A recent paper by Jon Dron has stimulated my thinking about social learning from two perspectives. First is renewed appreciation for the value of a loosely knit networks as distinct learning resources and second the increasing value of learning networks (as opposed to tight, class or institutional bounded communities of practice) in both formal and informal learning.
Some years ago I spent time discussing the various types and function of interaction in formal (usually distance) education contexts. I picked up on Michael Moore’s conceptualization of the three classic types of interaction (student-student; student-content and student-teacher) and expanded these to a discussion of the other three dyads teacher-content; teacher-teacher and content-content. I then, slightly tongue in cheek, postulated that there was an equivalency amongst Moore’s original interaction types such that high levels of any one allowed a learning design that could decrease attention to the other two without loss of learning efficacy. Having thought that I had exhausted the possible types of interaction, I was quite taken by Jon Dron’s claims that the net gives rise to a fourth distinct actor in the educational transaction – that being the group. He goes onto discuss four permeations (student-group; teacher-group; content-group & group-group interactions. I had thought (rather naively) that group was just a plurality of learners, but after being immersed in the community of inquiry and more recently connectivism talk, I had to agree with Dron’s notion that “the group” should be treated as a distinct entity.
I should note that Dron uses the term ‘group’ to refer to the multitude of formal and informal networks of individuals that range from face-to-face coffee room meetings, to membership controlled email lists, to syndicated sets of bloggers, to students working together in a class using Wiki, to free entry email discussion and usenet discussion lists – to name just a few examples. I would likely have used the broader term network to define these formal and informal groupings, following the lead of Stephen Downes. Downes equates groups with structured, bounded and professionally lead communities with the formal class (online or face-to-face) being the archtypical example. Downes’ sense of fluid, unbounded networks relates directly to the multiple forms, size and purpose of informal distributed synchronous and asynchronous collections of individuals that Dron refers to as groups.
The notion of extracting value from networks is at the core of social software and web 2.0 applications and has very immediate value in the informal world of life-long learning. This value extends beyond the type of unconscious and unreflective Wisdom of the Crowd’s described by Surowiecki (2004). It expands the notion of networks to include those whose members are in regular interaction (as in an active mail list), to those whose accumulated opinion adds filtering value (Digg, Slashdot), to networks of bloggers who regularly read and reference work of related bloggers (EduBloggers), to those who rarely if ever interact as they collaboratively produce useful artifacts (WikiPedia).
In formal education the need for structure and control (exhibited by both teachers and students) leads to the need to more clearly identify reasonable expectations for interactions with networks. Paradoxically, networks are not under the control of the teacher nor anyone else, including individual members of that network, so setting expectations is a perhaps a challenging if not quixotic goal. But if one is to design effective learning activities for formal education and the network is to be used as a learning resource, then one can hardly treat its effect serendipitously. A further complication is that each of us is simultaneously involved in many different social networks and often ill defined networks (online, F2F and blended) any of which may be called upon to assist in learning. For example posting a blog message may alert the subset of the network that subscribes to that blog in addition to those who find the posting via any of the blog search engines. Access to all networks is of course not universal. Some networks function behind corporate, institutional or social firewalls that preclude participation by non members. The tremendous number of existing networks also restricts access given the inability of anyone to actively follow (even with agent filtering assistance) even a fraction of the potentially valuable networked interactions.
So what can we expect from the network?
Inconsistency and Serendipity: The quality of interaction with network will be determined by the skill, tool set, experience, time invested and luck of the individual learner. It is not usual for me to review my RSS feeds or email inbox and find an article, useful question, comment or observation, contact name, resource link or other communication artifact that very nicely links with and informs my specific learning task. Conversely, it is also not infrequent that I search diligently for some better articulation of an idea than my own or answer to a particular problem, than remains illusively beyond my grasp for days or even weeks.
Heterogeneity and Diversity: The quality of network interaction varies tremendously. In the first instance quality is dependent upon quantity. Networked interaction fluctuates irregularly between intense blizzards of activity and absolute silence. Secondly, the individual posting and network deliberation are all situated and culturally bound- both within the geographic culture that influences each network member (including choice of language) but also the emergent virtual culture of the particular network. This cultural heterogeneity can of course be a valuable learning resource as it allows us to explore the thinking of others while it forces us to reflect on the cultural bounds of our own understandings. Finally, network interaction produces at least as many errant pitfalls as gems of wisdom. For each of these reasons, the network’s heterogenic nature requires critical thinking and evaluation skills as prerequisite for effective learning interaction within networks.
Reinforcement: Positive reinforcement has been used all forms of human interaction to provide guidance and direction, induce acceptable behaviour and reward activity that meets personal and collective goals. Although networks tend to be more diverse than face-to-face groups, humans have natural tendencies to cluster, creating herd like behavour and imitation (Bikhhandain et al, 1998). Like begets like and rewards like. Thus, networked groups are used by individuals as mirrors to themselves and as ways to build self confidence and communication skill. The amount of time many users donate to networking activities such as blogging, tagging, creating personal showcases etc. demonstrates the positive reinforcement that many individuals enjoy through participation in networked activities.
Currency: Networks operate at electronic speed. Ideas, memes, debates and rebuttals flow mercurially across geographic and temporal barriers. This high speed fluidity allows for immediate response and as Dron notes allows group knowledge to retain currency often much ahead of formal academic thought and learning artifacts (text books, instrumentation, paper journals etc) that eventually find their way into formal education contexts.
Cost effectiveness: Unlike most place bound groups and communities, access to most networked is free and anywhere/anytime. As mentioned, there are closed networks, but for many networks, their value increases in proportion to the square (Metcalphe’s Law) or even the exponential (Reed’s law) of the number of contributing members. For example, Wikipedia would not gain anywhere near the number of active contributors if these same contributors had not previously drawn successfully from this well of information, thus exposing potential authors and engendering a desire to share and share alike and contribute back to the network.
Scalability: Dron also notes that the scale of interaction with groups stands in stark contrast to that of typical threaded discussion taking place within the confines of a formal institutional learning management system. Most of the writing on discussion using threaded conferencing (including my own) has either implicitly or explicitly limited group or class size to 30 or less members. Beyond that point, the teachers’ felt responsibility (often self imposed) to review and perhaps respond to all messages as well as the class requirement to remain up-to-date with their message reading and the often forced participation requirements of the course all conspire against large class size. Conversely, networks often require much larger number of members, only a small percentage of whom will be active publishers. Many teachers in formal education would be surprised at the lack of participation in their forums, if that discussion was not rewarded by course credit. Network are normally formed by the freely donated contributions of their members. Typically, this demands very large numbers in order to attain critical mass. For example the Canadian Institute for Distance education Research (CIDER.athabascau.ca) that I founded 18 months ago has 846 registered members, yet participation in special interest discussion groups has yet to reach critical mass – a feat easily accomplished in groups of 30 or less who enroll in my credit bearing Masters of Distance Education courses. Thus, scalability is a two edged sword. Critical mass is required, yet group membership is extremely unstable as illustrated by the rise and fall of many early social software products – notably Friendster. However, the scale of networks allows us to envision learning networks that can sustain themselves over time and ‘beyond the class’ without the active intervention of tutors or teachers.
Networks allow cost effective ways for us to move learning out beyond the campus or virtual classroom. Networks are not communities of practice in which all members are struggling to develop common solutions to common problems. Rather, networks are diverse, free form and free-flowing resources. Participation within these networks by learners in formal education not only develops lifelong learning skills, but provides cost effective and scalable tools for not only extracting information, but for contributing and building knowledge.