February 7, 2011

Wikirriculum: Curriculum in the Digital Age

Categories: Digital Learning, Educational Practice
wiki curriculum infographic create usability and sustainability

Developing a school curriculum is a complex act of creative design. Add networked participatory media to the mix and curriculum design gets even more complicated. So, from the perspective of digital media and learning research, what kind of approaches to curriculum design should we be developing? A group of researchers and curriculum developers recently undertook some initial work on “curriculum innovation” as part of the DML working groups program. We were looking for the newest developments in curriculum design, situating what we found in a wider context of social, communications and curriculum theory, and just put out a report.

Like any act of design, curriculum design is usually based on some initial ideas. Yet because ideas about schooling are important politically and socially, the ideas that go into curriculum design are also usually political and socially significant, or ideological. Policymakers, educators, businesses, researchers, faith leaders, parents, pressure groups and other parties interested in the school curriculum all attempt to generate support for their own particular ideas.

Perhaps, for example, certain faith leaders don’t share the enthusiasm of businesses for curricula designed to promote postindustrial work; maybe some parents don’t possess the same passion for children’s participatory cultures as some youth workers; and doubtless some policymakers are put off by educational research that cites John Dewey instead of stating facts and stats! These ideas and ideologies are motivated by assumptions about the purposes of schooling, with wildly alternative implications for curriculum development. These assumptions go into the process of imaginatively engineering—or “imagineering”—the curriculum. Recently there has been increased recognition too that participatory youth media ought to be considered when imagineering the curriculum.

Our curriculum innovations group met, reviewed some recent research projects and literature, wrote a couple of papers, and ended up doing a conference panel together at the Media Literacy Conference in London. My main reflection while writing up the report, Curriculum Development and Youth Media, was how the idea and image of networks as an organizational structure for curriculum design kept recurring. In other words, it seemed as though the design brief for future curricula was being imagineered according to the imagery of networks. But to what effect?

Death of the Centre

One reason that images of networks are popular in curriculum ideas is suggested by researcher Johnny Ryan in A History of the Internet and the Digital Future. He suggests that the structuring patterns of the Internet as it is developing in the era of social and participatory media is leading to a massive transformation of cultural, commercial and political life. Consequently, we are witnessing a “death of the centre” in contrast to the centralized structures that patterned the past:

The industrial revolution created a world of centralisation and organised hierarchy. Its defining pattern was a single, central dot to which all strands led. But the emerging digital age is different. The pattern of political, commercial and cultural life in the emerging digital age is the absence of the central dot. In its place, a mesh of many points is evolving, each linked by webs and networks … we are witnessing the death of the centre and the rise of a new centrifugal trend that disperses power to individuals [and is] empowering audiences…

So in the era of the social and participative Web, the idea of centres of organization has been replaced by the imagery of network structures, centrifugality and decentralization. These ideas and images are now influencing the way the curriculum of the future is imagined. 

The DML community will recognize this kind of argument. It underpins the notions of “networked publics” and “participatory cultures” on which so much of our work builds. This death of the centre imagery applies not just to participation in the digital age, though.  Ideas about centrifugality are beginning to transform the media industries and are exerting influence on politics. Decentralization has broader social and educational significance too.

Network Enterprise and Switching

The shift from centripetal to centrifugal trends is a powerful image in professional and cultural contexts today, especially in organizational theories of distributed organizations, flattened hierarchies, networked businesses and so on.

Manuel Castells argues that today’s big businesses are characterized less by “oligopolistic cartelization” and more by “decentralization,” “flexibility,” and  “cooperation in different networks on a variety of projects.” Castells dubs this new organizational structure “network enterprise.” He argues that this decentralized network structure can now be found across the media, business, finance, and political landscape.

Further, these networks are all linked via specific “connecting switches,” that is, by the mechanisms that ensure the cooperation of different networks. “Switchers” can be found building strategic alliances between the media and financial markets, or between scientific and military networks, religious and political systems. Though switchers may be distinct  individuals, they’re more likely to be groups with particular ideas and technologies—like “actor-networks” in Bruno Latour‘s terms—organized around specific projects and working together on joint actions. These joint actions create inter-network connections.

Switchers are, then, extremely powerful in bringing different networks together. Now it looks like a series of connecting switches is being developed in the context of curriculum design. Some recent developments in curriculum design suggest that the school curriculum itself is being reimagined, or imagineered, as a network enterprise, and this is the result of network switching involving networks from outside education. So how does this centrifugal trend towards the death of the centre, network enterprise and switching apply to curriculum development?

Curriculum Switchers

First, the issue is curriculum governance; that is, of who controls and manages and funds curriculum development. Lately the trend has been toward curriculum centralization and standardization, with the curriculum mandated at the national or state level, or at least arranged to ensure the achievement of major national strategic targets (such as No Child Left Behind in the US and Every Child Matters in the UK). These centralized efforts have all been politically motivated; most of them linked to a string of political and economic changes that have been going on ever since the 1980s and Reagan and Thatcher: Torin Monahan writes about the contradictions brilliantly in his ethnography of the Los Angeles Unified School District.

