Reconfiguring Education for the User-Led Age

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* Article: Beyond Difference: Reconfiguring Education for the User-Led Age. Dr Axel Bruns.




Axel Bruns:

"In recent years, various observers have pointed to the shifting paradigms of cultural and societal participation and economic production in developed nations. These changes are facilitated (although, importantly, not solely driven) by the emergence of new, participatory technologies of information access, knowledge exchange, and content production, many of whom are associated with Internet and new media technologies. In an online context, such technologies are now frequently described as social software, social media, or Web2.0, but their impact is no longer confined to cyberspace as an environment that is somehow different and separate from ‘real life’: user-led content and knowledge production is increasingly impacting on media, economy, law, social practices, and democracy itself.

Education is a further key area for such changes, as educators stand to lose their privileged position as expert practitioners and theorists in a user-led environment. In many domains, the collaboratively compiled knowledge of users is now (or is at least believed to be) virtually on par with that of expert scholars (as indicated for example in Nature’s recent comparison of scientific information in Encylopaedia Britannica and the Wikipedia; see Giles 2005); similarly, peer-based advice and instruction as accessible through user-led environments is beginning to encroach on and replace formal training and education. In spite of their very different interests, groups such as the users sharing DIY project advice at (Bruns 2008: 157-8), the kitesurfers collaboratively designing improvements to their sporting equipment (von Hippel 2005), and the Pro-Am astronomers acting as an important support base for mainstream astronomy (Leadbeater and Miller 2004) each engage in highly effective informal learning and knowledge creation practices, for example. At the same time, however, there is a growing need for education to address and problematise the process and practice of user-led content creation itself, in order to help participants develop a more informed, self-reflexive, and critical perspective on their own practices as information seekers, users, and providers, and to enable a wider range of participants to engage successfully in user-led environments.

This process begins by developing a more thorough and systematic understanding of these user-led environments. In spite of the different objectives and objects of user-led

activities (from software design through knowledge management to creative collaboration), it is nonetheless possible to discern an increasingly sophisticated set of common principles which govern many such environments. Such principles provide both the point of departure for educational critiques of user-led content creation, and a framework for future reconfigurations of educational practices themselves as they pursue a more authentic, realistic approach to enabling learners to develop the capacities which they will require as participants in user-led environments. (Additionally, it is crucial also to recognise that educators and learners can no longer afford to ignore these participatory, user-led spaces: a software designer without the skills to participate in open source projects, a scholar without the capacity to contribute to a joint research management wiki, or a creative practitioner without the ability to engage in a collaborative creative online community are increasingly at risk of being left out of the core professional and intellectual networks in their disciplines.) In the process of investigating and describing the underlying principles of such environments, however, it also becomes increasingly obvious that it is no longer sufficient to describe participants in these collaborative endeavours simply as ‘users’; instead, they act in a hybrid role of user as well as producer, or for short, as produsers (Bruns 2008)." (

Towards User-Led Education: The C5C

Axel Bruns:

"Assuming (on the basis of good and growing evidence; see also Benkler 2006; Jenkins 2006; Lessig 2004) that Generation C and its produsage-based forms of intellectual engagement constitute a significant paradigm shift in the late capitalist period, it is incumbent for tertiary education to engage with and address this shift. This must take place on two distinct but related levels: on the one hand, it is important that graduates leave university equipped for successful participation in produsage environments – requiring if not an entirely different, then at least a significantly altered set of literacies and capacities which enables them to avoid the threats while grasping the opportunities.

On the other hand, and in order to develop such capacities in an organic fashion, it is necessary that universities themselves explore ways to model the processes of produsage in their learning and teaching environments (and beyond). Traditional and rigid teacher/learner, staff/student, university/client dichotomies are counter-productive in the co-creative, collaborative process of produsage, which – as noted above – thrives on a fluid and heterarchical (rather than hierarchical) organisation of participants. Indeed, to the extent that a teacher/learner dichotomy still exists, it can be seen as a further example of the outdated scarcity-based production model described above: the dichotomy stems from a time when the information and knowledge available from teachers did indeed constitute a scarce resource, but (due in no small part to the emergence of the Internet as a major information source) that time has passed. (On this point also see Todd Richmond’s work on viral university education, reported in Rheingold 2006.)

It is beyond the scope of this article to sketch out this pedagogy in any detail – but


it is possible here to outline the five pillars upon which it is founded (and which in turn are based on the fundamental characteristics of the new processes of produsage which are common to Generation C). What has already become obvious from the discussion above is that for effective and successful participation in produsage processes, Generation C graduates will require a set of capacities which, while not entirely new, nonetheless sets a number of new priorities. These graduate capacities can be summarised as collaborative, creative, critical, combinatory, and communicative capacities – or in short, as C5C (also see Cobcroft et al., 2006).

