Cooperation, not Collaboration

Downes makes the point repeatedly that we talk too much about collaboration (which is something new technology allows us to do better) and not enough about cooperation (which is something the network allows us to do for the first time on this unprecedented scale).

The neat thing about cooperation is that if you can structure a solution to a problem as a cooperative one rather than a collaborative one you can solve very big problems in a very short amount of time — because at it’s best, cooperation requires simply that you do what you normally do, but in a way that allows cooperation. Which is why I will be watching this project closely:

If you’re a lawyer, and you use the crazy-outmoded PACER system to access federal court documents, check out the new RECAP system launched today by Tim Lee, Harlan Yu, and Steve Schultze with the help of Princeton’s CITP. If you use PACER, you know it’s difficult to use. It also charges citizens to access what are nominally public documents, something that makes little sense online. This combination has resulted in a multi-million dollar surplus for the judiciary’s IT department, and lousy access to data that would be useful not just to lawyers and litigants, but to bloggers, librarians, reporters, and scholars.

Schultze, Lee, and Yu’s scheme to free the documents on PACER is an ingenious one. They have built a Firefox plugin called RECAP that attorneys and other regular users of PACER can install on their computers. When a user downloads a document from PACER, the plugin sends a copy to RECAP’s server, where it is made publicly available. If enough PACER users install RECAP, it will only be a matter of time before the entire database is liberated. Why would lawyers participate? When they search for a document, the plugin first checks the RECAP database to see if a copy has already been liberated. If it has, then the lawyer can retreive it without paying PACER. Like I said: ingenious.

I think we have to teach our students to think about problems in this way. It’s a shame that the one area where students have solved problems in this cooperative way, through music file-sharing, has been criminalized. But that just makes it more urgent that we introduce kids to the legitimacy of the cooperative approach.

We are still just at the beginning of understanding what can be accomplished in cooperative frameworks. So one question for any instructional designer has to be whether we not only encourage students to develop collaborative frameworks, but cooperative ones as well. That starts with defaulting to open solutions, providing RSS, using open licensing, etc., but as the above example shows one can go even further in designing such approaches. And the potential impact graduating hundreds of thousands of students who understand how to think in this way — well, it’s huge. It’s the sort of thinking that could likely solve global warming, famine, income disparities — you name it.

(Side note: Is it just me, or is it enraging to think that the actions of the record companies are likely reducing our ability to solve problems that are core to the continued existence of our species — just because Billy Ray Cyrus needs his royalties for Achy Breaky Heart?)

If anyone has any good examples of encouraging cooperative thinking in a project-based class (beyond a general predilection to openness), please let me know, either through the comments or email to caulfield dot mike at gmail.

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