DIY U: Digital Apprenticeship and the Modern Guild

A while back, I had the pleasure of chatting with Paul Lefrere. Paul is a guy who thinks about large-scale questions like, “How can we create and fill a couple of million green jobs in a country within a couple of years?” One problem he was grappling with regarding higher education was time-to-market for students. He needed to get them working and productive in less than four years—and possibly less than two. One idea he talked about was what he called “digital apprenticeship.” Imagine a solar panel installation trainee wearing a helmet with a wireless webcam on it. You could have an expert watching her work virtually, either coaching her through the steps in a process or testing her by watching her perform the process and then certifying that she’s done it right. She could be both a productive worker and a student on a long-term educational path on day one.

More recently, Jim Groom suggested that apprenticeship might be a good model for networked learning, particularly for those students who are not auto-didactic.[1] I think that Jim and Paul are both really onto something. Apprenticeship is a model that is well understood, can work for a variety of topics in less formal settings, can get learners productive on certain tasks quickly, and can get the benefits of scale by using modern communications technologies. At the same time, it’s one thing to have a model that works well in theory and quite another to have a set of practices that are likely to be adopted widely under given social and economic conditions. So in this post, I’m going to consider the question of what it would take to embed apprenticeship into the fabric of our society as a broadly accepted career path across a wide range of career types.

Let’s start by looking for the essence of apprenticeship in its original form. The apprentice/master relationship was a mutually beneficial one that was equal parts educational and economic. The student benefits from the relationship first by having a paying job and later by learning the skills necessary to go out and get a better job or start a business. The master benefits first by having another laborer who can help him grow his business and later by spreading his reputation, both as a craftsperson and as a teacher. An apprentice is an investment. This bi-directional bond is much tighter than, say, a student/tutor relationship. There is a Renaissance aphorism, sometimes attributed to Leonardo da Vinci, that goes, “The student who does not surpass his master, fails his master.” It is also a relationship that promotes at least a certain amount of social mobility. Apprenticeship isn’t a second-class education path for laborers to become slightly better paid laborers. Becoming an apprentice is the first step toward becoming a master.[2]

This last point is critical if modern apprenticeship is going to be widely accepted. In DIY U, Anya Kamenetz describes why the notion of apprenticeship was actually removed from the 1994 School-to-Work Opportunities Act:

[K]ey provisions of the bill—including the word “apprenticeship”—were weakened in Congress. “We took it to the Hill” [said Dr. Carnevale at the Georgetown Center for Education and the Economy] “and the people who care about poor people and minorities said to us, ‘Look. There are two education systems in America: one where people go to college and live happily ever after and the other, where people don’t, and struggle. The worst thing that can happen is that we have two systems that work, because we all know who’s going to be in the other one.'” In other words, explicit vocational tracking is a no-no even if the outcomes for poor people are better, because they enshrine social divisions in law, something Americans have always been wary of doing.

If it’s really going to take hold, then digital apprenticeship has to be very clearly class-leveling rather than class-perpetuating. But what would that look like? How can we craft a modern apprenticeship relationship that has a close bi-directional apprentice/master relationship and is economically leveling?

I was pondering this question when I happened to catch this segment on the PBS News Hour about a company called Springfield Remanufacturing Company (SRC) founded and run by a guy named Jack Stack. Stack developed an approach to running a company that he calls “The Great Game of Business,” which is a variant of open book management. Here are the three basic rules of his approach:

  • Know and teach the rules: every Employee should be given the measures of business success and taught to understand them.
  • Follow the Action & Keep Score: Every employee should be expected and enabled to use their knowledge to improve performance.
  • Provide a Stake in the Outcome: Every employee should have a direct stake in the company’s success-and in the risk of failure.

Here’s a video that SRC has put out about the method and its history. The critical portion is in the last minute or so:

Basically, every employee becomes both a shareholder in and a business manager of the company. This approach was so successful for Stack and his workers that, together, they began spinning off other businesses. SRC became a holding company that helps funds start-ups created by employees who were trained in the open book methodology on the SRC shop floor. Jack Stack and SRC upper management presumably get a cut of the profits from these start-ups, just as SRC employees get a cut of the profits from the main company itself. This is exactly the economic/pedagogical relationship we’re looking for. And if Jack Stack is the master craftsperson, then SRC Holdings is the guild. It is an association that provides the training, the social support, and the capital for people wanting to enter and succeed in a series of related types of businesses.

