t’s a cold but sunny afternoon in Denver, Colorado as students, educators, technologists, and content experts from across the world gather in a converted century-old department store to share ideas that might one day change the world.  

The once novel “Hack-a-thon” has become ubiquitous. Project leaders present challenges that self-organizing communities of learners, leaders, and doers tackle together in teams, often without sleep over the course of days.  Some challenges are monumental, one might say even existential; others are just for fun, like dressing up a favorite “bot” in a new code-colored outfit.  But don’t be deceived by the playful tinkering; these simple exercises have a much deeper meaning than the presumed, surface-level layer of playfulness. This is much less a playground, and more an artful sandbox.  These bots are not just cartoons, they are meticulously curated, crafted, and forked algorithms that act much more like human DNA than the PowerPoint program you’re used to—tracking and locking into memory a user’s every contribution through a distributed network of digital ledgers known as a blockchain. Sound complicated?

Amazingly, in this community forged in technological and artistic crucibles, it’s all relatively easy to understand. This is a universe of sharing, co-creation, and teamwork.  But most of all, it’s a world of intense learning.  We are at ETHDenver, where dozens of teams of hackers have come together to not only envision a new world of open collaboration but actively shape it through a shared model of implicit norms and governance. This is open source (OS) thinking (and teamwork) at its finest—imagine what traditional schools could learn.

Beyond the Grammar of Schooling in a Decentralized World

As experienced school leaders, we wanted to explore the world of open source software development and its relationship to school leadership.  More to the point, we wanted to witness for ourselves how teams working on decentralized applications, or DApps, build breathtaking products at a breakneck pace in the age of limitless information.  Education—like the rest of the world—is finding its way in a new era of openness and decentralization, where neither information nor those who control it can be “walled in”.   Much like a hack-a-thon, you can walk into any classroom today and witness teachers and students in a flurry of innovation, iteration, sharing, and yes, hacking, both in the literal and figurative sense. The term hacking is not just breaking into computers/networks, but can also refer to non-malicious activities like creatively improvising content or processes.  

Seen through this lens, the parallels to be drawn between coders, teachers, and students are numerous.  In a few clicks, a teacher shares an activity with another teacher. That teacher iterates for his or her use and then shares their forked version with another teacher across the country.  Likewise, students often work in teams updating, editing and adding original content simultaneously to a shared product, and in a few short hours, they produce a collective work of art beyond what any instructor could have imagined.  This is the natural open environment that defines most schools and students’ lives, and today, coupled with technologies like Google Apps, Slack, Twitter, TikTok, and smartphones, the potential is truly limitless.

Despite this unstoppable momentum globally, and the inescapable benefits this paradigm shift could have on learning, it seems that schooling as a system is entrenched in its "old ways of doing things." Albert Einstein once noted that, "it is a miracle that curiosity survives formal education." In many ways, schooling's penchant for centralization is only accelerating while the rest of the world speeds away in another direction exponentially.  According to many, we are stuck in that grammar of schooling where industrial thinking, widget-building, and precision not only persists, but in some cases, may actually be getting worse. To say this is unsustainable is an understatement.  Beyond the effects on teachers, this misalignment results in glaring discrepancies between how we teach students in schools and how they operate in society. Effective systems, on the other hand, should mirror their environment, which today means designing systems that are more decentralized, open, global, organic, and interoperable.

Open-Source Thinking and Schooling

So, we attended ETHDenver in 2019 looking for answers from a community that has, at least in part, cracked the nut of how teams work together in this new reality.  We embedded with the three-person hacker team from Odyssy.io as they built their Gittron bot avatar.  Just behind us was a team from Apprent.io, a non-profit organization teaching underserved students how to code for a new reality based on blockchains and cryptocurrency.  All of these projects are built on the Ethereum platform through #BUIDLS (yes, that is “build” misspelled--that’s how they roll here). Buidls are prototype ideas that offer other developers a chance to join projects/teams for the significant work ahead.  All of the teams hacking at “Eth” are working on applications that will operate on the decentralized web (web 3.0), where theoretically no one and everyone is in charge. It is as much an oasis of ideals as it is a sandbox for new technology and protocols.  Developers code away while leaders on the Ethereum network—a global, eccentric mindtrust ranging from economists to technologists—co-conceive/create a decentralized future built on open-source software and relentless, radical collaboration.

