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

English is Stupid

Great Britain rose to power on the world stage in 1588 with the defeat of the Spanish Armada and her magnificent fleet of tall ships. Britain’s dominance continued for many centuries in many fields. In 1684, Sir Isaac Newton published Principia and ushered in industrialization and a new era in modern science. Britain reigned as a world leader for nearly four hundred years and left the stamp of English around the globe. In 1945 at the end of World War II, her authority passed directly to the United States of America. These two back-to-back superpowers happened to share a common language. Between them, they effectively established English worldwide as the language of commerce, technology and science for generations to come.

There are 1.5 billion people learning English in the world today. As you can see in this pie chart, learners of English outnumber native speakers by a margin of about four to one.

English Speakers Worldwide

English Speakers Worldwide

The English language is the most sought after commodity in the history of the planet, and to date, there has never been a particularly effective way to teach it.

Students who study English in school learn primarily about reading and writing and are frustrated that the speaking doesn’t follow. The fly in the ointment is the Latin alphabet.

The heart of our trouble is with our foolish alphabet.  -Mark Twain


There is no crossover from written English to spoken English through the alphabet. Therefore, no one can learn to speak English from reading it. In effect, written English and spoken English developed separately into completely different languages and must be taught that way for students to be successful. Traditionally, the grammar, spelling, punctuation and reading skills taught in language classes are all about writing and simply do not relate in any meaningful way to the mumbling, grunting, inflection, pausing and gestures that somehow work together to make conversation.

Think back to how you learned your first language. Human beings acquire their first language as toddlers. They learn to speak by mimicking those around them. There is no formal understanding of the mechanics of any language in order to speak it. The process is acquired subconsciously. Conversely, grammar and spelling are parts of language studied in school sometime after the age of six. You were a master of using grammar before you learned the names of the parts of speech.


First language skills are acquired in this order:

Listen -> Speak -> Read -> Write



English has no clear-cut relationship between the alphabet and sounds; therefore, the language learning process cannot be reversed. No one can learn to read or write in English and expect speaking English to follow because the skills are unconnected.

A specialized approach is required to unlock the unconscious aspects of oral English in order to effectively teach or learn English as a second language. That’s what this book is about. Speaking is not simply writing spoken out loud. Speaking and writing are completely different skills that use different sets of rules. The simple set of six rules in this book addresses all aspects of oral communication. A clear understanding of the distinctions between writing and speaking provides a powerful place for learners to start.

Reading and Writing Use







Speaking and Listening Use








  • alphabet
  • spelling
  • punctuation
  • format
  • grammar


  • sounds
  • stress
  • linking
  • expressions
  • gestures

Writing and speaking are different language skills, and they have to be taught with separate rules.

Author Judy Thompson is a professor, ESL teacher trainer, pronunciation expert, TEDx speaker, and thought leader in English speaking education. She has a degree in English and TESL, and over a decade of experience in adult student ESL and English teaching. She has produced two text books, a curriculum, and a sound dictionary, and is the founder of the Thompson Language Center.  Judy has also conducted workshops for teachers and international students in 15 – 20 major colleges and universities, as well as spoken at TESOL and TESL conferences as the keynote speaker.