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Thinking about Educational Cooperatives

One of the many biographies of women artists that I listened to on my daily walks this year was Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon. Lange was a complicated, talented photographer committed to social justice. There were a couple of things about the book that annoyed me but mostly I loved it and was sad when it ended with her death from esophageal cancer at the age of 70. It seems like she wasn’t done contributing to the world.

I have always admired the work of the FSA photographers, Lange among them. Her photo, Migrant Mother (below), is one of the most iconic images of the 1930s Depression. I love the idea of the US government paying artists of various types to document life in the US, especially during a time like the Depression.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange:

One of the things I was struck by was the description of life in the migrant camps that Lange visited. In particular, I was intrigued by the informal educational cooperatives that Gordon briefly mentions in the biography. The inhabitants of the camps would teach each other various topics (like how to do sheet rock and other skilled construction tasks) in these informal co-ops. I love this idea. As a side note, there doesn’t appear to be a whole lot of information about the informal educational co-ops set up during this time although there are some studies of the co-op economies created during the Depression. I think a study focused on educational co-ops set up informally outside of a university setting during this time would make for interesting reading.

On another (related–I promise) note, I just completed a Raspberry Pi project. The Raspberry Pi computer was originally developed as a platform for learning about computing fundamentals. It proved to be such a useful tool that people now use it for all kinds of projects. I chose it both because it would work for my project and because I would have fun learning and trying out new things with it. Because many of the bells and whistles of modern computers are stripped away, the Raspberry Pi is a great platform for understanding how modern computers work. For example, I understand what protocols are and how they are used, but setting up the SMB protocol on the Raspberry Pi and then connecting to it from other devices helped me to understand things that I didn’t even know I didn’t understand. This new level of understanding makes me feel more in control of my digital life which is powerful. This made me think about cooperative education where members of the community teach each other the things they know. I think it would be cool to set up a technology-focused educational cooperative. In many ways, this is what appeals to me about the IndieWeb movement. The Homebrew Website Clubs and IndieWebCamps are educational cooperatives where people talk about web-based projects that interest and excite them and teach each other how to do the cool things they know about.

Although it wasn’t exactly a cooperative, one of the most rewarding service activities I have ever engaged in was that I taught online digital concepts and skills to senior citizens at the Meredith Senior Center for about 5 years. I would teach the same class for 6-8 weeks over and over. We would talk about email and Facebook and cameras. Depending on the group, I might need to talk about how to turn a computer on, how to use a mouse, what a desktop is, what wifi is and how to set up and connect to a wifi network, the difference between wifi and 3G,, etc. I geared each version of the class to the members of the current audience. They would ask questions about buying new computers, signing into different accounts, etc. I had several women who took the class over and over for a couple of years. The Senior Center had laptops for everyone to access but sometimes people would bring their own. It was fun and challenging. I imagine something like this but a more permanent community so that there isn’t just one teacher. The Senior Center classes were for beginners. The tech cooperative would include people of all skill and knowledge levels. And as people learn things, they would teach those things to others.

We are doing some of this kind of work with the faculty learning communities that we have been running for the last several years. The newest community, the Data Analytics Learning Community, will begin with a week-long workshop in January. funded by a grant from the Northeast Big Data Hub. I am excited about this new initiative but need to spend some time thinking about the fact that nearly everyone who applied for a stipend already has some experience with data analytics. I was hoping there would be more people interested who were beginners in the area. I’ll need to think about communicating that a technology cooperative is welcoming to people of all skill and knowledge levels. Part of that will involve communicating the democratizing power of taking control of one’s digital life.

Anyway, all of these things are on my mind as I begin to contemplate the end of my academic career. I’m not ready for retirement yet but some health issues this year definitely have me thinking about what the next stage of my life will look like. I like the tech coop idea because it involves social contact with other people, talking to people about technology, learning new things about technology, and staying up to date with technological innovations. Those are all things that will keep me young!

Article written by:

I am currently Professor of Digital Media at Plymouth State University in Plymouth, NH. I am also the current Coordinator of General Education at the University. I am interested in game studies, digital literacies, open pedagogies, and generally how technology impacts our culture.

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