Digital Labor

Boston Collaboratory School - Mentoring Horizontally, Up, Down and Sideways

March 14th, 2017

By Micky Metts

Plans for a new way of connecting students with their community

Problem: Schools and students are traditionally disconnected from their community and seldom do they work on interrelated projects that will benefit both the school and the people of the community.

Solution: Mentoring students to develop free software, such as the Drupal content management system, will introduce students to the myriad of careers and skills necessary to build a successful web presence - cooperatively. A web presence is more than just a website and also includes items like video, audio, and content that is compelling. No longer are we limited to a brochure online type of approach. Engaging people is the name of the game now. Beyond a web presence, students will also be mentored in ways to engage their community in building platform tools owned by the community.

How to: The Boston Collaboratory School will use the free software Drupal as the framework for a curriculum to mentor students in relevant technical and non-technical skills which can be applied at local and global scales. Mentors will connect students’ interests and community needs, with Drupal serving as a gateway to introduce students to the many different career paths they might take. The focus of the Boston Collaboratory School on projects which benefit communities will also give these students practical experience creating ethical businesses in the form of platform cooperatives and participating in the free software movement via the Drupal framework.

Background

The plans for The Boston Collaboratory School started with a team of founders comprised of Boston Public School Teachers, a local youth program leader, and me, as the technologist. The team has submitted a detailed prospectus to the Boston School Administration for a proposed new public high school, and we have passed through the hurdles and requirements with flying colors along with receiving two grants for implementation. As the technology leader, I will assemble the team that will build the foundation for the school administration software using the model of Penn Manor School set up by a teacher, Charlie Reisinger, that is detailed in his book “The Open Schoolhouse”. As Charlie writes, trust is at the core of all projects and trusting students while teaching them to trust their teachers will be a key component to our success. This brings me back to that old adage - truth in advertising, something that has been lost in the glut of sales madness that goes on online. How does one spot extractive technologies and business practices? One intent of the school is to identify and end extractive business policies employed by many corporations that devastate communities and remove value from people at an alarming rate. By teaching cooperative principles and giving voice to alternative business models, we will enlighten students to be more inclusive of their communities when building things that they will use. The development projects within the school will be based on the 7 Cooperative Principles.

The planned curriculum is influenced by three projects:

The first is a course, civic media: collaborative design studio, led by Associate Professor Sasha Costanza-Chock and facilitated by Evan (Rabble) Henshaw-Plath, at M.I.T.. Agaric, a worker-owned web development cooperative which I belong to, was a part of this course in 2016. The course was comprised of four local cooperatives that were each matched with a group of students to make a plan that would get them to the next level - whatever that was determined to be by the groups. Their chosen projects had to benefit the local community in some way, and so venturing out and getting real feedback from people in the area was key to the success of each group. The next level for each cooperative was different and was defined by their outreach and interviews with community members. It could mean a better website, a mobile APP, a business plan or a marketing strategy. Once the goal was determined, each group went about planning their path with gentle guidance from the instructors. The outcome of the 2016 course and the course for 2017 can be seen here - http://codesign.mit.edu

Platform Cooperativism is the second project at work in building the school’s foundational curriculum. It is a movement that has been building for the past four years, starting at the New School in NYC and spreading around the globe. The term, “Platform Cooperativism” was coined by Trebor Scholz and, with his partner Nathan Schneider, they have built a movement around the theory that platforms we use daily should be owned by the people that build them and that use them. Out of this movement Trebor and Nathan have published a book with several authors defining what Platform Cooperativism means on the ground - in the real world. The book Ours to Hack and to Own was recently published as a handbook for the Platform Cooperativism movement and is a great resource unto itself. It gives the reader a foothold on what this movement is all about and suggests some ways to actually get involved. My chapter is about the day to day workings of my cooperative and how we fit into the community as leaders and experts, guiding people to form and grow their own coops. The word “Platform” also relates to Software as a Service (SaaS) and networks, from communication to logistics, which can have huge impact on the people relying on them. This movement is international and includes many different platforms that are needed and are now in process of being built that you can see at The Internet of Ownership, a site maintained by Nathan Schneider and Devin Balkind. The Platform Cooperativism Consortium was formed to gather resources, inter-connect and promote the values of the movement. The Consortium is made up of several higher learning institutes along with groups and individuals that play a role in the movement and have access to a wider range of contacts, experience and information that is vital to the movement.

