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Everybody Can Innovate

If we made it okay for a student to hand in someone else's Huck Finn paper, we potentially free him to find another problem, one that is right for him, one in which he could make a truly original contribution.
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My last posting proposed that we should define achievement and excellence in education in a different way -- beyond the current focus the system places on "original work." To caricature my argument, I suggested that we should reward students more highly for handing in a paper they found online, so long as it was better work than what they might produce "in their own words." As crazy as this sounds, success in the world outside of school depends, at least as often, on the efficiencies achieved by re-using "old ideas," as it does on innovating new ones. Nonetheless, no one questions the importance of innovation and original thinking. But to get there, we need to re-examine the way education encourages original thought, as well.

Often when we think about innovation and originality, we assume there are the "haves" and the "have-nots" - the Einsteins and bubbas. The A-students and the D-students. The Ivy League elite and the state school commoners. Reality is not quite so black and white. While those in the intellectual elite, professors, etcetera, may be the most capable of contributing original and innovative thinking, given the right circumstances, I am convinced that someone outside this elite, perhaps even a student, will be better suited to the task at hand.

This is an extension of Eric Raymond's famous argument in the Cathedral and the Bazaar about the efficiency of the open source approach to software development. As the argument goes, a small group of elite programmers, no matter how talented, will not find and correct all the defects in a program of sufficient complexity in any practical timeframe. If you want to get the job done in a reasonable amount of time, you need to employ as large a mass of programmers as possible, even if many are lesser lights. The programming superstars may end up solving more problems than anyone else on an individual basis. However, the impact of their work will be overshadowed by cumulative contributions of everyone else.

Importantly, the world of open source software has found a way to tap into this power of the masses without the need for the overhead associated with significant formal direction. So long as there are efficient lines of communication among those working on a given task, people will find the problems that are right for them to solve. Or, perhaps more accurately, the right problems find the right people.

Creating this kind of environment in an educational context implies a more radical change than the idea of moving beyond the focus placed on "original work" - although they are not totally unrelated. In the Open Source world, there is far more diversity in the problems that people are able to work on than is typical in an educational context (e.g., . everyone in the class reading and writing about Huck Finn). If we made it okay for a student to hand in someone else's Huck Finn paper, we potentially free him to find another problem, one that is right for him, one in which he could make a truly original contribution.

While there are enormous practical difficulties in imagining how such an "open source" approach to education would look, one thing is certain - it will require a powerful and open communications network at its center. The network will need to allow people to find the problems that interest them and the people that they would like to work with on those problems - preferably as in the world of software - without regard for geography or social status. If we can establish such a new paradigm, the impact is potentially enormous, as people of all kinds, including students, are able to find the right problems, to innovate, and to make a real contribution.