Posted tagged ‘network theory’

The big myth of social networking

16 August 2011

A little while ago, someone tweeted his awe of the fact that over 600 million people are connected to each other on the one platform, ie Facebook.

Facebook friendships visualised

This got me thinking, are all these people really “connected”…?

I’m sure you’re familiar with the Six Degrees of Separation principle. It holds that on average, anyone is only 6 personal relationships away from anyone else. Whether Facebook adds anything to the equation is questionable.

Take Madonna for example.

Madonna has a Facebook page – well, I think it’s her. There’s a problem already. For the sake of this argument, let’s accept it’s her.

I can write a message on her wall and hope she replies, but that’s not really the point. I could also mail her a letter or press the buzzer at her Hollywood mansion.

The point is connectedness. For the theory to hold up, I must be only 6 Facebook users away from the Material Girl, and thereby be able to engineer a personal introduction.

Maybe in theory I can, but while I know who I’m connected to, I don’t really know who they’re connected to, let alone who they are connected to. And that’s only a few degrees in.

Sure, I could ask “Does anyone know anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows anyone who knows Madonna?”, but that would be a tad silly. No one could possibly know.

Alternatively, I could say “I’m trying to meet Madonna – can you arrange an introduction? Pass it on…”

Again in theory, my message would reach someone who could indeed arrange an introduction, but the probability of that happening is ridiculously low. Human nature dictates that a rapidly diminishing number of people will pass it on, let alone to the extent required to get a hit.

So while 600 million people are technologically connected on Facebook, practically they aren’t because everyone’s effective network only stretches so far.

The best we can do is stretch it as far as possible.

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Connectivism and the modern learner

28 December 2008

Recently, I read a blog article about connectivism by Debora Gallo. Soon after, I attended a presentation about m-learning by Jan Herrington, in which she too mentioned connectivism.

This got me thinking… I don’t know anything about connectivism!

So after several hours of unenlightened googling, I decided to bite the bullet, go back to first principles and read George Siemens’ seminal paper, Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age.

Theoretical foundations

Siemens describes connectivism as “the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organisation theories”.

Network spheresAccording to Chaos Theory, everything is connected, as illustrated so eloquently by the Butterfly Effect.

While chaos may appear a random mess at first glance, the theory holds that order does in fact exist.

So if we view chaos through the lens of Network Theory, we see the universe as a massive, complex network. While the millions of nodes may appear disparate and unrelated, they are all indeed connected (however indirectly).

The point for the learner is whether you can recognise the underlying pattern. Meaning already exists in the world… but can you see it? Mother Nature hasn’t drawn any lines for you: you have to join the dots yourself.

Learning in the digital age

Siemens bills connectivism as “a learning theory for the digital age”.

The amount of knowledge in the world is growing exponentially – and to make matters worse, it’s superseding itself quicker than ever before. So while it’s one thing to join the dots, new dots are popping up all over the place!

In this context, the idea of connectivism re-defines what it means to “learn”.

These days, we can’t know it all. There’s simply too much to internalise and it changes too quickly. Instead, we need to exploit technology to extend our knowledge beyond our own brains.

World, keyboard and mouse

Specifically, we need to connect to sources of information, and to form connections between them. In other words, we need to recognise meaningful patterns among distributed sets of information. This is the new process of “learning”.

In a sense, connectivism is about self-organising our personal learning networks. We don’t have all knowledge in our heads right now, nor do we necessarily want it. Most of it is hosted elsewhere, but through judicious networking we assume it as our own. In this way, we have access to it whenever we need it.

In fact, Siemens maintains that “the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing”. I interpret this to mean that as time goes by, new knowledge becomes more relevant in the real world, while existing knowledge becomes obsolete. Therefore we need to maintain our connections to the new knowledge.

That’s why connectivism focuses on the sources of information, rather than on the information itself. Information comes and goes, but the source of the information will always provide you with the latest and greatest. (That’s the idea, anyway.)

Hence, connectivism represents a major shift in instructional design. Rather than continually feeding learners static information, we need to support their evolution in becoming their own personal knowledge managers.

The hornet’s nest

I didn’t realise that connectivism was so controversial, eg Pløn Verhagen, Downes.

I must admit that I struggled with some of the basic concepts when I first read Siemens’ paper, and I found the lack of practical examples frustrating. A part of me found solace when I realised that others with impressive academic credentials were also questioning various aspects of the theory.

Wasp

However, I accept Siemens’ subsequent point that the discourse since his article was published has helped to create a context of understanding. As I have not participated in those discussions, I shall try to limit my own “unsubstantiated philosophising”.

Moving on

It seems to me that the academic argy bargy has focussed on the epistemology of connectivism.

