Academy Commons: The Pragmatic Imagination and the Streetlight Effect

Part one: building on the pragmatic imagination. 


“If we imagine up one more level of abstraction, then we can imagine design unbound…, set free to work on designing contexts as complex systems/ecologies… contexts that can be shaped to achieve tangible and substantial change.”

2016. Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown. Pragmatic Imagination: Single from Design Unbound. Blurb.

Nobody said it was easy.

The Commons Patterns effort looks to capture enough solutions to the academy’s multiple problems and enough of the collective pragmatic intelligence of its contributors to build a set of design patterns that can illuminate a wide range of future academy commons on a planetary scale.

Nobody said it would be this hard.

Nobody except all the funders we asked (Josh is nodding right now), and anyone who has worked on open science in the past decade (John can show you the scars). Nobody but all the people in the room at the academy commons patterns charrette last month. Nobody but everyone.

One real, durable problem is this: The academy is refractory to change

[refractory synonyms: “obstinatestubbornmulishpigheadedobdurateheadstrongself-willedwaywardwillfulperversecontraryrecalcitrantobstreperousdisobedient,

informal balky;
contumaciousfroward] Google online dictionary.

I suspect that there are various aspects of the academy—such as the continued existence of for-profit publishers and thousands of learned societies (in their current forms)—which are robustly froward.

The Commons Patterns effort to move past “open” science to envision the academy as places for commoning is so ambitious that academics tend to either throw up their hands and go back to their research, or they focus on short-term incremental short-cuts around the non-froward bits.  Both moves are counterproductive.

The time is right to think bigger. The obdurate aspects of the academy are more a feature of convenience and convention than a willful strategy. Institutionalized inertia. Academics know the academy is broken. They work among the shards. They worry about their grad students, their data, and about the declining reputation of science.

In the past decade (and still in the past week), I’ve had meetings, telecons, twitter-threads, and other conversations where people have proposed short-cut tactics that would assemble all of the current attempts to build open science services, gather all the open-science manifestos, all the data standards and the research work flows, and simply forge a solution from whatever floats to the top or from whatever golem can be made to walk away from this assembled ground.

Looking seriously at such tactics, one can see that they try to do the following: start from the idea that scientists know best what they need; mine the current open science effort for its best parts; corral current organizations into the mix; illuminate the start of a roadmap for change. This all sounds good, but it will not actually work to refactor the academy. These tactics are based on shaky assumptions.

What if scientists do not know best what they might collectively need, even though they are immensely clever in procuring what they require for their own research? And what if current open science organizations each have their own work and agendas and were not designed to be conjoined? After all, they are not open-science LEGOs.

Rather than hoping these independent efforts will spontaneously assemble the future academy we are looking toward, it is more likely that the whole of all of the current open science efforts will not be greater than the sum of its parts (those bits not yet sold to Elsevier), and probably a good deal less.

In short, the ground we are standing on in the current academy will not support the future we need to envision so that this future can inform our present. In truth, we can’t get there from now. At least not from the now of the current academy.

We will need a more synthetic and systems-thinking approach, and a fine-grained conception of optimal possible futures, before we can contemplate a roadmap to anywhere.

But we can get there.

We can imagine up one more level of abstraction and consider that our future academy need not remain refractory to change, but rather quite open to emergence. The emerging forms for the academy as commons will necessarily be based on engines of change inside and outside of the academy—out in the open web where our learning potential is already growing faster than inside universities, and where organizations (tech start-ups, flattened corporations, urban commons, platform-cooperatives, etc.) are building new cultural practices that will inform their—and our—future.

From a nuanced, fine-grained imagination of this future we can reinvent our present as a now upon which the Commons Patterns effort will build roadmaps to some very important new where.

Nobody said it was easy…  a song to end with…

NEXT: the streetlight effect…

Learning about commoning through open source software

Natural resource commons have long been an organic part of human existence: a community sharing and using a natural resource in a way that’s beneficial to all including the environment. One example is a community of fishers who live near a lake or river and have made their living off it for generations. The body of water may also be central to their culture and customs.

Many of us living in highly urban settings might not have much experience of being part of a natural resource commons. But if you have ever used open source software, you have in fact dipped into another kind of commons – a digital commons.

Communities behind open source applications often take part in digital commoning. The second logo is Tux, a general symbol of Linux.

