Tuesday, May 10, 2005

7. Inspired by social entrepreneurs

What can we learn from social entrepreneurs when supporting collaborative learning at a distance?


Making a change in the world, something to be remembered for, however big or small, is an underlying driver we all share as humans. A motivator the accessible, non-hierarchical, Internet is especially well suited to serve as a mean to an end. Here we have a lot to learn from social entrepreneurs, like these people of the non-profit Ashoka organization offering “market solutions to social problems”.

Distance education from this social entrepreneur perspective is about supporting change makers to join in and share experiences with the goal of promoting social/environmental innovations for the common good. A kind of joint effort to improve our social software, just like the non-profit open source initiative improves technical software:

“The basic idea behind open source is very simple: When programmers can read, redistribute, and modify the source code for a piece of software, the software evolves. People improve it, people adapt it, people fix bugs. And this can happen at a speed that, if one is used to the slow pace of conventional software development, seems astonishing.”

The idea of open source is similar to the idea of open innovation, where research results are licensed out to other firms who take it to the market, creating a win-win situation. In turn, the
open innovation paradigm creates a new arena for social entrepreneurs, who may act as laboratories to test real services on real customers before implementing it on a larger scale in organizations and nations. Something that may be even more useful than hypothetical market research, according to Chesbrough. Some established actors may see this as a threat, others see it as an opportunity to unleash the potential of their co-workers and reach/create new markets. Here, collaborative learning at a distance can play a vital role by forging new partnerships in fluid and vibrant web-communities.

What makes these web-communities prosper, in my experience, is very similar to the mechanics behind how social entrepreneurs engage the hearts and minds of their co-workers with barely any resources but their credibility, social capital and shared commitment. If positive change is the goal, then e
ducating new social entrepreneurs, and having more seasoned social entrepreneurs act as facilitators in distance education courses, is one inspiring road to success.

Examples of open innovation:
- ...and sustainability: DElabs.
- ...and social entrepreneurship: Promsing Practices in Afterschool (a 3 billion dollar industry in the US)