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How Can We Make Education as Open as the Open Web?

How Can We Make Education as Open as the Open Web?

How can we make education as open as the open web?  How can we take the fundamental principles that Tim Berners-Lee used to design the World Wide Web as our inspiration for a new kind of education that works for the 21st century in the way 20th century education worked for the industrial age?  Berners-Lee lays out nine principles for the open web and they translate beautifully to a new idea of interactive, peer-driven, connected, and participatory lifelong learning.  They work as a model for formal education too.   You'll read about them here, in what is an "abstract" for a talk I'm giving later today with Mark Surman, Executive Director of the Mozilla Foundation.


Context (you can skip this part if you're not interested in these specifics):  Mark and I are on a panel at centerNet, an organization of digital humanities centers, and CHCI (Council of Humanities Centers and Institutes).  The two organizations have recently come together as affiliates, and I've been asked to be on and to moderate a roundtable called 'Humanities and the Wider World" with Mark and also with Chad Gaffield, President of the Social Sciences Research Council of Canada and David Greenbaum, Co-Director of Project Bamboo.   Mark and I have been working together for almost a year now on various projects--the Drumbeat Festival where HASTAC ran the "Storming the Academy" tent and a student-run FutureClass program, with the MacArthur Foundation's Digital Media and Learning Initiative, with our Digital Media and Learning Conference, and  on an NSF grant application whose fate is pending.   So instead of giving talks, Mark and I have decided to combine our fifteen minutes and simply talk about what our partnership has been and meant to each of us.   Since the point of this day is to envision new kinds of partnerships and since we already have one, we're going with it!


One thing I want to talk about today is how we're working to transform higher education by taking to heart the lessons of the open web.   Those lessons are the business of the Mozilla Foundation.  I'm not sure when they first contacted us that they had any idea that HASTAC's whole reason for being is trying to import the principles of the open web to higher education.  


It started in 1999.   I was Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies at Duke and a numberof my fellow administrators were interested in a reading group.  I proposed we read a brand new memoir by Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the World Wide Web, called Weaving the Web. I think we ended up with one poorly attended meeting and gave up the idea of a book club for busy administrators but the book was transformative in that the clarity of its principles seemed to me to be a lesson plan for designing a new form of education, K-20, for the 21st century which was, then, just around the corner.  


Tim Berners-Lee's memoir begins:  "When I first began tinkering with a software program that even gave rise to the idea of the World Wide Web, I named it Enquire, short for Enquire Within upon Everything, a musty old book of Victorian advice I noticed as a child in my parents' house outside."  That, to me, is what education should be, access to all modes of inquiry.   And, in the appendix to Weaving the Web, Berners-Lee lists some of his first principles (many of them developed when he was working at  CERN, the supercomputing organization where he invented the Web).  Here they are, as they existed in 1989 as he was creating the World Wide Web

1) remote access across networks---being able to find information from anywhere, anytime. 


2) heterogeneity--you need flexible, multi-scale, interoperable systems and you need as many different kinds and levels of input as there are humans on the planet. 


3) Non-centralization.   If you try to standardize from a central place of authority, you miss what is most original, innovative, creative, inventive, and valuable.  There is no such thing as a centralized World Wide Web.  


4)  Access to Existing Data.   You need openness such that the Web itself--how it is used, how it evolves--is the data of the Web, is the data of its users, the more users, the more data, the better we know who is using, the better to support it and the world.  


5)  Private Links.  Forget national networks or cable channels or any broadcast version of information delivery.   With the Web, I can link to whatever I want in how I want to link.  Ideally, no censorship, no control.   Individualized access to everything.   (Enquire Within upon Everything!)   


6)  Bells and Whistles.   That means all the extras that make the Web fun--graphical interfaces, you name it.  

7)  Data links:  this is to allow for automatic data analysis.  


8)  Personal Skills Inventory:   since diversity, heterogeneity, and multiplicity are the keys to the success of contribution and participation in the World Wide Web, each participant in the Web should have a personal skills inventory so his or her talents can be accessible by others and can contribute to others.  (Facebook profile, anyone?)   This allows many-to-many linking (remember, decentralization is key) that is prouctive instead of frustrating which leads to . . .


