This is an essay about online learning, the future of work, and building community. It is about learning together, collaborating with the people that we learn with, and cultivating real community through co-creative relationships. And it is about Sutra, an open source software project that supports the integration of these functions.
As an adult, most of my structured learning happens online. Since I no longer have the childhood luxury of spending days on end in a classroom with my peers, I am left wondering why my learning experiences cannot be more connected. I am sure that I am not alone. I am not the only person who loves to learn and enjoys learning with other people. Moreover, I am not the only person that wants more meaningful connection in my life.
If you’ve ever tried to take a course of study online, you know that the hardest part is actually completing the material. In an industry where people spent over $107 billion in 2015, attrition rates are as high as 90% for some online classes. People who learn together have much higher completion rates but most online learning experiences are incredibly solitary.
Knowledge has been decentralized but the classroom has not. People are left to learn on their own and, in the process, must hold themselves accountable every step of the way. Yet online education offers an opportunity to connect people in unparalleled ways. There is massive untapped co-creative and community building potential all around us. Mutual support, deep listening, sharing knowledge and resources, working together, feeling a sense of community – these are all experiences that most of us aspire to have more of in our lives. These are all functions that a shared online learning experience can offer.
The shifting trend in education mirrors a shift in our work life. The economic fabric of our world is rapidly changing. We are becoming a society of independent creators and free agents, constantly learning and collaborating outside of traditional organizational structures. Just in the US, over 75% of all businesses are one person enterprises. Large organizations are being replaced by small independent projects and loose collectives of people. Our capacity to collaborate and succeed depends on the quality of our relationships and the communities that we are connected to.
Traditional communities have deteriorated. Internet connectivity, consumption economics, and pressures of time and money have all contributed to making people less connected to any sense of true communal identity. We are now confronted with an opportunity to define modern community in a new way. As independent creators we can learn together, we can create together, and we can find opportunities to support each other in the context of these experiences. Learning, in particular, gives us opportunity to experience community through the practice of collaboration.
Every structured learning experience is a vehicle for community building. It is a chance to connect deeply with and support other people learning the same thing. Learning is simply better when other people are involved.
I believe that online learning experiences can connect people in much deeper ways than they do today.
Connection happens through collaboration. Sharing any constructive experience together is collaboration. Learning together is a form of collaboration. Listening deeply is a form of collaboration. Working on a project together is a form of collaboration. When we experience true collaboration with another person we feel more connected to them. That feeling, when it happens, is a deeply fulfilling experience. It is the basis of meaningful human relationships and genuine community.
Every group of people learning something online can become a community and every community can learn together. My observation has been that community is built through collaboration and collaboration happens in small groups. Meaningful connection happens in small groups of people with a shared intention where people have an opportunity to actually build relationships with one another. This is true for communities in general. Every project, every start up, and every organization begins with a small group and grows from there.
Interaction protocols are simple templates that can be used to self guide a group through a structured process. This can give people direct experience of true dialogue and collective intelligence, in a sense modeling a new way of being. The material becomes almost secondary to the process itself – holding space, deep listening, mutual support, and collaboration. These are things that can only be experienced with another human being and, when personally experienced, can be tremendously uplifting. Modern life lacks precisely these qualities and most people, knowingly or not, are starved for this kind of much deeper level of human contact.
Sutra is an open source software project aimed at integrating the functions of learning, working, and community building. In Sanskrit, “sutra” means “thread of knowledge”. It is a metaphor for weaving a new social fabric based on open collaboration through shared knowledge and learning. The intent of Sutra is to create a collaborative utility designed for small groups and communities. A flexible tool that can facilitate the formation of any number of small groups to learn together or collaborate around any purpose within any kind of community. A platform that can seed, support, and grow genuine community through small group interaction, providing resources and tools for optimal group connectivity.
This entails three primary functions:
- Facilitating the formation of small groups within the context of a larger community.
- Supporting the content delivery, communication, and collaboration needs of those small groups in a lightweight and flexible way.
- Providing resources to maximize the value of small group interaction inside of and outside of a learning experience (general purpose interaction protocols and support for educators who wish to deliver high quality small group oriented learning experiences).
Relevant software platforms today are either learning tools (Schoology, Canvas, Udemy, Coursera, etc) or organizational productivity tools (Asana, Trello, Slack, etc). They are centralized and do not offer the resources necessary for optimal small group formation and interaction in a decentralized environment with self led groups. They do not take into account the changing work / life dynamics of our times. As independent creators we are constantly learning, working, and socializing at the same time. These are not separate functions that happen in separate silos. They are, and should be, integrated. They should all reinforce one another and serve to build a foundation of strong co-creative community at the center of our lives.
A decentralized free agent workforce needs better ways of fostering collective collaboration and mutual support. In the past, traditional corporations have provided a hierarchy of structure by which groups of people could work together to get things done. The promise of a decentralized workforce is that each individual has more say and more independence. The dark side of this is isolation and lack of coordination. We uphold our individuality above all else but miss the fact that the only way to realize our full potential is through the support of others. Collaborative learning experiences offer the seed of co-creative community structures. They enable our society to explore new models of interaction that give people an experience of collective wisdom and leadership.
Real community transcends social aptitude. It supports our evolution as human beings. Genuine community upholds our full expression as unique individuals in service of shared humanity. As we become a society of free agent creators we have a responsibility to co-create a new world based on harmony and mutual respect. To do this we have to examine practical ways of bringing widespread community and cooperation back into our everyday lives.
This essay presents a broadly outlined proposal for how to cultivate a more co-creative society. It is a seed that needs much more thought, development, and contribution from many people to truly come to fruition. My partner and I have actively tested these concepts for well over a year. Through iterative development and feedback cycles with real world communities we have built a working prototype of the Sutra software with the intention that it eventually become an open source project.
I invite you to share this essay or contribute as you feel called to. Please reach out to me at lorenz at sutra.co to share your thoughts. Thank you.
Community is dead. Long live community.