During my presentation to CK08 Stephen Downes challenged me to clarify if his distinctions between groups and networks matched my own. I had a little trouble determining exactly his criteria- as I am sure he has my own, but I did find a long speech he gave in New Zealand in 2006 titled Groups versus Networks : the class structure continues .

Later I found a shorter explication in the Moodle discussion associated with CCK08

Stephen distinguishes groups and networks on 4 dimensions:

1. groups emphasize sameness, networks emphasize diversity
2. groups emphasize order and control, networks emphasize autonomy
3. groups emphasize borders and membership, networks emphasize openness
4. groups emphasize additive, cumulative knowledge, networks emphasize emergent knowledge

I find  myself agreeing with the first 3 distinctions ideas, though Stephen tends to view things in more black and white terms than I, with less tolerance for gray. But where I think there is substantive disagreement is in the nature of thinking and knowledge production that he claims differentiates groups from networks (#4 above). He wrote in 2006 that:

Because the knowledge comes from the authority, from the center, even if there’s consultation and all of that, the knowledge of groups is limited by the capacity of the leader to know things. And then finally, the nature of the knowledge itself  – the knowledge in a group replicates the knowledge in the individuals and it’s passed on simple in a transmission communication kind of way.

Those of you who are into learning theory think more about transaction theory, of communication theory. It goes from here to here to here to here. And consequently, that limits the type of knowledge that can be created and communicated. I characterized it here a bit badly as simple cause and effect, yes-no sorts of things. The sort of knowledge you can get looking at mass phenomena. The knowledge you can get by polls and things like that.

But in a network, the knowledge is emergent. The knowledge is not in any given individual, but it’s a property of the network as a whole. Consequently, it’s a knowledge that cannot, does not, exist in any individual, but only in the network as a whole. It’s emergent. It’s more complex in the sense that it is able to capture and describe phenomena that are not simple like cause and effect, but complex like the nature of societies or the nature of the weather. That’s a very loose characterization about it.

In educational contexts, we both agree that the common class model of organization is a classic group. Membership is constrained, members develop a sense of being in the class and in many ways define themslves by their class membership, the teacher’s role is one of organization and delivery of information. But the teacher’s role does end at delivery or transmission as Stephen argues. Rather a teacher uses the sense of identity and commitment  of the group, to challenge, motivate and facilitate knowledge construction. In my classes I almost always choose topics with which I have much less than a full understanding. Why should teachers not get to learn things from the commitment and energy used in teaching the group? I use the groups to dig deeper and create knowledge that is in some ways beyond my understanding before the class starts. I usually insist that this knowledge be documented as some sort of artifact on the net, where it can become fodder for further group, network and collective emergence, manipulation, harvesting and aggregation.

The sense of common identity characteristic of groups creates the opportunity for construction of safe spaces. If one doesn’t feel safe one doesn’t learn – or at least not very effectually. I am not suggesting that all groups are safe spaces, but the development of a group sense of shared understanding and support is a critical dimension of some forms of knowledge construction. The most common examples are various forms of therapy groups and the defining features of groups associated with men’s and women’s movement (see for example value of groups as described by Belenky in a Women’s Way of Knowing). Now I appreciate that one would likely never find Stephen in a structured Men’s group, but because they would likely may not work for him, does not mean that knowledge is only reproductive from the leader. The safety of the group not only allows for cognitive processes to be shifted away from anxiety and stress, but also allows group members the freedom to ask tough questions, challenge one another and probe deeply. And I am not saying that such in-depth processing cannot occur in networks, but I often lack the energy, time and commitment to dig deeply in my networked connections. In a group I feel more responsible for the other group members and open myself to challenging emotional and cognitive debate, support and nurturing – all of which may cost me an investment of time, energy and emotional commitment.

The classic group, from hunter/gather days, is the family. I have much more time and commitment for family members than I have for the members of the various networks to which I follow, and even less for the collectives to which I belong. Does this mean that that the only thinking that arise within my family originates in a reproductive way and is controlled by my Mother? Not very likely!, although she got us off to a good start and I still value the knowledge production that comes from the group that is my extended family. In many ways and in many groups to which I have belonged, we have struggled with each other to generate knowledge that is much more than the communicative or even summative aggregation of us as individual groups members.

Finally I disagree with Stephen’s denigration of knowledge that Jon Dron and I  have argued comes from collectives. Stephen writes  “I characterized it here a bit badly as simple cause and effect, yes-no sorts of things. The sort of knowledge you can get looking at mass phenomena. The knowledge you can get by polls and things like that.”

To begin with “looking at mass phenomena”, with or without the aide of groups and networks can be very useful in the production of knowledge- just read Marshall McLuhan or Stephen’s own work. But more importantly the knowledge derived from “polls and things like that” is the type of collective knowledge that we need in order to understand our impact and act effectively as a large number of powerful animals habitating this planet. In aggregation and selective extrapolation to individuals, networks and groups we show our own ideas in the context of mass thinking, ideas and actions. By ignoring this collective activity we inevitably mismanage our planet. We are forced by the size of our numbers and the power of our technology to not only think globally but to act globally as well.

Let me add one more example of the three from an non educational council. I belong to a Unitarian Church. I also am a member of the church board (a group) and we begin each board meeting with a “checking in” in which I share some personal knowledge that I expect to stay with this group. On Sunday mornings we have a tradition of lighting candles of concern and celebration. This is a network activity. The public lighting of the candle and brief explanation of the cause helps network members connect with each other and provides grist for further exploration and ‘networking’. Finally Unitarians act collectively in support of social justice issues and in aggregation, I think we make a small but significant contribution. So, Unitarians act in groups networks and collectives. One is not better (or worse) than the others, but each plays an important role in human development, action and knowledge production. Further, the behaviours that support and define each of the three are quite different, as our tools we use to advance our aims and aspirations.

Another thread running through the CCK08 discussion relates to the value of the distinction between groups and networks and collectives. I think it is an important distinction in education because it functions as heuristic guiding our choice of appropriate behaviour, selection of tools and learning activities. A heuristic is an aide to cognition derived from the Greek word “heuriskein – to discover, to find out”. Although not infallible and occasionally leading to simplistic error, heuristics allow us to quickly and efficiently reduce complexity so as to aid decision-making. Moustakas (1990) defines a heuristic as “an internal search through which one discovers the nature and meaning of experience and develops methods and procedures for further analysis p. 9” and I would add for further action. Being able to differentiate amongst the three and insuring that learners have experience of learning in all three contexts is an important function of the teachers’ role in formal education.