9)  Must achieve critical usefulness early on.    This is a version of "publish first, edit later."    If you believe in heterogeneity, diversity, and participation, you want to put an idea out there, see if it catches, which is to say, see if anyone wants to use it and make it a vital part of the Web.  If they do, they will help you fix it and make it better.   If they don't, why bother.


Okay.   Those are the principles on which HASTAC was founded.  Start to finish.   Now, please, can we think about how those principles might inspire formal education?    I don't mean we need to understand these principles.  I mean that we need to redesign education with these open web principles as a goal and a model for better, interactive, innovative, peer-directed, problem-solving, process-oriented (iterative) forms of inventie, imaginative learning. 


Cathy N. Davidson is co-founder of HASTAC, and author of The Future of Thinking:  Learning Institutions for a Digital Age (with HASTAC co-founder David Theo Goldberg), and the forthcoming Now You See It:  How the Brain Science of Attention Will Transform the Way We Live, Work, and Learn (publication date, Viking Press, August 18, 2011).   For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below. For an early, prepublication review of Now You See It in Bloomberg BusinessWeek, click here. A starred review in the May 30 Publisher's Weekly notes:  "Davidson has produced an exceptional and critically important book, one that is all-but-impossible to put down and likely to shape discussions for years to come."


For more information, visit or order on by clicking on the book below.



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Interesting thoughts here, and I think you're right on track. Number 9 is particularly tricky for educators, though. We have the tendency to make sure the information we provide is complete and accurate, and that's a good thing. But with technology that changes faster than we can figure out bullet-proof ways to use it, a certain amount of 'letting go' becomes necessary.  As a friend likes to say, we can't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.  Sometimes you have to try something new, then perfect it if it's promising enough to be worth the effort.


Thanks for this comment.  Yes, we have to get over our notion that the final draft is the only one of interest.   Preprints in the sciences allow others to comment before the final verdict is in and often are more influential and more timely than later polished publications.   Half-thought ideas are often more provocative and daring than the logically flawless ones.   I wouldn't want all scholarship to be rough--but I like seeing people think in process and I like the ideas of drafts that can be revised and polished.   For me, that's what blogging is all about.   It's a place to test ideas and refine them and not to have a final solution.  



Our job as digitally literate faculty is to help the university figure out what it does best in particular contexts: residential classrooms, distance learning, hybrid settings, and--crucially--extracurricular settings.

Ostriches who fear that digtial learning erodes classic liberal arts modes of inquiry risk being the RIAA: frittering away our influence because we forbid or undervalue how our students build and share knowledge online.

At my own institution, the University of Southern California, I wished to pilot a new kind of hybrid writing/comm course that permits writers to work primarily online but also builds out unusual f2f settings. The "primarily online" part made my boss (and his bosses) nervous. For several months we had many good but ultimately fruitless conversations about it.  The result: I'm teaching the pilot in a different unit at USC.  The class will happen this fall: 65% OL, 35% f2f.  The class will meet f2f in the classroom, f2f on field trips into Los Angeles, and in various OL platforms synchronously and asynchronously.  I'll/we'll study how those environments work singly and in tandem.  

The takeaway: even within the same institution, you need only one small group of visionary leaders to say yes, even when others are saying no.  My boss said he will watch this pilot with interest.  I believe him.  The trick is to find the first yes.



Readers might be interested in this conference, at which Cathy is one of the keynoters.

Mobility Shifts Conference, at the New School in NYC Oct. 10-16, is grouped around 3 themes:

  • Digital Fluencies for a Mobile World
  • DIY U: Learning Without a School?
  • Digital Learning Projects Globally




>  can we think about how those principles might inspire formal education?

I'll tackle your provoking question using part of  Rusell Ackoff's Idealized Design (1) Process. It is a process that explicitly liberates creativity and imagination. It consists of imagining an ideal system that would totally substitute the current system. The new system must be technologically feasible but not necessarily immediately implementable and must be able to work within the current enclosing system. These conditions make the ideal system non-utopian. A further condition is that the system must be adaptable to changes in itself or its environment.

After the new design is spelled out and consensus is reached among stakeholders, plans are made to move the current system in stages towards the ideal system, admitting from the start that the full ideal may not be reachable for a long time. In what follows I'll be referring to Berners-Lee principles, translating them to educational language.  In reading about  "The Ideal", it is very important to exit from one's mind all thoughts related to Why This Cannot Be Done Now. The system we are redesigning is the whole higher education system in its educational aspects, and the enclosing system is the rest of  Society.


