Networks within Networks: Humans, Technologies, and Metaphors

I’ve heard Gardner Campbell talk at length about Networks of Networks as a way to describe what’s happening in a course like his own New Media Studies or ds106. You can listen to him wax poetic on the concept in this talk given to ds106 back in January of 2011. The idea here is that rather than understanding courses like these as MOOCs in terms of massive, broadcast learning experiences, they become localized, fractal relationships that form a loose, yet dynamic, community born out of the web (not unlike the metaphor Mike Caulfield has been exploring with Inter Library Loan and online learning here).  I love this idea, and for me it’s a jumping off point for beginning to understand scale in new, more complex and compelling ways. The idea of numbers is compelling only insofar as you are trying to monetize those numbers, the figures of fractal course frameworks and transformative learning networks are much harder, though not impossible, to assess because it begins to outline the contours of humanity in these courses. In fact, the very idea of constantly using and re-using new relationships between ideas to explain these technologies seems distinctly human—but I have to admit I don’t speak dog 😉

The occasion for thinking about the Networks of Networks idea came while playing around with Jeff Mcclurken’s ds106 blog last night.  And let me say it’s awesome to see Jeff playing around with ds106, and his reasons for doing so are exemplary—walking the walk is always awesome. What’s more, mcclurken.org is actually a mapped network on UMW Blogs, not a mapped domain but a mapped network, and the difference is significant. Jeff can build a series of sites within his own domain that remain within the larger network of UMW Blogs, a network of networks that anyone and everyone inside (or outside of UMW Blogs) can create. As we move forward with the Domain of One’s Own project (which is a done deal and provides 400 faculty and students their own domain and web hosting the first year) we can start approaching the idea of setting up these spaces as networks of thought and interaction rather than the more static connotation of a site.

What I ‘ve always loved about WordPress is as a technology it provides a solid metaphor for the concepts of networked learning, web-based platforms, and distributed openness—it’s not surprising either because it’s an application of and on the web—a result of years of  web thinking, to quote Jon Udell. So when I was fixing a bug in Jeff’s network that was preventing comments on the site (basically the Cookies for Comments plugin had a rewrite in the .htaccess file that was borking all comments on networks other than UMW Blogs) it occurred to me that Jeff’s mcclurken.org is not just a mapped site, but a network of his work that other faculty and students can also create. From there the question of how we think about syndicating and aggregating these networks so that they make sense and provide possibilities for serendipitous discovery. This is just one of many questions that we have to grapple with in regards to the Domain of One’s Own pilot that we are starting at UMW. Let’s not force people to use the web hosting as much as we let them decide from a menu of options for mapping on an external service, networking on UMW Blogs, creating their own, etc.

Image credit: Scott Schrantz's "Monterey Bay Aquarium"

More than anything though, the macguffin that will be driving my thinking for the next year is how can we use aggregation and syndication to bring individuals, courses, and departments to the umw.edu website in a seamless way so that our university’s WordPress install can leapfrog UMW Blogs and become the public platform for syndicating and aggregating the activity around the community in order to demonstrate the life of the mind at UMW and beyond. This is an idea Cathy Derecki and Curtiss Grymala have been pushing for a while, and I outlined it at a recent talk I gave at Penn State University that the great Brad Kozlek was kind enough not only to attend, but also to take pretty comprehensive notes. The “university website is not a brochure – but a fish tank providing a view into the activity of community,” and the fact that UMW is soon to have numerous levels of engagement at the individual, course, and department level will allow us to start imagining what this might look like in terms of representing the work being done throughout the community in some simple, dynamic, and enagaging ways on the web.

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5 Responses to Networks within Networks: Humans, Technologies, and Metaphors

  1. Jim, thanks for the plug! We are with you all the way on this one!

  2. Mike C. says:

    I haven’t heard the Networks of Networks speech yet — but my experience is that informal networks are most powerful when they interact with more formal networks. I think of it in programming terms — the formal networks are say like flickr and WordPress, and the informal network is like the scripting code that ties them together in unexpected ways. Formal networks are great with defined problems, but rigid. Informal networks are messy but opportunistic.

    I’m sure someone has said this all much better. And I think Jon Udell could write a book on this. Because his point has never been “Let’s replace the library with a flat network that goes direct to consumer” but rather — what would happen if we networked Amazon.com together with your local library and a Facebook feed? I hope I’m not misrepresenting here. I think I first saw the term “net-enabled” in Jon’s writing, long before I knew him. And it struck me how much wisdom was in that term. You can’t ask whether networks will replace institutions, because it is a category mistake. The real question is how do we net-enable our institutions….it’s a fundamentally different way of thinking about things that our either/or press is incapable of understanding…

  3. Todd Conaway says:

    Let me look sillier than usual for a moment because while I was initially intimidated by the big words in blog title and almost did not read it, I did, and I had insight. If only for a brief and instantly forgotten second.

    ?learning to learn is to course content what human connections are to a specific place?

    Hmmm. I can’t splain it. In SOP of a standard course, content directs the learning activities and we should rather have more “student/instructor” inquiry of content direct the actions within said course. And so then, within the network we need to leverage the connections (and things like trust/responsibility/”emotional stuff”) and make them push the spaces along. I sort of see the ds106 story-line as having been through this process and continuing it.

    Funny to read this now because earlier this morning I sent a very quickly written four paragraphs about “what I know about MOOCs” to the president of the college here. I could have just sent your post. I essentially said that key to them was open and the possibility of long term connectivity to people and content. I sort of focused on, “mostly people and the futures that such relationships may bring.”

    This is big smart sentence, “…rather than understanding courses like these as MOOCs in terms of massive, broadcast learning experiences, they become localized, fractal relationships that form a loose, yet dynamic, community born out of the web.”

    And this is great too, “…activity around the community in order to demonstrate the life of the mind at UMW and beyond.

    We need to leverage the potential of the stuff in the fish tank so that the community can do more than watch. They can jump in and swim around too.

  4. Tim Owens says:

    Let’s not force people to use the web hosting as much as we let them decide from a menu of options for mapping on an external service, networking on UMW Blogs, creating their own, etc.

    I hear you loud and clear here and I think that’s the beauty of what Domain of One’s Own that there is flexibility for multiple types of students. For those that want to experiment with systems outside of WordPress the world is their oyster with the hosted space. For those who just want a blog maybe UMW Blogs mapped makes sense. And running Multisite for a student is an experiment I’d love to find a willing lab rat for! I am sensitive to what migration will mean for these students and how we will approach those different scenarios to make sure they all have the support to move their data to external systems upon graduation. I think our limited work on migration with this past iteration of ds106 is a good starting point for getting ready for this. And I am ready!

  5. Pingback: How can an online course be superior to a traditional face-to-face course? | Pedablogy: Musings on the Art & Craft of Teaching

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