• Creative: not to be misunderstood as pertaining purely to artistic creation in a narrow sense, creative capacities are crucial to Generation C. Produsage itself is fundamentally concerned with content (art, information, knowledge) creation; while the development of creative capacities in this broad sense has of course been an aim of education virtually throughout the ages, what is important for our present context is a focus especially on the development of creative capacities which can be exercised successfully in the collaborative environments of produsage (as exemplified inter alia in the technological environments gathered under the Web2.0 banner). Crucial to this form of creative capacities, then, is particularly the ability to act as collaborative co-creator in flexible roles, or in short, as one amongst a number of creative produsers rather than as a self-sufficient creative producer. To the extent that the reasons for this are not yet already self-evident to contemporary learners, it may also be necessary to provide the motivations for engaging as active content creators in produsage environments. Such motivations are both economic (given the significant shifts brought about by the rise of produsage, the ability to participate in such environments is increasingly sought after by employers and governments), social (open collaborative content development in areas such as knowledge management, journalism, software development, research, and creative work can create high-quality but freely accessible resources which are of benefit to overall society), and individual (in the online environment, non-participation increasingly equates to invisibility, while sustained and constructive participation enables the accumulation of positive social capital and thus generates significant career opportunities).

• Collaborative: as noted above, collaborative engagement under variable, fluid, and heterarchical rather than hierarchical organisational structures and in shifting roles is fundamental to produsage processes. As societal as well as workplace processes move towards a greater embrace of produsage principles, collaborative capacities therefore become all the more crucial. In this context, it is as important to be able to collaborative effectively as it is to know when, where, and with whom to choose to collaborate, and under what circumstances not to do so. Further, collaborative capacities also require an advanced understanding of the consequences of collaboration – that is, of questions pertaining to intellectual property and other legal rights in a collaborative environment. (Additionally, of course, it is important also to develop the specific skills to collaborate within the major technological environments of produsage – such as blogs, wikis, or immersive 3D environments –, but such skills are subject to rapid change as the technologies themselves continue to change. It is by now well recognised that rather than to focus on building expert skills in using specific systems, teachers should ensure that students develop a life-long personal interest in updating their technological skills.)

• Critical: as a corollary to collaborative capacities, critical capacities are exercised in establishing the appropriate context for engagement in produsage processes. This requires a critical stance both towards potential collaborators and their work (in order to identify the most beneficial of all possible collaborations) and towards one’s own creative and collaborative abilities and existing work portfolio (to gauge whether a potential collaboration would constitute a good fit of styles, abilities, and experience). Additionally, a critical eye is also needed in identifying the appropriate venues and conditions for effective collaboration – and further, during the collaborative process itself, critical capacities are indispensable in the giving and receiving of constructive feedback on the ongoing collaborative process and the artefacts it produces. Finally, and just as importantly, critical capacities are also crucial to an engagement with the outcomes of produsage processes at times when one acts mainly as user rather than active contributor – only well-developed critical capacities enable users to discern whether a particular piece of information is to be trusted, to look beyond the surface to examine the sources for that information and the process of its produsage (such as, for example, the edit history of a Wikipedia entry), and to compare the relative merit of multiple perspectives on the same issue as they may be expressed in one or a number of related produsage artefacts. Such capacities were already highly important during the mass media age (but were frequently underexercised as a result of a sometimes misplaced trust in the quality of established media brands); however, the recent proliferation of media alternatives, to which produsage processes have contributed significantly, has further increased the central importance of a healthily critical stance towards all available information, whatever the source.

• Combinatory: produsage is fundamentally based on an approach which deconstructs larger overall tasks into a more granular set of distributed problems, and therefore in the first place generates a series of individual, incomplete artefacts which require further assembly before becoming usable and useful as a whole. As a result, information and knowledge as generated through produsage processes is itself distributed and inherently incomplete. To effectively participate in and benefit from the knowledge space generated by the collective intelligence (Lévy 1997) of produsage communities, therefore, those engaging in and with produsage and its artefacts require enhanced capacities to combine, disassemble, and recombine these specific artefacts in their pursuit of personal understanding. Beyond the pursuit of knowledge itself, combinatory capacities are also required for active participation in produsage processes: produsage in many contexts also proceeds from the reappropriation, reuse, and remixing of existing content in new combinations which themselves create new meaning and new understandings of knowledge. Learners must therefore develop the capacities to identify and harness individual chunks of existing information which may be constructively employed in this fashion, as well as the capacities to undertake such recombination and redistribution of information and knowledge through the shared collaborative environments of produsage projects.

• Communicative: inasmuch as communication underpins every social and communal human endeavour, it is necessarily already implicitly embedded in the other capacities outlined here. However, in addition to overall, generic communicative capacities it is particularly important to develop an explicit focus on effective and successful communication between participants within the collaborative environments of produsage – this addresses for example the communication of ideas generated in exercising one’s own critical capacities (that is, an ability to be constructively critical), as well as communication between participants about collaborative, creative, and combinatory processes (what could be described in other words as metacollaboration). Such communicative capacities are not necessarily a natural outcome of general communicative development, but may need to be fostered specifically in order to enable graduates to act effectively and successfully as members of Generation C. (Once again, while this might also require the development of a more in-depth understanding of communicative processes within specific produsage environments, it is important not to focus all too specifically on current communications technologies employed by produsage communities, as these are subject to change.)" (