The literature of open book management is replete with stories that would make fans of networked learning crow. For example, the case study of Leo Henkelman, written up in Inc. magazine, is an edupunk’s dream. Here’s a guy with a high school education, a drunk and a pothead who couldn’t keep a job or a marriage when he was treated as a cog in an industrialized system. When placed into an environment where he could take ownership of his work and education, learning the things that mattered to him and the company in an authentic and experiential way, he ends up landing an office job that normally required a B.S. in chemistry and becoming one of the company’s most valuable employees.

Of course, not everybody learns everything they need to as easily as Leo learned chemistry and business. That’s probably one reason why one of SRC’s subsidiaries, The Great Game of Business (GGOB), seems to be dedicated to the education business. They sell books, coaching, seminars, webinars, and speaking services. Interestingly, Kamenetz points out in her book that the university itself was originally a guild:

The very word universitas doesn’t mean campus, or class, or a particular body of knowledge; it refers originally to the guild, the group of people united in scholarship. The word “college” too comes from the Latin collegium, related to “colleague,” meaning “community,” “society,” “guild.”

It wouldn’t be too far a stretch to imagine GGOB partnering with an accredited institution to offer a degree. Some courses would be offered Western Governors-style, where students/workers/apprentices gain credit simply by demonstrating competence. In other cases, traditional or online courses would be offered. Some of these courses would be generic business courses, others about career-specific subjects like chemistry or math or engineering, and still others liberal arts courses like music or sociology or comparative literature. A degree wouldn’t be something that is a prerequisite for starting your apprenticeship; rather, it would be one mark of obtaining journeyman status at some point in one’s career.

It’s worth asking whether a degree program—and, by extension, a college—is even needed in this scenario. After all, Leo didn’t need a college degree to land his dream job. I think there are several financial and non-financial benefits that affiliation with a more traditional institution and degree program could offer even in a modern apprenticeship model like this one. First, there’s the portability of credibility. A degree is really just a stamp of approval. It’s shorthand for people who are evaluating whether you are a good risk to offer a job, a line of credit…whatever. As long as you are functioning within your guild, then your company experiences and the people who vouch for you are sufficient evidence of credibility. But the further you venture outside your guild/network, the more you need some kind of universally recognized stamp of approval. A degree may or may not be your passport to a brighter future, but it probably is your passport—almost literally—to foreign professional networks. Second, particularly when starting up a new business, employees may need to acquire knowledge that goes beyond what they could acquire through their previous experiences. For example, one of SRC Holdings’ subsidiaries is an electrical parts re-manufacturing company. You can see where SRC employees starting up this business would need to study up on all things electrical and gain expertise that they can’t find on their old shop floor. It is possible for some people to acquire that expertise through informal self-study, but I don’t think all people can work that way. Third, a wide range of industries have benefited from the kinds of research that go on at universities. Forging a closer partnership—including the creation of career paths for masters who want to focus less on business and more on education and research—would likely be very beneficial to the guilds. Remember, too, that these guilds blur the line between company and union. So the worker/owner/guildmembers also benefit from keeping up-to-date on the latest research trends. Fourth, some students may need remediation and extra support. Not everybody comes in with good literacy and study skills, and there are many students who have learning disabilities that need special support. Last but certainly not least, I believe that individuals, companies, and society as a whole benefit from broad liberal arts education, including civics, history, literature, and so on. I believe that people will continue to find a liberal arts degree worth paying for as long as the price is reasonable. There continues to be value in the package as a whole.

So at first blush, it looks like open book management meets our criteria for the formation of modern guilds. It forges a mutual economic/pedagogical relationship between student and master, and it looks to be class-leveling rather than class-perpetuating. But let’s drill down on the latter criterion a little more. We see that blue-collar workers can move to white-collar jobs and even take executive positions through this system. But would a young person who is already from a relatively high economic bracket consider this guild system to be an acceptable career path? Would the guild path be accepted as a substitute for four years of full-time college study by middle-class students and their parents? It would take some work, but I believe it could be possible. Software development is one example of an industry that might be a good pioneer of this approach. If, say, Microsoft or Google were to take students out of high school to become paid employees and put them on an apprenticeship path where they would be able to earn their degrees over time at lower cost while earning good salaries and becoming shareholders in the company, this approach could become acceptable in a hurry.

