I just read Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation by Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger, which I put on my wish list since I am a total geek about theories of how people learn, particularly with regard to social learning. It’s a challenging read with lots of big words, but it short, fun and well-worth it. The approach to thinking about learning resonated with me. Naturally, I saw applications for human interface design (perhaps a subject for another post), but unexpectedly, I found that I recognized this concept of learning in my own experiences of open source development.

The stereotype of software engineering is that it is a solitary profession. The alpha geek hovers over his keyboard mind-melded to the machine applying his gifts for computation unhindered by his near autistic lack of social skills. While I’ve heard that such lone coders do exist, I more often see programmers interact in the virtual social setting of mailing list, forum or blog where the masters and the newbies interact with mutual respect and shared enthusiasm. It strikes me that open source projects provide a mechanism for what Lave and Wenger call “legitimate peripheral participation” which describes a specific and effective learning style.

Legitimate peripheral participation is a mouthful, but the authors make a good case for that as an effective description. They argue that teaching is not central to learning, but that we learn when we effectively (“legitimately”) participate. As a novice, peripheral participation is a way to participate before gaining complete skills and confidence, and sometimes the recognition of the community which is required for full participation. This learning is the journey from novice to master; however, they argue that “mastery resides not in the master but in the organization of the community of practice of which the master is part.” (p.94)

The book looks at five different systems of apprenticeship, including one that is ineffective, and reflects on successful learning techniques which do not always include teaching or even the intent of the apprentice to learn a specific curriculum:

… apprentices gradually assemble a general idea of what constitutes the practice of the community. This uneven sketch of the enterprise … might include who is involved; what they do; what everyday life is like; how masters talk, walk, work, and generally conduct their lives; how people who are not part of the community of practice interact with it; what other learners are doing; and what learners need to learn to become full practitioners. It includes an increasing understanding of how, when, and about what old-timers collaborate, collude, and collide, and what they enjoy, dislike, respect, and admire. (p. 95)

I have been experiencing this kind of legitimate peripheral participation lately on the RSpec mailing list. The specific content is less significant than the pattern of interaction that I have seen repeatedly in open source projects. In this case, I set out to learn Ruby on Rails, and decided to start using the cucumber behavior-driven development framework, which is an offshoot of RSpec. There on the RSpec list, live both Ruby novices and masters. One such master, Aslak Helles√ły, has created the cucumber framework. As a novice Ruby developer, I can see how he interacts with the other masters and with their work (incorporating other open source projects). Also, through my postings, I interact with other novices and we learn both from each others and from the very experienced members of the community.

It seems like the Lave and Wenger could be talking specifically about open source software projects when they say that “communities of practice are engaged in the generative process of producing their own future.” (p.57-58) Of particular note is the observation that “learning involves the construction of identities.” (p. 53) When we learn something new, particularly a new skill that enables us to act masterfully as a member of a community, part of our identity is defined by that skill. It reminds me of Derek Sivers who said that programming languages are like girlfriends: the new one is better because *you* are better. He observes that when you learn a new language, you learn a new way of thinking and new methodologies that then can be applied to any programming language. The community of practice stretches beyond the Rails community.

The book introduces the radical notion that little or no formal teaching needs to take place for learning to happen. In this kind of community, the typical teaching moment emerges from a specific challenge that a newbie encounters and in the telling of stories.

…researchers insist that there is very little observable teaching; the more basic phenomenon is learning. The practice of the community creates the potential “curriculum” in the broadest sense — that which may be learned by newcomers with legitimate peripheral access. Learning activity appears to have a characteristic pattern. There are strong goals for learning because learners, as peripheral participants, can develop a view of what the whole enterprise is about, and what there is to be learned. Learning itself is an improvised practice: A learning curriculum unfolds in opportunities for engagement in practice. (p.92-93)

When I set out to learn by developing my own tutorial, I was repeating a common practice in an open source programming community. Lave and Wegner describe the notion of a “constructively naive” perspective where “inexperience is an asset to be exploited… in the context of participation, when supported by experienced practitioners who both understand its limitations and value its role” (p. 117) The development of a tutorial is a recognized form of contribution in the open source world. It’s accurately described as peripheral participation because you are generally developing something very basic, which has little or no purpose other than to explore the language or framework; however, that participation is legitimized by comments from more experienced engineers, and, in this case, the author of the framework itself. Discussion on the list provides an opportunity for learning beyond the initial context of the tutorial and inspires story telling from from which novices learn coding patterns and methodologies, rather than merely syntax.

An interesting aspect of open source is that it creates natural communities of practice, enabling practitioners to easily immerse themselves in an effective learning environment. Software is a field which requires almost constant learning of new skills — the specific skills of new language syntax, installing and executing new tools along with new methodologies and programming “patterns.” I may be a novice at developing Ruby on Rails applications or drafting Cucumber “features”; however, I’m an experienced C and Javascript programmer. Spending time in a specific community and assigning myself an introductory project creates an effective apprenticeship, then later as a full participant, I continue to learn about that specific technology and be introduced to new tools and techniques merely by continuing to participate in the community.

Ted Leung reflects on open source and the corporate world in an interview on herding code. It is a bit long for the typical web attention span (over an hour), but worth listening to.

* Companies benefits by releasing something that they know people want/need.
* Developers want access to be able to do something collaboratively with the product, to contribute code so that the next version will have the feature or bug fix they need.
* In open source, intelligence is distributed, so it is harder to kill
* Let people decide what they like, economic benefits accrue to the popular
* Ted wants to see as large a substrate for innovation as possible and sees open source as a way to do that
* We’re not there yet… people who are good at blogging cause their projects to be more widely adopted, which doesn’t necessarily cause the best stuff to win

Further reading…
* The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman & Rod A. Beckstrom
* Democratizing Innovation by Eric von Hippel (Read Ted’s review)
* slides from Ted’s talk on open source anti-patterns

I listened to a podcast interview with a number of women who are mentors in the google highly open participation contest (which offers prizes to 13-18 year olds who contribute to open source projects). It’s got some interesting tidbits about community building on open source projects and some controversial banter about the role of women. Notes below — my comments in italics.

Community managers are often women. Someone noted that this project had more women than any other open source project she had been involved with. Is this a great thing where we’re seeing more women in open source? or is this the-women-taking-care-of-the-kids thing again? — ouch. I’d say yes, to both questions.

…coding is fun, and it is an awesome feeling to fix a bug or add a feature, but the human connection is even more rewarding. — yeah, I like the human connection stuff too, but sometimes it is really hard to carve out time to code. It certainly isn’t one of those socialized female traits to ask whether this newbie’s future contribution is really more valuable than whatever you are working on.

…Women may be drawn to these roles, but there are also a lot of men are very good at that. Absolutely.

…gnome love mailing list offers a great approach. People will give you something bite-sized to work on. The neat thing about these tasks is that it’s not just easier for the new contributor, you also need a much smaller commitment from the mentor. It is a way for a contributor to start small and many folks start there and then take on more central tasks.

…should we target some kind of stamp-of-approval for a women-friendly project? No, we should lower the barrier for all contributors. Frankly, with open source, you do need to elbow your way in. It is pretty intimidating to a lot people not just women. If you make it less intimidating to join your project, you will get more kinds of people, not just women.