The constructivist approach to learning, for example, can still involve the same sources of information as the connectivist approach; so the argument isn’t about how or where the learner accesses information, but what they do with it in order to “learn”.

As far as I can gather, no one’s arguing about the pedagogy of connectivism.

It’s universally accepted that the practice of learning has changed in the modern world. To keep up to speed in the knowledge economy, we need to connect to sources of new information. These days we have many excellent tools to do just that, and the modern learner is using them.

Click Me!, courtesy of wagg66, stock.xchng.

So regardless of our theoretical biases, connectivism informs us that we need to supplement the learner’s “know-how” and “know-what” with “know-where”.

Applications

One of the ways we can apply connectivism in the corporate sector is by enriching our employees’ PLEs with relevant, high-quality sources of new information. Consider the following:

  • Create a social bookmarking account to share useful websites.
  • Recommend news feeds, podcasts, blogs and discussion forums.
  • Use Twitter and Facebook to foster social/professional networking.
  • Maintain wikis as JIT knowledge repositories.
  • Promote industry conferences and other external events.

But facilitating connections to good sources of new information is only part of the solution. The learners also need to form the connections between them to drive self-organisation.

Context setting is particularly important. Don’t just insert a simple hyperlink to an information set: explain its purpose. For example, “this website contains full-text copies of the legislation that governs the financial services industry”; “this wiki hosts our product information”; “this news feed informs you of our daily interest rates”.

Let the learners know that they don’t need to remember every clause of every act of law; nor do they need to learn the obscure details of every product the company sells; nor do they need to memorise the company’s interest rates, which are prone to change anyway.

However, they do need to know where to get this information when they need it.

Meta-learning

Finally, connectivism demands some serious meta-learning skills.

Not only must learners identify and self-organise sources of information in the wider world, but they must also continually evaluate the contents. The digital age has set off an avalanche of information: learners need to distinguish between what’s important and what isn’t.

Falling 1's and 0's

To support the development of connectivist meta-learning skills, consider the following:

  • Encourage your learners to find further sources of information for themselves.
  • Encourage them to share these sources with their colleagues via Web 2.0, and to explain their relevance.
  • Run exercises or workshops to develop their content evaluation skills.
  • Provide case studies illustrating how new information has affected existing situations in the real world.

Our role, therefore, is not only to assist our colleagues in sourcing new information, but also in managing it effectively. Only then can they become self-directed, self-regulated and, ultimately, self-made in the knowledge economy.

Network Theory

29 October 2008

Last night I watched a fascinating documentary on the ABC called How Kevin Bacon Cured Cancer.

The title of the show alludes to the humourous yet intriguing trivia game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, which itself is based on the urban myth Six Degrees of Separation. In the game, players try to connect random movie stars to Kevin Bacon in as few steps as possible.

Take Cate Blanchett for example. Cate was in the movie The Shipping News with Deborah Grover, who was in Where the Truth Lies with Kevin Bacon. Cate therefore has a “Bacon number” of 2.

Cate Blanchett was in the movie The Shipping News with Deborah Grover, who was in Where the Truth Lies with Kevin Bacon.

Alternatively, Deborah Mailman was in Lucky Miles with Don Hany, who was in The TV Set with Kathryn Joosten, who was in Rails & Ties with Kevin Bacon. Deborah therefore has a Bacon number of 3.

Deborah Mailman was in Lucky Miles with Don Hany, who was in The TV Set with Kathryn Joosten, who was in Rails & Ties with Kevin Bacon.

Try it yourself at The Oracle of Bacon.

Network spheres, courtesy of gerard79, stock.xchng.Small-world networks

Networks that have a small average shortest path length between nodes, along with high clustering coefficients, are known as “small world networks”.

The Six Degrees myth prompted Duncan Watts of Columbia University and Steven Strogatz of Cornell University to mathematically analyse a range of real-world networks. Their paper demonstrated that the nervous system of a worm, the power grid of the western United States, and yes, the Hollywood filmerati, are all examples of small-world networks. In fact, many systems in the real world are small-world networks.

A common characteristic of small-world networks are “hubs” – those relatively few nodes that have relatively high numbers of connections to other nodes.

Applicability to e-learning

Network theory has been applied to activities as diverse as epidemic control and counter terrorism. I wonder if it can also be applied to e‑learning?

Leaving the obvious (Facebook) aside, let’s consider blogs. Individual blogs frequently link to other blogs, creating the network that we call the “blogosphere”.

If we analyse the blogosphere through the lens of network theory, can we identify the hubs and, by inference, isolate the key sources of knowledge? Should those (relatively) few blogs then be the ones you put into your blogroll?

I’m sure there are countless more potential applications of network theory to e-learning. It’s certainly an avenue worthy of further exploration.