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Learning is always embedded in cultural environments. Learners carry their cultural commitments with them. The most effective learning strategies pay keen attention to these conditions, shaping strategies to draw on the mobilizing possibilities of learning cultures and environments. Cultural conditions have shifted in the wake of new digital technologies and the possibilities they have unleashed. These cultural shifts pose significant challenges for learning. It is time to reconsider the nature of learning institutions--what they look like, how they operate, and how they can be transformed and supported in new distributed configurations. We offer here protocols for networked learning and institutional emergence in the age of digital culture.

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"Common culture" is dead, claims Wired magazine editor Chris Anderson in The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More (2006), the smash bestseller of summer '06. Anderson argues that the effect of the Internet has been to proliferate the possibilities of preference expression and consumer choice. One can no longer assume that all consumers want the same thing, not when the Internet exposes any individual to limitless niche markets and a global range of product selection, all communicated through interconnected (but distributed) social networks. In contrast to the "Pareto tails" of the standard statistical distribution in the "common culture" regime (where twenty percent of all products account for eighty percent of all revenue), on the Internet ninety-eight percent of all product offerings are chosen by someone, thus skewing the 80/20 ratio (Brynjolfsson, Hu, and Simester, 2004). Anderson argues that the savvy cultural purveyor, like the smart business person, understands that it is now necessary to offer young consumers a plethora of possibilities, including those for personalized or self-designed products and projects.

What are the implications for learning institutions in this new world where choice and customization seem to prevail? Equally important, what are the implications of not addressing changes in the way young people learn and interact? Given the alarmingly high number of high school and college dropouts, we have to wonder if the current institutions of learning are really serving their students' needs and interests. We continue to push old, uniform, and increasingly outdated educational products on young learners at our--and their--peril.

We urge that we take Anderson's point to heart about the long tail as an important new pedagogical principle. Because of the deep cultural shifts of our times, in the new modes of on-line learning made available to youth, we believe it is important to identify and comprehend the multiple preferences of a more dispersed learning population. The best way to do this, of course, is to involve youth in the learning process. We would like to advocate new forms of collaborative and self-directed learning and to discover ways to offer learning opportunities lifelong to that distributed, diverse group.

There are many points with which one could argue in The Long Tail. We do not believe educational preferences should be marketed like the various new kinds of cola. We nevertheless agree with some of Anderson's assumptions about the effects of interactivity on intellectual choices, on the new kinds of affiliations (by self-defined choice) allowed by the Internet, and we are fueled by the new possibilities his insight entails for learning, social action, and intellectual affiliation as a result of the variety of virtual associations supported by the Web.

We are also interested in The Long Tail for a very different reason. As a book, it exemplifies a central contradiction or even ambivalence about collaborative thinking that may be characteristic of the present moment. It embodies both traditional and peer-to-peer models of authorship simultaneously and thus offers us an interesting economic case study. The Long Tail is, in part, a consumer- or user-designed product. It began as an "open-source research project" on Anderson's blog, with ideas improved and tested by numerous readers. However, it is Anderson and his publisher, in the traditional role of "the author" and producer, who most directly benefited financially from the book's popularity, not the "open source researchers" who added to or transformed his ideas.1 Who owns ideas in a peer-to-peer environment? It's hard to say. As a model of authorship, leadership, collaboration, originality, intellectual property, profit, and sustainability, The Long Tail is both a provocation and a cautionary tale.

Issues of collaboration, originality, and sustainability (including public and private sponsorship and support) are also key to the future of learning institutions. It is time to re-examine those key premises and the role they have played in shaping learning institutions in general and higher education more particularly since the turn from the nineteenth to the twentieth century, and especially since the end of World War II. While each of these premises has been commented upon articulately (and often frequently) by writers and scholars in various sectors, from business to education, it is important to attend carefully to the connections between and among several points, some of which are causally related, some of which may be coincidences or contingencies fostered by our particular historical moment. Consider the following, discretely and interactively:

  • Because of the Internet, more and more choices are available to the public, in everything from consumer products to software, social networks, modes of play, knowledge/data-repositories, and cultural archives. Learning, too, has a "long tail" where more and more is exponentially available virtually, to potentially much wider, more distributed, and diverse ranges of people.

