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Open Source as a knowledge commons by Layne Hartsell

Open Source as a knowledge commons by Layne Hartsell

How has your experience with school been?

→ As a student, my experience was what I would say as “normal” in that I tended to follow all of the rules and make good enough grades. As I became a teenager, I tended more towards athletics than schoolwork, but was still normal enough to get through. I didn’t experience any real problems, however, at the time, I had no ideas about a true school such as a Dewey-ite or Montessori compared to factory-style state or charter schools.

What made my experience important was connecting with a teacher whom I liked and seemed to really care about my learning process.

One in particular stands out in my memory, my high school science teacher, Mr. Hays. In such a system, people like Mr. Hays made all of the difference.

As a teacher, I have held von Humboltz, Dewey, Montessori, and then the state systems of Scandinavia, particularly, Finland in high regard as far as large scale educational structure. Where possible, concerning interaction with students, I tend to always try towards an open question, the outcome unknown since the journey is the student’s alone. My role is to act as a qualified facilitator with knowledge and experience. Over recent years, students have begun to co-act with me due to wide access to information and knowledge. We create the classes together out of my general guidelines which follow standard requirements.

Tell us about your dream school…

→ Though I might be able to come up with some kind of phenomenal abstract school which would be an anarchic open school model, one which is student-teacher directed, I would prefer to answer this question at the moment on what is perhaps a actual possible dream for the large scale. So, I would advocate for social democratic educational systems on the model of Finland and Scandinavia, and with

continual progress of innovation towards the teacher as facilitator and student as explorer, co-producer of the school, and all as a community.

As mentioned, co-development in knowledge by students is also possible due to the incredible powers of ICT. Students are now, more than ever, co-creative in their educational experience.

The relationship should be one of teacher as facilitator and student as explorer. Modern curricula are robust and accessible, and there is plenty of opportunity for co-application within the classroom though ICT, multimedia, and open dialogue. Students and teachers also should interact in the community around the school, such as the system von Humboltz planned and implemented in Prussia in the 19th century; a system which was then replicated in the US. There should be no wonder that those trained in US universities, especially in science, had created innovations and knowledge which has led the rest of the world. This system is of course well-known and widespread especially in Europe, but has lamentably decreased over the past thirty years.

Today, we have a tremendous resource in all things ICT. The teacher can be freed from giving lectures where class time should be used for near pure facilitation or demonstration on how to gain knowledge (point-counter point, triangulation), to integrate facts, and to do critical thinking, such as making arguments and giving evidence-based information. In science, such conceptual development is aided by additional classes in labs. For the near future of education, a term from Salvatore Iaconesi and Oriana Persico,

I think the new system would involve students watching MOOCs outside of class, as homework, where these online videos would cover what students think of as “boring lecture time”,

and I would add teachers as well think the same things. Then, in class, would be the dynamical process of teacher-student and student-student interaction. If we take, for example, biology, which has a large amount of memorization and conceptual development to learn, this could all be done via MOOCs. In this case, if it gets boring, the student can just pause and come back later and carry on. Finally, the demonstration of knowledge or the sharing of knowledge which creates a full system of learning would integrate in the classroom and facilitated by student micro-groups. I always have these kinds of study groups in my classes. The groups should be three or four students. In this way, outside of class, they have a connection to each other and to the knowledge from class in which they themselves will educate each other, since out of four students, someone heard the particular point in a lecture or remembered a subtlety the teacher expressed in class. The micro-group back and forth outside of class will tend towards a clearer view of the information; then when they meet the teacher in class, full clarity can be obtained.

The dialogical process is one of better clarifying through discussion and then debate is a more confrontational method for refined clarification.

Most of the time, the dialogical should be done in class, whereas debate should be integrated into an already comfortable setting. This is the process of learning, of innovation, and of progress. For those who are trained in the natural sciences, such a process is built in and almost undetectable to the student and teacher.

For the micro-groups, I tell the students that their groups are their “lifeline” to the class which is an important part of the basis for their exploration. If the student engages his micro-group, his personal study time, and then the class dialogue, he will do well since all of these processes are adjusting in real time to his needs and motivations. Such a concept is seen fully developed in the case of medical students who do not have the luxury of making serious mistakes. For more individualized work, such as in art or coding, they too have their knowledge rich communities and micro-groups which are an important aspect and community for their work. One might recall Andy Warhol’s Factory during the Silver Era. As an aside, what I describe here is why celebrity dropouts were actually not dropouts. They just dropped out of the generalized education system into the developing knowledge-rich communities of mathematics, code, software, and hardware all supported by the dynamic taxpayer supported state sector of innovation. Instead of building that commons which was there, however, they closed off the innovations and even their hardware into business models of capitalist accumulation.

