Learning about Learning Communities

Learning communities are the basis for collaborative and social online networks. The promise and potential of learning communities was imagined at the beginning of networked computing, and it still being fulfilled and expanded. The most recent learning community I participate in extensively is the online Maker community of people who like to make stuff. This can be anything from crafting, cooking, to welding, to shipbuilding. It’s all about sharing your passion for what you love to do.

Douglas Engelbart’s 1968 demonstration “A Research Center for Augmenting Human Intellect” is a potential starting point for thinking about learning communities. The presentation was an amazing demo of the concepts of collaborative networked computing. The next big step was Tim Berners-Lee, HTTP, HTML and the World Wide Web.

From these building blocks, and a meandering journey through the web, open source software, and a couple of side paths along the way, I have been thinking about learning and learning communities for almost 20 years. This is my story of making and learning.

First up, what is a learning community?A learning community, for the purposes of this discussion, is just a fancy way of saying community, based on Philip Greenspun’s definition of a community in Philip and Alex’s Guide to Web Publishing (last updated 2003, these ideas have been around for a while.)

A community is a group of people with varying degrees of expertise in which the experts attempt to help the novices improve their skills.

He certainly wasn’t the only person thinking about this in the late 90s and early 2000s, but he explained it plainly and simply, and actually wrote open source software to help people build online communities.

And Philip outlined his reason why online communities were interesting.

here are the new things that we can do with online communities:

  • we can teach other people without becoming part of a university or secondary school bureaucracy
  • we can teach other people without having to teach full-time
  • we can learn without paying $40,000/year [[ ed: or more ]] to a college
  • we can learn without quitting our jobs
  • we can learn without leaving our houses
  • we can learn from people who have broader experience than full-time teachers
  • we can work without having to be in the same building
  • we can contribute to a company’s or non-profit organization’s projects without having to work full-time
  • no matter how unusual our personality or interests, we can make like-minded friends (Rush Limbaugh met his wife on CompuServe)

The web is the beginning of my journey learning about learning and learning communities. I have participated in online communities from open source software projects to build online community software, to educational technology communities, critical thinking/skeptical communities, to the online maker community.

Things might get a little complicated.

I read Philip and Alex’s guide and re-discovered my interest in computer programming. I used some of these skills to build an online store, but I kept learning. Even before I had finished reading the book I was putting together a computer out of spare parts to run Linux and the Oracle database. At that time, around 2000, it took 3 days to download the Oracle software over FTP. While this was going on, I was getting a 1 mbps symmetric DSL line installed and learning how to administer an email server. I dove head-first into learning everything it took to run your own web site and application server. This lead me into all kinds of things like custom compiling Linux kernels, hacking and bug fixing C programs, learning something new every day.

From there I discovered an Open Source community platform (OpenACS) and learned that open source software was another great learning community. Open source projects are organized online, and the collaboration between developers includes mentoring new programmers who want to learn and contribute.

From participating in the open source project’s community, I was offered a job as a web application programmer adding some custom features to a content management system for Greenpeace. I don’t think I ever thought this was an option, but it was a great learning opportunity, and I am still friends with the folks I met working on that job. It was my first trial-by-fire training experience. One job led to another and eventually I was able to work as a full-time consultant building online communities. Many of these communities were centered around online education. This is a more explicit learning community, and it got me interested in education overall, and I read blogs from others building this wave of online education, who had taken inspiration from folks like Semour Papert and others at the MIT Media Lab.

From there I have built registration systems for a museum, online collaboration and learning tools for schools of business, government, and medicine. I have built a system for students to collaborate using computer connected microscopes, and an online system to help job hunters. All of these projects in some way focused on collaboration, community, and learning.

Web based community platforms are based on the same principals of all of these, now we just call them Social Media.

The online maker community, for me mainly based in YouTube and Instagram, brings together many skills and practices I have been interested in all along, carpentry, woodworking, knifemaking, propmaking, art and design.

One summer day, the top half of a huge willow tree broke in the wind and fell, luckily, on the edge of my property. One day walking the dog I noticed a branch that looked like it might make a walking stick. I took it back to the house and peeled off the bark with a hatchet and carving knife. It worked, it actually looked like something! I found another branch and made a slightly better version. Around this time I had found an old draw knife left by a previous owner in my barn. Soon after Youtube suggested a Jimmy Diresta video on the Make channel about restoring a draw knife. Hundreds of videos later, many other channels and creators, I had discovered a new way of thinking of making things and learning.

I now have a notebook with dozens of ideas for projects and improvements to the things around me, and I can’ t help creating, even if its a drawing, or a photograph. I think about making, and keep looking around my world for new ideas and inspiration.

I started a “3 minute” drawing experiment where I will draw something quickly, usually in 10 or 15 minutes, but 3 minutes was a goal, and post the results on Instagram. It has helped keep me creative. I don’t manage it every day, but if I can’t do that, I try to find an interesting photo of something around me.

In addition to traditional physical object making like woodworking, welding, 3d printing, etc, I also got re-interested in graphic design, logos, and especially type. Particularly hand-drawn type. I love learning about type, and watching Jimmy Diresta and his collection of printing presses reminded me that my favorite art class was printmaking. I will definitely be carving some type and art to create printing blocks. I might print smaller things without a press, but one day I will have a letterpress as well!

The inspiration, support, community, and conversations I have experienced through YouTube, Instagram, and events such as meetups,Making It 100, or Maker’s Central have shown me that the online maker community is a diverse, and thriving learning community that blends into face-to-face, and personal interactions with the people you didn’t know were there. Finding the online maker tribe, and the folks you didn’t even know were in your local area is a major reason making seems to be so popular and important now. I can’t wait to see where we go next.