Free Technology Guild

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This page considers rebuilding the Free Technology Academy using a mixed business model that supports training, project coaching, and consulting. There is also a Working Group in the FTA forums for further discussion, some draft foundational documents, and a roadmap.

We've created a template for seed projects, and we have a growing list of examples of proposed projects. We've sketched our reasons for creating the seed project in an Open Letter.

For a quick sketch of how the FTG relates to or compares to other existing projects, please see Free Technology Guild Design. We've also singled out three high priority projects that you can jump into if you'd like to contribute.

Contents

[edit] The Idea

The idea is that we as a group will do useful projects for our members or external parties, and on-the-job we mentor and learn and get better. Activities that would fit in that view include:

  • mentoring/coaching
  • teaching/training
  • software/technology/knowledge development
  • deployment and implementation

We will discuss these ideas further below, starting with an attempt to find a good name for the project!

[edit] The Name

The idea of a "guild" seems to fit -- at least as a loose approximation. However, there are two differences between what we're describing here and a traditional "guild":

  1. there is no need to be "in the guild" to do the same sort of work we do (so, no cloak and dagger stuff!);
  2. anyone can join.

The system becomes more traditionally "guild-like" when it comes to reputation building: while it is open to anyone to work, teach, or learn, people only get "rated up" if they do a good job. Building a good reputation within the system would confer benefits like repeat customers or legitimately being able to charge a premium for services.

So, as a working title, we will refer to the project as the Free Technology Guild, and we will use the obvious acronym, "FTG".

At first, this name leaves some unanswered questions: Will we restrict ourselves to dealing with "technology", or are fields like science and mathematics OK? How about social science? Etc. For the moment, we will be focusing on 'technology", playing to FTA's current strengths! In the future, we could branch out to other related sectors in the following fashion:

"Instead of combining everything into one big umbrella guild, we will favour one strong methodological umbrella. Each group (guild) should be small enough to know each other sufficiently and build trust within the group, which will help win the trust of others; and simultaneously, big enough to have a sufficient number of skilled people in that field's respective sub-specialities."

[edit] Precedent

... and one related contemporary proposal, recently funded through Crowdtilt:

... and some other related contemporary projects:

[edit] Functional design

It wouldn't be hard to set up the information infrastructure to support this. Mainly you would need to keep track of

  • interests (e.g. Drupal in my case)
  • skill level (e.g. beginner in my case)
  • budget or fee (e.g. I could probably come up with some money to pay for help)
  • brief description of project (e.g. help build this platform, time split between 60% development work, 40% training)

When a new user comes to the site, they will see a "word cloud" of interests. They can click on one to give their basic data: skill level, whether they want to teach or learn or both, whether they want to pay or receive money (and how much), or whether they prefer to offer their services or learn for free. Each user's profile will also be a "word cloud" showing their interests (scaled by things like "contribution level").

[edit] Theoretical design

In general, the model used here builds on the notion of "paragogy" (peer learning): see paragogy.net for some recent papers on that.

Some notes on a similar model that would be deployed in a mathematics setting are here. Some generalizations to non-technical settings could be set up using a data mining approach. Some older notes on the topic (circa 2006) are here -- they mention a highly relevant article in First Monday. Some additional notes about platform requirements (from about the same era) are here.

Establishing expertise within the system would be useful for building prestige or price-signalling -- and, more importantly, we would quickly recognize that not everyone is an expert on everything, so varied degrees of expertise on different skill sets could be used to build ad hoc teams ("labor consumption bundles" or "crews", "temporary collectives", however you want to look at it).

[edit] Learning design

To take one person as a case study: Sacha Chua, noted collaboration evangelist and hacker, has lists on her website of things she can help you learn and things you can help her learn, which is a great strategy for building a peer learning network. This could be formalized somewhat further in the FTG, so, for example, a "course" might emerge when we see that all of the requirements are satisfied: that is, when we have enough people who are interested in learning a given skill or topic, and enough people with the ability and interest to teach them.

This is fairly different from the model used on P2PU (for example) where interests are indeed gathered (see, for example, the list of p2pu users who are interested in "mathematics"), but are not immediately useful for anything. (For example, I can't simply post a message to this group, like I can do on the corresponding "math" group on Identi.ca.)

The challenge is to get (ideally, measurable) learning out of interactions around various topics. The better collective understanding of a topic we have, the easier it will be to specify learning models. For instance, it would be helpful if topics were organized in terms of their dependency structures (for example "topology" is a sub-category of "mathematics"), allowing me to see if there is a peer tutor or a learning module in just the area I'm interested in. Many of these issues are discussed in greater depth in Joe Corneli's thesis work (no surprise: the mathematics case is what's focused on there!).

One interesting challenge for FTG is that the relevant topics include not just "software topics" but also include many "social" topics (such as the ones on Sacha's lists). However, existing FTA courses already deal with various more-social aspects of free software, so this isn't an insurmountable problem. But, as discussed earlier, we will have some work to think through appropriate scoping.

[edit] Participant profiles

Here are some additional examples from people involved with the project so far:

One of the first tasks will be useful to come up with some "standard" form. Note that as the project evolves, increasingly sophisticated tools ("analytics") can, at least in theory, be applied to learner profiles. See http://www.solaresearch.org/ for some ideas about that.

[edit] Business model

Supporting non-monetary exchanges (you don't have to pay or charge money to participate) recovers the standard no-cost model of free software mailing lists, encyclopedia projects, or software collaborations via distributed version control, taking such exchanges as the basis of a "freemium" business model for FTA.

That is to say: since conversations are going to happen in the open anyway, one typically does not need to charge for access, but for specific forms of support (whether that is "consulting" or "tutorial" support). One can look to the Standford CS courses for some inspiration: it isn't necessary to pay to "take" a course -- rather, one should pay for things like grading or one-on-one office hours. Similarly for consulting: you shouldn't pay simply for some kind of abstract "access" to a consultant, rather, you pay for that person's work delivered.

FTG could be "bootstrapped" using a prototype version of its own platform, with hackers charging fees to improve this platform itself (e.g. Gun.IO could be taken as a "prototype" in this sense). Subsequently, FTA (or its members) could presumably become a "service provider" (providers) within FTG - providing all the services that the FTA is currently known for - building curricula, securing formal accreditation for learning experiences, finding quality teachers, etc.

Obviously, there is also the possibility of instituting a system-wide "tax" on monetary transactions (which could go to ongoing maintenance and development of the system itself), or a membership fee structure (similar to FSF). Various crowdfunding models (e.g. Goteo, Nonstarter.org) could be deployed, e.g. courses or other trainings would run only when sufficient funds had been deposited.

[edit] Resource management

There should be ways for the volunteers to earn dividends on projects they've worked on if the project is financially successful. For now, this is mainly through the resumé mechanism. However, I think we can provide further incentives, something like free/open source "stock options". This will need to be expanded, but I think one way to go will be to give participants more voting rights in the FTG's nonstarter instance.

[edit] Roadmap

See Free Technology Guild Roadmap.