I've been thinking lately about Mark's posts on hybrid organizations (see one, two, three). Many of the things he's talking about in these posts overlap with ideas I have about education and institutions (cf esp. the writing of Ivan Illich). Today I find myself sandwiched between two Mozilla Education calls: one this past Monday where we started to explore how 'hybrid' fits with what we're doing with Mozilla Education, and one this coming Tuesday where we'll try to make this concrete for a large group of interested professors. So I thought I'd spend some time thinking about how what we're proposing both informs, and is informed by Mozilla's hybrid nature.
First, let me speak to Mozilla. In his most recent TED talk, Seth Godin makes the point that "The Beatles didn't invent teenagers." What they did was lead them, give them a way to connect with one another and belong. Now take a look at some of the goals Mozilla has set for itself. As Mark says:
For Mozilla, the mission is to promote and protect the open nature of the internet
These aren't small aspirations, and they require (and will require) lots of people to make them real. Where do these people come from? How do you find more of them? How do you sustain this for the length of time it takes to accomplish these things, recognizing that it's long term thinking produced through short term contributions?
I believe that it's important for us to realize that the single largest group of people available to help us do this now and in the future is students. There are literally tens of millions of them, in every country in the world. There always will be. They represent what we are about to become, and how we'll get there. These aren't platitudes, but on-the-ground realities.
Mark goes on to say,
This means ensuring that the internet remains a public commons where anyone can innovate, experiment or express themselves without asking for somebody else’s permission.
When I start to think about this in the context of education, I get both excited, and also troubled. First of all, we are by now accustomed to speaking about using the web to "innovate, experiment, or express" ourselves. Now think about the last little bit, and do so in the context of a student in a desk, or lone teacher with an idea but without the backing of his administrators: "without asking for somebody else's permission."
School is fundamentally about getting permission. It's about accreditation, about achieving levels, about completing grades--school is about completing successfully that which is set before you by the institution. And not only for the student, but for the teacher as well. You are both obliged to engage with one another according to a set of curriculum and courses.
Schools are one of our most significant forms of institution. "We the Internet" like to talk about things like open education as though they were here now. But my experience working in academia, and with others doing the same, is that in reality this is a very new and radical idea. Institutions like schools are in the business of providing established, repeatable outcomes. They are built on the in the business of guaranteeing that if you manage to complete this work, you will be able to continue on to this work. We rely on knowing that you're qualified or have the skills to do something.
My goal in this post isn't to rant about school as such, but rather to situate the conversation about Mozilla Education, about Hybrid Organizations, and about the Open Web in the same space. Here's Mark again:
Turning big ideas and mass movements into concrete change is hard, and a bit of a crap shoot."
Where institutions like the school seek to provide guarantees, the hybrid model Mark is talking about is focused on potential vs. promise. There is a lot of risk in what we're talking about, and that means failure as well as success. What institutions are good at is limiting risk and providing a set of stable expectations: we want our institutions to last, and so we build them to last (or we try to!). Part of this is clearly delineating the inside from the outside, in making sure that it is clear how decisions are made, and by whom. It is about accepting reasonable limits in the face of a common set of expectations.
One of the side effects of operating outside of an institutional context is that you necessarily relinquish the ability to expect certain results and give up guarantees. However, it isn't all loss: we replace them with something new, namely, the potential to do what wasn't possible before, and on a scale not possible at the level of a single school.
Part of what makes the educational world such an important one for Mozilla is that it provides a ready and renewable source of people to help us build and expand the open web. In other words, we gain a lot from what the institutional nature of education provides in the way of courses, projects, past learning, etc. At the same time, we help unlock and enable all sorts of potential in the academic space when we teach them how to use the web, be open, collaborate across courses, disciplines, and institutions. We show them a whole new world when we teach them that open is always outward facing.
Students need our help to turn their required class projects into something that ripples across the web and touches people around the world. Teachers and professors who are willing to take risks and push the envelope need our support to play that role within the structure and limitations of their institution. The fact that the people at the top might not get it, doesn't mean the people at the bottom don't, and couldn't if they had some help. If that help won't come from within their school, it needs to be injected from the outside.
Part of what makes the hybrid a difficult animal to categorize is that it has multiple roots. In the case of what we're doing with Mozilla Educaiton, that has huge advantages, since we both need and lack in complementary ways. Learning to accept this duality, and even the inherent contradictions it contains, is how we'll get there. It's not the obvious way to do it, perhaps. But the fact that Mozilla can work at all isn't obvious either.