Even if you are unfamiliar with the term “Open Source” (OS), you are most certainly familiar with the body of work produced by communities like Github, Wordpress, or even Wikipedia.  These are just a few of the retail examples of open-source platforms.  Underneath virtually all of the technology we use today, especially on our smartphones, lives an ecosystem of open-source creations like Javascript, Linux, or even Android.  These are coding languages, rules of operation, shared guidelines, message boards, and protocols built and run, not by individuals or even institutions, but by networks often consisting of millions of members.  A driving principle of open-source development is that of voluntary peer review, with products such as source code, blueprints, and documentation becoming freely available to the public.  There are hundreds of OS platforms bringing together groups around geographic information systems (GIS), genetics, the natural sciences and beyond.  In education, the Open Educational Resources (OER) movement has been in development since roughly 2002, yet this has been confined to a handful of initiatives as capacity in the P-20 sector for open sharing of resources remains elusive.

While the goals of OS may vary by community, at the heart of the revolution lie three fundamental principles that have fueled the movement’s explosive growth since the 1980s, and if applied to the education sector, we believe could have similar catalytic effects.  These are: empowerment of individuals through trust; collaborating toward a common good through fluid networks; and building on systems of transparency.  Thus, we look to draw on open-source communities for inspiration and as models for how teams operationalize these principles, and we present ideas for how these values of “openness” might manifest in the context of schooling.  Put simply, we believe educators have far more in common with hackers, artists, and developers than they do with corporate CEOs and assembly line workers, and believe schools can operate more like GitHubs and Googles than boardrooms and factories.   What we need now in schools is an organic revolution of basic order; a shared set of cultural guidelines similar to the ones open-source communities have been operating under for years.

Beyond the effects this could have on individual schools, we believe the adoption of an open-source ethos could also pave the way for overcoming persistent monolithic mindsets at the administrative and policy levels.  For example, in the 1990s, corporate powers like Oracle, Microsoft, and even universities argued that average people could not create something more sustainable or superior to traditional institutions.  They were simply wrong.  Today, more than half of all servers run Apache; the internet itself was built on the back of Java; Wikipedia offers 16 million articles in 270 languages; 70% of phones run Android, and 30% of all websites run on Wordpress.  Even the genetic code was mapped using open source.  Using this precedent, then, we suggest that teachers, students, and other stakeholders can and will shape the standards, curricula, assessments, and schools of tomorrow through distributed and open systems—faster, better, and more efficiently.  All we need is a collective paradigmatic shift in mindset; the technology already exists.

Illustration 1.0: School Systems -- Birth to Recode

So, What Would an “Open-Source School” Look Like?

A school operating on open-source guidelines would have shared leadership, providing a flexible governance model not unlike those being used by open source communities. In a K-12 context, this would be the equivalent of teachers and students—not just school or policy leaders—being actively engaged in all aspects of an innovation or intervention proposal.  This type of school would allow for sandbox-style thinking, where all ideas, even seemingly silly ones like the Gittron project we observed, are shared in a transparent space where others can contribute and critique openly. Imagine a wiki approach to allow for transparency and networking during the iteration process, where  teachers can share, fork, and merge activities, curricula, assessments, and more in an open marketplace of learning potential.

When rooted in an ethos of open-source, schools, districts, and universities operating under a wide range of governance structures and organizational cultures would be able to collaborate through blockchain-powered interoperability efforts, themselves powered by protocols to interpret learner data in a manner that surfaces value and makes sense to educators.  Instead of static printed school handbooks, an open-source school would have dynamic guidelines based on a school’s mission, vision and values, offer timelier revisions, and move organizations from a state of compliance to one of participation.  Above all, open-source schooling would mark a shift in discourse around education, an examination of the core source code that drives behavior in schooling contexts. Illustration 2.0 provides an example of some of these adaptive shifts.

Illustration 2.0: Innovation in Schooling - Discourse and Rhetoric

Moving Toward Openness in Schooling

In describing the power of open source, legendary technology pioneer Tim O’Reilley noted that “in the end, innovations tend to come from small groups, not from large, structured efforts.”  We couldn’t agree more.  Indeed, that is why we embarked on a path to see for ourselves where innovation is flourishing in this brave new world, and attempt to uncover what schools could learn from others grappling with similar challenges.  While much of this rhetoric may seem confined to the “tech-culture”, we believe nothing could be farther from the truth. “Empowerment of individuals,” O’Reilley continued, “is a key part of what makes open source work.”  Call us crazy, but this sounds an awful lot like the goal of schooling; something educators and hackers alike should have an interest in getting right.

Taylor Kendal
Taylor is a Diplomatic Courier contributor focused on Web3, privacy/digital ethics, bridging cultures of entrepreneurship and education, infusing agility and intellectual honesty into bureaucracy, and exploring the future of education on the blockchain.
Walter Fernando Balser
Walter Fernando Balser is an assistant clinical professor in Educational Leadership and Policy Studies in the Morgridge College of Education at the University of Denver and creator of the Open Partnership Education Network (learnopen.org).
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.