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SOLE Out of the Box

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SOLE Out of the Box: The Cyber Grange Accelerator

Under.costuzione.jpg

By Jan Herder with Joe Corneli, John Glass, and Charlotte Pierce

This document has been structured into short sections, each with the following outline:

  • The Definition:
  • The Problem:
  • The Solution:
  • Challenges Arising in Practice:
  • What’s Next:

Introduction

  • The Definition: Herein we describe a strategy to create a self sufficient learning environment, a type of distributed ‘makerspace.’
  • The Problem: We want to tackle two interrelated global problems: access to education and access to meaningful employment.
  • The Solution: The innovation would be to build a system that sustains the development of self directed learners, through a network of living centers, which have correct complexity to evolve sustainably and abundantly.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: We are still at the design stage, where it is important to strive to communicate our ideas clearly. So, each section of this document will be written, at least initially, in the constrained format you see here.
  • What’s Next: We aim to facilitate the creation of the system that we describe here.

Terminology

  • The Definition: ‘The Cyber Grange’ or ‘Distributed University’ is our word for an infinitely diverse complex iteration that is grounded locally in living design: it is a living organization, where the affordances of the internet, connected and nurtured, also are deeply rooted in place. This system is a large-scale example of a Self-Organized Learning Environment, or SOLE.
  • The Problem: If we used the word ‘cooperative’ we would stir up a general fear of anything ‘communist’ or ‘socialist’.
  • The Solution: Here in Vermont every town has a grange, a meeting hall with a beautiful kitchen and an upstairs studio space. They were the social hubs of the agricultural era. For those familiar with this mode of organization, this is a non-threatening term to use. For people more familiar with academic modes of organization, ‘Distributed University’ is fine. If you are not afraid of ‘socialist’ implications, you can substitute ‘Learning Co-op’ or something else.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: We do not want to get bogged down in debates, and another round of branding can come later. The key point is to create a model that works.
  • What’s Next: The virtual amplification and interconnectedness that the internet brings is the respiratory system of the SOLE -- but the roots into specific places on earth are the heart. Indeed, terminology can be adjusted locally, but for consistency, we will use the terms introduced in this section throughout the document.

Part 1: “The Peeragogy Project: a P2P SOLE.”

  • The Definition: Commenting on an article in the Peeragogy Handbook, Sugata Mitra, creator of the SOLE concept, introduced his definition of this term:
Sugata Mitra: It is great to see the thinking that has gone into taking the idea of a SOLE forward. To my mind, SOLEs are quite experimental at this time and efforts such as these will provide invaluable data. I look forward to this. I notice that most of the important design features of a SOLE are incorporated into the article. I repeat them anyway, just to emphasise:
  1. Large, publicly visible displays are very important, this is what resulted in the surprising results in the hole in the wall experiments and subsequent SOLEs for children in England and elsewhere.
  2. The absence of unnecessary people in the learning space, no matter who they are; parents, teachers, principals, curious adults etc.
  3. Free, undirected activity, conversation and movement.
  4. A certain lack of order: I must emphasise that ‘Self Organised’, the way I use it does not mean ‘organising of the self’. Instead it has a special meaning from the subject, Self Organising Systems, a part of Chaos Theory. The SOLE should be a space at the ‘edge of chaos’, thereby increasing the probability of the appearance of ‘emergent order’.
  • The Problem: The Peeragogy project - formed at present of a small group of internet-savvy adults from around the world does not particularly resemble Mitra's original "Hole in the Wall" SOLEs. It could be easy to misunderstand what we're doing in the project and to believe that we're somehow more sophisticated than we are. In fact, we're making this up as we go. The other associated risk is that people won't understand what we're doing at all.
  • The Solution: It can help to show how what we're doing in the project matches Sugata Mitra's description.
    1. Peeragogy.org and Peeragogy in Action are increasingly “visible”. We could certainly do more here -- something like PeerTV, with multiple channels for our various projects and affiliates -- but we meet the basic condition of visibility.
    2. Everyone involved in the project is a co-learner, even if their participation is "virtual" at present.
    3. The project convener, Howard Rheingold, sums this up in his email signature: “What it is ... is up to us.” A slogan from the WELL days that applies equally to Peeragogy.
    4. The principles of “emergent order” are exactly how we’re working with the pattern catalog -- and the book outline, for that matter. We’re staying open to innovation by making everything free/open to the extent possible, while also trying to actively work on supporting re-use.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: With this basic high-level understanding of the Peeragogy Project, we're ready to proceed -- but there are still many challenges. Even taking into account peeragogical projects that we're not directly connected with, the process of transforming education to be more effective, accessible, and worthwhile is slow.
  • What’s Next: With the Peeragogy project as a P2P SOLE that we can use to bootstrap the Cyber Grange we're ready to get started.

