Getting Started 5: First Class: Collectively Writing a Constitution

[Cross-posted from HASTAC]

Part One: How Do I Get Started? A Step-by-Step Guide to Designing a Student-Centered Classroom Part I

Part Two: It’s All About You

Part Three: The Syllabus

Part Four: Students

Part Five: Collectively Writing a Constitution

Part Six: Getting Started 6: Contract Grading and Peer Review


In this fifth in the series on getting started with student-centered, progressive, or open learning, I will talk about what it means to collectively decide upon how a course is going to be conducted.

Student-centered learning undoes many of the assumptions of traditional learning by making each student’s success the goal of the course.  That means there is no pre-determined set of outcomes, no standardized metric of success that each student must attain, no entirely fixed syllabus of content (with variations from an entirely open syllabus to one with “required coverage” and then optional elements), and so forth.

You can recenter your class around open or student-centered learning practices in gentle ways (such as insisting on egalitarian ways of managing classroom conversation:…).

Or you can do the full radical version that I’ve been experimenting with for the last decade.  In that version, I begin by having students write, collectively, a “class constitution” examining and then agreeing upon every aspect of what, for them, constitutes a “class.”  All the terms of our engagement for the semester becomes subject to review, discussion, and examination.  (NOTE:  This is not for the faint of heart!)


In the Winter of 2013 at Duke University, I taught a course in “21st Century Literacy” with overtly open learning principles.  The class consisted of eight graduate students from three universities: Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State University and from the departments of English, Computer Science, History, Communication Studies, Rhetoric, Education, Public Policy, and a MFA student in Experimental Documentary Arts.

If eight fields from three universities were not challenging enough, they decided, on their own, that, instead of each writing term papers, that they would write a book together as a final project.

Diverse in gender, race, nationality, talents, skills, temperament; unified by sky-high idealism, activism, and ambition to make a better world.   And a belief that democratic, egalitarian education was a place to model that better world.

The  book they wrote together, Field Notes for 21st Century Literacies:  A Guide to New Theories, Methods, and Practices for Open Peer Learning and Teaching , has had over 17,000 page views on the HASTAC site–far more readers than most academic monographs.


Rather than re-write the steps for writing a class constitution, I’m going to edit and mostly quote from my Preface to that student-written book, since it describes the process of writing the class constitution.

Adapted from Chapter One, “How A Class Becomes a Community:  Theory, Method, Examples.”

Why Does a Class Need Community Rules?

What is a course? What is a class? What is a community? What is the relationship between those three questions and an even more basic one that is rarely asked in higher education: How do we learn?  What is the purpose of the institutions and structures of learning that support and are supported by higher education? Which ones of those are inherently conducive to actual learning and which ones are part of the premises of higher education that too often go unquestioned, that may or may not be the most effective ways to learn the content and method of new ideas, and their application to the world beyond the classroom? It is our conviction that even some of the most effective teachers might not be doing all that they can do to take advantage of the new, connected, social, and interactive ways in which people learn online today.

What Reading Inspired Our Thinking about the Community Rules of Our Class?

To inspire our discussion about the assumptions embedded in the “classroom” as an entity (and perhaps even as embodying an implicit ideology) we began with Yochai Benkler’s influential work “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm” (2002). Benkler coined the term “commons-based peer production” for the form of collective, uncompensated, often anonymous and sometimes spontaneous collaborative work that the open architecture (enabled by HTML) of the Web allows and promotes.

Sites such as Wikipedia exemplify the new knowledge commons, as do Creative Commons intellectual property “share and share alike” licensing and the Open Software movement, symbolized by the Linux open source system and its icon, the chubby Penguin. This penguin, Benkler argues, poses a challenge to the seminal 1937 article by economist Robert Coase, “The Nature of the Firm,” which argues that markets and firms are the only viable model for organizing production. Linux, according to Benkler, provides an alternative model of the firm, The Commons, where large-scale collaborations can happen, organized by peers rather than markets or top-down management systems. Benkler argues that peer production is more possible than ever, and that companies can adopt a Commons model of peer production. We believe the same is true of formal education.

To that end, we began our course in 21st century literacies not with the accepted rules of what a class is, but precisely by thinking together about what those rules should be.

How Did We Get Started on Formulating our Community Rules for our Class?

We did not begin with a blank slate. Rather, following the advice of many professional designers that it is daunting and often paralyzing to begin with a blank “piece of paper,” we began with another manifesto of peer-production, the Mozilla Manifesto, as our model.