1) Being able to find OERs from anyplace, anytime, just in time...

The ideal: I must be able to either pose a question, state a concern, define a problem, or specify a project I would like to undertake - and be directed to the best set of OERs that help me answer my question or concern, solve the problem or carry out the project, all of that either alone or with others. Of course I would also need to state the context in which that question, concern etc. are relevant. An OER may be a digital object, or another human being whose expertise is known to the system, including the evolving students or users of the system.

The real: Currently, OERs are distributed in myriad incompatible repositories, each using different metadata, and even within one repository OERs are not easily localizable by context, concern, question, problem or project - i.e., by what matters to the user. The titles of the objects or even the pretended Outcomes are not enough. Some OERs are either too big or too small for my current needs. Humans are not considered OERs and state their metadata in widely incompatible formats - how many personal Profiles do you have on the web?.  I must search myself the OER universe; nobody or no system directs me to the best set of OERs that satisfy my needs.


2) ... with as many different levels and kinds of input as there are humans in the planet

The ideal: Humans in the planet come from different cultures, languages, ages and have different questions, concerns and so on. So the system must first inquiry: who am I speaking to? What do YOU need?, and branch accordingly. It is the task of the system to adapt to its users, not the other way around.

The real: Many OERs do not clearly define their audience, and very few are able to attend to different audiences or with different needs, much less to adapt to an evolving user.


3) Non-centralization.

Ideal:  OERs are everywhere, not only concentrated on particular institutions. Any institution must be able to use OERs from other institutions, as well as "independent" OERs contributed by any cybercitizen.

Real:  OERs are institutionally based and usually do not link to OERs of other institutions or to OERs not attached to a particular institution.


4,7) Access to existing data about OERs and their uses

Ideal:  For every OER, data is held about the decisions taken for its design, the rationale of those decisions, every update and new version and why was it made so that the evolution of the OER is visible. For every question, concern and so on posed to the system, data is held about who posed it, what OERs were involved in what sequence, what was the degree of success, and feedback for improvement.

Real:  A few repositories keep data about ussage, such as [Merlot], as well as feedback, reviews and so on. No data is kept together with the OER about rationale for design decisions; however for reusing the OER, documentation about the design process is as important as the finished OER itself. This was discovered long ago in the literature on reusing software.


5) LInks!

Ideal: Any OER can link to any other OER in any place.  Any user can use any OER

Real: Again users must register in several repositories in order to use the resources. OERs do not usually link to those in other repositories


6) Bells and whistles.

Ideal: Any 2d or 3d multimedia multiuser OERs, game-based or not...

Real: Already have that


8) Personal skills inventory

Ideal: OERs that are human beings must have a Profile with similar metadata of digital OERs: what kinds of questions are you able to answer? Problems that you can solve? and so on to facilitate networking

Real: already mentioned. Multiple and incompatible people Profiles with different metadata as that for digital OERs


9) Publish first, edit later

Ideal: The System is open to anybody to contribute an OER, or to become one. Principles 4,7 ensure that all OERs are updatable from feedback received about their use

Real:  mostly done all across the web for digital OERs. Some repositories do not link to OERs “contributed just by anybody”, such as certain very valuable YouTube videos. There is no place where I may register as a human OER…


I'm aware that I have not properly referenced the research literature in this first draft of this post -even to Cathy's other posts and latest book!, for which I apologize and will correct when updating the post. I believe point 1) is kind of novel - the rest perhaps have been said before in other contexts;  however, I found very interesting to put all this together in the context of Berners-Lee principles for an open web, which brings out the great creativity and generality of those principles. Of course, many things are still missing from the Ideal Design:  su$tainability, assessment, what would happen with careers and professions and so on. Is JIT learning all we need?... And many approximations to the Ideal are already in place, yet not integrated with each other. We do have homework!!


Thanks for reading this long post,



What a fascinating post.   There is so much to think about . . . and, in fact, it has inspired my next blog.   On the concept of "Why This Cannot Be Done":   Thanks for posting. 


I'm glad you liked it =). By the way I'm now on eduMOOC,

a Masive Open Online Course about online learning.  This week is dedicated to Open Education. I put a reference to your post in the discussion group there