What do we do when everyone comes?

by Joanne Larson

I have been doing some reading outside of education lately that has deeply informed my thinking about literacy in an information and communication economy. I have been working through some ideas about the consequences of what researchers are calling the most profound change in human communication since the invention of the printing press – the collaborative knowledge production made possible by internet technologies, particularly open source practices. What happens when we make the shift from a one-to-many form of communication and knowledge production to a many to many, collaborative process?

Two books I read recently have really pushed my thinking. Clay Shirky’s book, Here comes everybody: The power of organizing without organizations, looks at what happens when people can organize (or lead or educate) without needing traditional organizational (or leadership or educational) structures. Axel Bruns discusses the concept of produsage in his book, Blogs, wikipedia, second life and beyond: From production to produsage. He argues that humans are experiencing a profound shift in how culture and knowledge are produced and circulated, moving from traditional production models, to a participatory process in which we (non-professionals or pro-ams) have shifted from consumers to produsers (producing and using the knowledge that is produced). In his discussion of citizen journalism and wikipedia, he describes a process he calls casual collapse, where traditional (one to many) knowledge producers (newspapers and encyclopedias, specifically) have not fully grasped the nature and extent of the transformation humanity is going through. It made me wonder what schools may have missed and whether they are also experiencing this casual collapse.

With the shift in communication (many to many) and the transformative potential of immediate social action (flash mobs), and considering the speed and level of these practices, I am wondering whether schools have completely missed the boat? What if it’s already too late? Schools are so busy transmitting static knowledge and putting increasingly severe boundaries around what is allowed that I fear irrelevance has already set in. Publishing is global and free, social action and political change is possible without formal organizations and infrastructures, knowledge and information are generated at lightening speed by everyone, and it’s clear schools haven’t paid attention. James Paul Gee makes the point that schools are bad for everyone, white kids just get A’s for it, and he argues they will be irrelevant if they don’t account for these ontological changes.

Some of these ideas connect well with social practice theories of literacy and sociocultural-historical theories of learning, but we need more thinking about this. Bruns’s concept of equipotentiality (the assumption that while the skills and abilities of all participants are not equal, they have an equal ability to make a worthy contribution to the project) reminds me of Rogoff’s concept of community of learners, Lave and Wenger’s concept of communities of practice, and Gee’s concept of affinity spaces. Maybe we can figure this out after all?