The cost of developing a good idea

How much does a student hacker need to develop a good idea to the point that it attracts further investment?

I’ve been thinking about this recently for a couple of reasons. I was reading the early Y Combinator site, via the Wayback Machine, about how they reckoned on $6,000 per person for their first Summer Founders Program. Each new startup could expect to receive less than $20K (the average is $17,000 / £10,000), with two or three friends being the ideal number of founders per company. The Summer Founders Program was aimed at undergraduate or graduating students.

I’ve also been looking at JISC’s Elevator funding programme, where people working in UK universities and colleges (with a *.ac.uk email address), are able to pitch an idea to receive up to £10,000 funding from JISC.  That’s the same amount of money Y Combinator seeds their successful applicants with. I think the JISC Elevator is a great idea, but looking at the proposals that have been submitted so far, I’m surprised and disappointed that there aren’t any proposals where the money goes directly to students to develop ideas of their own.  Maybe students haven’t been told? I’ll admit I’ve not publicised it at Lincoln, having been busy bidding for other JISC funds (where graduating 3rd year students are the main contributors to the projects) and awarding funds to projects of our own (where students receive most of the money). Still, I feel bad about not supporting JISC Elevator more. I have voted for one proposal.

I asked Alex, an undergrad and co-worker, how much a student who is hacking on an idea all day, every day, needs to live on in Lincoln, and he reckons about £600/month. That sounds harsh to me, so let’s assume they need £800/month and that there are three of them, because after all, if you can’t persuade a couple of friends that an idea is worth working on, then it probably isn’t a very good idea (or so says Y Combinator). On a related note, Google’s Summer of Code provides students with a $5000/£3000 stipend for the summer.

When I first heard about the JISC Elevator, my immediate thought was that the £10K maximum per project isn’t very much to attract FEC costed projects involving staff, but is perfect for offering to students as bursaries. A bursary, as I understand it, is supposed to cover the costs of living, rather than being seen as a wage, so they’re similar in purpose to the GSoC and Y Combinator funds. On our DIVERSE project, almost all of the money received went to paying the fees and bursaries of two MRes students. We are also prepared to contribute a larger percentage of the overall cost. Our recently funded beBOP project is an example of this, with a recent graduate being employed on grade 4, and the funding from JISC covering only 65% of the overall cost, compared to the maximum 80%.

I’ll admit, I don’t really understand how FEC works and where a lot of the money actually goes, but for the kinds of projects that the JISC Elevator is trying to attract, as well as JISC’s Rapid Innovation calls, I do wonder whether the GSoc or Y Combinator model of funding is a more cost-effective one. Pay students to hack over the summer, with a member of staff overseeing their work and call that the institutional contribution. £10K will pay for three students to hack over the summer, travel to a conference to talk about their work and pay for some servers on Rackspace for a few months. The tools to develop software in the early stages are cheap (a basic Linux stack on Rackspace is £7/month and there are enough open source tools available to explore ideas and develop prototypes, even if the ideal tool happens to be a proprietary one.

At Lincoln, we recognise that, given the opportunity and mentorship, undergraduate students have much to contribute. They’re not simply consumers of education. Like other universities, we’ve been running funding programmes each year that fund students to work on a research project with a member of staff over the summer. At Lincoln, it’s called UROS, the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Scheme. The Student as Producer UROS call was announced a few days ago. The LNCD group, which I co-ordinate awarded five projects £1000 each last week, which focus on the use of technology for education (more info on those projects soon). For the UROS and LNCD funded projects, almost all of the £1000 goes on undergraduate student bursaries. In my experience, undergraduate hackers can produce good work. Work that’s worth funding. Y Combinator thought so, too, and they’re now the most admired angel fund among young hackers. Each Y Combinator funded start-up is now guaranteed $150,000 as follow on funding by another investor. If you go Wayback to the first Summer Founders Program FAQ, you’ll see this:

Why are you doing this?

Partly because we feel guilty that we all got rich almost seven years ago, and still haven’t yet given seed money to new startups; partly because we think it is an interesting hack; and partly because we think it may actually make money.

