skills and knowledge for  personal growth and take learning into their own hands.


When we started the LRNGO, we got some pushback about credentialing.  At one of our forums, someone even said, “People can’t just teach and learn from each other without regulation.  My mother is a teacher!”  I found this ironic, since teaching is the very behavior we were trying to promote.  However, I also understood that the idea of teaching and learning taking place without certification might be a foreign concept to those who only think of the word “teacher” in the context of classroom management or formal education.


While I am quick to agree that I would prefer certified training before a doctor opens me up for heart surgery or before an attorney represents me in a court of law, I also believe that, as a student or learner, there are many instances where I am capable of assessing whether or not I have benefited from a class, course, or private instruction in which I have participated.  I’m also sure I’m not the only one who has ever received a certificate that I would have given back in return for the cash I paid.  So in the case where learners and students are looking for results rather than a badge or degree, above all else, shouldn’t their perception of those results matter?


Rather than arguing whether credentials are always necessary, what if we focused on whether learner feedback is helpful—not just for other prospective learners, but also for the instructor?  It’s worth arguing whether evaluation should be based solely on the perception of the participants, but it may be worth arguing whether it should be based solely on certificates and credentialing as well.  They are both simply indicators of knowledge received, the results of which are then measured in multiple ways dependent on many variables.



I have also heard the argument that learning without credentials is a “waste of time,” as if the lack of a credential somehow makes the skill less actionable. Learning can be actionable or not actionable depending on what you do with the knowledge afterwards. So if knowledge is power, is it a waste of time to be empowered simply because the result didn’t come with a badge?

In many cases, we are told that the end result of the credential is more important than the knowledge itself. For instance, we often hear the statement “studies show people are twice as likely to earn more money if they have a credential or degree. This statistic sounds true enough until you look at it in context. If you consider the demographics of US college students before they attend, you see the majority were already twice as likely to earn more money because most of them started with more resources, which was how they got into college in the first place.  It’s a lot like saying, “studies show people who have money worry less,” and using it as a selling point.


Regardless of whether statements like these are true or simply made by those who have a vested interest, it’s hard to argue that credentials have not traditionally been a means for perpetuating inequity (ie: mostly available to those who can afford them).



The point here is not that credentials can’t have value, but wouldn’t it be empowering for everyone at all income levels if we knew who around us at any given time possessed the expertise we needed and was willing and able to help us learn?  What would happen if this were the case in every community, city, country, or even the world?  That’s the question a couple of college students asked in Chicago in 1971, and the answer they found is as relevant today as it was then.


“The operation of a peer-matching network would be simple. The user would identify himself by name and address and describe the activity for which he sought a peer. A computer would send him back the names and addresses of all those who had inserted the same description. It is amazing that such a simple utility has never been used on a broad scale for publicly valued activity.”

    — “Deschooling Society” by Ivan Illich 1971


Read part 2 The Case for Decentralized Connected Learning (Part 2: The Learning Exchange).


Contact us to volunteer or Donate and help the LRNGO worldwide directory become a community.


Photo Credit: U.S. Army

The Death of American Two-Party Politics

Two-Party System:  A party system where two major political parties dominate politics within a government. One of the two parties typically holds a majority in the legislature and is usually referred to as the majority or governing party, while the other is the minority or opposition party.


“I like the puppet on the left better than the puppet on the right, but when I look up, I think the same guys are pulling the strings.”  – Bill Hicks


2016 may yet go down in American history as the year the media went too far and the majority of Americans began to see the political duopoly as a dog and pony show.


Picture this: two singer piano players are in a Texas night club.  One of them says “Hey, I got $10 to sing the Aggie fight song!”  He begins singing and playing the piano, and those members of the audience empathetic to A&M all join in.  However, he is quickly interrupted by the singer piano player across from him, who says “No, no, no!  Not so fast. I just got $20 to stop that song.  Everybody here prefers UT and knows that A&M is for losers.  Here’s the song we like…”, and he begins to sing the UT fight song.


The crowd sings louder, until they are interrupted by the next incoming funds necessary to stop UT, and turn it back over to A&M.  The rivalry continues, complete with insults back & forth, until the crowd is whipped into a screaming, singing frenzy yelling at each other, and the bid has become too high (over $250) to change the course of the prevailing song.


At the end of the night, you may have sung your heart out for A&M and perhaps even contributed a significant amount, but you don’t care because you had a good time.  However, something peaks your curiosity as you are ushered out the door.  You can’t help but notice the two piano players dividing up all of the money equally, and both seem to be pretty happy.  Then it hits you, they didn’t care who won.  They probably didn’t even go to those schools, but you would never stop to think about that while you were busy screaming at the other team.


So it is with today’s politics.  Internet click-bait, fake news and conspiracies, news on TV and print targeting those who lean right & left and all points in between, and media everywhere trying to “help you” sort out what’s factual and influence your position. Yes, it’s hardball time. the site that sniffs out fake emails and news picks up significantly during election cycles, as does the much talked about Wikileaks from folks who just want to know “the damn truth.”  Is it coincidence that it’s difficult to find an unbiased opinion in a two-party system?  I think not.  Both parties are in this game to win, and facts (real or assumed) are the ammunition.


So who divvies up the money at the end of the show in the two party system?  Democrats & Republicans?  The entities that buy  influence in their legislation as a cost of doing business?  That’s worth arguing about, but let’s take a look at another closely tied benefactor.


Who Won the 2016 Election? The Media: Thanks to “Jerry Springer” Politics.


