A GitHub for Education, Revisited

I’ve written several times in the past about the potential for a “GitHub for education” – that is, a version of the popular social coding network GitHub where the “code” that’s shared is openly-licensed educational content. That could include OER in any digital format – text, code, video, audio, photos – and any edu-related genre – course readings, handouts, syllabi, exams, assignments.

There’s actually nothing to stop folks from using GitHub for educational purposes already, of course. See: Lincoln Mullen’s post on ProfHacker on using GitHub to “fork” a syllabus. See also: Wired’s “meta-story” of how it published on its article on GitHub on GitHub.

After all, GitHub has in place the technological mechanisms to handle version control, file management, and collaboration not just for code but for text. And in doing so, GitHub has arguably lowered the barriers to entry for participating in open source development, something I’d love to see extended to the OER community. Specifically, GitHub doesn’t just enable the usage of resources, but encourages forking, remixing, and re-committing code (and by extension, “content”).

Furthermore, GitHub has become more than just Git and more than a code repository. It is a way for developers to showcase their work and to follow others’. GitHub merges the practical, the social, and the professional in ways that could be a model for some of the efforts we’re seeing in the education sector around badging, social learning, e-portfolios, and the like.

Education Startups and Optimizing for Happiness

But there’s another reason that I think GitHub could provide a particularly interesting and important model for education technology: and that’s because up until last week, the company was entirely bootstrapped. (It announced last Monday that it has raised whopping $100 million from Andreessen Horowitz.) Up ’til then, GitHub had taken no outside investment and had achieved profitability without an injection of capital from Sand Hill Road.

I heard GitHub co-founder and CEO Tom Preston-Werner speak at Y Combinator’s Startup School back in 2010, and the message he delivered was profoundly different than that of many of the speakers at the event who told tales of seed funding and “super angels.” While I refuse to believe that everyone in the tech industry “does it for the money,” it’s sometimes hard to see otherwise in the exuberance and the mythology that Silicon Valley perpetuates. 

In lieu of what he identified as the pressures on startups to "optimize for money," Preston-Werner's talk -- and his philosophy for running GitHub -- focused on “optimizing for happiness.”

In his talk (and in a subsequent blog post expanding on those ideas), Preston-Werner underscores some of the freedom that comes with controlling and owning one’s own business:

A side effect of bootstrapping a sustainable company is what I like to call infinite runway. This is another element of optimizing for happiness. With venture backed endeavors you generally find that during the first several years the numbers in your bank account are perpetually decreasing, giving your company an expiration date. Your VCs have encouraged you to grow fast and spend hard, which makes perfect sense for them, but not necessary for you. Not if you’re trying to optimize for happiness.

VCs want to see quick success or quick failure. They are optimizing for money. There’s nothing wrong with that as long as you want the same things they do. But if you’re like me, then you care more about building a kickass product than you do about having a ten figure exit. If that’s true, then maybe you should be optimizing for happiness. One way to do this is by bootstrapping a sustainable business with infinite runway. When there are fewer potentially catastrophic events on the horizon, you’ll find yourself smiling a lot more often.

I do wonder how VCs’ demands for that “quick success or quick failure” works (or doesn’t work) for education startups. It isn’t simply that educational institutions are slow to adopt new products and/or slow to change; it’s that the education of each and every one of us is a slow process too – a lifetime of learning.

And I fear if we choose to “optimize for money” – something that the latest flurry of interest in ed-tech startups is starting to look an awful lot like – we will neglect to optimize both for happiness and for learning.

Audrey Watters


Hack Education

The History of the Future of Education Technology

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