Networks are Groups

11/12/2006 04:11:00 pm

Group: a number of people or things located, gathered, or classed together.

Network: a group of people who interact together.

Community: 1 a group of people living together in one place. 2 (the community) the people of an area or country considered collectively; society. 3 a group of people with a common religion, race, or profession: the scientific community. 4 the holding of certain attitudes and interests in common.

Last week I wrote a post called Coming of Age where I tried to articulate my discomfort with what I believe is a natural consequence of how the edublogging community has been growing. Namely, the advent of naysayers and critics who express their disagreement with the views or practices of others through personal attack.

It generated some comments, most of which were of a "cheer me up" sort of sentiment for which I'm grateful.

Graham Wegner both left a comment and continued the discussion on his own blog. This is my attempt to reply to the issues Graham raised.

The focus of Graham's comments revolve around my taking exception with a post by Stephen Downes called That Group Feeling and his definitions of groups and networks. Leigh discusses Stephen's views here and Stephen speaks about his views here.

In That Group Feeling Stephen objects to the formation of groups bound by emotional attachments where individuals are excluded from participation; often painfully. He relates this to schoolyard cliques; where being on the "out" side of the "in" group is exceptionally painful; particularly at a time in a young person's life when they are struggling with their personal identity formation. He extrapolates from this to unspecified learning theories that are detrimental to the growth and education of individuals who don't fit that(?) particular educational paradigm. In the video on Leigh's blog and in Stephen's talk he contrasts the concept of group with that of networks. Groups are exclusionary, requiring membership to belong, closed systems with a "leader" at the helm uniting individuals through their emotional attachments to each other or the group concept. A network is an open collection of autonomous individuals united by rational thought.

Graham asks: "What do you hear when you read that post?"

I hear a lot of effort poured into making a distinction that doesn't exist. A network is a group. In particular a network is a type of group just as a community is a type of group. Online learning is about the formation of groups with a particular goal: education. The sorts of groups teachers seek to orchestrate for their classes are communities of learners who network with each other to advance their learning. The lists Stephen draws up are all characteristics of different types of groups. To try and pin down the boundaries of a concept like "groups" leads to a sorites argument. ("How many grains of sand form a heap? One, two, three ... exactly where does the collection of individual grains make the leap into becoming a heap?" Answer: There is no answer. The concept "heap" does not have such rigid boundaries. Same with groups.)

Graham writes:

I'm still no closer to really understanding what community means to me.

Or to anyone else, for that matter.

I can only say what community, in this context, means to me.

The edublogging community is a group of people with a common profession that have certain attitudes and interests in common. It is an open, diverse group made up of autonomous individuals. It is a network of people (and groups) who come together to share their experiences, frustrations and successes with an eye towards improving themselves professionally and personally. Ultimately, we are all interested in the same thing: improving the education of the children in our lives.

The great strengths of this community lie in it's opennesss; anyone is welcome to join in the conversation. The nature of our online connections has resulted in a network of people most interested in each others thoughts and ideas; in stretching and pushing our thinking to explore the boundaries of our teaching; to extend ourselves beyond our comfort zones and take risks as we grow professionally and personally.

There are leaders among us. But the leadership changes as new voices join the conversation. And what counts as leadership among us is the willingness to share a new idea, a new pedagogy, a risk that we plan to take or have taken, to be transparent in the way we do our work in a profession that has historically been very closed and private with individuals working in isolation.

We each take our turn as leader every time we do something to extend the dialogue in the community. The K12 Online conference was an example of this. I may have been one of three people that helped nurture it to fruition, but I was not alone and the three of us were not the only leaders. Every presenter was leader. Every commenter who challenged the presenters was another type of leader. And the many people who volunteered to be moderators (many of whom had never been part of a skypecast before let alone been a moderator before) for When Night Falls, the closing event, were leaders who stretched the boundaries of their comfort zones.

One outgrowth of When Night Falls is that a group of teachers from all over the world plan to continue learning and sharing together in monthly adaptations of When Night Falls called When Night Starts Free Falling ..... The leadership of that event has nothing to do with Wes, Sheryl and I. The leadership has passed to Chris Harbeck for December. The community will figure out for themselves who will lead the next conversation.