  • Because of the emergence of next-generation technologies, we are witnessing the rapid development of Web-engagement from merely searching for information to using the Web as a distributed application platform. These developments have come to be referenced as Web 2.0. They include Grid and network technologies effectively creating super-computers out of the distributed networking of desktop or laptop machines. Grid computing enables both individual access to very large data collections in all fields and instantaneous virtual communication practices. They also include collaborative knowledge-building sites like Wikipedia and aggregated social memory systems such as del.icio.us and other social bookmarking sites based on "Folksonomy," a term coined by assiduous blogger Thomas Vander Wal, for an aggregated system of classification and organization that emerges organically from the selections made by individual users. Other Web 2.0 examples are social networking services like Friendster, social networking sites like MySpace, or massive multi-player online games (MMPOGs). They are crucially important--a revolution within a revolution, so to speak--because they enable actualization of collaborative engagements, with all their challenges and potential benefits. "Complex adaptive systems theory" (an amalgam of hard and social sciences) is evolving to understand better these aggregated networks (Bogost, 2006).2

  • Because of Web 2.0 and the widening area of distributed social networks, credentialing of the merit and worth of products and ideas is increasingly dependent on peer-to-peer communication and distributed hierarchies of quality (the "Zagat's model" of merit and preferential ranking). This peer-to-peer evaluation is a logical extension of peer review, the touchstone of present-day U.S. academic evaluation and status-attainment.

  • Access to computers is unevenly distributed. Wealth, formal education, race, and gender are important factors in the certification of what constitutes "merit" and "quality." Nevertheless, an increasing number of those born after 1983 (the desktop) and 1991 (the Internet) learn through peer-to-peer knowledge-networks, collaborative networks, and aggregated private and open source social spaces (from My Space to del.icio.us). Given that the entering college class was born in 1988, we are talking about a cultural change that touches every aspect of the educational system as well as non-formal learning environments for all ages. The so-called "Millenials" are, in fact, not the only age group being transformed by digital technologies. We note in passing that the average age of a World of Warcraft game player is 28 (Thomas and Brown, 2006.)

  • Youth who learn via peer-to-peer mediated forms may be less likely to be excited and motivated by the typical forms of lecture or even seminar-style hierarchal one-professor/uni-directional models of learning.

  • Governmentally mandated programs, including those such as "No Child Left Behind," tend overwhelmingly to reinforce a form of one-size-fits-all education, based on standardized testing. Call this cloned learning, cloning knowledge, and clones as the product. Such learning models--or "cloning cultures" (Essed and Goldberg, 2003) are often stultifying and counter-productive, leaving many children bored, frustrated, and unmotivated to learn.3

  • High school drop-out rates in the U.S. have soared in the last decade. Nationally, independent surveys indicate that thirty percent of high school students do not graduate within four years, making the United States now 17th among developed nations.4

Alongside these scores and in good part fueled by educational failure is the surging gap between the wealthy and the poor. Incarceration rates, which have soared ten-fold since 1970, correlate closely with educational failure and impoverishment. Seventy-five percent of those imprisoned tend to be illiterate, and roughly the same percentage was earning under $10,000 per year at the time of arrest.5

We do not claim to have solutions for these massively complex social issues, nor do we claim to understand fully the relationships between and among the various developments we have listed. However, we do believe the opportunity now exists to mobilize educators to more energetic and productive learning ends. Interactive technologies and collaborative learning have inspired enormous excitement, and contemporary youth exhibit great facility in negotiating the use of new media. We believe, accordingly, that learning institutions can be developed to do a better job of enlisting the imagination of our youth and to use the excited and specialized interests of young people for the purposes of placing in practice wise and rigorous forms of knowledge-sharing.

To accomplish this end will require that educators rethink their most cherished methodologies and assumptions. It is not easy to rethink knowledge in the Net Age.6 As open source legal theorist and activist James Boyle notes in his witty and terse "A Closed Mind about an Open World" (2006), the last three centuries of capitalism have conditioned us all to have an "openness aversion." Boyle suggests it is an actual cognitive bias that leads us to "undervalue the importance, viability and productive power of open systems, open networks and non-proprietary production." To overcome this bias requires that knowledge-producers (all of us involved in the business of teaching, in whatever current institutional configuration) rethink every aspect (from economic theory to citation form) of what we think of us as "knowledge production."

