In taking up this idea and applying it to the field of education, we've considered what makes practices spread within a classroom and between teachers. We contrast what we call Spreadable Educational Practices (SEPs) with Disseminated Instructional Routines (DIRs)--material developed by institutions and delivered, intact, and intended to be unpacked and presented intact to a class. DIRs are intended to be "sticky" in the sense that the organizations that develop and disseminate them--often the same organizations that make the standardized tests mandated by legislation like the No Child Left Behind Act--intend to pull teachers in and hold on to them by making these instructional routines effectively mandatory for success on the Big Tests. Spreadable educational practices, on the other hand, are practices that lead to success in the classroom--and, by extension, on those silly mandated tests--and are designed to spread to other classrooms, given the mechanisms to allow this kind of spread. We argue that considering what makes a practice spreadable and the means by which it spreads will result in a shift in how we think about education. You can read more about why Jenkins et al. believe spreadability is a more useful notion than terms like “viral media” or memes here; you can read our first two posts taking up the notion of spreadability here and here. (And if you’re interested in a brief summary of the conversation between those blogs, you can read the summaries of these posts at sleeping alone and starting out early here and here.)
There's lots to say about the difference between SEPs and the more traditional notion of "practices that travel", and lots more to say about spreadability in general; I'll leave it to Henry and to the posts Dan, Michelle, and I are generating over at Project New Media Literacies to get that done. In this post, I want to focus on a consideration of the similarities and differences between the spreadability model and the open source movement.
Though I've written some on this blog about the open source software movement, this is in fact only a small part of the open source movement writ large. As Wikipedia explains,
Open source culture is the creative practice of appropriation and free sharing of found and created content. Examples include collage, found footage film, music, and appropriation art. Open source culture is one in which fixations, works entitled to copyright protection, are made generally available. Participants in the culture can modify those products and redistribute them back into the community or other organizations.
On the surface, this definition seems to align with the description of Jenkins et al. of the position of consumers in a participatory culture:
Consumers, both individually and collectively, exert agency in the spreadability model: they are not impregnated with media messages; they select material that matters to them from the much broader array of media content on offer. They do not simply pass along static content; they transform the content so that it better serves their own social and expressive needs. Content does not remain in fixed borders but rather it circulates in unpredicted and often unpredictible directions, not the product of top-down design but rather of a multitude of local decisions made by autonomous agents negotiating their way through diverse cultural spaces.
Consumers do not simply consume; they recommend content they like to their friends who recommend it to their friends who recommend it on down the line. They do not simply "buy" cultural goods; they "buy into" a cultural economy which respects and rewards their participation. Nothing spreads widely in the new digital economy unless it engages and serves the interests of both consumers and producers. Otherwise, the circulation gets blocked by one side or the other, either through corporations constructing road blocks (legal or technical) upon its spread or through consumers refusing to circulate content which fails to serve their interests. Nothing generates value in this new digital economy unless the transaction is seen as meaningful to all involved.
Importantly, the spreadability model emphasizes the tension between media consumers and media producers--a tension described by Jenkins et al. as the conflict between a commodity culture and a gift economy. Though you can read more about these notions in the C3 white paper, briefly: Gift economy is the phenomenon of building social structures and social capital around the giving and receiving of gifts, whereas commodity culture considers the cash value of all goods and services.
As Jenkins et al. rightly point out, in a culture where commodity culture and the gift economy collide (they give the example of the language of "file sharing" vs. "software piracy"),
[f]ocusing on...spreadability may thus offer us some tentative first steps towards renegotiating the social contract between media producers and consumers in a way which may be seen as legitimate and mutually rewarding to all involved.
In general, despite the relatively obvious conflicting interests of these two value systems, both define themselves in terms of “success”: A successful gift is one the giver values, and it therefore “buys” you cultural capital. A successful commodity is one the buyer wants, and is therefore willing to spend money on. The notion of "spreadability" relies on an assumption that content spreads when it is of value to a community--that is, when a person thinks other people like her will enjoy a certain link, commercial, song, product, and so on. Producers of content are hard at work analyzing that inscrutable kernel of a thing that makes it valuable.
This is a fantastic way of thinking through the issues tied to sticky and spreadable media, but not quite so applicable to the open source ethos where, as Clay Shirky explains, you get "failure for free." Indeed, OSS is premised on the foundational need for failure in order to arrive at success. (For more on the "failure for free" model, you can either read Clay Shirky's book Here Comes Everybody OR you can read a previous post on sleeping alone, "What open source can teach us about failure.")
Additionally, in the OSS movement spreadability matters very little or not at all, because--and this is essential--there is no money to be made, and therefore no conflict between producers and consumers. In fact, as Shirky explains, the most successful OSS product of all time, Linux, succeeded precisely because its key developer, Linus Torvalds, made it clear from the beginning that he did not intend to make money off of the result.
What the open source movement teaches us is that the communal can be at least as durable as the commercial. For any given piece of software, the question, "Do the people who like it take care of each other?" turns out to be a better predictor of success than "What's the business model?"
In the OSS model, there is effectively no distinction between producer and consumer: We are all always already both, at least potentially. It means, not to stick too closely to Shirky (but I will), that “the category of ‘consumer’ is now a temporary behavior rather than a permanent identity.”
Okay, so what does this mean for education? My answer: I don't know yet. But think about the possibilities: What if we could change the question from "Will this help our students succeed in school (read: help our students do well on the crazy standardized tests that stand at the gates of every school)?" to something like "Do the people (students, learners, researchers) involved in this learning environment help each other to participate in the practice of knowledge-building?"