We suspect that students, and particularly undergrads, are undervalued. Twenty years ago the idea of grad students starting companies would have seemed odd. Not after Yahoo and Google. And if grad students can do it, why not undergrads too?

I agree. Undergraduates can do it and I think institutions, together with JISC, should be thinking about our own Hatchery for Hackers.

The university as a hackerspace

Developers at Dev8D

Developers at Dev8D

I spend most of my time working with students and recent graduates. At first Alex, then Nick and Jamie, and in a week or two, Dale and Harry will join us. Dale and Alex are finishing up their final year in Computer Science and work as part-time Developers in ICT Services. Nick, Jamie and Harry graduated last year from studying Computer Science and work with me on JISC-funded projects. They’re all in their early to mid twenties. I learn a lot from them. Sometimes they make me feel old. I’m only 38.

In a year or so, they’ll probably move on to other things. Alex and Nick already have their own company and a business plan. Jamie wants to do a PhD. If I can secure us interesting and useful work, maybe Dale and Harry will stay on for a while longer, I don’t know. I hope they will stay but it needs to be for a good reason otherwise I would encourage them to look for new challenges.

These days I wonder how we (‘the university’) can support young hackers like the bunch I work with. Career progression for  developers working in universities is not great. Paul Walk recognised this as does the JISC-funded DevCSI project, run by Mahendra Mahey. Without their work, which highlights the importance of local developers, I think the HE sector would be a pretty barren place for hackers to commune. No Dev8D, no DevXS, fewer hack days and developer workshops. Along with several other people, I was invited to be on the Steering Group for DevCSI today, which I am very pleased about, and I look forward to working with the project more closely in the future.

There are a few things I’d like to focus on with DevCSI, based on my experience working with young hackers: the first is about how hackers learn. As I see it, this requires research into the history of hacking in universities, the role of undergraduate and graduate students in funded research, from ARPANET to Total ReCal, hacking as a cognitive craft that has its own learning communities and learning environments, that creates tools which help improve the effectiveness of learning and how those tools eventually shape the tools the rest of us use to learn.

The second thing I’d like to focus on, is how universities can learn from what we see happening in hacker culture: new reputational models, fablabs and hackerspaces, peer-production, and new methods of funding. On this last point, I’d like to develop an academic programme that attracted hackers and graduated start-ups. I think the Y Combinator model is a good example of this already happening, where students and recent graduates are receiving a little funding and lots of support, while asking for just a very small cut of the company.

Finally, I’d like to think about how we can break down the distinction between developers working in professional services and developers working on research projects and remind ourselves that we all work in universities: autonomous institutions for research, teaching and learning, and that when companies want to instill a culture of innovation, they often emulate the research culture of universities. I’d like to work towards developers in HE knowing there was the opportunity to be paid the same as professors when they clearly add similar value to the institution, which I think is easily possible. I see no reason why  great hackers  – experienced software craftsmen and women – working in universities shouldn’t be paid £100K or more, just as professors and other senior staff can be. Of course, working in a university, they would teach other hackers, run software development projects, contribute to the strategic direction of the university and produce superb software for the institution, too. Would they be on an academic or a non-academic contract? I don’t know. At that level, I don’t think it matters, but at the junior and middle periods of their careers it remains a divisive distinction that affects people’s aspirations.

Being great hackers, they would attract students that aspire to be great hackers, too. Just as I decided which graduate school to study at based on the reputation of a single professor working there, so young hackers would want to work with and learn from great hackers in universities, even more so if their programme of study included a Y Combinator style opportunity for angel investment.

I’d like to see an academic programme led by experienced software craftsmen with reputations to match, where students from different disciplines spend their degree in a university space that resembles a hackerspace or dojo, working together on ideas of their own under the guidance of more experienced staff, leading to potential angel investment at any point in their degree. Those that don’t get funded, leave with a degree, a valuable experience and a network of alumni contacts. Those that do get funded are given the support they need to develop their work into a real product or service. Sometimes, it might be one that the university would use itself, but not always. Over time, successful alumni would help attract more students to the programme, developing a culture of hackers and successful startups attached to the degree programme.

