Citizen Learning: learning together

A potential new model of shared learning emerging in the web 2.0 world is that of what could be termed ‘citizen learning’.

Citizen Science involves students and the general public worldwide collaborating to collect and analyse data 1. Citizen journalism involves the general public producing and sharing news and information via many web 2.0 tools – it is about user-generated content. Both could be viewed as examples of collaborative or group learning.

Citizen Science

Example of Citizen Science include:

Citizen Science projects offer different levels of participation, from simply providing your computer power to run programmes, to collection of data (see Radio 4 series link).


These levels of participation led me to reflect on Arnstein’s Ladder of Participation 2  from manipulation through to ‘citizen control’. The ladder has been interpreted and represented since, the most well-known of these representations being Roger Hart’s Ladder of Young People’s Participation 3

In terms of Citizen Science, the projects seem to be along the ‘rungs’ for ‘consultation’ and ‘placation’. The project organisers determine and control the project and members of the public volunteer to take part – the level of the understanding of the process can vary depending on the interest level of the participants and feedback mechanisms are in place.

Citizen journalism seems to be more strongly participative. It is possible for news to be entirely generated and controlled by the public – reaching the top of the ladder of participation ‘citizen control’. However, many news providers offer something less, public generated content but moderated and controlled by the provider. The BBC Blog 4  demonstrates this very clearly in its consideration of whether or not they should have removed user-generated content (ie comments) following the Benazir Bhutto assasination. A decision was taken to allow all of the content despite some of it being racist, some non-informative, and some very informative offering valid comments and insight.

Citizen journalism has perhaps been most evident in the recent events in the Middle East and the Twitter/Facebook revolutions 5

A constant issue regarding citizen journalism is validity and reliability of the information contributed – this was true for the BBC (see above) and is also true for Wikipedia, another example of citizen journalism.

A further example of citizen learning, is the OpenLearn/LearningSpace project from the Open University 6. Here formal learning materials are provided but linked to community-led learning groups.

Implications for Teaching and Learning

There are clear links between Brown’s discussions on learning together with the participative element in the citizen learning examples above. Developing the participative element – and the level of this participation – could stimulate interaction and effective learning practices. For elearning this would indicate a participative strategy with learners working together perhaps through forums, blogs (and comments), wiki, shared documents. At this level through participation is limited as the main impetus is still tutor or curriculum led. For true citizen learning and participation, the content and outcomes need to be more learner driven. Informal learning of this form is far more likely to be ‘messy’ – a word used by Brown in his webcast 7. Evaluating the effectiveness of such learning is difficult unless it is then tied into some sort of formal mechanism – which surely contradicts the nature of citizen learning. Perhaps the only valid assessment is that of the popularity or ‘attendance’ involved in such informal learning opportunities – how many people access and for how long/what period of time.

  1. St. Arnaud, Bill (n.d.) Citizen Science, (online) Available from: (Accessed 22 March 2011). 
  2. Arnstein, S. (1969) ‘A Ladder of Citizen Participation’, Journal of the American Institute of Planners, 35(4), pp. 216-224, (online) Available from: (Accessed 22 March 2011).
  3. Hart, R. (1992) Children’s Participation: The Theory And Practice Of Involving Young Citizens In Community Development And Environmental Care, UNICEF.
  4. Horrocks, P. (2008) ‘Value of citizen journalism’, BBC News: The Editors, (online) Available from: (Accessed 22 March 2011).
  5. Giglio, Mike (2011) ‘In Egypt, Pushing Revolution by Internet’, Newsweek, (online) Available from: (Accessed 2 February 2011).
  7. Brown, J. S. (2007) ‘Open Learning Broadly Constructed’, Milton Keynes, (online) Available from: (Accessed 22 March 2011)

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