I am trapped in a quagmire of delirium.
My basic claim is that people are diversely motivated, and that large-scale collaboration platforms, with permeable boundaries, freedom and capacity of action, on materials modularized for diversely-sized contributions, allow for the pooling of a diverse range of human talent, insight, experience, and wisdom—much more so than was feasible in more slow-moving organizations, and more richly diverse than a purely price-based system can characterize and monetize.
I don’t pretend to fully grasp Benkler’s work, but I believe that this claim is critical to how those of us working in higher education might conceptualize and implement our technology. Yet it’s a bitter truth that tools emphasizing diversity, freedom, and permeability are an uncomfortable fit within university environments. Resourcing decisions tend to sideline such principles. Martin Weller captures the all-too-common reality when he relates the struggles he has in establishing a roll-your-own MOOC using fairly mature and widely-adopted tools:
Now, the sensible way to do this seems to be to install WordPress and use the FeedWordPress plug-in. For reasons I won’t go in to, I haven’t been able to get this done at the Open University, despite trying since last July. I’ve spoken to people at others unis and it isn’t isolated to the OU, it seems to be this low-level, experimental type of IT support is increasingly difficult to find.
Do you know who I think the culprit is? The VLE. As universities installed VLEs they became experts at developing enterprise level solutions. This is serious business and I have a lot of respect for people who do it. The level of support, planning and maintenance required for such systems is considerable. So we developed a whole host of processes to make sure it worked well. But along the way we lost the ability to support small scale IT requests that don’t require an enterprise level solution. In short, we know how to spend £500,000 but not how to spend £500.
“Enterprise” approaches can squeeze out more nimble and experimental ones in a number of ways. One is simply budgetary: big projects are expensive, and absorb most of the available resources. More perniciously, they promote the development of a support infrastructure that is not only expensive to maintain, but that requires a tightly coordinated and regimented approach to run properly. That’s why it’s hard to “spend £500″… in a large organization, it’s hard to even draft and distribute a detailed project plan for that kind of money. (Of course, you need a detailed and vetted project plan before initiating any technology pilot, right?) Maybe someday I will write the post I’ve been wanting to write for years… that the most dangerous word in education is “serious”. Today is not that day. Suffice it to say that the VLE/LMS is a “serious” technology. And for whatever reasons, blogs usually still aren’t. Thankfully.
I can relate to what Martin describes. Here at TRU I am gratified and excited by the willingness of people across the institution to try new things. But I have already learned that enthusiasm only gets you so far. At some point, you need skilled technical and educational professionals to do this stuff right.
To an extent, being part of a network of peers ameliorates these difficulties. I have benefited immensely from the advice, assistance, code and platforms of friends and relative strangers. It’s been amazing to watch Alan Levine work magic for initiatives led by Nancy White and Alec Couros. Alan and other gifted and generous people like Martin Hawksey and Tony Hirst have been helping Martin out. But the title of Martin’s post is “Twitter is your IT support”, which sounds groovy, but also sounds uncomfortably close to a sticker I saw on Jim Groom’s laptop. Sorry to descend into serious enterprise logic, but it doesn’t scale. (Along those lines, kudos to Commons in a Box.)
Boris is referring to a “new hack stack” based on the notion of Platform as a service (PaaS). Maybe my thinking about this case has become very uptight. Raising the unpalatable possibility that while I hope to be promoting “collaboration platforms, with permeable boundaries, freedom and capacity of action, on materials modularized for diversely-sized contributions”, maybe I am stuck in my own locked-down serious enterprise mindset…