This blog is made with WordPress, a content management system using which you can build websites and blogs. WordPress is one of the most popular and successful open source applications: it’s been estimated that 25% of the world’s websites run on WordPress. The WordPress software not only comes free of cost but gives the user rights to modify as they please at the code level. The software is maintained and improved by a worldwide community of programmers. Some do it as part of their day job and some do it in their spare time. So right now, you are reading something that is the product of digital commoning.

While it’s easy to set up a basic WordPress blog, if you want to use the full power of WordPress for your website in the long run, it’s best to host it yourself on a server. And you’re responsible for your WordPress installation by learning the ropes as you go along. You may need to think and act like a commoner, not just a user.

The ‘user’ is a standard figure in software. A typical user wants to get something done with a software application. They may not care how it gets done or the philosophy behind the application.

But not much has been said about who a ‘commoner’ might be in the digital world. This person isn’t necessarily a software expert or developer, and at the same time they are not as detached from the workings and principles of the software application as a typical user. They recognize that software is a big part of their lives, so there’s more to consider about software than its utilitarian aspect. What about software freedom, licensing, privacy, and security? A digital commoner cares about these things and often looks to open source software as a result.

The flip side is the increased responsibility and sometimes hassle of using open source software instead of commercial alternatives. I used the open source LibreOffice instead of Microsoft Office for more than a year when I was experimenting with Linux (also an enormous digital commons), and I was always worried about compatibility issues because all of my work colleagues used MS Office. I however enjoyed using Linux and I was connected to the computing experience in a way that’s not possible on Windows or Mac. In hindsight, I realize I evolved from being a mere user of Linux to a bit of a commoner. I was particularly proud of figuring how to do a tricky installation of a Linux distribution called Crunchbang and posting the solution on a community forum.

Today Crunchbang does not exist. It was one of the smaller Linux distributions that was backed by one man. He thought it no longer served a purpose, but that didn’t stop some fans from developing some new Linux distributions inspired by the aesthetics of the minimal Crunchbang. All Linux distributions come with an open license that allows for modification and redistribution.

To me this was a lesson that a digital commons does not exist for its own sake, or for the sake of the market or state. A digital commons is mutable yet resilient. It is all about the community and the commoning they do.

Can an online course be a commons?

At my organisation we have developed an online course in research writing and we do two things with it: we run it by ourselves and we help our partner institutions in Africa and Asia take on this course and run it themselves. Having attended the Sloan Commons Patterns Charrette last month, I’m starting to make a link between the second endeavour and the idea of the commons.

The course I’m talking about is the AuthorAID online course in research writing developed by INASP, an international development charity in the UK. When we run this course ourselves, my colleague and I usually lead the course and we have a team of guest facilitators from the AuthorAID network. Over the past two years every offering of this course has been a massive open online course – or MOOC. The course is truly global and we have seen participants from more than 100 countries, most of which are in the developing world. Every MOOC is exciting: the rush of seeing so many participants join the course and the organically generated discussions full of interesting questions and thoughtful answers. Of course there are much bigger, much more global MOOCs.

But sometimes, global doesn’t help: you need local answers to local problems.

Imagine you’re a fisheries researcher. In the course of your work you have to kill some fish at the nearby lake to inspect their organs. You know how to do this in the most humane way possible, but there is no ethics committee at your institution or even in your country to grant you permission. You’ve got to do your research though. Later you get into trouble – your paper is on the verge of being rejected by a journal because you do not have proof of ethical clearance for killing the fish. What do you do?

This was the theme of a discussion in an ongoing AuthorAID course at Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI), one of our partner institutions. The course is being run by and for TAFIRI researchers, and this particular discussion was sparked by some of the content about research ethics in the AuthorAID course. Quickly two of the course facilitators shared their experiences of navigating the same tricky situation and a nuanced solution emerged. I am pretty sure no-one other than an experienced fisheries researcher in Tanzania could have responded to the question the way they did.

What does all this have to do with the commons?

A commons, as explained by David Bollier, is made up of three things: a shared resource, a community around the resource, and a set of rules and norms developed by the community for using the resource. Unfortunately, a commons is widely misunderstood to mean just a shared resource. This is the premise of the ‘tragedy of the commons’, a phrase that has insidiously entered many minds. However, there is no commons without commoning, to quote Peter Linebaugh.