Part 2: We share the same basic aspirations and needs

  • The Definition: We all share the yearning for basic human aspirations and the need to sustain ourselves in this life. One potential model to use to describe the way these are met is with the idea of a “social business” -- as articulated by Grameen. The Grameen Bank is an award-winning microfinance institution, whose name is derived from the word gram which means "rural" or "village" in the Bengali language. The Grameen Foundation was developed to share the Grameen philosophy and expand the benefits of microfinance for the world’s poorest people, but their principles for running a social business are broader. We quote:
  1. The business objective will be to overcome poverty, or one or more problems (such as education, health, technology access, and environment) which threaten people and society -- not profit maximization.
  2. Financial and economic sustainability.
  3. Investors get back their investment amount only. No dividend is given beyond investment money.
  4. When investment amount is paid back, company profit stays with the company for expansion and improvement.
  5. Environmentally conscious.
  6. Workforce gets market wage with better working conditions.
  7. ...do it with joy.

The key point is that the Grameen model tries to embody the commons approach, insofar as the commons remains healthy for all. As a business, it is far from being purely “extractive” - it strives for true sustainability and appropriate growth. As we are looking for commonalities, we can compare this business orientation with the mutual-aid orientation of the Sarvodaya Shramadana Movement -- http://www.sarvodaya.org/. Although their projects are organized differently, the address similar problems.

  • The Problem: The Grameen principles, indeed, exist to solve a range of particular problems. Many of problems can be construed as local shortcomings: shortcomings of food, of energy, of water, of health, of access, use, and participation in the worlds knowledge.
  • The Solution: As an example, the key point to make is that once you have the infrastructure for growing and distributing healthy food in abundance, you have increasing the wage base of the persons involved. For this reason, given some criticisms of (other) agencies in this sector, perhaps it would be more useful to characterize what the Grameen Bank is doing as incremental finance, not micro. The solution is one of empowerment.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: We are talking about empowerment not just for those who are already reasonably well-off (although they matter too!) but for the world's poorest persons as well. There are tremendous challenges, including broad-based environmental challenges (oft quoted estimates that if everyone on Earth lived according to "Western Standards", the Earth would collapse in on itself, etc.).
  • What’s Next: We need to define suitable methods for empowerment -- which will not be the same everywhere, although it would be ideal to build on synergistic cooperations where that is possible.

Part 3: Goodbye learner's cooperative, hello Cyber-Grange

  • The Definition: We started off with the vision of a ‘learners cooperative’, but we need something more distributed and less centrally (even if democratically) controlled. The vision is to facilitate the creation of many learning centers where the learners are the owners of the learning enterprise. No monetary profits will come of their investment -- but they will earn a good wage, be fed, and perhaps housed -- their ‘job’ is to become a self directed learner able to sustain themselves and to make contributions, where appropriate, to the SOLE. The model is also a bit like a classic monastery, although participants wouldn’t necessarily commit to spend their entire lives inside the SOLE.
  • The Problem: Concretely, how will these centers generate enough money to pay people to learn? Well, this happens already with scholarships from various sources, although these are typically selective.
  • The Solution: We've seen other related recent forays into the space of self-organization from groups as diverse as Valve Software and the unMonastary in Italy. There is additional potential here if we can include the aspect of elders in a hybrid model. Virtual participation via Skype, Hangouts, Elluminate, etc. for purposes of light-weight mentoring -- that ecosystem of facilitation is powerful. We can go further if we include a place based component (residencies). We've sketched an approximately break-even model of social business based on scholarships for high school students in Vietnam, funded by everyday citizens in the US, based on the idea of a working "internship year" (see Table 1, TBA).
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: The possibilities for cultural exchange and new kinds of value-generation are as-yet untested, and the return of investment (ROI) in the model we've sketched is slow and not entirely guaranteed.
  • What’s Next: There are bound to be many other viable models, but further work will be needed to develop them in any kind of detail, and to test them in practice.

