Decentralisation, Transparency and Hackability

[PHOTO CREDIT: John Martinez Pavliga (CC).]
[PHOTO CREDIT: John Martinez Pavliga (CC).]
Having only just touched the surface of the Mozilla Webmaker Training that started last week, I have already enjoyed considering how some of the concepts met in the ‘explore’ module could be used to reflect on schooling and mass education systems. Connected Learning is a key principle that underpins the philosophy behind the Webmaker project. For a great infographic that explains Connected Learning head here.

While looking further into the Connected Learning model, I stumbled upon a quote from Connie Yowell, Director of Education for U.S. programs for the MacArthur Foundation who have supported the research into the model. 

‘I don’t think there’s anyone in education and learning who doesn’t feel an urgent need to reimagine learning for the new century.’

The concept of the Open Web is explored as part of the webmaker training and the principles behind openness are defined. I’m interested in investigating how these ‘tenents of openness’ connect with issues surrounding teaching, learning and leadership in schools and how they could be applied to notions of mass education. Ultimately, I want to consider whether they could be used to ignite change and reimagine systems of schooling to bring learning and education to the forefront of innovation in society.

Decentralization

‘The Open Web is made up of thousands and thousands of independent servers and webpages. The networked computers that make up the Internet are not owned by any single entity. Additionally, webpages are created and maintained by millions of people. Decentralization in the social and cultural space is inherent in the Open Web.’

What if our mass education system were made up of thousands of independent organisations? What if no one ‘owned’ our mass education system? What if the government did not centrally control our schools? What if schools were governed by the people in the community surrounding them? What if users owned and controlled school systems? What if free schools were actually free?

While I appreciate the need in our society for some centralisation and control of schools to ensure equality of access to education and to maintain some notion of ‘standards’, what if this isn’t the most effective way to lead the future of schooling?

Perhaps it is too romantic to hold a view of a mass system of Open Learning, where thousands of independent learners create their own learning pathways, sharing their understanding and achievements through online networks that are maintained and controlled by the very users who contribute to it. Or maybe it is not. Current systems reminiscent of this do exist both online (e.g. MOOCS, DIY, etc) and offline and there are examples of some who have experimented with this kind of idea within the physical institution of a school.

Perhaps it is, however, too romantic to believe that such platforms can be rolled out to ‘the masses’ and achieve great gains in learning en masse as it ultimately boils down to attitude. People have to take control of their own learning if systems like this are to be successful. It would rely on people actively engaging in their own learning and development, which could prove to be a barrier. Is everyone intrinsically motivated to learn? Or am I being somewhat naive to think that not everyone is capable of such independence and drive. In the same way, rolling this system out on a large scale would rely on change in mindset in all stakeholders – from politicians to parents – if this model was to be successful.

I’m aware at this stage that I am asking many questions and providing little comment of my own. However, this is the start of what I think will inevitably be a long journey as I seek to explore a system that could be a real alternative to schools. And, indeed, there are a number of ways in which these principles of openness can be more easily applied to ignite change within schools.

Transparency

[PHOTO CREDIT: fabi42 (CC).]
[PHOTO CREDIT: fabi42 (CC).]
‘Transparency refers to the ability to look ‘behind’ a webpage and see how it’s made up. To see the code behind the screen. In addition to this, the culture is ‘transparent about processes, creations and authors.’

Work is promoted through a range of media and blog posts. Questions are asked about the work created and feedback is encouraged by those who are part of the community. Peer to peer evaluations lead to change and decisions are made openly, accessible for everyone and anyone to see why and how changes have been made.

Regarding transparency I see two clear distinctions that could benefit from this concept in school. The first is leadership. For me, the leadership of any school should seek to work in this way. Any change in structure, strategy, ethos, practice, should be promoted first through well researched and clearly defined outlets for all to be introduced to proposals. The community of teachers in any school should then be encouraged to evaluate and feedback on any change that is implemented and on any ‘work’ that is created and disseminated down from office to classroom. Most importantly, these evaluations should actually be heard and considered, with any action that happens after clearly documented and shared considering how and why alterations have been made (or not). In essence, this is a democratic style of leadership and I appreciate that this is not always the most effective when driving change.

The second area where transparency is beneficial is in the classroom. Learners should be encouraged to question tasks and activities, to reflect on what they create, and to evaluate each other’s work, leading to change. Now, I am positive that this happens in many classrooms in our schooling system already. However, how often do teachers discuss the work they are leading? How regularly do teachers share the purpose of the work? How often to teachers look ‘behind’ the activity, the topic, or the objective, and consider how it is coded? Reflecting on this myself, I realise that I don’t regularly enough consider the ‘why’ with the children in my classroom: ‘because it’s on the curriculum’ is simply not a good enough reason.

In addition, how often do we consult the learners as a method for our own performance evaluation and management. I recently asked children to assess my teaching (2 stars and a wish formula), which has been an eye-opening and incredibly beneficial learning experience for me.

Hackability

‘With decentralization and transparency comes the tenet of hackability. The Open Web is a structure that makes remix and redistribution easy, and the culture that lives by these tenets takes pride in extending, changing and reforming each other’s work. Because we can see how things are built, we can change them and apply new meaning and context atop someone else’s ideas. We start to have a conversation through production, and that is something that is supported by and encouraged through the Open Web and Open Culture.’

Hacking, as a term, usually sparks negative connotations in people’s minds. Until fairly recently, the notion of hacking in mass society was fuelled by media coverage presenting stories that framed hacking as the cause of online theft and viruses. Certainly, these stories continue as we saw recently with global coverage of the eBay security breach. However, it seems that the positive benefits of hacking are beginning to be heard by people in all corners of industry and with this, I hope, the wider public will begin to rethink their views of the multifaceted concept of hacking.

Indeed, there is a much cleaner image of hacking being portrayed and pushed by those passionate about the positive benefits hacking can bring. This can only continue to grow as many organisations run hackathons: events that bring together people from all areas of industry to build new solutions by adapting and progressing existing ideas.

As teachers, we should take pride in learning from others; from adapting others’ ideas and remixing them in a way that benefits our own setting and our own practice. We should learn from these open practices and consider how we can hack the ideas of this movement and reapply them to education. While there are pockets of openness in the profession with many individuals sharing their practice for others to learn from, I can’t help but think how many more excellent examples of teaching and learning there must be happening all around the world.

Too often, great practice goes on behind closed doors with little to no opportunity for others to learn from it and ‘hack’ the systems that work in one setting in order to change them and embed new meaning in them in a different context. What we need is a system that enables and supports teaching and learning structures to be remixed and redistributed easily and one that promotes its users to adapt and reimagine others’ work. This is something that can be achieved from the ground up. Next year, I hope to begin establishing a culture of collaboration in my school through ‘teach-hacking’ (a term I have just made up and will explain in a later post!) and setting up a number of other structures in my school.

[PHOTO CREDIT: Tadie88 (CC).]
[PHOTO CREDIT: Tadie88 (CC).]
I’m on a long journey of thinking and contemplation with regards to how schools can be reimagined. The principles of the Open Web, I believe, provide an interesting foundation on which a future education system could be built. I am certain that as I continue this exploration my initial thoughts will change and develop and my thinking will change course along the way, but it is important to start somewhere.

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