We used Creative Commons licensing, put the Mozilla Manifesto into an open Google Doc that could be edited by anyone in our class.

Via Twitter and other social media sites, we invited others in the community at large to contribute to our thinking. We were delighted to be joined by media theorist Howard Rheingold, who left comments on our document, as did other anonymous observers.

Then we began to reformulate this Manifesto about open source software community and peer development as a document about a classroom, a community, a commons.

Our Process

First, my role as the official professor (it would be dishonest not to acknowledge this legal and institutional and pedagogical role) was in setting this as an assignment and putting it on a collective Google Doc and inviting all members of our graduate class at Duke University (21st Century Literacies: Digital Knowledge, Digital Humanities) to contribute.

Second, I chose the “foundational text” for the class to morph, remix, hack, mod, and mash. I have had classes in the past construct a set of community principles from scratch but it never works quite right. Over the years, we have developed a practice of going online and finding some open community whose principles might help inspire our own.

One year we used a document developed by Agile developers. In December of 2012, in creating a “Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age,” an ad hoc group of professors, educators, educational bloggers, a CEO of an online course, and a graduate student used some language of “inalienable rights” from the Preamble to the US Constitution for a jumping off place in creating a “hackable” document:…

This time, I simply chose a document, the Mozilla Manifesto, and asked the eight members of “21st Century Literacies” if anyone had any better suggestions. We all thought this would be an interesting place to start, and everyone dug in and worked with the Mozilla Manifesto as our parameter, our inspiration document.

Finally, I set the deadline. This is not trivial. These collaborative writing exercises can take over people’s lives and the class, and we had much bigger projects for the term. Writing our community rules was simply (and not simple at all) a starting place for what we would do for the term. I set a ten-day limit for editing and transforming and finally publishing our “finished” document.

Occasionally, I intervened with comments, prompts, questions, or suggestions during the ten days we worked on this. For example, if energy flagged, or if individuals came to an impasse, I reasoned that we were still so early in our development as a community, that it would work for me to take on the role of the goad, organizer, critic, or, occasionally, cheerleader, if not actual leader. I would leave a note, a comment, a prod, or a provocation.

Remember, our class consisted of a group of eight students from three universities and eight separate disciplines, all drawn together by a course topic and method, but who were just learning to think and work and write and create together. No more than two people knew anyone else in the class when we began. Co-writing a manifesto was our first joint act together.

So, for future professors, instructors, or learning leaders thinking about their role, I want to be explicit that in this situation this is what I chose to contribute but others may choose differently.

The point is, once inquiry is the basis of learning these elements are part of the learning. In this case I contributed the tennis court (i.e. Mozilla Manifesto and the Google Doc) and the timeline.

Occasionally I suggested how to put the ball back in play, to continue the tennis metaphor, although I tried not to adjudicate when a shot was fair or foul. The other eight participants negotiated those issues themselves.

And then, game on! There was the serve, right past my ear and I was left standing there impressed and amazed at the speed and accuracy of not just the serve but the return volleys and the complex interactive game that began to unfold with me, more or less, on the sidelines. It was very exciting to watch.

In the end we were all winners. A group of strangers was transformed into something like a community by the very process of asking what its own rules might be and establishing those rules.

The Outcome: Class as Community and Commons

Within a few weeks, there were no longer separate projects. Instead, our major group commitment became creating a connected, unified yet diverse learning experience together. Eventually, we made a commitment to co-write this book in a way that would help others to conduct their own community-learning, peer-produced learning experiences including within the formal learning spaces of that most traditional university forms.

Each student took on the responsibility of defining a unit and a topic. Each student chose texts, activities, and group exercises. Each became a leader and a teacher. Each person contributed to everyone else’s unit too and, as the semester progressed, we began to see a book take shape.

Somehow we decided no exams, no term papers: why not turn each unit into a chapter, the chapters into a book, and make this an online and maybe a print-on-demand, open source guide that other learners and teachers could use to inspire new ideas, new course, new ways to morph, remix, hack, mod, and mash up.

Below, please find our “Duke 21C Community Manifesto.”  We welcome your feedback and comments. Please also note that the original Google Doc still stands as an open document and will remain so unless it ceases to serve its function as a constructive, creative place for learning together.


Duke21C Community Manifesto

[English] <>.

21st Century Literacies:  Digital Knowledge, Digital Humanities


Course website:

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.To view a copy of this license, visit or send a letter to Creative Commons, 444 Castro Street, Suite 900, Mountain View, California, 94041, USA.