What excites me about this is that it’s a mixture of what universities always say they are about: research, teaching, learning and enterprise, but it recognises that those processes are changing and that hackers are already developing a model that is replacing these functions of the university: the opportunities for learning, collaboration, reputation building/accreditation and access to cheap hardware and software for prototyping ideas, can and are taking place outside universities, and so they should. However, I think that university culture is still a place where the hacker ethic (respect for good ideas, meritocracy, autonomy, curiosity, fixing things, against technological determinism, peer review, perpetual learning, etc.) remains relevant and respected. A university is a place where people come to learn from each other and we should be creating these new spaces and programmes that recognise the value of developers in universities.

Like any programme of study, work and investment, it needs careful thinking about how to set it up right, but from where I stand, it feels like a gaping hole in higher education that needs to be filled. Do you know of any examples that are already running? A ‘MIT Media Lab lite’ could be close to what I have in mind, but I have no experience of how it’s run and whether it breaks down the distinction between academic and non-academic staff to the extent I have in mind.

Institutional approaches to openness

As part of open education week, JISC commissioned a series of case studies on ‘institutional approaches to openness’. For Lincoln, I wrote that our approach to openness can be best understood in relation to our Student as Producer initiative.

Since 2010 a project called Student as Producer has been adopted as the de facto teaching and learning strategy for the University of Lincoln. This is an attempt to engage undergraduate students in research, and to make research part of the teaching process. It is also a vehicle for demonstrating the value of openness – an idea bolstered by the establishment of numerous other open access initiatives at the university.

Read the case study: Hacking the university

DevXS: Improve, challenge, positively disrupt

Even student hackers need to rest

I’ve spent the last five months helping to organise and host DevXS, a national student developer conference. The conference on 11-13th November was fully booked and a great success. Over 170 students attended from across the UK, representing 37 universities, as well as a further 20 tutors and developer mentors working in the Higher Education sector.

You can read more about DevXS on the conference blog which was updated throughout the weekend by a superb team of media students. There are lots of videos and presentation slides on the blog as well as pictures and information about the prize winners and their applications.

It was a really exhausting and satisfying experience to be involved in and not only was it the first conference of its kind in the UK but it looks like it will become an annual event hosted by a different university each year and organised by the JISC-funded DevCSI project.

You can read a report about the conference on the DevCSI website. The Guardian also published an article (originally titled ‘Hacking the Academy’) in the run up to the conference, which I wrote with Mike Neary.

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Aberystwyth hardware hackers

Team HTTP Error #418

Team HTTP Error #418

Some brought their desktop rigs

Some brought their desktop rigs

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The Aberdeen team raised sponsorship to attend

The venue

The Engine Shed, where we lived for two days.

 

 

Speaking in NYC

Mike Neary and I were in New York City from the 11-16th October, speaking about Student as Producer. We held seminars at Adelphi University, Baruch College CUNY and were part of a panel at the Mobility Shifts Conference at The New School. Here is a recording of the CUNY event, where we had the pleasure of sharing the seminar with Jim Groom, someone who’s been an inspiration for my work on the university WordPress platform.

A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

Below is an abstract that I’ve just submitted, to be considered for the special issue of Critical Studies in Peer Production. I was drawn to the call for papers for three reasons: 1) One of the co-editors, Johan Soderberg, wrote an excellent book, Hacking Capitalism: the free and open source software movement (it’s expensive to buy but worth it. His PhD thesis is here); 2) One of the ways I frame our new LNCD group, is around peer-production of technology for education by students and staff; 3) I’ve been planning to write this paper anyway but could do with a deadline. It’ll get written before the end of the year, one way or another. There’s just so much happening at the moment, I could do with a deadline.

