Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Groups and Networks

I've been enjoying Stephen Downes' recent writing, talking and showing on the distinction between groups and networks. On Half an Hour, he has two solid posts called Groups and That Group Feeling, and digs in really deep on a full-length paper: Learning Networks and Connective Knowledge. In multimedia territory, he's also got a video explaining the differences (Google Video), as shown in this whiteboard full of goodness, and also audio of one of his talks in New Zealand (mp3), covering somewhat broader territory.

I like how the concept of the personal learning environment pops up in all the right places, but I've been stewing on other personal connections to some of these differences between groups and networks. I got thinking about the kind of angst I had after blogging here for a year. I had been naively (and egotistically, I guess) expecting some sort of community to form around my blogging experience, but I didn't know what it should look like. I thought it should feel like joining and belonging to a group. At that time, Seb Paquet wisely pointed out that I had actually become part of a network, but Stephen's ideas now have really helped clarify what exactly that meant.

I also realized that some of my initial investigation into 43 Things was misguided because I was looking for people learning in groups; something more like the classroom discussion boards in the courses I had been taking. I thought that once you found a bunch of people who shared a learning goal, you would really have to become a "group" to learn much of anything that mattered. I noticed that there wasn't much evidence of conversation or interaction between the people sharing a learning goal and interpreted it as a potential weakness of the site as a learning space. But of course the people sharing a learning goal are part of an emergent, informal network. Stephen's main network words all apply: diversity, autonomy, openness, and connective. There is the potential for powerful learning, but it won't look like a cohesive, unified group of people busy learning something together.

The third thing that popped into my head was my grown-up hockey experiences. I played as a kid, up until I was 16 or so. In recent years, I've half-heartedly started playing again. Last winter, I tried two very different formats. I played a few games for a local old-timer's team, and I played noon-hour drop-in hockey a dozen or so times. It hit me last night that the contrast between the two formats is very similar to Stephen's differences between groups (the old-timer's team) and networks (noon-hour drop-in).

The team was all about unity (us vs the bad guys), coordination (scheduled games, annual fees, obligation to show up, set lines), closed (you had to be invited) and distributive (core group ran the show, stars were central). The noon-hour drop-in hockey was all about diversity (whoever shows up today plays, regardless of skill level or age), autonomy (you decide when you want to come, when you want to rest), openness (everyone welcome every time), and connective (over time you talk to many more individuals than you would have on a single team).

While it is true that there are benefits to playing on a team -- added motivation to support your teammates, more cohesive relationships, and beers after the games -- I found that the drawbacks way outweighed the benefits for me. At drop-in hockey, I played more often, learned more (more ice time, more variety), spent less money, met more interesting people, and just had more fun. It may be a personality thing (some people really do seem to thrive in groups of all kinds), but I think networks make more sense for me.


Brian said...

Great synthesis -- and on a selfish level I'm grateful you pulled these links together in a single post. I've been meaning to do so myself for some time.

I think your hockey analogy is bang-on, and will likely lift it sometime (with attribution, natch).

Jeremy said...

Glad to help, Abject Learner. Stephen's done some seriously great work on this stuff, I think.

On one level it seems sort of obvious, but properly labels and clarifies something that I've always had discomfort about. I hate learning in groups and always have. But networks are different...and in my case, much better for learning. Like he says in one of the Half an Hour posts, groups are great for certain things (protection, comraderie, family ties, etc.), but the expectation that tight groups are required for learning may be going away.

Brian said...

Agreed on the excellence of Stephen's work.

I'm not much of a joiner either, which probably why I personally gravitate to the "network" side. In defense of groups, I think the added structure and sense of expectation can have a place -- especially in terms of getting things done.

Another analogy comes to mind -- playing in a band versus simply getting people together to jam. What's more likely to lead to well-crafted, unique songs and sounds? But playing in a band is often apain in the ass (egos, schedules, differing tastes), whereas jamming is almost always fun if people approach it the right way.

Then again, a great jam session might lead to the formation of a new group...

Jeremy said...

Another interesting analogy, methinks. And yes, it really does depend what you're trying to accomplish. Good groups can do great things in a short amount of time when the planets align properly.

For a while, I played in a "real" band where we decided on setlists, recorded, practiced hard, geared up for shows, and all of that. On the side, three of the band members just jammed for fun, semi-regularly. It was still somewhat organized, I guess, but the goal was process-oriented, not product-oriented.

And guess which arrangement lasted longer? We were still jamming two years after the "official" band stopped playing together. It was more fun, more creative, and more autonomous.

Later on, when we started morphing the jam sessions into practice sessions and planned gigs, some of the fun went out of it and it didn't last. We were more successful as a sort of looser network of musicians coming together than we were as a band.

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