Part 4: The Facilitated SOLE: Bring in the Maker Mob!

  • The Definition: One approach would be to put out a call for Makers, a Maker Mob, participating locally and virtually, to put in the place the infrastructure for each Learning Center; calling for the parts of an ecoliteracy of living: food, water, shelter, energy, interconnectivity (cf. Mob Software by Richard P. Gabriel). Investors would be sought who could donate their shop tools, as many baby boomers are downsizing and looking for ways to participate in the maker culture of a project/problem based SOLE community.
  • The Problem: We need a proliferation of viable social business models, and a culture of sharing at the level of social business model. Maybe there's a way to invest $500 and make it back after 2 years, and reap some important non-monetary benefits in the process. Maybe there are good ways to invest and build "sweat equity". But in general, these are not always clear. We are presented with the opportunity to take a "hacker's eye" to this problem.
  • The Solution: At a high level, we envision each member of the SOLE as a participant in the social business realities of their own Grange. Each would have their own businesses, and personal brands -- and indeed, this sort of economics is an essential literacy in the SOLE. ePortfolios would accompany any open badges to provide real time assessment. Learners would be accountable for the specifics of their area, and transparently, to the processes of the whole. In this way the learner would be able to apply what they learn to their own entrepreneurship when the time arrives.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: It is possible for companies like Patagonia to buy up great swaths of rain forest; but they have successful businesses going already. By comparison, we're still at the bootstrapping phase. It's hard to get grants -- which are, in any case, highly competitive -- something that doesn't necessarily match our ideals. It can be hard to think of viable "sustainability models" -- even harder to put the models to work in practice.
  • What’s Next: But this is precisely what's required. Developing, sharing, and implementing an abundance of transparent social business and sustainability models.

Part 5: Precedents and Possibilities

  • The Definition: We know that without eating properly and without otherwise sustaining your well being, it is difficult, or impossible, to thrive. The Center for Ecoliteracy has been evolving strategies and practices in transforming school lunches with the impressive philosophical foundation of people like Fritjof Capra. Similar ideas could form the foundation for the ‘curriculum’ of Phase One of our project, up to the Break Even Point. 12 step groups also do the self-organization thing pretty well and could be worthwhile to investigate. There's an impressive historical fiction treatment in the foreward to William Burroughs’s Cities of the Red Night. The Plastic Bank is one of many a brilliant examples of social businesses that work.
  • The Problem: The problem is, to do concrete non-fictional things takes a lot of effort, and to do it well takes fair amount of skill. Indeed, it is important to build on what went before (this is the nature of research).
  • The Solution: We may be able to use the idea of consilience to put together the right kind of multidisciplinary team, organizing around local centers (whether online or offline). Abundance attracts new members, who invest in their learning, creating employment and self sufficiency. Complex adaptive systems (departments or disciplines) are added according to the context of the locale or virtual space. New opportunities for innovation and entrepreneurship emerge. Facilitators emerge from the groups, or are recruited in needed areas. Young learner’s become Facilitators, and then move on building their own lives.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: So far in the Peeragogy project, we've done well at building the meta-level guide, the Peeragogy Handbook, but we're currently in the middle of building a Peeragogy Accelerator that can help members with their own self-defined goals. Clearly defining the goals and making demonstrable progress toward meeting them is not always easy, especially when heading into what is more or less new territory. So we're always happy when we discover new colleagues or old ideas that we can apply.
  • What’s Next: One of the things we're making a concerted effort to do is to document as much as possible in the language of design patterns, hence the style of writing used in the current document!

