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bags of gold

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I was in the room at OpenEd 2009 when Gardner laid out the now-famous Bags of Gold manifesto. The excitement and energy in the room was palpable as he talked. His sense of urgency and agency rolled over and through us. Bags of Gold became the unofficial mantra for the rest of the conference. It became shorthand for “Open! Fuck, yeah!” What kind of closed-minded Luddite wouldn’t understand Bags of Gold? This was it. The metaphor to finally trigger a sea change in education, and in society at large. Gold. Bags of fucking GOLD, man! Can you dig it? You want some? Just reach out and grab it!

Gardner - wall of gold

But gold is only valuable because it is in limited supply, and only because not everyone can have it. Once everyone has as much gold as they want, its value as currency drops to that of paper. Bags of fucking PAPER, man! Take them. Please!

Now, so long after Gardner’s presentation, I’m struggling with the metaphor. If gold is the currency of education, what is it representing? Openness? Sharing? Managing a webserver? Installing software? Updating plugins, libraries and dependencies? Creating and publishing content? Or, is the currency of education more akin to collaborative experiences, shared exploration, and reflection on one’s own learning as well as that of your peers?

I believe that the goals of education (capitalized E or otherwise) have little to do with managing infrastructure, and everything to do with cognitive growth and exploration. I believe that we have conflated self efficacy with managing the nuts and bolts of digital infrastructure.

In Gutenberg’s day, did leading thinkers and professors talk about the need for students to craft their own printing presses? Did they take metalsmithing classes, so they could forge their own movable type and the machinery to press paper to ink? Were there paper- and ink-making classes? How far down into the infrastructure stacks do we really need to delve, in order to create and sustain meaningful educational experiences?


Does forcing students to set up their own domains, and subscribe to a commercial hosting service, and install and configure copies of various software applications really add to their ability to share and collaborate? Or does it merely add extra overhead? Is this personal cyberinfrastructure crucial to a student’s learning?

I believe that personal cyberinfrastructure (god, how I hate that clumsy manufactured word) is neither necessary nor sufficient for meaningful educational experiences.

I believe that the really important parts of education, of teaching and learning, are less effected by the location and owner of the tools, as they are shaped by the philosophical and pedagogical leanings of the participants.

A professor could facilitate an educational experience as part of a course using the Blackboard discussion board that could be every bit as engaging and powerful as one crafted out of distributed and decentralized bits of personally managed ephemera.

Another thought that struck me, when thinking about community design, is the aspect of sustainability and sprawl. The ad hoc decentralized individually crafted personal cyberinfrastructure is akin to suburban sprawl. Every individual stakes out a plot, slaps up a house, and expects people to schlep out to find them in the suburban wasteland.

Suburban Wasteland

There’s a reason people flock to services like Facebook and Twitter – everyone’s already there. You don’t have to go hunting for them. You don’t have to pack up your SUV and drive out to meet them.

And, no, I’m not saying we should be heading in the direction of centralized, corporatized, monetized services. I love running my own stuff. I love being able to have some level of control over as much of what I do online as I want to.

However, I’m also acutely aware of the drain that running this stuff can place on a person. Of the daily battle against spam. Of the need to test updates and upgrades. Of the need to run (and test) backups. Of the need to monitor your software for downtime (and then nag the service providers until it comes back online).

I think that equating that kind of control with a meaningful educational experience is a bit of a red herring. It’s a conflation of a bunch of related issues, and may be used as a shorthand for meaning “personal ownership of content” and “breaking free from institutional constraints” and a bunch of other stuff. But we also need to be aware of the demands that personal cyberinfrastructure places on everyone.

OK. Devil’s advocate hat now placed safely inside the lead box.

Given that I’ve drunk the Kool-Aid of this stuff long ago, and given that I take it for granted, where could this lead us? What if we table the discussions about sustainability and management. What if everyone was running their own stuff. Designing their own environments. Sharing and collaborating on their own terms (and, assuming that these are their terms and not ones just handed down from Teacher).

“We have to do things that don’t happen naturally, but once we do them, we find a bag of gold.”

Gardner Campbell.

The real shift isn’t in publishing digital content. It isn’t in moving to eLearning.

The real shift is that of individual control over their (our) own learning.

If universities are changing – some say rendered obsolete, some say more essential now than ever – what does that mean for teaching and learning?

If the parallel is with the newspaper industry – Clay Shirky’s quote is apt:

“Society doesn’t need newspapers. What we need is journalism. For a century, the imperatives to strengthen journalism and to strengthen newspapers have been so tightly wound as to be indistinguishable. That’s been a fine accident to have, but when that accident stops, as it is stopping before our eyes, we’re going to need lots of other ways to strengthen journalism instead.”

Clay Shirky.

Society doesn’t need universities. What we need is learning.

And if we’re all shifting to take more control over our learning, society needs individuals that want to learn.

That’s the crux. Not cyberinfrastructure. Not digital content. Not software, nor data, nor feeds, nor any of that crap.

We need to learn. We need to want to learn. And that’s the real bag of gold.

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