Going back to von Humboltz,

I hold that education is for the development of the human being and not only for the menial mindedness of getting a job;

this later “development” is a fallacy of thinking when it comes to education.

How do you envision an “open source school”?

→ Well, this is the most exciting of the possibilities for using technology to enhance learning. The extraordinary development of the digitalization and thus easy sharing of knowledge, music, art. media etc. will be a basis for the creation of new learning systems and indeed new economies. And all of this digitalization is with the proliferation of ICT and access through smartphones and should be seen as colossal, momentous…I cannot think of more words to express this. The world’s knowledge went up on to the Internet from the ArpaNet til the Internet we have today, and now that knowledge is being made physical through digital, distributed manufacturing. Theoretically, anything will be made anywhere and for very low cost. Astounding! What would Hypatia think of all of this?

I would envision an open source school making use of all of the technologies and knowledge available.

Open source particularly means a knowledge commons, that which is a basis for community sharing, debate, and innovation for all.

The further role of teachers is to collate and curate information into knowledge which enriches the commons. The importance of this process cannot be overstated due to the necessity of this kind of expertise to verify the quality of information and to assemble it into knowledge. Students will be co-creative in the “hunting” of references and curating. Here enters the open school.

Taken wider, anyone can enter and use the commons so long as they follow the maxim of reciprocal sharing. This is the essential meaning of P2P which comes out of the hacker culture in the late 1980’s and then exploded into the 1990’s with such things like Linux and now Arduino. A planetary commons of code, knowledge, design, recipe, chemical process, biotech sequences (such as in genomic, proteomics) all of this and more would create a collaborative economy far beyond any of our imaginations. Such a commons would permit a continual lifelong process of learning and knowledge development as the individual moves through various stages of their lives and productive activities, which they choose through communities of commons-based peer production. Therefore, the open source school is right at the basis for this kind of planetary society or as a ubiquitous commons, especially of code, design, knowledge, and digital distributed manufacturing. The commons is the well-spring and the open source school is the dipper.

What would it change if an “open source school” existed?

→ This is a difficult question, if we mean this as a highly experimental school and under difficult political conditions, all applicable to today. We just don’t know. It could fizzle out and produce some good knowledge in the process. In that case, it still would be an important attempt for others to build upon later.

Next, it could scale up to a municipal or regional level and become a model.

A project like Human Ecosystems there in Firenze’ could provide data support, integration, and observance for such a municipal-wide school system. Or, and we could hope, due to ICT and the developing P2P communities around the globe, a planetary knowledge commons would be the basis for the development of any number of varieties of open source schools. For the knowledge commons, if we think of Wikipedia and its success in descriptive, encyclopedic functions the next level would be platforms of curated, high value knowledge such as at the P2P Foundation or Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. In these cases, vertical or horizontal experts within certain peer reviewed systems are bringing information together to produce knowledge. High value knowledge is that which would be dependable and thus useful for open enterprises like medical instrument production, the formation of open source schools, and modulation in manufacturing such as building cars like the Wikispeed. There also should be a measure of caution as the good example might always be a threat to entrenched systems and erroneous thought systems which some folks believe to be real. In the end, I think that just the attractiveness of such a school concept would draw many to it. Then, once people see the openness for creative, collaborative learning, and even for making their own commons based peer production communities for the future, it would make such a school irresistible.

If you were able to rethink the way knowledge is transmitted into schools today, how would you envision that?

→ Though not possible to eliminate the current distorted system (and it would not be desirable due to the tremendous disruption caused), I would say eliminate the current factory-style system and go back to the von Humboltz style; and here I mean large systems, like the state level, including the predator type charter schools.

Since elimination of the factory system is not a sensible or humane option (even though that system is inhumane and ineffective as it is now),

we should organize to put pressure on the state systems to move in more open directions.

Such a thing could be done, and probably more quickly than we think, but it would take a massive amount of work. At the same time, open source schools should be built within the current system, creating knowledge centers such as in the old Republic of Ragusa which is reemerging as a knowledge center, and of course your Scuola Open Source there in Italy.