Part 6: Growing a network

  • The Definition: Learning from the Grameen model and others: strategic partnerships are essential, connecting deeply with the organizations and groups around and online, both at the outset and from the ground up. In our (unfunded) “Patterns of Peeragogy” grant application to the Wikimedia Foundation, we presented the following (fictional) use case:
Illustrative Use Case

Main actor User:BlackEyedSusan, a Wikipedia user in Afghanistan, who is concerned about literacy rates in her country. Main success scenario

  1. User:BlackEyedSusan wants to build a literacy campaign in her country, but isn't sure about how to go about it.
  2. She discovers the peeragogy pattern catalog through a Wikipedia article tagged with one of our templates, and using patterns like "Think Locally, Act Globally", "Heartbeat", and others, she comes up with a strategy that involves working with other peeragogues she meets on the wiki, building connections with local women in Kabul in regular meetings, and donated laptops from international NGOs.
  3. Over a year of hard work, she shares her experience of successes and failures on the peeragogy pattern pages: she's proud and confident that things will work out, as her volunteer team collaborates to build basic language courses in Pashto and Dari on Wikiversity.
  • The Problem: If our vision is so different from the dominant paradigm, can we question the basic assumptions of the educational and mainstream business industries? It is shameful that as a society (and as a species) we have erected so many artificial barriers to education and to employment. There is no reason to abide with these constraints any longer.
  • The Solution: We will recruit globally disenfranchised groups and individuals, the uncommon fringe, the unemployed, the learning disability communities. Information and Communication Technologies (ICT’s) are pivotal to the possibility of access. We can follow many good examples of ICT’s leading groups who traditionally are thought of as excluded from management for whom this type of opportunity would be wonderful. 15% of the world population is considered disabled. X% live below the poverty line in the US and Y% of the human population survive on less than this.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: Unfortunately, many people who have "made it" have lost their idealism. Can we build a network that brings in teachers and hard workers and gets them to work immediately? In a peer to peer SOLE each learner is distinguished by their differences, talents and needs. They can form reciprocal apprenticeships. We can build a shared complex adaptive system with a symbiotic relationship with each other. This is the beauty of the diversity of learners. The wealth and creativity possible when a wide diversity of people self organize is powerful. We've already seen this in the Peeragogy project, but there are still considerable challenges associated with "scaling up".
  • What’s Next: We need to keep in mind that building connections isn’t always easy. For instance, someone recently came along to offer help with some aspects of the PlanetMath system the lead dev, Joe, was not particularly good at. It sounded great -- but he needed more mentoring at the start than Joe was able to give, and this erstwhile volunteer has gone on his way now. This reinforces just how much work is needed to make it easy for people to get involved: a lot. This definitely requires thinking “outside the box” which is something we're pretty good at in the Peeragogy project. Building strategies for involvement in the Peeragogy project and its member/partner projects will help. We will try to emphasize “what's next” wherever we can: this is an indication of places where readers can step in and make contributions.

Part 7: How to bootstrap this?: The concrete case of “us”

