Groups and Networks: 2.0 Formal methodologies

In the last post, I looked at some of the basic components that any formal methodology for Learning 2.0 shall need to address. These are Network organization, Group organization, Content, Measurement and Tracking and Collaboration.

In this post I will attempt to dive deeper into Networks and Groups and try to identify the characteristics of how groups and networks need to be organized to support a formal methodology.

If we look at a definition of groups and networks, groups are defined as two or more individuals connected to each other by a relationship, while networks are defined as an interconnected group or system.

Let me refer to a specific distinction made by Stephen Downes on the nature of groups versus the nature of networks.

A group is elemental, defined by mass and sameness – like an ingot of metal  

A network is diverse and changing, defined by interactions – like an ecosystem 

  • Groups require unity, networks require diversity
  • Groups require coherence, networks require autonomy
  • Groups require privacy or segregation, networks require openness
  • Groups require focus of voice, networks require interaction
  • Groups are limited by the capacity of the leader
  • Group knowledge is transmitted and simple (cause-effect, yes-no, etc) while network knowledge is emergent and complex           

    (Source: E-learning 2.0 in development)

This is fundamental to the way 2.0 theorists look at the traditional vs. the new style. Whereas a group represents a formal attempt to bring people of the same skills or needs together for a common goal, a network is seen as a non-controlled, needs based ecosystem driven by user interactions and the ability to form diverse connections. In this sense, networks are seen as being distinct from groups.

However, this distinction renders any attempt at creation of formal methodologies for Learning 2.0 useless if not infructuous if we view groups as a 1.0 construct and networks as a 2.0 construct. For example, a component of any 2.0 formal learning methodologies is the goal. Goals require coherence, unity, privacy/segregation (as required), focus and leadership to achieve in any learning context. Does that mean the concept of learning goals are irrelevant in a 2.0 network?

I think the answer to that is that learner formations around a common learning goal occur commonly in social networks but in an ad-hoc and autonomous manner.  Learners themselves are free agents retaining the freedom to harness the power of such formations to learn. They regularly constitute the formations which are aligned to their own learning goals. Let us take the example of Tony Karrer’s blog or the Learning@Work blog carnival.

A question is posed. The community that views this question and responds (or passively views the conversations) is really an ad-hoc collection or formation of people bringing in diverse perspectives, engaging in dialogue and generating knowledge that really is emergent and perhaps complex. Their curiousity is piqued, they have a need to contribute, it solves a problem for them – the goal could be very specific or it could be an exploratory activity discarded quickly if it doesn’t help meet their goals.

This is not a 1.0 group with a leader. There was no LMS involved that generated a course offering and enrolled learners into a course. However, the dance or conversation provoked learning that was every bit as substantial as potentially a WBT that took the question as a central theme. Not only that, this emergent knowledge would now be shared across multiple such ad-hoc formations across the networks bring the learning to others in turn creating new knowledge.

Suddenly in the chaos, there was order. And then there was chaos again. Blink!

I believe that formal methodologies for 2.0 will have the greatest value if they focus on maximizing the probability of learning effectively through networks.

What if we interpret networks to really be the medium through which these ad-hoc groups can form or be formed and design methods that shall facilitate this new style through formal methodologies?

George Siemens presentation on On Becoming: The cognitive and social impact of technology makes a lot of sense. In a slide titled The Promise, George brings about this quote from the MIT Center for Collective Intelligence:

How can people and computers be connected so that—collectively—they act more intelligently than any individuals, groups, or computers have ever done before?

This makes direct sense because now we are talking about the power of the network as a medium to connect people so that they can become more intelligent or generate learning that is greater than the sum of individual contributions. Note that the quote refers to both people and computer (devices, systems). George, with his theory of Connectivism, also refers to Learning as a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual and that it is the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

This brings us to group dynamics. Let us examine some theories or models around group behavior and stages of formation.

If we look at George Charrier’s Cog’s Ladder model, there are five stages to forming efficient groups. These are:

  • the Polite stage – where members get acquainted with each other, engage in dialogue and verbal spars to really assess each other and what they bring to the group
  • the Why we are here stage – where members rally around a common context, whatever their individual motivation is, facilitated by a moderator or leader
  • the Power stage – where opinions, dissensions or simple abstentions dominate the interaction
  • the Cooperation stage – where members realize that to meet the common goal they need to accept diversity of thought and opinion
  • the Esprit stage – where mutual acceptance, team spirit and learning efficiency is the highest

If we look at Bruce Tuckman’s five stage model, it has:

  • Forming – similar to the polite stage in terms of making acquantances and assessing the other members and their abilities, but includes context setting and motivation with a lot of direction being provided by the team leadership
  • Storming – where different perspectives compete for attention and conflict may undermine progress towards achieving goals
  • Norming – where trust, motivation, agreement on rules of the game and participation become enhanced and team members get more acquanted with the how of achieving shared objectives
  • Performing – where team members are highly motivated, become really knowledgeable, manage conflicts amicably and participate at a deep level
  • Adjourning – where when the goal has been achieved, teams disband to pursue new tasks or learning goals.

In both models, there may be iterative cycles as new members are inducted or issues arise that force the group back to a prior stage.

Let us try and compare this with the experience of learning in social networks.

The network may exist, but may not be aligned around a specific goal or purpose. The team may not have staying power. There is no binding on any member to work together with other members and all interactions are really based on autonomous, self driven motivations of the members.

In circumstances that members really engage, I would estimate the conversation not going more than 2 or 3 levels deep before either members lose interest or the conversation reaches a premature end because of non-participation. A lot of this is evident in blog comment chains. The responsibility for maintaining and building the interactions in order to generate meaning and higher intelligence is high and commitment is often low and dependent upon the individuals’ own schedule or motivation.

This is a crippling factor. If there is no purposeful conversation in a connected world or if the conversation does not even get us past the polite stage or the forming stage, the utility of this style for any kind of organized learning becomes really limited. If no members were to even respond (or even be aware) to Tony Karrer’s question of month or not sustain conversation to create enough meaningful learning for a large part of the community, the utility is limited.

Of course an individual member may end up really learning a lot from just the question and supporting links (and the subsequent explorations), but it was not the dialogue or conversation really that Tony had intended that created any learning. Rather it was the member’s own 2.0 style that helped.



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