The free/libre/open university:
from metaphor to reality.
Abstract of a talk proposed for Wikimania 2016, June 21–28, 2016.

“Wikimedia is a global movement whose mission is to bring free educational content to the world.”

Within the Wikimedia movement we are often thinking about learning and adaptation that takes place far outside of formal institutions. Nevertheless, the historical conception of an encyclopedia – as well as a dictionary, a commons, and a university – gives shape to our ways of working.

While the university provides a familiar model for collaborative knowledge work, it is certainly not the only model available. Indeed, considering the role of commons-based peer production in building reference resources, Q&A sites, and free/libre/open source software, we may well ask: What might an accredited, peer produced, free/libre/open university look like? And why is (or is not) accreditation important? These questions become concrete when we enquire: what are the next steps for Wikiversity in more effectively serving the Wikimedia mission?

Here, it is useful to note that for Wikiversity the notion of a university is a guiding metaphor, not a concrete reality. The Wikiversity FAQ makes it clear that “Wikiversity is not a conventional university; Wikiversity is a wiki.”

A project to translate the free/libre/open university from metaphor to reality would offer an intriguing opportunity to test the generality of Mako Hill’s hypothesis on the mobilizing potential of “the combination of a familiar goal (e.g., ‘simply reproduce Encyclopedia Britannica’) with innovative methods (e.g., ‘anybody can edit anything’)” [Hill 2013, p. 13].

To be clear: Wikipedia does not simply take the encyclopedia as a guiding metaphor. From the beginning, the aim of the Wikipedia project has been to create a real encyclopedia, albeit in an innovative way. Similarly, the GNU project does not take an operating system as a guiding metaphor, but actually builds and distributes a Unix-like operating system. StackExchange is perhaps the most successful functioning model of Eric Raymond's notion of a prestige-based gift economy.

This talk will consider the possibility for creating a free/libre/open university that fulfils all of the standard functions of a university – including granting degrees. To frame the question, it will refer to standard accreditation requirements. For comparison, it will also consider a handful of successful non-traditional educational projects. For example, London-based Founders&Coders offers free training in web programming, and invites alumni to move “upstairs” where they contribute to service provision in a standard consulting model. They do not offer formal degrees, but do offer an informal graduation with concrete economic consequences.

The primary question the talk aims to address is the following: Could we create a viable business doing what a normal university does, but using peer production and a cooperative structure as the basis? The method of inquiry is based on an analysis using design patterns that were developed and piloted in the Peeragogy project and recently published in [Corneli et al, 2015].


J. Corneli, C. J. Danoff, C. Pierce, P. Ricuarte, and L. Snow MacDonald. Patterns of Peeragogy. In: Pattern Languages of Programs Conference 2015 (PLoP15), Pittsburgh, PA, USA, October 24-26, 2015. Ed. by F. Correia. 2015.

Hill, B. M. 2013. Essays on Volunteer Mobilization in Peer Production. Ph.D. thesis, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Author: Joseph Corneli

Created: January 23, 2016

Revised: January 23, 2016