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.