Dougald Hine is of the co-founders of the School of Everything.
In 2009 Dougald and Tony Hall started the weekly series of meetings about learning from which a few of these interviews grew. And this discussion took place in our usual spot looking out over the River Thames from the Royal Festival Hall

What ambitions did you have in creating School of Everything?

Dougald Hine : I'd been reading [Ivan Illich's]De-Schooling Society and getting very into Illich generally. I’d met Paul Miller,[now School of Everything CEO] who had heard of Illich via his work on a pamphlet called the Pro-Am Revolution

There was a sense that a number of us were rediscovering these older ideas about the possibility and the desirability of meeting more of our needs outside of prescriptive institutions.

Paul and I and the other School of Everything founders originally crossed paths through our involvement in a weekly email newsletter called Pick Me Up.
Pick Me Up was a recipe for fun. To write a story for it, you had to be actively involved in making something happen. You told the story of what you’d done in a way that might encourage others to use what you had shared to help them do something.

That’s how we stumbled into this idea that it was more fun to use the Internet to make stuff happen in the real world than to spend more and more of your life in front of a screen.

In 2004, people were still thinking about the Internet as something which virtualised more and more areas of our lives. So the Internet changed the world by enabling you to shop and bank online, instead of going to shops and banks.

School of Everything was using the Internet to change things in a different direction. We felt we could put into practice, on a grand scale, the kind of ideas that maybe sounded utopian when Illich was writing about learning webs in the early '70s.

We drew firstly from ideas from the 60s and 70s of deschooling society and the Free University at Stanford — all these experiments in self-organised learning that had flourished a generation earlier — and secondly on a model of using the Internet to make stuff happen in the real world.

At the centre of the School of Everything model, there is still a teacher-and-learner couple — how are your ambitions reflected in that?

We started out with a motto which was "Everyone has something to learn, everyone has something to teach." The traditional model of education creates an artificial scarcity of people who can teach us, by only looking to professional teachers who have the skills to stand up in front of a class of people who don't want to be there and keep them under control. Our alternative is to recognise the abundance of skills and knowledge and experience that is out there in every neighbourhood, in every workplace.

So the starting point for the School of Everything site was how you index the wealth of knowledge and experience that is around you. First we built profiles where you could list the things that you would be willing to teach or to share. We got stuck working out how to present that profile without falling back into the teacher/learner model. The first solution we had was that everybody who signs up has both a teaching and a learning profile.

That gets you part of the way there. But there is definitely a space in the middle, which it was harder to structure. Maybe there is something that happens quite naturally and informally if you get a group of people together face-to-face - a fluid shifting of roles – which is harder to emulate online.

The direction we’re moving in now where School of Everything supports people getting together in groups might be one way to find that heart of really informal self-organised learning.

What connections do you see between School of Everything and your work outside?

One way that it connects is through "asset-based" approaches. Asset-Based Community Development offers an alternative to conventional development, with its tendency to define people in terms of their needs, their deficit. You can see these same patterns in regeneration, in international development, and in the marketing culture which defines us as consumers, as a source of demand. Against that, the asset-based approach says, "Let's start the other way round, by looking what is already present in a situation - the skills, the possibility, the resources, the experience - and treating that as something that might be being undervalued". Actually there is already an abundance there.

School of Everything was approaching education from that perspective.

DH: On the first day that we sat down to work properly on School of Everything in September 2006, I remember saying two things. One was that I thought that by the time we had got this working there was every chance that there would be a major global economic crisis (you only remember the predictions that come true!). But I added that what we were building would be more and not less useful in a world which had been changed by that.

Because universities and schools and colleges are very expensive and inefficient ways to organise learning. And because, while I talk about living in a time of abundance, actually, the culture we are living in is characterised by artificial scarcity as well. While we feel there is an abundance of knowledge and skills, that abundance is somehow not visible to mainstream policy making and the way learning happens in the education system.

DJ: Are you just switching from one institutional footing to another - from the state-guided models of Higher Education and Further Education to a new model that runs on Google apps in the cloud and resources from iTunes U?

DH: I think it goes both ways. Last year I was part of a discussion with senior Higher Education figures for Demos’s The Edgeless University project. At the end of it I said to the guy from Demos who was running the project, "That felt like being in a room with a bunch of record company executives in 1999."

The HE people were being quite complacent because they said, "You enthusiasts for technology see education as a transactional processof pushing units of knowledge to learners, whereas actually much of the value of education is in the relationships with the people teaching them and with the institutions they belong to."

What they were ignoring was that you can also achieve a richness of relationship through the scaling down that technology makes possible. Universities sit at a scale which might have been optimal to where the world was at 30 or 50 years ago, when the costs of organising, and finding other people were quite high.

As networks make those costs lower, not only is it true that you can get a better lecture from iTunes U than if you went to the lecture theatre (the scaling up side of it). But you can also find a richer and more engaged environment in which to learn closely with others and build relationship through coming to a meetup like this [our meeting in the Royal Festival Hall] than you might find going to a university seminar.

Maybe that is a slightly utopian account. But I think that there is a risk that institutions which only see the threat from technology as a scaling up to the global supply of high quality content, are missing the fact that there is also this scaling down to something that is more satisfying on a human scale than people's experiences of universities as institutions tend to be.