[T]he problem is that bad writers tend to have the self-confidence, while the good ones tend to have self-doubt. So the bad writers tend to go on and on writing crap and giving as many readings as possible to sparse audiences. These sparse audiences consist mostly of other bad writers waiting their turn to go on, to get up there and let it out in the next hour, the next week, the next month, the next sometime. The feeling at these readings is murderous, airless, anti-life.

– Charles Bukowski on why he encouraged people to not write.

There’s only one other industry that calls their customers ‘users’.”

– Old information technology proverb.

Poetry Slam

Somewhere in 2009 it hit me that I had been wrong about educational technology. Very wrong.

The year before, I had been working for an organization that dealt with OpenCourseWare, and the rhetoric was (as it still is) that reuse of OCW could lead to education sector efficiency. But as we looked for reuse we found that there wasn’t much evidence of it. Not institutional reuse anyway, or reuse by professors.

And as I pondered this, it became very obvious why this was the case. Every single decision in the OER community at that time seemed to be predicated on glorifying and funding creators, based on a trickle-down theory of impact. Courseware was shipped as PDFs, with school logos burnt into the slides. Hewlett was funding Ivies to the tune of tens of millions to create OCW, and yet none of those projects ever sat down with teachers from state universities and community colleges and asked what they might actually want.

Simple things precluded any reuse. Test questions were published with answer keys, in formats that were not importable into LMS’s. Course videos contained references to resources unavailable to students not in the lecture, or housekeeping about advising periods that would mean nothing to someone watching this video for a class.

The Open Educational Resources community, at least the elite part of it, portrayed itself as a community-minded set of save the world do-gooders. But in reality, much of it was the Poetry Slam from Hell Bukowski talks about above, a bunch of elite schools sitting in Hewlett’s coffee shop, waiting for Yale to step down so they could show their OCW.

Makers, Builders, Producers

People say they want a world of “producers not consumers” or “makers not takers”.  Peel back the assumptions under those statements and you’ll find some disturbing stuff.

And so it was when I returned to instructional design in 2009, fresh off the OCW experience, that I found these phrases, which used to seem so normal, now strange.

There was a time, after all, that we used to call lurkers “readers”. Users were “doers”.  These things had respect.

Now anything short of “making” was devalued. “We’re going to turn our students from passive consumers to producers!” we yelled.

This was presented as revolutionary, but it wasn’t revolutionary at all. The forms might have been revolutionary – video, podcasts, CAD-based fabrication. But the idea that “producers” should be valued at a university is the least subversive idea one could have. It’s the entire basis of the academic enterprise. Everything, from tenure review to pay scale, is based on the notion that it’s not enough to be well-read, or to think good thoughts. One must make something. Academia is one of the few places where your entire career is based on how many important things have your name on them.

And so we showed students how to make things with their name on them.

Edtech-based making in the university was not an attempt to introduce a new value structure. It was (and is) an attempt to give students tools to achieve value in the existing power structure.

That’s valuable, certainly. I repeat, it is valuable. But it hardly makes you Illich.

And of course there’s a possibility that you’re just spreading the “Shut Up or Ship” culture of Silicon Valley that believes participation is only the domain of those-who-code, or the PDFing logo-stamping culture of the Ivies. It’s possible that you’re just reinforcing the same narrative that justifies the massive inequality in our country on the basis that the 1% “contribute”, and that being a “Job Creator” is better than doing a job for someone else well.  It’s possible that you’re enabling the people that went nuts after Obama’s “You didn’t build that” speech, where Obama made the rather mundane observation that success in America is enabled by our entire community.


It’s possible it gets worse. As Audrey Watters,  Debbie Chachra, and Bjork have noted recently, definitions of what constitutes “building” are gendered, and differently applied. A Taylor Swift album is seen (correctly) as co-produced and co-written. A Kanye West album is a Kanye West album, even if it contains a cast of hundreds. Kanye West is seen brilliant where Bjork is seen as making a excellent collaborative album.