Duke21C is a graduate class at Duke University dedicated to thinking of the next generation of education as a “commons” and modelled on the idea of interactive, collaborative learning, whether in face-to-face settings such as our class or in global networks. To that end, we started with theMozilla Manifesto(which has a Creative Commons “share” license) and modded it to suit the community we call #Duke 21C. We hope you will share it too!

You are Invited

Duke21C invites you to read, comment upon, or edit the principles we’ve set out below and to join us in seeking new ways to make our shared vision of the 21st century classroom a reality. We hope you will also share this with others dedicated to new forms of learning together. This document may be used as a template for other documents, or may be edited here.

The Manifesto

Duke21C is an experimental collective committed to identifying, evaluating, creating, and rethinking solutions to educational challenges that our changing society faces in the 21st century. We aim to seize opportunities to fully realize and harness the possibilities of 21st century literacies, which we define as the mindsets, skills, and collaborative techniques needed to make full use of the Internet as a space of learning. We believe that the Internet and technology are changing how individuals and communities understand themselves and the world around them, and that this connected age offers a tremendous opportunity to make teaching, learning, and knowledge more accessible, more affordable, and more meaningful for everyone involved. Duke21C’s purpose is to examine the ways in which technology influences educational dynamics and to collaboratively propose and share new possibilities for the Information Age so that we—scholars, teachers, and students—can best respond collectively to the challenges this new paradigm poses for learning.

We have committed ourselves to:

Experimental approaches to teaching and sharing for the benefit of student learning

Building a culture of openness, access, and respect in the pursuit of knowledge creation

Implementing a community-based approach to create

Innovative spaces for knowledge production and play

Pedagogy that reflects new ways of learning in the Digital Age

New modes and methods for knowledge creation that harness the power of digital media

New opportunities to advance equality and access

Collaborative and cooperative learning that broadens the classroom’s physical boundaries

Openings on existing paths to welcome greater diversity into university settings

Spaces where diverse voices have a better chance of being heard and incorporated into knowledge creation and production

Practice-based knowledge that is useful in individuals’ lives

A framework to help inspire others to join us in rethinking education within the context of emerging and existing technologies

A dynamic setting that allows both theory and practice to continually evolve and improve

As a collective, we have distilled a set of principles that will guide us in reconfiguring the education system in this digital age:


Knowledge is a public resource that must be open and accessible to all, regardless of geographic location or the availability of technological tools.

The purpose of education is to enrich lives and to help people achieve their individual and collective goals.

Increasing access to meaningful education is fundamental, not optional.

Individuals must be empowered to shape their own educational experiences; different perspectives can enrich learning experiences.

Free and open source modes of learning promote the availability of knowledge as a public resource, while open exchange of ideas gives knowledge value.

Transparent, community-based processes promote participation, accountability, and trust.

Educators must develop methods of assessment that fit our digital age and prioritize lifelong learning.

A model classroom environment draws on every participant’s unique expertise for the greater good of collective goals.

There’s a difference between high standards and standardization, and it’s our goal to discover the digital possibilities to support the former and to transform the latter.

No decision within a collective needs to be unanimous, but every final decision regarding overarching goals and final products should be supported by a majority.

Duke 21C Collective Goals and Practices for the Semester (Spring 2013)

Create a continually evolving class website that serves as a resource for educators and lifelong learners who share our goal of making a top-notch   education more affordable, accessible, and meaningful for more people.

Engage with reading, writing, face-to-face conversation, and multimedia in ways that contribute to broader public discussions about how to improve education in the 21st century.

Collaborate in a constructive manner as we assign, guide, and assess the work of peers.

Practice judicious time management in assigning tasks to others and completing our own.

Arrive to class on time, fully prepared to participate, having completed assignments on time.

Represent ourselves and the class both online and face-to-face as engaged scholars who are committed to advancing the above principles.

Works Cited

Benkler, Yochai (2002). “Coase’s Penguin, or, Linux and the Nature of the Firm.” Yale Law Journal 112.3 (December 2002): 369-446. Web. Accessed 11 June 2013.  <>.

“Bill of Rights and Principles for Learning in a Digital Age.” HASTAC: Humanities, Arts, Science, and Technology Advanced Collaboratory. 23 January 2013. Web. Accessed 11 June 2013. <….

“Wikipedia: Policies and Guidelines.” Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 1 November 2001. Web. Accessed 11 June 2013. <>.


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