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Learning Hubs Where Learning Takes Place in a Digital World

This paper is the latest in a series of perspectives by the Cisco® Internet Business 
Solutions Group (IBSG) on the future of geographically distributed, networked work and 
learning, and how this approach is enabling profound changes to organizations, communi-
ties, and individuals. It focuses on new models for learning and how institutions are 
adapting their infrastructures, propositions, and engagement modes to a digital world.
“This call for action is written for activists and thinkers who have had, or dream of having, 
the privilege of being able to build visions of what learning could become in a globally 
connected world rich in ubiquitous digital technologies. This is a privilege because the 
work of making realistic and rich visions requires conditions that are unfortunately rare. 
They include: time to think, communities of like-minded people to think with, diverse forms 
of knowledge to fuel the thinking, and real-world experiences to keep the thinking under 
control.” 1
Ubiquitous mobile technologies, cloud services, and the network have created a range of 
learning opportunities in ways previously unimaginable. Learning has always taken place 
anywhere—not just in formal environments such as educational institutions or the work-
place, but online in the home, in informal conversations, in public debates, in museums, and 
elsewhere. However, not everyone learns autonomously: many need support and guidance 
in turning information into usable knowledge. Workplace learning expert Jay Cross was
among the first to recognize and reward informal learning as the most effective way of 
turning theory (explicit knowledge) into practice (tacit knowledge) by working alongside 
and/or conversing with more experienced people.
Many learners either have failed or have not achieved their potential under the formal 
education system, and may benefit from alternative models and places for developing their 
skills and gaining further knowledge. Now that informal learning is widely accepted, it has an 
important and necessary place alongside formal education. Therefore, opportunities afford-
ed by technology to learn anywhere, anytime ought to be accompanied by tools and spaces 
for both types of learning—for networking with peers and teachers, both virtually and 
Learning Is Collaborative, and Teaching Has Changed
Sometimes learners need help from experienced peers, teachers, or trainers. With knowl-
edge easily accessible, the role of the teacher has changed significantly—teachers are no 
longer the gatekeepers of knowledge. In today’s information age, the teacher’s role is evolv-
ing: from “sage on the sage” to “guide on the side” to, more recently, “mentor in the center.”
With myriad resources in multiple formats available on the web, perhaps the teacher’s role 
should now be that of a “curator.” The museum curator gains public interest by selecting 
which artifacts to put on display, arranging them logically for better understanding, and 
displaying notes and captions alongside the exhibits to provide further information. curator archives and catalogs other artifacts, which are available to people who want to 
pursue the topic in-depth, and also provides support as needed. 
In some way, the Internet is much like a museum (albeit, not nearly as well-cataloged);
therefore, teachers must “curate digital artifacts” and “display” them in a way that provides
deeper understanding and ignites interest in further learning. In this way, the Internet does 
not provide less support; it offers a different avenue for acquiring information.
With the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs)
3 and the increase in the number of
virtual universities,4 there is a significant need for physical environments where learners can 
meet and offer mutual support when they enroll in virtual courses. This need is evidenced by 
attrition rates of up to 90 percent for students taking MOOCs, largely due to the lack of tutori-
al support offered. Any support that is forthcoming is provided only through online forums—
rarely with teachers, and never face-to-face. Compare this situation to support offered by 
The Open University5 in the United Kingdom, for example, where cohorts are smaller, 
associate lecturers are appointed to support learners, and face-to-face meetings are held 
regularly throughout a course.6
As more universities offer MOOCs, they will need to review business models and monetize 
some aspects of the courses, such as paid-for certification-proctored exams and learner 
support. A network of “learning hubs” could provide these facilities. (Learning hubs are 
discussed beginning on page 4.)
Another factor driving the need for more physical learning environments is increased
participation in higher education, indicating the growing importance of support for 
individuals. Not all students are self-motivated and confident learners; some require more 
time to understand a subject and may need concepts defined in new ways or to be shown 
another approach to learning the material. A personal tutor will come to know his or her 
students and help them find the best way to learn a subject. For some, this pathway might be 
online; for others, face-to-face communication might be preferred, especially at the begin-
ning of a student’s program of study. For new learners, meeting regularly may provide a 
strong sense of belonging and level of commitment that help ensure a student’s progress. 
The human condition dictates that from time to time, people need others for support, 
encouragement, or just company. Physical learning spaces provide that human touch. 
Research at The Open University reveals that meeting a subset of your student cohorts is 
important to learning, and occasionally physical presence is more valued than a virtual one.7
Additionally, for newcomers to tertiary education and training, face-to-face experiences also 
have a strong social function—a key feature and benefit of a brick-and-mortar tertiary 
Education increasingly includes group tasks and activities, which are important for develop-
ing the skills employers want: collaboration, turn-taking, empathy, and listening. These 
abilities are difficult to achieve online, especially in the early stages of building relationships 
and determining group dynamics. After a period of time, students might agree to continue 
group work online, either through an asynchronous forum or via a virtual meeting using 
collaboration tools such as Cisco WebEx® or video conferencing. Or, they may decide to
continue to meet in-person periodically. If so, this will require the availability of physical 
spaces in convenient locations


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