A Return to Apprenticeship

In his book The Success of Open Source, Steven Weber mentions how companies can integrate open source development into their workflow.* One reason for doing this is the competitive advantage that comes from a widespread, thorough understanding of the code. He then makes this remark:

A company that organized itself to boost the rate at which that kind of knowledge grew among its employees would have, in effect, created a business model that was quite viable in, and familiar to, capitalist economies.

In fact, many big companies try to foster knowledge growth among their employees as a way to gain an edge on their competitors. Google has a speaker series. Until recently, Yahoo! had a pretty good research department. Companies outside of tech do this too. I had a friend in Houston who did training exercises for Shell on learning styles and so forth. Supposedly, Wal-Mart encourages its employees to watch additional training videos while on the clock (see this podcast at about 10:04).

But none of this is a particularly new idea. Flash back to the late 18th century and you’ll see this model, on a smaller scale, all over the place. Back then it was known as “apprenticeship.” A professional, such as a silversmith, would hire a young man on a 4-6 year contract. During the first year or two, this would require a substantial investment in time on the part of the silversmith to train the young man. But by the fourth or fifth year, the apprentice would be able to repay the cost of his education by providing cheap labor. This arrangement is still around today, and is particularly widespread in Germany.

In the US, the apprenticeship model is most familiar to academics, but we have gotten away from this model in much of higher education.** Rather than providing practical training for a career, many college degrees serve only as a signal that the individual in question can learn. Thus, in many fields on-the-job training and hands-on experience are more valuable than degrees. In this type of environment you see widespread unemployment among recent college graduates.

This brings me to the key point of the post. The main shortcoming (as I see it) of new online education sites like Udacity and Coursera is not that they are a departure from the traditional model. It’s that they don’t depart far enough. In seeking to be reputable, they stay too close to the lecture format, simply exchanging in-person for video. This is not true innovation. The true innovation will come when they learn to scale the apprenticeship experience. This is what lectures were first meant to do. It took several hundred years to reach a level of affluence at which enough people were attending college that we could find the scale limits of this model, but we have reached that point.

Apprenticeship was a one-to-one, hands-on education. Lecturing is a one-to-many, hands off teaching style. With modern technology, there is an opportunity for a many-to-many, hands on approach. This will mean conflicting influences, competing ideas, and room for independent thought. A marketplace of ideas, indeed.

See also: Peter Thiel on last night’s “60 minutes.” (this post has been in the works since before that interview aired)

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*Notwithstanding here Eric Raymond’s point that open \rightarrow corporate is the wrong direction for thinking about the flow of open source.

**Graduate training is the exception.