The capstone project of the Boston Collaboratory School that will bring students and community together will be constructed around Drutopia, a Drupal distribution with the ability to level the playing field for small companies needing customized features and interactivity. Drutopia is built with Drupal. Drupal is a content management system (CMS) that is freely available to anyone for downloading. Tutorials are online and available for free also. As free software, Drupal is licensed as GPVL-3 and code contributions are released back into the development ecosystem for use by others. It is used world-wide on larger enterprise websites as well as individual blogging sites or online shops. It has a vibrant community of developers and enthusiasts that work to build the software on a volunteer basis. Drutopia is an initiative to help Drupal meet the needs of small, low-resourced groups using the CMS to bring about positive change in their communities and societies. The value of Drutopia as a platform cooperative is that the members will own the cooperative and will all be involved in discussing and voting on new and advanced features to either be installed or built by the Drutopia development team - any developer may become a part of this team. This is a work in progress that you can join at https://drutopia.org, a distribution being built with free Drupal software that will be capable of hosting several websites using the same lean codebase.

Curriculum

The students of the Boston Collaboratory School and mentors from the local development community will build a platform together using Drutopia. As a platform, Drutopia drastically lowers the cost of building complex website features such as a shopping cart or setting up an advanced publishing workflow for several contributing editors, writers, bloggers and media producers. As a cooperative the group will vote on what features to add, build or customize. Instead of paying $30,000 for a shopping cart with donation capabilities, the cost would be met by the monthly hosting fees on the Drutopia platform. Depending on the number of members or the vote to determine what the monthly fees should be, the group can more easily afford the upgrades and drastically reduce the price tag.

The students will engage the community in a short series of discussions to define a platform that would be beneficial to the school and to the community. I will use a recycling platform as an example. This platform website could be run as a business to manage the collection of recyclables locally and to sell the materials to a recycling facility. In Boston where the school is located, there is a local cooperative, CERO, which is a coop that is made up of worker-owners from the neighborhood. CERO owners could work with the students to advise on what are the specific inner working needs of a recycling coop. The community members would be invited to get involved at any level they desire, from being a full coop member to actually being an active developer on the project, or just being a user of the service. There is no obligation to become involved. This one project encompasses a lot of different skills from accounting to perhaps designing an actual garbage bin - mapping, planning, logistics and writing about the project are just a few that come to mind. Most of this knowledge and experience can be transferred to other areas in the students’ lives or other work that they do.

This school will use a mentoring down system which means that when the first class is mentored through the basics of Drupal and meeting with the community to find out what is needed, along with learning about the seven cooperative principles, they will mentor younger students in the disciplines they have just learned, while they are mentored through modifying the program to be age appropriate - so the younger students may or may not build a website, but they may work with the community on a different level, providing something that is needed and beneficial to both.

The knowledge and techniques learned will be applied to build a viable cooperative business.

The students will learn the basics of Drupal, which in itself is valuable knowledge and addition to a resume and by becoming actively involved in the local Drupal meetings that happen monthly in Boston, they will both learn and meet people that are on the ground and “doing it”. Everyone is encouraged to set up local Drupal events wherever there is a space, at places such as coffee shops, libraries and, yes - schools. So, students will set up their own Drupal events to spread the knowledge that they will be learning. After school meetings and events to engage the community and students from other neighboring towns and schools is another way to spread the knowledge and techniques they are learning in school. Students will also mentor down to the grades below them, teaching basic Drupal skills and cooperative practices, leading the way to take the younger students through the path they took - always taking the time to meet with the community to find out what is needed.

So far I have mostly talked about programming, learning Drupal as a coder. Everyone is not a coder and there will be plenty for non technical people to do inside the sphere of a Drupal based web presence. A website could use just about any skill you can think of to support the things you will encounter when perusing the site or interacting with the technology. Media is a vast area that provides opportunities for even the casual photo buff or fledgling video producer to take command of an important part of the project. A real estate website, for example, would need a plethora of videos to showoff and display the properties and engage the viewer in a virtual trip through their new home or office space. A news site would obviously need different media types to cast their content into a browser. The written copy on a website is no doubt curated by more than one person, with not only a writer, but also an editor and a graphic designer to place images within the content making it relevant and visual.