Self Starter’s Guide, Network Potential, and Intimate Scale

Originally posted to Tumblr

Last week I wrote a bit about networks [again, this one’s only on Tumblr] vis a vis Jaron Lanier’s latest book, and I wanted to continue with some ideas about how networks might be relevant to Self Starter’s Guide. Network effects, leverage, self-sustaining feedback loops, empowering people, unlocking value, and creating new models for interacting with the world — all things that would be awesome to incorporate into the future of education!

We’re still in the early stages of this paradigm shift in how production, creativity, society, and human output are structured, and we’re still figuring out the proper mechanisms for directing and shaping it in a way that is human-centered and empathetic and results in positive change to our existing cultures and institutions. Some parts of this process may happen naturally, but much of it’s unpredictable, and it’s therefore vital that we work hard to shape the direction of this change intelligently, and mitigate some of the negative effects without at the same time stifling innovation with an overly heavy hand. But I want to talk more about the network effects themselves, and the potential that they might hold for what I’m working on.

I hadn’t initially conceived of Self Starter’s Guide as a network, at least not overtly; I thought of it as a kind of repository or library of information, and I’ve considered wanting to build a “platform” around that content, but I’m not entirely sure I was clear about what these terms or aspiration actually meant — what is a “platform” for sharing knowledge? Of course not all services, products, or tools have to be networks — but I think that today all such things have to at least be built with networks in mind. And I’d like to think as well about how I could build features of a network into my project itself.

With Self Starter’s Guide, I’d like to provide not only information, but also ways for people to connect and interact around the ideas and topics I’ll be focusing on. That doesn’t necessarily mean building technology; it could just mean plugging together existing tools to create whatever network features these modes of connection might require. More important is figuring out useful and powerful mechanisms for building network effects that would be valuable for those who are part of it.

I’ve been thinking about how innovation is often not so much about building new technology as about how existing technology is used and experienced — it’s possible to do revolutionary things simply by combining existing tools, structure, and ways of thinking in creative, novel ways. I’m interested in what things of this nature could be applicable to education generally, and Self Starter’s Guide specifically, in the relatively near-term future, without having to invest a lot of resources in building complicated new things.

One example would be creating small groups of students, with several central nodes and small branching micro-networks or clusters, all of which would form a larger SSG network but which individually could be at least partially self-sufficient. I think perhaps the biggest missing part of most online education is figuring out how to provide authentic group interactions and relationships for students, how to match them up with peers who can offer feedback, motivation, collaboration, and more.

I’d also like to take my own advice, and work with more people on building SSG. I want to find some people who might be interested in forming a sort of pilot group for actually working amongst themselves in a self-directed way to develop their own individual learning paths, study the things they’re most interested in, and pursue independent projects to deepen their learning — all in a way that could scale without losing the intimacy and other human elements that are so important. I like to think of this idea as “scaling empathetically” or intimately — enabling growth of a network without detachment from its vital human elements. This would involve figuring out a way to increase the size of the overall network while still retaining a smallness and density of the connected nodes at a local level.

Traditional modes of online discourse, like comment sections and forums, can sometimes work well, but often make establishing intimacy difficult, because they exist as a kind of decontextualized, disembodied digital interstitial space, rarely optimized for sharing and interaction on a more personal level. So it might make sense to start with some kind of “blended” model, combining online access to information with in-person interaction; perhaps I do this one-on-one at first, and not worry about how it scales for now. With the email course I’m launching, I’m in the first stages of finding people interested in this sort of learning; later on I’d like to explore ways to scale this, and get students interacting in ways that toe the line between managed and self-directed.

I want to make money with Self Starter’s Guide, and have it be a sustainable project, but I don’t want it to contribute to an imbalance of power. I think my current ideas align with the context of a “humanistic information economy” — but a lot of what I see emerging as examples of massive-scale online education does not. So it’s interesting to think more widely about the overall landscape of online education, and education in general, and for that matter even the future of work, given that I anticipate a substantial part of SSG will be about helping people learn career-relevant skills.

If software is really eating the world, then the terrain of jobs and career options will be vastly different for the next generation than it is now. We can see the shift taking place in education, with MOOCs focusing mainly on scaling great teaching, consolidating the best lecturers in centers of power and displacing lower-tier ones who therefore become redundant. Of course, this doesn’t do much in the way of building real communities, getting people learning in active, collaborative ways, fostering empathy and understanding…all those human intangibles! But it’s still going to have a big impact, because even the unidirectional lecture-style modes of education, and all other one-to-many methods of teaching that are amenable to scaling via digital networks (including digital books, interactive learning sites like Codecademy, etc.) are a major part of how learning gets done.

Something like the “college experience” is composed of many parts that can’t scale. It’s still the case that much of the value of education is in the information itself, but beyond that, I think that some of the other, more difficult to measure elements, like collaboration and engagement, will gradually start to be brought into the fold of network technology as well. I expect this will happen in slow and small and subtle ways, as people become more comfortable with intimate interactions in the online sphere. As digital transactions of ideas and feedback become more commonplace and accepted, and technology arises that lowers the friction in making such aspects of learning network-amplified, I think we’ll begin to see a lot more interesting shifts in meaningful and effective networked learning. I hope to play a part in some of this work, and be paying attention when it happens.

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