Much the same way the Jerry Springer show played to the lowest common denominator, this year’s presidential race saw the mainstream media cashing in by taking trash talk to a whole new level, appropriately culminating in a “final showdown” in Las Vegas. (“Gosh”, says the moderator, “you guys are really ‘out of control’ (wink, wink)!”)  Just as the sport of wrestling looks a lot different in Vegas than it does in college, so now does the sport of debate, as the main stream media increasingly borrows the playbook from the 24/7 targeted political news channels.  It’s not their fault that’s how the system works.  It doesn’t matter what the information is, if they fuel the fire and you’re pissed, they’ve done their job to increase viewership and make more advertising money for their shareholders.

According to Tom Risen’s article in U.S. News, early on “CNN was reportedly charging advertisers…40 times its usual rate, and CNBC and Fox News soon followed suit.”  The frenzy around the candidates in 2016 and an increasingly unhappy American public helped to create a reality TV atmosphere, which eventually led to an unprecedented “1,120 percent increase from the average cost of a prime-time spot on CNN.”  In other words, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, FOX News and the other networks (including social media) make a lot more money when you’re pissed off.  History has shown that this may not be conducive to solving problems.


Nothing new, you say?  The fact that advertising dollars are now unlimited may not be completely trivial.  As Vince Sadusky (CEO of Media General) told investors according to The Intercept, “Our company is positioned to benefit from unlimited campaign spending,” referencing decisions by the Supreme Court. “We are really looking forward to the 2016 elections with spending on the presidential race alone estimated to surpass $5 billion.”  Or as Les Moonves (CEO of CBS) memorably said, “Super PACs may be bad for America, but they’re very good for CBS.”  It may be no coincidence that he later said the exact same thing about Donald Trump.


Am I suggesting that the media pushed Donald Trump (or at least went along with it) simply because of the perception that he would make them more money?  It may have been a factor.  Allan Smith in Business Insider says, “Earned media typically dwarfs bought media for presidential candidates, but nowhere near the level of Trump. With almost $2 billion of value estimated in earned media, Trump’s total is more than double that of Hillary Clinton…and more than six times the estimated earned media value of the No. 2 Republican candidate on the list.”


That looked promising in the beginning to Republicans who thought he could get their message and slogans in front of the American people.  However, the problem they eventually realized was that they couldn’t take Trump out of the message.  The same unpredictable sensationalist personality that was so entertaining and profitable to the media eventually became a liability to the Republican party.  Some of them saw it coming, but there was so much momentum by that time that it was too late.  The results were surreal: “almost” endorsements for Hillary Clinton from the likes of the Koch brothers and Glenn Beck.  And there it is.  It’s only business, and you’ve been had.


Fight promoters whether wrestling, boxing or MMA recognize this right away.  The personality that makes people the most inflamed creates engagement, and is therefore the most valuable—but only for as long as it’s believable.


Jumping The Shark


If you Google the term “jumping the shark”, you quickly find it means an unbelievable occurrence seen as a desperate attempt to keep viewers’ interest.  The term is taken from what is generally seen as “the demise” of the TV show “Happy Days,” when the writers had the main character Fonzie jump a shark to get viewers back into the show which was losing ratings.  Instead it had the opposite effect, because viewers could no longer willingly suspend their disbelief.  It was perceived as too “over the top.”


We’re hearing “jumping the shark” a lot in politics now, thanks in no small part to Trump’s tirades.  Going into the 2008 election, there were a significant number of people who believed the CIA, FBI, and Secret Service didn’t have it together and couldn’t tell that Obama was really a Muslim terrorist who was born outside of the United States. (It must be true: my friends said it on Facebook, I read it online, and I heard it on TV!)  To be fair, some of them didn’t believe those agencies could be that incompetent, so it had to be a conspiracy–because you know, the CIA and FBI and Secret Service might have a good reason to want to propel a Muslim terrorist to the top of our political system.  However, people were no longer so quick to jump on the band wagon when Trump recently suggested one of his political rivals may have been born in Canada.  It became less and less believable.  It’s a one-trick pony, and people are now starting to question how much, if any, of this is real.

Don't feed the left or the right

If the Donald Trump phenomenon has done anything for this country, it has helped people on both sides of the aisle make the connection that when Trump contributes to both parties, Goldman Sachs and the other large banks and conglomerates also contribute to both parties, and none of it has much to do with ideology.  It’s business, and business is a priority that doesn’t change, regardless of party affiliation.


So is the media itself that fuels American two-party politics in danger of “jumping the shark”?  On the surface, it doesn’t seem to matter.  The more outrageous and silly “the political circus” gets, the more viewers tune in and seem to be engaged.  However, the media may have finally crossed the line in underestimating their audience, which may in turn have a weakening effect on both political parties.  The “you’ve got to be kidding” factor is quickly reaching an “over the top” level, and when the majority of people stop taking political parties seriously, the audience starts looking around.  They may not see who’s divvying up the money yet, but they are getting to the point where they know it’s happening.


Changing the Channel


Our two-party political system with integrated media circus may be good for ratings.  It may also be good for holding our attention and creating engagement.  However, it hasn’t been good at helping us solve problems or foster cooperation, and the current climate of sacrificing intelligence for the sake of entertainment makes us culturally dysfunctional.


Michael Coblenz in said, “…the ‘national’ debate presents every issue as a simplistic duality, which trivializes everything. This duality is making our political debate stupid. We can’t solve problems unless we can discuss them rationally, and we aren’t having a rational discussion about anything.”


At this point in our history, it may be worth debating whether a multi-party system (or even a no party system) of campaign reform is in our best interest to bypass constant political football and focus on actually solving issues.  Ironically, the American people might have finally reached the point where an honest debate about that topic could pull in the highest ratings of all.