The Next Wave: EduCommons.org
By Thom Gillespie, Café TECHNOS Maître d¹Igital
The Next Wave: EduCommons.org
EduCommons.org is a project that has given some really serious thought to P2P technology and education. The main thinker in this project is David Wiley, (firstname.lastname@example.org) currently a Postdoctoral Fellow of Instructional Technology at Utah State University. Dave is pursuing a comprehensive research agenda aimed at opening access to high-quality educational opportunities to everyone. Here¹s a Q&A we conducted through a recent email exchange.
Where did your ideas for EduCommons come from?
The idea is actually the stuff that academic legends are made of: i.e., two people challenging other people to get something done, and freely sharing the results. I had the feeling that learning objects, even though they were only traditionally used with very traditional, directed instructional approaches, were actually more compatible with modern learning philosophy and approaches, such as constructivism. As part of a book I was editing on learning objects (Learning Objects Explained, http://reusability.org/read/#1), I challenged Brenda Banna-Ritland and Nada Dabbagh at George Mason [University] to figure out and demonstrate the compatibility in a chapter they would write for the (http://reusability.org/read/chapters/wiley.doc)). They did so smashingly. At about the same time I extended my challenge, Wayne Hodgins of Autodesk had challenged me to figure out how learning objects and peer-to-peer networking could work together. I struggled with it for some time, and was never able to quite get my brain wrapped around it. That is, until after a conversation I had at a conference with Brenda and Nada, in which they explained to me their interpretation of [the] learning objectsconstructivism connection. Then it clicked. EduCommons.
Why use peer-to-peer technology for EduCommons?
Partially because of Wayne¹s challenge, partially because of my own research agenda, which centers on empowering students and extending educational opportunity to literally everyone. The Web¹s centralization (particularly of file storage) and publishing difficulties had precluded anything like EduCommons before P2P came along. What P2P architectures offered to instructional technology was (a) a practically infinite storage space and (b) a practically infinite effort on the part of content producers. (a) is self-explanatory enough. (b) means that every year, as long as there are schools, teachers, and students, there will be people producing new learning content, whether it be lesson plans, syllabi, lecture notes, research article drafts, book reports, essays, etc.
Will EduCommons be easy enough for K 12 schools, or are you aiming at the lucrative market of corporate training?
I have absolutely no intent of being lucrative. The whole project is being run open source, and will remain that way. The target audience is anyone that has a learning need.
Do you think EduCommons and learning objects will be robust enough to teach more than basic material in any area?
EduCommons will initially be only a platform for sharing digital educational resources, aka "learning objects." We already have some ideas about how to build a layer of organizational tools on top of it, to help people put resources together into useful instruction, but that functionality is a ways down the road. We¹re just beginning a partnership with the Cisco Learning Institute to explore some of these issues.
Is EduCommons aimed at distance education? Or, what happens when EduCommons is used alongside real-time, campus-based education?
Traditional teaching falls down, hopefully. When the same mindless, regurgitative homework assignments are given year after year, as are the same mindless, regurgitative tests, EduCommons will become a place where students can turn for very effective study help *wink*. I¹m hoping that if nothing else, the system forces some educational reform in which teachers everywhere move to more authentic and personalized styles of instruction. On the other hand, teachers will have unprecedented access to the corpus of existing work their students will be drawing from.
How much interest has been expressed in the idea so far? Regional? National? International?
We¹ve had feelers from several large corporations. ... I was amused recently when O¹Reilly¹s P2P conference rejected a presentation on the system... I attended the Spring conference and was very underwhelmed by the quality of all the presentations but those by the Freenet guys and Larry Lessig. I guess the quality of the presentation was just too high... I think the real interest will pick up in July when we release our first prototypes peers at http://educommons.org/.
Is this an idea that Open Source will take an interest in?
I certainly hope so. NSF and other research monies will only go so far. I¹m counting on contributions from the open source community, which is one reason the entire system is free/open.
If folks are interested in getting involved, how do they do that? What sorts of skills and interests are you looking for? Is there currently an advisory group?
We¹re still looking for people to work on ports of the peer application itself. Our original prototypes (we¹re working on two in parallel) will be done in Java, but native applications will be preferable for Linux, Win32, and Mac. The current advisory group consists of members of the research troupe here at Utah State University (the Reusability, Collaboration, and Learning Research Troupe) and three outsiders. Adam Beberg is our P2P Architecture advisor, Jon Herlocker is our Collaborative Filtering advisor (there¹s a recommender component to the system that makes it even more interesting), and Marc Smith is our Sociological Factors advisor. It¹s an incredible group.
Can you give me a "scenario" of what the future might look like if everything happened for EduCommons that you could hope for and we were three years down the line?
The peer application would be wildly popular and included in base installs in university and K12 labs and offices. While the gateway to the NSF¹s official National Science Digital Library (which we¹re currently working on) would exist, the quality, quantity, and diversity of resources in the EduCommons would far surpass that available in the NSDL or any other existing educational digital library. Problem-based and other more modern notions of learning facilitation would be becoming widespread, as faculty and teachers realize that answers for the same old homework assignments exist in 100 forms in the EduCommons. Students would be designing their own extremely motivating and effective instructional experiences. I¹ll still be poor.
Anything else you think is important to discuss for a general audience primarily of policy folks and teachers who will read this?
When I spoke on the P2P panel at the Spring  Internet2 meeting, all the talk was about the evils of Napster: intellectual property violations and extraneous bandwidth consumption. My message for policy makers at educational institutions is this: prepare for an application where the "IP owners" (I think the term is an oxymoron, but they¹ll know what it means) freely share their own content themselves, and the network traffic is directly aligned with your institutional missions. You could say, "Napster is evil, block it, make it go away!" but you won¹t be able to say that about the EduCommons.
Can you give me a specific URL folks should look for in July?
The URL is http://educommons.org/.