Monday, March 23, 2009

What open source can teach us about spreadability

I've been working recently with my sensei, Dan Hickey, and my mentor and partner in crime, Michelle Honeyford, on a series of blogposts about “spreadable educational practices.” The concept draws from the work of Henry Jenkins (full disclosure: he's my boss) in a white paper for the Convergence Culture Consortium entitled "If It Doesn't Spread, It's Dead." This white paper, serialized and published on Henry's blog, contrasts the notions of sticky media (think of sites that pull you in and keep you there, "Godfather"-style: Amazon, eBay) and spreadable media (media that you want to forward on to friends—think Kittens, Inspired by Kittens; think the T-Mobile Dance at Liverpool Train Station).

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.

Shirky writes:
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?"


Anonymous said...

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Daniel Hickey said...

Dang. You write gud!!!!!
Seriously, you have teased out some really important aspects of open source and the gift economy that are very promising. Interestingly, the only corporate interests that seem able to make money do so using a very narrow view of learning. The big three publishers create textbooks that are sufficiently attractive and readable so that more students can eventually recognize the least wrong of four association on a test that may well have been developed by the same publisher. Meanwhile legions of innovators building really useful stuff can't get it into schools because the computer lab is in constant use for computer-based test prep so the kids can get a few more of those same items right on the test.

faris said...

awesome stuff. awesome.

Anonymous said...

Really like this post Jenna, especially the idea of shifting the question that precedes our entry into the classroom as educators, reframing it as one of whether we're contributing to knowledge building rather than just success in school (whatever that's worth).

One thing that sticks out to me from the Open Source community is the ability to take little pieces of functionality and combine a number of them to produce something entirely new, while maintaining the existing functionalities of those appropriated components. Educationally, this might look like using an effective icebreaker, or movie, a good worksheet or game, even just appropriating an educational objective but totally reformulating the strategies to achieve it are interesting ways that we can be thinking about sharing and repurposing in the ed context. I think this is a big way that the Project NML's Learning Library is thinking.

I'd love to hear other examples as you gestate this OSS/education idea!

TSmith said...

I read about spreadable education practices and see the concept as something that actually needs a different "growing space" than schools provide. As Seymour Papert wrote so many times, school have a great way of deforming and absorbing great ideas until they disappear. In my experience, the notion of an idea that spreads happens sometimes when a teacher volunteers to try a project that my class is doing, and it has also happened with classroom blogs - they have spread from my class to the rest of my grade level and now are making headway into lower grades. The projects differ substantially from the blogs, obviously one being a series of situations and events into which a teacher feels he or she can enter, and the other being a structure that can bring students' creativity and expression to life for a larger audience. The way it has worked, some projects have grown into communities of practice over time, and the groups learning the world of blogging have also found themselves as new comers in a community of practice.

Back to your development of SEP's - what kinds of examples have you pondered?

-- By the way, my Pepperdine cadre will be out to MIT next week and will be visiting with Henry Jenkins and others. -- Terry (smithtk)


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