Archive for the ‘Craftsourcing’ Category

From MOOCs to MOATs

June 18, 2013

If you have read “A Scandal in Bohemia,” you will remember the scene where Sherlock Holmes smokes up the joint to find out where Irene Adler has hidden her most precious possession: a photograph of Irene with the king of Bohemia. Irene Adler outwits Holmes at the end, earning the epithet “the woman.” 

The moral of the story: in times of crisis, you will rush to save that which is dearest to you.

Higher education is in crisis: what possession of theirs are universities trying to save? The fact that they are giving MOOC’s away for free points to one and only one thing: undergraduate education isn’t their most precious jewel. Research universities are not built for their undergraduates; they are built around the process of knowledge creation and the faculty that make that happen.

If knowledge creation is the purpose of a research university then postgraduate education is the means through which knowledge is created and replicated across generations. Unlike undergraduate education, PG education is hands on, project based and (human) labor intensive. I haven’t seen a single university make noises about handing out the keys to that store.

The moral of the story: if you really want to change the face of higher education, start with the precious jewel: post graduate learning. The future of higher education isn’t the MOOC, but the MOAT: Massive Online Apprenticeship and Training.



Quality isn’t quantity

June 17, 2013

One of the great myths about mechanization and globalization is that it will replace low end unskilled jobs fit only for machines with higher end, high skill work. That we will all be free to be autonomous, creative individuals while the machines do all the grunt work. 

The truth has always been more complex, if not the very opposite of official propaganda. Let’s go back to an earlier era of globalization, what we now call colonization. The British didn’t chop off the thumbs of muslin weavers in Dhaka because they were less skilled, but because they were abler. The weavers were a threat because they made a much better product at a competitive price. Why do we think it will be any better this time around?

In my own corner of the woods, i.e., higher education, there’s been a lot of hype about MOOC’s, massive online courses that will bring high quality education to the masses. I am quite susceptible to the charm of the MOOC myself. There’s a part of me that believes that higher education in India and elsewhere needs radical change. However,    I also see the same muslin weaver logic at work here; cut off the thumbs of the competition, who in this case are the vast majority of faculty that work outside Ivy League academia, and then corner a highly profitable industry to yourself. College faculty are the craftsmen and craftswomen of higher education, for whom learning is both art and science. MOOC’s will inevitably bring downward pressure on those jobs and many institutions will close their doors. Are we ready to let these jobs go, just as we have outsourced manufacturing to China and Tech support to India? 

Once these semi-tribal education fraternities end, we will be left with a less human world, even if it is of higher quality on several measures. A question that’s not asked in the relentless march toward progress is this: who are we doing it for, and what value do we gain by doing so? Can we trust MIT and Harvard to uphold those values? 

You can guess my answer to these questions, but we will not know for sure until the dust settles. I just read a wonderful and tragic piece in the New York Times about the maddening but ultimately redeeming value of the Italian artisan-industrial complex. We have much to learn from it, as we reflect upon the future of education. 


Craftsourcing 001

June 14, 2013

Everyone is an artist. We are all unique, creative individuals.  

Do you really believe that? Or if you do, do you think that all it takes to become an artist is positive reinforcement and self esteem. Plus your own You Tube channel. 

Art cannot be divorced from craft, which is the larger bucket of the two. There can only be a few artists, chosen ones in their respective profession, but there are many more craftspeople. That teacher who put her heart into teaching you calculus? She was a craftswoman. So was the family doctor whose soothing manner made injections feel a lot less painful. 

The great temples of human achievement were made by craftsmen and craftswomen, even if only some of them adorn the hallways of Harvard and MOMA. I believe we are moving towards a new age of craftsourcing, of collective inquiry and creation, but before we can enter that age, we need to adopt three principles:

Photo credit: Karen Blaha 

Photo credit: Karen Blaha 

  1. Collaboration: Craft is inherently collective, and while we have to honor the contributions of one and all, there is no place in it for the Prima Donna.  We are no shorter for standing on the shoulders of giants. 
  2. Creation: We have to be creative, not in the “strokes of genius” sense, but in the everyday sense of bringing one’s own perspective to each task and project. It takes everyday creativity to navigate everyday problems and ultimately, craft is about the everyday.
  3. Character: Craftmaking is about making things and in the process making oneself.  Character is what we make of ourselves. The quiet satisfaction that comes from collaborating and creating is reflected in the understanding that craftmaking is a way of living.   



June 11, 2013

Craftsourcing versus Crowdsourcing. Crowdsourcing usually refers to the aggregation of small decisions made by a lot of people. For example, aggregating the votes on a singer on American Idol is crowdsourcing. While much judgement might have gone behind the decision, the decision itself is simple. Voting in general – whether for presidents or for performers – is a crowdsourcing problem. Another tacit assumption behind crowdsourcing is that the decisions are taken at about the same time – while voting is spread across a whole day, a day is a relatively short time in the life of a presidency.  

Craftsourcing involves deeper engagement with people giving more of themselves and of substantive engagement with each other’s ideas and decisions. The classic example might be academic labor – the solution to Fermat’s last theorem involved the labor of several people across centuries, each one of whom engaged deeply with previous generations of scholars.  Craftsourcing is spread both across space and across time. 

Photo credit Mike Cogh 

Photo credit Mike Cogh 

Both crowd- and craft- sourcing are ancient social capabilities, but the internet has definitely revolutionized both. Crowdsourcing is at the heart of the major internet companies business model – Facebook, Google, Amazon are all based on aggregating the preferences of millions of people’s beliefs and decisions. Craftsourcing is not as developed, since it takes more effort and has fewer obvious economic benefits, but Wikipedia is arguably our best example of craftsourcing, where hundreds of thousands of people have given their time freely to produce the best encyclopedia on the history of our species. More recently, the polymath projects have created much excitement around collaborative solution of math problems, but true craftsourcing remains rare. Unlike crowdsourcing, which has produced businesses such as google and facebook that simply couldn’t exist in a previous era, we are yet to see craftsourcing produce knowledge of a kind that no one has produced before.