Saturday, 3 January 2009

Groups, networks, collectives... or what?

Lately I have been a bit at a loss with how to define what we are doing with our new AEC-NET project. I have been trying to come to terms with the distinction between 'groups, communities, networks, collectives, teams, crews...', and I guess the list goes on.

It all started with my brief, and very superficial, connection with the online course 'Connectivism and connective knowledge', in which a whole week was dedicated to heated discussions about the ins and outs of these terms. For me at the time, it got far too hair-splittingly academically involved to seriously focus on it, although I must admit it made me reflect on the role of our international school projects in this context.

Many seemed to think that in 21st-century education networks should be the preferred learning environments. Compared to more closed, monitored, controlled and regulated groups, which require membership through usernames and passwords, networks are open and flexible, bottom-up and allow for more diversity and autonomy. According to this view, our project then is clearly a group, although when it comes to what Jon Dron wrote about groups in the following quote, I am not so sure any more.

Groups often form around tasks. Groups are about community, cooperation,
commitment and collaboration. A classic group would be supported by software
such as discussion forums, mailing lists and chat rooms.

This year we have consciously moved away from the more traditional school project model with one theme, one common goal and hence, one joint end product. The reason for this is the attempt to enhance student motivation by giving them more freedom to choose the topics to discuss rather than the old teacher-assigned homework-style task, which easily lead to uniform, uninvolved, even boring products. Having said this, true there is still a task at hand that all members of the project should accomplish, which is to actively participate, in one way or another, in our Ning. Hmm, gets confusing. Cooperation, commitment, collaboration - yes, all these are part of the project. But how about the tools? We are using a social network service, as to me it seems to serve our purpose best. But as it's 'a closed network', it is more like a group using a network tool, isn't it? Scott Wilson introduced the idea of 'a bounded network pattern', which 'corresponds to the use of specific social networking services to support a community'. This sounds more like what we are experimenting with.

In the end, I came to the conclusion that the point isn't really how we should call our group/community/network, but rather defining the purpose of the project and then finding working tools.

Finally, one more serendipitious online path led me to Jenny Mackness's blog post about exactly that. I couldn't agree more! Jenny lists 4 ideas for teachers when planning group/network activities.
1. Determine the purpose of the group, network or collective activity (my ideal would be that ultimately this would be negotiable and jointly agreed).
This is what we have more or less done, and it has been jointly agreed by the teachers involved and will still be negotiated with students once spring term starts in each school. Our purpose is as follows: "What is it like to be young in Asia and Europe today? What are you concerned and passionate about in your daily lives? What has really caught your interest in your studies at school, or in the media? What do you want to learn about and discuss with other young people in the participating countries? Our project is a small move into experimenting with new ways of learning. We want to give our students the chance to develop their understanding of what they are learning by sharing their interests, passions and concerns with other young people in different countries. We believe that by doing so, first externalising and conceptualising their learning and then getting feedback and responses from others, they will be able to gain a deeper understanding of whatever it is they are studying. "
2. Make students aware that they may be unaware that they are part of a collective -and discuss this, particularly in relation to their online persona and how this can be used by others and how they can harvest from a collective to their advantage. I did not know about collectives before reading Terry’s article, but it makes sense.
Students' online presences and several other issues connected to it will be discussed by all the participating students with their teachers. As for 'harvesting from a collective to their advantage' - I still have to work to understand this.
3. Use groups when we (I/students) want to develop a sense of mutual support, mutual responsibility and promote collaboration and a sense of belonging - using
f2f work and tools that assist this kind of working such as those typically found on a VLE. Like Terry, I don’t see groupwork disappearing anytime in the near future and hopefully it never will.
In a formal school setting, with very fixed schedules, a loose, open network simply wouldn't work, other than for individual students building their own online PLEs outside the classroom. Naturally, it can be questioned whether an online group with some network qualities created by teachers serves any purpose at the present stage of educational development. I would justify my practice, though, by arguing that it is one baby-step forward. It is utopistic to imagine that the whole massive school institution would evolve into self-organised networks of autonomous learners in an instant. What's more, I feel that it's my responsibility to instill values such as commitment, mutual trust and reciprocity in my students. These are not considered essential in networks, if I have understood what I have read correctly. I remember reading several times that people just post questions into the vast virtual space of their networks without ever expecting any answers. How strange! But then, I guess I am quite old-fashioned in many ways. If this is regarded as existing and accepted reality in online learning networks, then it begs the question if I am, in fact, doing our students a disservice by guiding them to be empathetic and considerate towards others, to reply posts promptly, to take an interest in many things and not just follow their own agenda. Won't they feel totally lost once they venture into the REAL world of networks? Or, alternatively, maybe the path forward should be somewhat more humane and less selfish than what the present model of networked learning sounds like? It can't be 'one size fits all' - a lot depends on the context. There are many different kinds of groups and networks, and very often they overlap and the distinctions become fuzzy.

4. Recommend that students use networks to link with others/sources of information outside the group, using blogs, photo sites, social networking sites and so on. I see ‘networking’ increasing as a way of working and whether or not academic institutions put blocks on the types of technological affordances students can access, there is so much ‘free’ software out there now, that students will just do their own thing anyhow. As lecturers we may as well work with them and exploit the benefits.

This is exactly how I feel, too. My humble hope is that by introducing students, all of whom are by no means familiar with online activities yet, to responsible online presences, the threshold for them to voluntarily continue building their own PLEs in the future will be somewhat lower. Perhaps...

What a long post to convince myself that what I will be doing in the new school term makes any sense.

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