How would you organize the entrance in the labour market?

→ To answer this question, I will dream: In the collaborative or P2P economy I mentioned above, labor as a term would be obsolete, something to be seen in paintings and pictures in museums like those of Diego Rivera in the Palacio de Bellas Artes Mural Museum in Mexico City.

The individual in the society of the near future, having participated in the open source model of learning would then take her knowledge and refined skills and approach various commons-based peer production communities and seek to join in as a contributor.

This idea would be for the younger person, early 20’s, just heading into productive work. Though, it is also true that she might have a really good idea and be able to persuade others to join her in creating their own productive group. As for people in mid-career, they would have already participated, contributed to, and benefitted from various projects in such commons-based communities. They would have developed a reputation based on the merit of their work and peer-networks, such as in scientific, creative ability, or in artistic, design capacity. Their experience, knowledge, and now track record, would make them highly desirable to participate in, or further, start new productive communities. The young adults, middle career, and older folks would all work together not pushed by force, but motivated by common interest, desire for excellence, and ultimately the contribution to social needs. This process could go on as long as the individual were capable of such productive activity. Since I think that human beings are innately collaborative, curious, seek meaning, and are innovative, people would quite possibly do this kind of “work” or “living” fully throughout their lifespan. Here is also the remedy for women’s dilemmas to be fully productive in society due to their variety of interests, and particularly the natural desire for children. They would enter and leave such a collaborative system of production when they wanted to. It would not be a matter of fearing that if they left the job market, they would not be “marketable” after having children. There are any number of reasons why such a system of production would create a flourishing human society, one which would reasonably meet the natural desires, motivations, and space for creative activity and innovation for all to contribute.

How do you think companies and school should interact?

→ In a social democratic system, which is what I think is possible for today,

the companies should be taxed by the state, and then the state should make funding available to expert systems for use in the education system.

I am not for corporate social responsibility or for direct funding of schools from corporations. As for the social democratic state system, for example, the building of infrastructure, enhancement of ICT power, tablets for all students and the like would be the technosphere out of which business, schools, etc. would operate. Even better, would be a full commons and essential democracy built up from the level of the individual. Since the state system is in place, currently, as far as the schools themselves go, the state would have no say in what the expert systems do, it would only be a collector of taxes and arbitrator of conflicts (justice system). The open school systems would be owned and run by the people in them as open enterprises.

What does “researching” mean to you?

→ For myself, research is a uniquely individual process when it comes to the technical aspects, for example, how I run searches, how I choose to move from one bit of information to another and integrate them, and how I catalogue and curate information and sources. For the collaborative part, I will stop by the office of an expert, for example a scientist I know, or get on a video call with other experts with whom I can share information and get correction and/or validation. I use the term expert to mean anyone who has validated knowledge and capabilities through peer-reviewed systems.

A vertical expert would be professional or official, and horizontal expert would be grassroots or hacker, and the entire system would be a sphere of expertise.

These are knowledge-based, evidence-based peer review and not those of political origin.

Philosophically, the actual meaning of research to me is knowledge for its own sake; a journey of discovery.

In which way do you think technologies can help us build a better world?

→ The first thing that comes to mind is that we have no choice; we will have to use technology and here I mean advanced technologies — I’m thinking of climate change, but also for infrastructure, education for all, and medicine. Also, science has now made it possible for the truly extraordinary — prosperity, well-being, meaningful activities and the tools to work with.

Therefore, the real question here is choice. How will the technologies be formed conceptually, and then generated.

The essence of this process should be based on our humanity as guidance for science and productive activity for the benefit of all. Some might call that the moral cognition. The access to technologies was already codified in the UN Declaration on Bioethics and Human Rights in 2005, far too late in my view, but its there now; and I would support going far beyond the Declaration to include all scientific advancement. We have the science, the declarations, ICT, organizations, laws, all in place; whereas the real task is that we will have to make these tools and systems work for the better. People will have to organize to get the real work done, and here ICT and apps have been used in extraordinary ways as tools for organizing: I am thinking of Tunisia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Egypt, in fact, most everywhere we have seen the emergence of effective ICT enabled organizing for issues of justice related to fairness. Social change and education can be enabled by technology; yes, and we should act immediately.

Layne Hartsell
originally published in

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