And while we’re talking about the Brilliant Mind myth creatorism is based on, we might as well pull in this chart, which plots female PhDs in a field against the emphasis that field places on “brilliance” vs. “hard work”.


The paper in Science the above graph comes from focuses just on the brilliance connection. A focus on hard, sustained work over brilliance appears to predict female representation better than any other general model I know of.

At the same time, I can’t help but see them as interlinked phenomenon. Sociology graduates Bjorks. Philosophy graduates Kanyes. The hierarchy is Kayne > Bjork > Rock Critic > Listener. The fact that it is discerning listeners who produce artistic revolutions is lost on everyone.

To coders, people who don’t code are not makers. But we keep punching all the way down. Published writers kick bloggers. Bloggers see themselves as creating on a level that readers and commenters don’t. It’s not just about your job title, it’s about your internal taxonomy.

The Sources of Innovation

The things I have done since 2009 seem very scattered to people. I ranted on about OER reuse.  I got deep into von Hippel. With Amy Collier and Helen Chen I looked at how classes interact with MOOC materials produced elsewhere. I experimented with the pedagogy of summary. And now I’m involved with a federated wiki project so complex I barely know where to link to to explain it.

Underneath all of these projects (and many others: Water106, the Mixable MOOC, Design Patterns in ID) is really a single obsession. What would happen if we got over our love affair with creators? What would happen if we collapsed the distinction between maker and taker, consumer and producer, not by “moving people from consumption to production”, but by eliminating the distinction? What if we saw careful curation of material as better than unconsidered personal expression?

What if we stopped calling readers lurkers? What if we stopped caring about who got the credit? What if the OER community saw the creation of materials as a commodity, but the reuse as an art?

I’m not attacking digital storytelling here, personal blogs, or Makey-Makey Boards. I’ve used all of these in my work with faculty, and I’m going to continue to do so. These things get students engaged and excited, and in the process of making things they learn much more deeply than they could ever learn from a textbook. Sometimes a poetry slam is what you need. Sometimes it’s even good.

But the projects that interest me most nowadays are the one where the thing made doesn’t fall into the traditional categories. Federated wiki, the pedagogy of summary, student curation. What interests me most in ds106, for example, is not the making, but the co-making. In these projects I see a chance for an engagement that is less ego-driven, less divisive, and ultimately more useful to society. In the years since Gutenberg I think we’ve managed to get the single brilliant author thing down pretty pat.  It might be time to try something else.

I’ll end here with a story. Back in 2010 I was getting a coffee with Jon Udell, and he said something that has stuck with me. He had been trying to get people involved with community by encouraging production of various things, but it wasn’t working the way he planned.  He said that there was a point he realized that he was trying to make everyone a writer. And everyone’s not a writer.

His obsession with getting people to share calendar feeds seemed odd to some people, but for him it was (I think) about something bigger. Were people to simply share community calendar feeds with a hub, we could solve far more community issues than a roomful of bloggers ever would. A community getting this idea, that the work they don’t even think of as creation could be valuable; that would be much more powerful than than telling people to podcast their town meetings, or asking them to blog their work.

That idea turned out to be difficult for a number of reasons, but I think the concept is right. I imagine classes where writing a good and useful summary of research is seen as being as “brilliant” as writing an original paper, where cleaning up data is seen as valuable as theorizing about it. Where a well curated and quoted set of material is as valuable as research. Where reuse is valued over reinvention. Where replicating experiments is as revered as creating new experimental designs. Where people who connect others and think about how to connect others get credit for the advances those connections bring.

I think students who came out of a program like that would be better suited to solving the sorts of problems the world has right now. It’s just a theory, but I’m hoping we get a chance to prove it.

11 thoughts on ““Users”

    • Props to Stephen Downes for drawing my attention to this. I could not help but feel myself drawn back to reading Alvin Toffler’s “The Third Wave” (1984). As I recall it, Toffler predicted that a best case would arrive when we all become neither producers nor consumers but “prosumers” or something to that effect. I still appreciate the importance of everyone playing a role in adding value.

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