Features and Occasionals

Learning in a Post-Digital Age

By Katherine Pioli

Spread out on my kitchen counter, a bowl, bag of bread flour, salt, glass of tepid water, and jar of pasta madre (sourdough starter), vie for space among cocktail glasses and half-empty food plates. I shout over the noise of conversation: “Pour in your madre, weigh out 400 grams of flour and 300 grams of water.” Only a handful of people in the room gather close to watch my demonstration. It is an informal classroom.

My sourdough bread-baking class marked our skillshare group’s second meeting. The monthly gatherings took root last winter. A small group of friends, without an official name or list of classes or attendees, coming together partially as an excuse to get out of our winter burrows and socialize. Do-it-yourself kind of people, we also wanted to learn from each other.

As is often the case with brilliant ideas, our skillshare group, I soon learned, was not unique in the valley. Varying manifestations, such as Beehive Braintree and the Garden Group, are appearing all over the city. It’s a new kind of adult education, not associated with a college or university. These groups tap amateurs, professionals and, in our case, self-taught enthusiasts to lead short courses (a few hours to one day) on everything from soap-making to narrative journalism to building raised-bed vegetable gardens.

On a recent Wednesday night I followed my partner Benjamin up the stairs at the office of Higher Ground Learning to the loft classroom where yet another new skillsharing group, the Beehive Braintree, was meeting. Unlike my own do-it-yourself group, the Braintree’s creators are using skillsharing as a business model—a trend happening from New York City to Australia. At the Beehive, classes are designed to benefit students as well as the teachers. By sharing their skills in a formal classroom setting, Beehive Braintree’s creators hope to help professionals build a reputation and possibly attract more work.

Stepping into the classroom, I found seven students already seated at a horseshoe of tables facing a whiteboard. Benjamin, the guest teacher for the night’s class on narrative journalism, stepped up to the front and introduced himself. The scene felt light years away from my class the week before in a loud, crowded and messy kitchen. Ben put on a nametag and distributed printouts. I stepped back downstairs to talk skillsharing with Braintree’s creators, Dallas Graham and Paul Matlin.

“I work in front of a computer eight hours a day. When I leave work, I want to connect with people,” Dallas told me as we held our own conference downstairs underneath the Beehive class loft. The conversation had turned to the rise of social, real-time, face-to-face knowledge sharing in the digital age. “Resources like YouTube are incredibly influential,” he continued, “but we are becoming over-saturated by screens and I see that people are finally reaching a tipping point.”

But skillsharing isn’t just a movement away from technology—it’s also a movement toward mature social and intellectual engagement. To drive this point home, Dallas recalled for me a moment of revelation during one of his group’s skillsharing sessions. “I was talking with a mother of two young children after one of our classes,” said Dallas. “She told me, ‘I’m with little kids all day. I want to use my brain. I want to get out and exercise that part of me.’ “

Both Dallas and Paul connected with the student’s need. While one works as an artist and a generalist, and the other as a niche specialist in the medical field, each man empathizes with the adult need for intellectual engagement or just plain fun. It’s not uncommon, then, for such skillsharing groups to touch on topics ranging from how to stock your home bar to calligraphy to landscaping.

My own DIY group has similar eclectic tastes with a focus on homesteading skills. After our initial brainstorming session, we came together to make soap, which turned out to be a simple, yet dangerous, process since we made ours with lye. The second meeting, at my own house, focused on bread and now we all wait expectantly for the next meeting, which promises a lesson on milking goats. Building solar dehydrators, jam-making and meat-curing are also on our list of desired activities.

skillsharing can be anything participants want it to be. Less interested in generalist knowledge, Salt Lake’s Garden Group, familiar to some by its former name the Sustainable Foods group, focuses the concept on a single hobby, gardening. These gardening enthusiasts gather monthly to share potluck meals, labor in the garden and helpful tips and techniques.

I caught up with organizer Jim French on a recent afternoon to talk a little about garden skills sharing. “It’s pretty informal,” Jim told me. “We do meetings at a new person’s house every time so we each get a chance to present our gardens. I call it the show-and-tell-off. People love to show their gardens.”

Meetings are also a time to share specific gardening skills like making seed starter pots from newspaper or sharpening tools. And they use group momentum for the harder tasks—the “old many hands make light work” mentality—and join forces to shovel compost or turn garden beds.

Like my own skillshare group, the Garden Group operates via a simple email list, with meeting announcements also listed on a open-access group website. Interest in the Garden Group extends from Ogden to Lehi, with nearly 80 people on the email list, but participation is much more modest with anywhere from five to twenty people showing at a gathering.

Giving yet another unique spin to the skillshare idea, the inspiration for the Garden Group, a branch of the international Transitions project, comes from Transition’s firm environmental ideology. As Jim explained, “The idea is that in the foreseeable future we are going to stop having a cheap source of fuel. We might as well start preparing for that in a joyous way. We need to start working together now, creating small and more personal communities that we can depend on and food systems that don’t depend on transportation.”

Fuel isn’t the only thing that Jim hopes people won’t depend on. As unofficial organizer of the Garden Group, he also hopes to see new and independent gardening groups starting all over the valley and the Wasatch front. “My mantra is ‘plan on your own obsolescence’, ” he joked. “But really, people need to take this thing and make it their own.” And that’s some great advice for all skillsharing in any form.

This article was originally published on April 26, 2013.