Consider the AuthorAID online course. The course materials are the resource. The course has been developed for use on Moodle, an open source learning platform, and it is made up of interactive lessons, quizzes, and writing activities that include peer assessment. The entire course can be zipped up and migrated from one Moodle site to another in a few clicks. So it is a shared resource that can be hosted on any Moodle site anywhere in the world.

While it is possible to make the AuthorAID course a self-study sequence with just the content and activities, it comes alive only through facilitation and peer-to-peer interaction. This also leads to better outcomes. In our recent paper on our MOOCs, we found a strong correlation between forum posting and course completion: participants who engaged on the course forums were far more likely to complete the course than those who did not.

So when we hand over the AuthorAID course to a partner institution, we train them on how to facilitate the course. In other words we train people to carry out the ‘commoning’ aspect of the course and prepare them to be stewards of the course in their local context. Our partners come up with creative ways to use the resource – the AuthorAID course materials – as part of larger capacity building initiatives. That is, they develop rules or norms on how they are going to use the resource.

As our partners run the course year after year, they become better at facilitating the course and start innovating. This evolution, I believe, is an important aspect of commoning – the shared resource may be more or less fixed in place but the community around the resource agrees to use it in a way that best fits their current needs while drawing on their experiences. Of course, in the case of an online course commons, unlike a natural resource commons, there is no risk of the resource being overused or depleted! If anything the resource can be adapted and expanded, as any other knowledge commons.

When it comes to scholarly work, open is not nearly enough


In the new game of scholarship, open is just the pitch

Over the past two decades a lot of talk, effort, and anguish; new services and platforms, and multiple proclamations (and principles, declarations, manifestos) have promoted the notion that scholarly content should be open. The Creative Commons endeavor got things rolling by providing licenses for open content. Open source software provided models for collaboration. Faced with a for-profit publishing marketplace that is deeply entrenched in the careers of academics, “open” is still an uphill climb, a goal instead of a reality. And it’s still a good goal. But it’s nowhere near where the academy needs to be in, say 25 years. Open is just a start.

If everything else (universities, academic careers, learned societies, publishers, etc.) were to stay the same tomorrow but all the academic outcomes were open, certainly a lot of time and (assuming a universal green open model) money would be saved. Nothing wrong with that. But the academy would still be broken in most of the ways it is today.

The symptoms of this disfunction show up across the academic workplace and across the planet: from faculties with a majority of underclass workers (adjuncts and soft-money researchers), publishers looking for “sexy science,” career decisions based on journal impact factors instead of integral value of the research, a fixation on “excellence” instead of competence, important primary-research intellectual property being pulled away from future reuse through patents that never pay a penny, research funding warped to favor the already funded, funding programs that consume all most as much gross effort in the proposal process than gets finally funded. OK. I’m going to stop here. You can add your own “Academy is Broken” stories HERE.

Nearly everything that is broken in the academy is broken because the current academy assumes a logic of scarcity; a false logic it has acquired from other markets. One of the promises of open academic outcomes is that these resources are non-rivalrous. As digital objects, they can be discovered and used by everyone, and their value actually increases the more they get reused. Open academic outcomes lets the academy dip its big toe into the logic of abundance. The point is not to stop here, but to dive in and allow this new logic to refactor the academy.


Abundance is a new ball game for the academy

Think of open academic outcomes like the pitch in baseball (or the delivery in cricket). The player winds up and throws the ball. A pitch happens more than 700,000 times in the course of a major league baseball season and hundreds of millions of times across the planet in any year. Importantly, however, pitching is not the whole game. An afternoon watching only pitches would be a whole different experience than watching a game where the pitch starts a chain of open-ended events. The pitch is necessary. So too is open content for the academy.

Thinking about a new logic of practice takes a lot of imagination, and crafting this to fit real-world outcomes takes a lot of information and collective intelligence. The first argument against a “logic of abundance” is that we live in a world of finite resources. That’s just the surrounding field for this logic. There is an infinity between zero and one. The task here is to arrive at an understanding of how the academy can aspire to become generative, generous, and general (thanks Cameron) within its constraints, just like a ball game occurs within the limits of its field. Yes, the new academy is both aspirational and pragmatic, and we need to combine our imaginations to envision this and build the scaffold that can help it grow and re-place the academy we find ourselves bemoaning today.

This is why a small group (good things start with small groups) is meeting this month at the Ostrom Workshop in Indiana to begin a process to craft design patterns that can capture solutions for the next academy.

Images: from Wikimedia

[Coming soon: designing academy commons: what’s in it for the academy?]