== //

A Pedagogy of Excess: Interventions in the poverty of student life

Despite the increasing marketisation of higher education, the generous practices of peer production have long been a characteristic of university life, giving rise, for example, to the emergence of the Free Software, Open Access and Open Education movements. These practices point towards a state of abundance that is not simply a Utopian vision but a real possibility of conditions already in existence within higher education where needs and capacities can be brought together (Kay and Mott, 1982). This possibility of abundance is at the heart of a critical political tradition that the University of Lincoln (UK) is engaged with through its institution-wide Student as Producer initiative (http://studentasproducer.lincoln.ac.uk/), articulated through a ‘pedagogy of excess’ (Neary and Hagyard, 2010) where students are more than just students and become producers of their own social world.

The possibility of a state of abundance in university life has been partially recognised by both the State (e.g. Lammy, 2009) and educators (e.g. Weller, 2011). In the world of Web 2.0, universities are being positioned as ‘edgeless’ resource providers through the funding of Open Access institutional repositories and and Open Educational Resources (Winn, 2011a). Student as Producer both challenges and leverages this abundance of open resources by articulating a pedagogy of excess, whereby the student is encouraged and supported in being not just a student-consumer but rather a critical, productive, social individual. In practice, a pedagogy of excess attempts to re-orientate the roles of staff and students against the marketisation of university life, to become producers of a really existing Utopian university and creators of social wealth (Neary and Winn, 2010).

This paper will introduce the unique approach of Student as Producer at the University of Lincoln and the ways in which we are actively supporting the re-establishment of a ‘hacker culture’ within the university where students are invited to share their ideas, mash up university administrative data and build prototypes that improve, challenge and positively disrupt the research, teaching and learning landscapes of further and higher education. In doing so, I will discuss the theoretical and practical articulation of a pedagogy of excess in terms of the peer-production of technology for education (Winn 2011b) as well as highlight the limits of our approach within a capitalist social universe.

379 words.

Kay and Mott (1982) Political Order and the Law of Labour. The Macmillan Press.

Lammy (2009) The Edgeless University.

Neary, Mike and Hagyard, Andy (2010) Pedagogy of Excess: An Alternative Political Economy of Student Life. The Marketisation of Higher Education and the Student as Consumer. Eds. Molesworth, Scullion and Nixon. Routledge.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2009) The student as producer: reinventing the student experience in higher education. The future of higher education: policy, pedagogy and the student experience. Continuum, London.

Neary, Mike (2010) Student as Producer: A Pedgogy for the Avant-Garde. Learning Exchange,Vol 1, No 1.

Neary, Mike and Winn, Joss (2010) Education Beyond the Property Relation: From Commons to Communism. Presented at the Open Education 2010 Conference, Barcelona, November 2010.

Weller, Martin (2011). A pedagogy of abundance. Spanish Journal of Pedagogy, 249 pp. 223–236.

Winn, Joss (2011a) Open Education: from the freedom of things to the freedom of people. In: Towards teaching in public: reshaping the modern university. Continuum, London. (In Press)

Winn, Joss (2011b) Technology for education: A new group.

LNCD: Web Developer Intern

Last month, I wrote about LNCD, a new progressive new group that includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students and was set up to support the objectives of Student as Producer through the research and development of technology for education. With the formation of LNCD, we’re also looking to employ a recent graduate (or an MComp student on their placement year). The job is advertised from today and more details can be found on our Careers website.

This Internship is designed to help recent graduates develop the skills and experience required for a number of potential roles in web development and open source hacking. We’re looking to work with, support and mentor an enthusiastic developer with a genuine interest in the use of the open, data-driven web in higher education. We’re looking for someone who enjoys working both face-to-face and in a distributed online environment and who is keen to share their work with others across the university.

Based in the Centre for Educational Research and Development (CERD) but working across the university, you’ll be a member of LNCD, a progressive group that was recently set up to support the research and development of technology for education and includes educational developers, technologists, teachers, researchers and students. This graduate Internship is a new 12-month position, designed to provide you with the relevant mentoring, experience and skills for working in a cutting-edge web development and research environment. The role will require significant interaction with students and academic staff and you will be encouraged and supported to write about your work and present your work to peers across the university sector.

