Digitized current understandings

Over the weekend, I finished reading Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. While reading it, I kept thinking of how it applies to transforming educational systems into pro-learning ecologies. The way Shirky explained power law dynamics brought to mind two of my other favorite books: Linked and The Long Tail.

When people are getting paid to produce inside facilities that are being maintained, bell curves will capture most of what's occurring. Most of the activities will be close to average and extremes will be cutoff. For instance, all the employees who put in an eight hour day will be the norm. Those that are less committed because a very demanding home life will be less productive and far from the norm. Those that are very professionally active (networking, associations, conferences, etc) will also be less productive and far from the norm, but on the opposite end of a scale of commitment to the employer. This kind of production embodies large transaction costs which are minimized by creating organizational hierarchies.

When people are not getting paid to produce and no facilities are provided, the transaction costs are eliminated. Production is voluntary and dependent on personal initiatives. There will be a few exceptional heavyweight contributors and a vast majority who contribute rarely. In between will be a range from a few big contributors to several small contributors. These contributions can come together for free-- due to Web 2.0 tools and server space. Besides the amount of contribution, there are many other facets of this "production without an organization" that portray power law distributions. The size of the audience, subscribers or community members varies from a few gigantic ones to a majority of tiny ones. It's evident in open source software development, groups, Wikipedia edits and the staggering volume of content generators uploading to blogs, YouTube, Flickr and social networking sites. We are free to produce in ways that hierarchies can never be:
  1. Hierarchies must filter before publishing to avoid costly failures, dead ends and setbacks. We are free to publish first then filter, which nurtures each individual's contributions.
  2. Hierarchies achieve quality by controlling people and imposing rules. We are free to evolve quality by making errors, refining drafts and maintaining "works in progress".
  3. Hierarchies must limit the number of contributors due to the cost burden it involves. We are free to encourage an unlimited number of contributors.
  4. Hierarchies insist on a minimum amount of production to qualify for the paycheck and office space. We are free to produce within gift and reputation economies for intrinsic motivations.
All of this has me contemplating a delightful possibility for transforming factory schooling with "digitized current understandings":
  • What if each learner's current understanding of each current exploration was put online for others to contribute using the tools for digital portfolios to create digitized works-in-progress.
  • What if each leaner was in charge of what changes were made in that understanding and considered all the inputs, suggestions and support?
  • What if others made contributions to a digitized current understanding in the form of questions to be considered, personal experiences with "getting it", examples of how other's found the understanding to be useful or relevant to something else.
  • What if the" digitized current understanding" published an RSS feed that others could subscribe to in order to keep abreast of updates and consider additional contributions.
  • What if most understandings had very few contributors, but an occasional one had got a very big response?
  • What if all these contributions to each other's understanding followed power law dynamics which gave each learner those freedoms that hierarchies cannot provide.
Imagine that!


  1. When I taught at Empire State College, a non-traditional school in the SUNY system, students began by mapping out their programs. They then worked with "tutors" to decide the best ways they would learn what they needed to complete their programs. Sometimes they did one on one tutorials with experts, sometimes they worked in small groups, sometimes they did a more structured distance learning course, or towards the end, they took an online course.

    We never graded, except for P/F and I remember the area director telling me that students should have a 100% understanding of the material to pass. Students could take as long as they needed to meet those objectives, as long as they demonstrated progress in the course.

    I (as did many of the other professors) loved teaching in this environment. I felt I could give a student as much attention as they needed, even though many of us ended up doing more work than we would at a higher paying teaching assignment.

    However, soon our students began to ask for letter grades (rather than the long written evaluation that went along with the P/F grade because other universities would not accept our page long evaluations/course. It would take too much time to have to read all of it I guess. Soon the school went to a letter grade system where students were again put into competition with each other, rather than their own goals and learning.

    While the school still requires and individual study plan and options for study, they are on a set semester schedule (although the semesters overlap to accommodate work and home pressures). Recent graduates tell me that they still feel they are part of a nurturing environment, and many faculty work there despite being paid less than they could get at another school because of the supportive atmosphere between students, faculty, administration, and support services.

  2. Virginia
    Thanks for such an uplifting comment! It's exciting to consider that there have been commitments to develop deep understandings collaboratively with students. Their initiative to get what they need from multiple resources shows self-directed learning in action. When they asked for letter grades, I suspect they we're reverting to feeling like "products of schooling", wary of being judged, fearful of over-estimating their accomplishments and needing to impress others with some objective measure their superior progress. The fact the environment still feels supportive to students and others is a testimony to the passion and dedication of everyone involved.

  3. Actually, most needed the letter grades for financial aid, company reimbursement, or graduate school. Since many were non-traditional students working full-time, getting access to funds was important.

  4. Thanks for the clarification, Virginia. For me, that's very good news. It's an indication that the students we're not abandoning their self evaluations of their accomplishments and valuing of qualitative assessments of the level of comprehension from others. It's very understandable that the hierarchies they were seeking to enter would need quantitative measures to filter in/out the candidates.