I’ve been meaning to follow up on a topic that arose at the Keeping Pace with K-12 Online Learning presentation I attended a couple of weeks ago. During the Q & A session, a question came up about open enrollment, school funding, and how online learning programs are viewed by districts who have a pragmatic financial interest in "keeping" students. The presenter, John Watson, pointed out the larger swirl of issues at play, and growing tensions between our traditional conceptions of how schools and districts are organized and the essential nature of online learning to transcend barriers of place and time. And in fact this tension, this marching to the beats of different drummers, underpins the entire Keeping Pace report. From the report’s conclusion (p. 11):

A necessary first step is removing the barriers, the policies that simply do not make sense in the online environment. Online course delivery across borders highlights how 20th century funding and policy models can hinder 21st century models of teaching and learning.

The issue of teacher licensing also came up as an example of local/state-centered policy that’s inconsistent with the reality of online learning. Again from the report:

Policies that dictate that students must be taught by state-certified teachers residing in that state may be appropriate for place-based teaching, but online learning transcends such barriers.

What’s interesting to me is seeing how these realities bump up against each other. If we take online learning’s promise and premise to its logical conclusion and erase traditional boundaries, what would the result look like? A nationwide online school? Clearly, there will need to be ongoing dialogue amid what’s hopefully a healthy tension. There’s much here that challenges our conceptions of what schools should be—which is not necessarily the same as what teaching and learning should be.

But what really sparked for me in the discussion was the notion of boundaries. The enclosure movement in England, where land once held in common was gradually fenced and privatized over centuries, was arguably a response to the tragedy of the commons—an attempt to enforce sustainable practice and avoid over-exploitation of commonly-held resources by creating pockets of local control. Talk of teaching across district and state boundaries puts me in mind of fences, and makes me wonder if we’re moving back toward a sort of commons. Lawrence Lessig and the folks at Washington’s Digital Learning Commons may have an opinion or two about this.

One could argue that Web 2.0 is a new, anti-tragic formulation of the commons where the spaces in question are intellectual and the relationships non-rivalrous. I discovered that this mirror image of "the tragedy of the commons" already has a name, bestowed by in a 1986 University of Chicago Law Review article by Carol Rose: the comedy of the commons. A contributor to the Urban Dictionary took this stab at crafting a definition:

A play on the phrase tragedy of the commons. In the tragedy of the commons, each person tries to maximize their own benefit, and the end result is that everyone loses because of overutilization of limited resources. In the comedy of the commons, each person, while getting something for themselves, also (directly or indirectly) contributes back to the common good at the same time.

I’ve heard Tim Wilson present a thumbnail definition of Web 2.0 that rings remarkably close to this. To boldly paraphrase Tim: The hallmark of Web 2.0 is collaboration; as more people engage and interact, the better it gets.

In an attempt to characterize the mysterious, quicksilver nature of the Web 2.0 interactions flashing all over the blogosphere, I recently proposed a half-baked analogy to improv comedy. In response, Miguel Guhlin offered this valuable critical perspective about the nature of blogging:

This isn’t about digging deep for information…that is a commodity we have increasing access to in abundance. How we validate that information, well, that’s about relationships and trust and experiences in the context of those. . . . Let’s hope the reason isn’t control, but the experience, the reflection, a relationship among vulnerable people. In this case, I’m not going for depth of intellect, but depth of self…it is a slow journey, even incremental. Yet, such an incremental journey of the spirit can result in leaps of faith in the real world.

The key words here are relationships, trust, reflection, and experience. Not a bad set of essential descriptors underlying the ineffably synergistic nature of blogging. And comedy—both at its visceral-reaction level, the unexpected leap or juxtaposition leading to laughter, and in its classical sense of leading to a journey’s happy end—still strikes me as a strong parallel.

Or maybe I just can’t get enough of the wordplay.

citation: Carol Rose, "The Comedy of the Commons: Custom, Commerce, and Inherently Public Property," p. 720; in University of Chicago Law Review, Vol. 53, No. 3 (Summer 1986), pp. 711-781.

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