But alternative curricula are now being developed and designed by a much more diverse range of organizations and agencies. Many foundations and trusts, charitable and  philanthropic organizations, think-tanks, non-profits and corporations alike are involved in different curriculum experiments. Many of these are directly in response to youth media cultures. And increasingly, these experiments are being networked together to form greater strategic alliances and joint actions. 

A clear example of such a networked curriculum enterprise is the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, which brings together multiple corporate and federal educational interests. More distributed networks of curriculum design exist elsewhere. The Whole Education alliance represents a network of charitable, non-profit, and other “third sector” educational organizations, essentially operating as a “connecting switch” between policy, public, and private sector educational concerns.

Curriculum design is, then, becoming the focus for decentralized network enterprise. Educational designers, innovators, and funders have formed complex and connected networks of curriculum enterprise. They are linked up together by key connecting switches in the shape of “curriculum switchers” with new curriculum ideas who move fluidly between policy, media and business networks to make things happen.


A second way in which the curriculum is being decentralized concerns knowledge. Any curriculum is a way of organizing knowledge. Today there is growing recognition and appreciation of the powerful digital and media literacies that many young people are developing from participatory media culture and the networked publics with which they are affiliated.

Consequently, there is mounting pressure for the curriculum to be freed from the stranglehold of tradition, with its hierarchical structuring of “legitimate” knowledge, and instead to be networked to youths’ own participatory cultures and publics. In short, there is a shift being proposed from centralized knowledge management to decentralized knowledge production.

This represents another kind of networking switching, where the formal network of school knowledge is being connected or hyperlinked to the cultural knowledges of youth’s networked publics. The switchers in this case are experimental curriculum designers and their ideas and projects, but the idea increasingly seems to be that students should be empowered to do this kind of network switching for themselves.

There are multiple examples globally of this kind of experimental curriculum design, some of which are already making the transition from ideas stage to design. The New Basics in Australia was an early example. Q2L in New York is a current program. In the UK, Enquiring Minds, Learning Futures, and Young People’s Geographies are all illustrative of a centrifugal trend to allow alternative knowledges into the curriculum and to switch those networks together with school. Over time, these experimental designs may become blueprints for more mainstream curriculum design interventions.

These shifts represent an approach to curriculum design that sees curriculum as dynamic and always-in-the-making. This is a vision of curriculum-as-wiki, or “wikirriculum.” Wikis, of course, are writable and editable and hyperlinked to the global Web. They transform our ideas about authorship and editorial control with, increasingly, anyone enabled as an author or an editor of content.

Curriculum innovations like those we’ve identified position teachers and learners as authors and editors of curricular content based on their own authentic cultures and patterns of participation. So, a “wikirriculum” entails teachers and learners taking on greater editorial responsibilities. This is perhaps an ideal-type form of curriculum design for an edit-based network age. It represents a move away from seeing curriculum in terms of a core or central body of knowledge and content to seeing curriculum instead as hyperlinked with participatory media cultures and networked publics. Curriculum projects and ideas like these represent the connecting switches between participatory networked publics and curricula.

Centrifugal Schooling

Consequently, it’s now becoming possible to conceive of schooling itself as being recalibrated and reorganized as a network-based enterprise. A key connecting switch has been set between participatory networked publics and curriculum design, leading to new images and visions being incorporated into the creative imagineering of the curriculum.

Rather than core knowledge, a future, decentralized, network-based curriculum is being imagineered to be accessible beyond school; it is envisaged as nonlinear and navigable like new media rather than transmitted like conventional mass media; it is imagined as being editable like a wiki instead of hierarchical and authorial.

This is a vision of “centrifugal schooling” advocated by enterprising curriculum switchers. It represents the imagineering of curriculum through ideas from contemporary “death of the centre” imagery and technologies of social media.

These ideas about curriculum design are stimulating a new curriculum R&D culture in digital media and learning research. Yet it is worth pausing to consider the potentially unintended consequences of the decentralized logic of centrifugal schooling. MT Anderson showed vividly what these consequences might look like in his sci-fi novel for teen readers, Feed, in which children are hard-wired to the Internet from birth and school is primarily dedicated to helping them exploit it:

School is not so bad now, not like back when my grandparents were kids, when the schools were run by the government, which sounds completely, like, Nazi, to have the government running the schools? Back then, it was big boring, and all the kids were meg null, because they didn’t learn anything useful…. Now that School is run by the corporations, it’s pretty brag, because it teaches us how the world can be used…. It’s an investment in tomorrow.

Feed represents a dystopian future in which curriculum has been decentralized from government and creatively re-imagineered as commercial consumerism. It reminds us how much we need a thriving curriculum research and design culture.

Banner image credit: vaXzine http://www.flickr.com/photos/vaxzine/172651123/