  • The Definition: Applying the ideas described so far to the current Peeragogy group -- currently some of the most likely bootstrappers -- presents a bit of a puzzle. Most (but not all) of us have our basic needs met through Day Jobs. Sometimes this Day Job stuff even intersects peeragogy. This is relevant because we can probably only bootstrap the model by running it within our current community and some other closely related ones.
  • The Problem: Our broad view on self-organization begins with groups starting with next to nothing. How does the vision shift when we examine the Peeragogy community, which has been working together for over 2 years in a mostly “virtual” context, producing the Handbook and the Accelerator. Some member projects have been going for over a decade. What’s missing is the place based component.
  • The Solution: This is where the specific makerspace(s) come in, as specific contexts for facilitating self-organized learning. For us ‘meta conveners’, there are somewhat different challenges. We are meta-peering as it were, looking at the structure, designing the Owner’s Manual of an emergent SOLE paradigm. But there is no reason the model that is meant to work for those starting with next-to-nothing cannot scale easily to the needs of groups that start with more. Indeed, within our project, we can see some of the future of other SOLEs.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: In 2012 and 2013, we tried to build a place-based peeragogy environment with the “Bergamo HUB” but building a new organization in Bergamo, Italy turned out to have numerous difficulties. First there was the challenge of connecting our ambitions to those of the local political process. Furthermore, the global Impact Hub group that inspired the name of the project was not interested in creating a new HUB in Bergamo. (There is already one in neighboring Milan.)
  • What’s Next: One obvious way to go is through investment. We can work as impresarios of a new mode of organization. For instance, someone needs to put money into the Grameen bank in order for lending to work. Someone needs to put time into building things like Peeragogy in order for it to work. One model for moving money from the “haves” to the “have nots” is described here: http://nonstarter.org -- and this model could be used in a Grameen-like way to give initial seed funding -- or initial human capital -- to new projects. Nonstarter was initially meant to be about pouring money into purely artistic projects, but it would be similar to pour money and person-hours into learning projects. The “concept” with nonstarter is to sponsor ideas, not people or projects, so it becomes an open source bank of ideas -- even if the people who propose the ideas don’t end up implementing them. The same basic technology could just be used for democratic allocation of funds within a project.

Part 8: A learning community for the 7th generation

  • The Definition: Currently the basic model for education is to pay for the service of receiving an education. That is what half our taxes are for! This wrapped up with the ‘learner as customer’ model. Even in an excellent institution like Sterling College -- whose model is “working hands, working minds” -- the learner still pays to learn and work. Learners are not paid to learn -- except for those who receive scholarships -- and these students participate in the same model as everyone else. The Learning Center as Social Business proposes to pay every participating learner to learn. This is unheard of. This is proposed as a generative model of wealth creation.
  • The Problem: How can you pay for services and the infrastructure of the LE? How do you compensate both teachers and students fairly?
  • The Solution: This is where an interpretation of the Open Badge system come into play, but with a twist. Assessment is continuous and ongoing, documented through the badge system, which travels with the learner, not the institution. Furthermore, every badge represents a real product. You get something on your CV, or in your commit history on Github, or whatever. The broader point is that the community is the curriculum. Our curriculum is not tied to some distant corporation’s labor needs in a few years. As a living, dynamic, emergent, complex system, the learning journey of is local and serendipitous. It is connected deeply to both local communities and the global reach of humanity. Providing the basics for ourselves is the foundation of society and the social contract. But it takes more to make us truly human. We propose to revisit Christopher Alexander's Network of Learning with new global eyes.
Christopher Alexander: ...work in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups travelling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city's "curriculum"; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their "school" paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network.
  • Challenges Arising in Practice: We need to build a catalog of mentors, internship and apprenticeship opportunities, and real learning opportunities where the learner can be compensated and their work documented. We also need to build a catalog of the factors that are inhibiting change, as these are problems to solve. Above all, we need a new generation of learners (young and old) ready to try something different.
  • What’s Next: There is a moral imperative for the teacher, the educator, to address the inequalities driving people and social classes apart at the expense of our future generations. We must learn how to provide the knowledge and skills people need to be secure enough to learn how to provide for themselves. We clearly cannot do this alone: what we can do is dream big. We advance these example of building blocks that can contribute to building participating SOLEs:
    • an adequate physical place
    • the connection to the internet is a basic step. Just a smartphone would do in a developing world context. Ideally, the virtual world is offered as well.
    • Independent Power, presumably solar, scaled as needed or able. Enough to power the needs of the Center.
    • Aquaponic and bio remediation for food and waste
    • Clean water reserves
    • Wholistic Health Practises
    • Peeragogy Handbook, EDU Punk, DIYU, etc.
    • Business Manager/Charter
    • Facilitators in each emergent area/discipline/ the ‘Granny Corps’.

There are additional steps to take in the planning process. We need to sketch other financial scenarios and we need to explore further models for strategic partnerships. This document is intended to serve as a “creed” for participating members, as well as for something anti-fragile that will grow and improve with criticism.