This community has all the values and characteristics that the schoolyard cliques I grew up with didn't. I'm proud to be a part of it. And if anyone else would like to join it then all you have to do is the click the [comments] link below any blog post on the internet.

Come on in ... can't wait to hear what you have to say. ;-)

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  1. Graham Wegner13/11/06 05:40

    Ironically, I should be setting a Mathematics test for my class but I cannot pass up the opportunity to once again pipe up with my own thoughts. Thank you for addressing some of the ideas and questions that I raised on my blog which arose out of your recent post. I don't want to labour on anyone else's opinions (I'm sure you don't either) but I would like to disagree with you on one point where you equate groups with networks.

    If you take your dictionary definitions, then yes, they clearly show that a network is "a group of people who interact together." However, as we live in the era of Wikipedia and knowledge and definitions are up for debate, I think that network can and does take on a different meaning.

    It is really hard to explain in words exactly but if you have ever used the TouchGraph application on your own blog, then you have this amazing moving flexible graphic that depicts the Google-ised connections to your own blog. My own graph makes for interesting viewing. This, to me, is what a network is in the digital age. There are pink and red lines leading out from my blog to key nodes on my network. These are links to bloggers that I reference a lot, highly important nodes on my network. There are tellingly reciprocal blue lines leading back from two other sites back to me. That means reciprocal importance - the closest thing representing an equal "I get as much out of your blog as I do yours" type scenario. There is a blog in close proximity (Ewan Mcintosh) with whom I have had very little interaction but his blog is closely linked to David Muir's (see the grey lines) who has links leading to my Activboarding blog. To me, that illustrates the Web 2.0 network, not as united as the word groups would suggest but serving different purposes for different needs. Every blogger's TouchGraph would be unique, reflecting their close influences, the bloggers who they trade links and references on an equal footing and occasionally (though not shown in mine) there would be links into the central blog by people who find your blog important but you may not even be aware of their existence. On my graph, there are clusters of inter-reference and then there are links on the periphery. And this network is constantly changing - this graph is quite different from the capture I used in a presentation in July.

    So, what's my point? I think that groups are broadly defined by a commonality of purpose but I would suggest that a new take on the concept of network is one where you link into what you can learn from or contribute to. Valuable nodes on the network are ones you return to time and again and quite often, where you forge a relationship based on responses to and fro. That relationship is, in my view, quite different but not exclusive from working on a group collaboration like the K-12 Online Conference where people have joined together for a defined common purpose. Some of the people that I have met online as a result of that venture have not read me much or even know what I do in my work, so they have a different view of me (and I of them) compared to some of my networked colleagues who only know of me through my blog.

    I think of it this way - in my Bloglines subscribers list, there are a heap of names of whom I have no idea about. In my Bloglines feeds, there are quite a few people who don't know that I exist except as a subscriber alias in their subscribers list. This is a network in action in my mind - people accessing what is useful to them and contributing in return in places where they figure their opinion or expertise will be valuable.


    I'm not sure if I have clarified my point of view or muddied the waters even more but there you have it. I don't believe that Networks are Groups.

  2. I guess we're going to have to agree to disagree on this one Graham. ;-)

    I just don't see the value in making a sharp distinction between a "group" and a "network." The notion of "group," approriately qualified for various incarnations of different kinds of groups, works very well.

    Both terms, group and network, have some built-in flexiblity. Locking down the definition of a network into one narrow avenue doesn't do anything to enhance my understanding and, in my view, actually leads to greater misunderstanding when the term network is used by people who may not be "in the know" about how the term is being redefined.

    We can talk about the evolution of a new sort of group, or network, as it evolves from the interactions of people on the internet. We can identify the characteristics of these groups or networks and examine their similarities and differences with older notions and examples of these ideas. But committing ourselves to using the word "network" in an exclusive way doesn't do anything to bring more voices to the conversation. Quite the opposite in fact; it keeps newcomers outside the "in" group and muddles the converstaion every time they read or use the word "network."

    I don't disagree with you that the sort of connections we form on the internet as graphically illustrated by TouchGraph are worth exploring and examining further. Perhaps what is needed is not a redefinition of an old word but a new word entirely (netgroup?). That way, when someone new steps into the discussion they will look up the definition of the word and be able to participate on an equal footing.