No school of higher education in the country today has tested in a comprehensive way new methods of learning based on peer-to-peer distributed systems of collaborative work characteristic of the new Internet age. Social psychologists such as Joshua Aronson and Claude M. Steele have established quite conclusively that collaborative learning is beneficial across class and culture. These new modes of distributed collaborative engagement are likely both to attract a broad range of motivated learning across conventional social divisions (think of the anonymous interactions across classes in online gaming) and to inspire new forms of knowledge and product creation. But can we really say, in 2007, that the institutions of learning--from pre-school to the Ph.D.--are suited to the new forms of learning made available by digital technologies? Is there an educational enterprise anywhere in the world redesigned with the deep assumptions of networked thinking core and central to its lesson planning? Has anyone yet put into institutional practice what John Seely Brown is calling a "social life of learning for the 'Net age'"?7

Our own collaborative learning network, HASTAC, has taken a national and international leadership role in developing an interactive network for scholars that engages the technological, pedagogical, humanistic, and socio-cultural factors crucial in Web 2.0 learning. HASTAC is an entirely voluntary network of scholars who see the connections between these complex technological, sociological, and economic factors as crucial to the future of higher education and learning.

  • Like the peer-to-peer models of learning, social communication, publicity, and communitarian ranking, HASTAC provides a site and set of mechanisms where a loosely defined community of affiliation interacts through peer-to-peer connectivity.

  • The HASTAC network often provides individuals who are isolated, marginalized, and/or sometimes even under-appreciated within their departments or institutions access to a distributed community. Of crucial importance, it is leading to the formative emergence of a complex interdisciplinary "field" within which present (and future) research can be assessed, evaluated, distributed, and utilized.

  • HASTAC embraces a range of diversities as part of its mission and encourages intellectuals at universities without adequate resources to provide leadership grounded in, quite precisely, the collaborative and community networking skills and ingenuities required by the lack of resources. At the same time, these institutions can partake, through webcasts and collaboration, in possibilities available at institutions with far greater financial and technological resources and expertise.

  • HASTAC's goal, then, is to establish the firm foundations for field-building by reaching out across an extraordinarily wide constituency. In disciplinary terms, this means drawing from humanities and arts institutes, social science organizations, supercomputing and grid computing institutes, and technology and engineering centers. This mix includes the leading institutions of their kind in the U.S. and abroad as well as minority-serving organizations designed to include less advantaged learning institutions.

  • Concretely, HASTAC aims to fashion a generation of scholars equally at ease with current (which is also to say historical) knowledge in the humanities, arts, and social sciences, on the one hand, and with the technological, scientific, and engineering knowledge on the other, with a view to facilitating development of new discoveries and new relations between currently available knowledge sources, in order to digitally prompt new bodies of important knowledge.

We suggest that new learning communities accordingly will engage peer-to-peer interactivity and intercommunicability across distributed learning communities, technologically enhanced. These new learning communities embody a range of distributed diversities--in networking skills, ingenuities and facilities, as well as in resources and background lived experience. They represent robust interdisciplinarity and expansive virtual heterogeneity, as well as an equal ease with their more or less specialized fields of knowledge and with their knowledge of technology. The challenge is to devise institutional learning structures to facilitate, accommodate, and accredit these new learning forms and their outcomes.

We live on the long tail. We aim to be the tail that wags the dog of new learning in the digital age.


1A more self-conscious hybrid is McKenzie Wark's publication of his new book, GAM3R 7H30RY (Gamer Theory), on a collaborative software environment sponsored by the Institute for the Future of the Book, a project designed to bring readers into the creation of the book (Albanese, 2006) while still offering readers the possibility of one-click pre-ordering of the next iteration of the book (to be published by Harvard University Press). New projects such as the Wikiversity Learning Project are designed to support collaborative models of knowledge-sharing.

2According to Bogost (139), complex adaptive systems draw upon the mathematical graph theory of Leonhard Euler and Paul Erdös, social network studies by Stanley Milgram and Mark Granovetter, complexity and chaos theory that focuses on emergence, and Stephen Wolfram's dazzling work on cellular automata.

3See Grossberg (2005) for a trenchant analysis of ways that these factors in the lives of youth merge in U.S. national policy and ideology.

5Cf. The Prison University Project and the Correctional Education Facts from the National Institute for Literacy.

6Although many people use the phrase "Net Age" as a shorthand for "Internet Age," we are here using John Seely Brown's particular use of the term to signal both the Internet and networking, the specific combination that O'Reilly calls Web 2.0 and that seems to us a vastly rich model for learning and a specific challenge to most existing forms of learning institutions.

7This is the title for the keynote address that John Seely Brown will deliver at the first international conference of HASTAC, "Electronic Techtonics: Thinking at the Interface," April 19, 2007, at the Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University. A webcast will be available at www.hastac.org.

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