I really want this to be a rewarding 12 month Internship for someone, who’ll be working alongside colleagues in CERD, ICT (i.e. Nick and Alex) and the Library (i.e. Paul), as well as with academic staff and students. We’re asking for a lot, but you’ll get a lot back in return and you should end the year with experience working on several internal and externally funded projects, producing and contributing to publicly hosted open source code, attending and presenting at workshops and conferences and being a named contributor to at least one published academic paper.

If you’re interested in the Internship and wondering what you might be getting into, please do read about the LNCD group, its remit and the tools we use, and take a look at some of the work we’ve been doing over the  last year, too. Read about Student as Producer and what its objectives are and think about how you want to contribute to the work we’re doing at Lincoln.  Thanks.

Reverse imagineering ‘educational technology’

The question that has been occupying some of my thinking the last couple of months is “how is Student as Producer expressed in terms of ‘technology’ (technología)? That is, “the processes and practices of doing things, understanding things and developing knowledge”? (Selwyn 2011, p7)  Over the next couple of years, the Student as Producer project aims to

…establish research-engaged teaching and learning as an institutional priority at the University of Lincoln, making it the dominant paradigm for all aspects of curriculum design and delivery, and the central pedagogical principle that informs other aspects of the University’s strategic planning.

There are a number of documents that lay the theoretical and practical groundwork for Student as Producer.

Re-reading these papers, some broad themes are common:

  • History
  • Society
  • Pedagogy
  • Curricula

Within these themes, we can find the following keywords and ideas

  • Speculative thinking
  • Critique
  • Close contact between student and teacher
  • Dialectical method
  • Student as subject, student as producer
  • Make history not just knowledge
  • Relationship between intellectual and manual labour
  • ‘Common Affairs’ / ‘Everyday life’
  • Radically democratic
  • Direct communication/direct action
  • Informed by social history
  • Student designed curricula
  • University as producer and consumer of technological innovation
  • Student as personification of knowledge
  • Politics of production
  • Internet as mass intellectuality
  • Polycentric, collective intelligence
  • Social constructivism
  • Openness
  • Collaboration: Student as teacher/teacher as student
  • Connect theory with action
  • Interrupt consensus
  • Ecological sustainability = institutional sustainability
  • Social learning that transforms social context
  • Paradigm shift

In the context of a university, the technologist is interested in the ‘study of’ (logia) the art, skill or craft (techne) of teaching and learning and in the context of Student as Producer, we are obliged to  extend this interest to thinking critically about the use of ‘tools for improvement’ and recognising that their development and use is, and always has been, political and socially determined, just as ‘the idea of the university‘ has always been politically and socially determined.

How then, might we undertake a ‘reverse imagineering‘ of educational technology? What is it with technology that we are seeking to improve in education?1 Following the objectives and techniques of ‘reverse engineering’ in hacking, reverse imagineering might be a method by which we deconstruct the complex machine of ‘educational technology’ and reconstruct a technology for education.

The deconstruction of complex machines and their ‘decolonized’ reconstruction can be carried out on all kinds of objects, not just computational ones. In the same way as you deconstruct a program, you can also deconstruct the internal functioning of a government or an administration, a firm or an industrial or financial group. On the basis of such a deconstruction, involving a precise identification of the operating principles of a given administration, or the links or networks between administrations, lobbies, businesses etc., you can define modes of action or intervention.2

How do we deconstruct educational technology in order to reconstruct a technology for education? I suggest we develop a critical praxis of technology for education and that Student as Producer offers us both a theoretical and practical framework by which to undertake it.

  1. It’s worth noting that the word ‘improve‘ has always been closely aligned with the use of technologies to add value i.e. profit. The Middle English improwen, meant to enclose land for cultivation, from Anglo-Norman emprouwer, to turn to profit. The OED entry lists a long and interesting list of similar uses. []
  2. Bureau d’Etudes, Autonomous Knowledge and Power in a Society without Affects. []