Scott Wilson notes some concerns with the “lack of clarity” between the three entities of the Many that Jon Dron and I have been discussing and blogging about.

An educational taxonomy or a model gains its pragmatic value by the extent to which it helps practitioners and online learning researchers develop, implement and assess learning contexts, environments and activities. This value is enhanced by clarity and lack of overlap and redundancy in the elements of the model. I won’t argue that our work is the “definitive work” but, I continue to believe that it is useful to think of social and networked learning to be contextualized by these three broad domains. A quality learning experience might be focussed at one level of the many, but learners gain greatest value by exploiting the affordances of all three. In fact one could also argue that an educational experience is not complete unless it exploits the affordances of groups, networks and collectives.

For example, a group might be supported on a LMS (hopefully accessed and supported from a PLE), that would provide motivation and application to use networks consisting of those outside the group from which learners could create, consume and validate new knowledge. The group would also exploit and aggregate individual, group and network derived information and knowledge by making them available to the collective where it can be combined, segmented, aggregated and mashed to produce new information for use by the group and a variety of individuals and networks.

We have noted that certain tools were designed for or have become associated with different dimensions of the Many, but we have never argued that tools cannot be appropriated for use by others aggregations. For example, blogs seem primarily designed for networks. There they allow for comment and trackback, are syndicated for selective reading and are archived for retrieval by a loose network of subscribers. We also see examples of blogs that are shoe horned into use by groups. For example, I recently heard a presentation where blogs were being used in a password protected course with very proscriptive instructions such as “you must make at least two postings and comment on the posts of three other members each week of the course”. This seems but a step backwards from the threading and other management services provided by all major LMS systems developed to support learning in groups.

Other tools are used by many different levels of the many. For example wikis are useful for small class projects by groups, by networks to capture and document flow of discussion and by collectives such as Wikipedia, where any and all can contribute and harvest. My point is that the level of the Many should not be defined exclusively by the tools that are most commonly used for their support.

Bounded networks such as elgg, nicely span all three levels of groups, networks and collectives. These tools allow networked tools (blog posting, files and profiles) to be restricted to groups and communities. They thus function as a wolf in sheep’s clothing, providing a network like openness feel to both production and consumption, while allowing (but not requiring) limitations on consumption to specific groups. At one level, these restrictions serve as “training wheels” allowing learners to experience and play with network tools and techniques within the context of a safe group. At another level this protection resonates with the original function of universities which was to serve as refuge for scholarship where ideas can be discussed and questioned outside of fear of suppression by external governments or ecclesiastic restraint. I find elgg and other controlled distribution systems to be useful tools to introduce active participation in networks to new users, while allowing individual users to determine the degree to which they wish to expose their ideas. Of course riding a bicycle with training wheels is cumbersome, not just a little embarrassing, once one’s skill and confidence levels increase and I assume that elgg users will, in their time, use widely distributed open blogging tools to more widely distribute their ideas.

The distinctions between groups, networks and the collective can, an are are muddied by practice, tools and intent, however, I continue to believe that noting how how all three can be used to enhance formal and informal learning and teaching are useful distinctions. Keeping the affordances and education potential of all three levels in mind helps us to evolve learning activities and course designs that meet determined learning outcomes, but more importantly provide experience and expertise with lifelong learning models and tools.