And if it were to catch on, then it would pave the way for broader acceptance of other experiential learning paths that aren’t quite as tightly tied to the guild concept. Kamenetz gives one fascinating example in the form of public service programs:

[W]hat intrigues me is how a program like Public Allies can work as a substitute for a four-year college degree. It reaches young people who aren’t necessarily successful academicially, who might otherwise be stigmatized as dropouts and relegated to dead-end jobs, but who do have a drive to succeed. It connects them with a community of people pursuing meaningful careers. All this and the one-year program costs just $8,000 per person for recruitment, training, and all other overhead. Not counting the $15,000 stipend, which the nonprofits say their participants more than earn through their work, that’s cheaper for taxpayers than a year at a public university, and it’s a hell of a lot cheaper than a year in prison for a young person whose life goes down the wrong track.

Likewise, in industries dominated by huge corporations and organized labor, it’s possible that the unions and companies could expand the education programs that they’re already doing. With ever-increasing numbers of young people who have to go to work full-time in order to be able to afford to go to school part-time, it makes a lot of sense to meld these two experiences rather than putting them in perpetual conflict with each other. We just need a model to become broadly acceptable enough to remove the stigma and make it a first-class life choice rather than a bitter compromise.

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  1. It’s worth noting that, while we tend to refer to “auto-didacts” as if there is a special class of people who can learn everything on their own, the truth of the matter is that many people can be auto-didactic in some subjects and not in others. For example, I’m pretty good at teaching myself many kinds of book learning but am not good at all when it comes to figuring out how to, say, fix a squeaky floor board or replace the switch in my hallway light, even with detailed instructions. And I have given up all hope of ever teaching myself how to juggle. I could learn to do all of these things, but I would need coaching, because I’m not good at noticing what I’m doing wrong—or sometimes even whether I’m doing wrong—in these areas. []
  2. I realize that I am overgeneralizing regarding the apprentice/master relationship and, in the process, running the risk of painting an overly romantic and ahistorical picture. But the the very broad strokes I am painting here are probably true enough for the present purpose. []

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About Michael Feldstein

Michael Feldstein is co-Publisher of e-Literate, co-Producer of e-Literate TV, and Partner in MindWires Consulting. For more information, see his profile page.
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2 Responses to DIY U: Digital Apprenticeship and the Modern Guild

  1. Telmea Story says:

    One of the books that made a big impression on me in my early education training was the sociological analysis of apprenticeship by Lave, J & Wenger, E. (1991) Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation in Communities of Practice.

  2. Mark Notess says:

    Likewise +1 for Lave and Wenger. I think their model of learning as movement from peripheral participation to the center of a CoP is useful. It doesn’t provide a solution for schooling, but it does provide a helpful framework for thinking about how schooling helps students prepare for a career (or not).

    The guild thing concerns me a bit if it is a company-funded apprenticeship. One of the problems of indenturing your soul to a mega-corporation is that the handcuffs, whether golden or of a base metal, get bigger and heavier. An advantage of getting educated in a separate institution devoted to learning is that one ends up having learned in a way that leaves one more portable and one’s credential more portable as well. Granted, this isolation from the workplace does run the risk of making the university experience partly or wholly irrelevant.

    Myself, I’d prefer to see the career-oriented parts of higher education work on improving their market relevance and learning design. Having spent many years in both environments (HE, corporations), I don’t think most corporations are equal to the challenge of replacing higher education, nor do I think they want to (though of course one can find counter-examples).

    Also keep in mind that the guild system grew up in a much less malleable society. Today many more people change careers, and do it more frequently. How does that work with guilds?

    FYI, unions often do a very poor job of apprenticeship, and there has been a tendency to move apprentices off job and into training programs, thus gutting the apprenticeship model of its chief benefit (contextual experience, legitimate participation).

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