Sept 02, 2004
This very enjoyable presentation looked at informal learning, as exemplified in places like Yahoo Groups, from the perspective of self-organizing systems. What results is some very useful documentation of the fact that learning, a lot of learning, does occur in these groups, and that it is managed without a central authority or even a school. This article is a summary of the presentation by Erin Brewer at the ITI conference in Logan, Utah.
A lot of learning goes on in online groups. I wanted to see if there were things going on in these groups that we could port to more formal instruction. So we ask, how do members of these groups provide peer to peer support for learning.
Some of the literature I looked at studied self-organizing systems in biology, self-organizing systems, small worlds networks (Duncan Watts) and social capital. I also looked at how resources are used to support learning.
Looking at symbiousis. Basically, it's about resource sharing. So maybe there were principles that could be brought into learning. Symbiousis is a continuum from parasitism to mutualism. Parasitic systems tend to move toward mutualistic systems over time - this is different from the typical Darwinian view of competition. It's like dining from the same table.
In order for there to be mutualistic relationships, the combined need needs to be smaller than their cumulative individual needs. Redundant functions can be eliminated and specialized functions developed. They work together and are able to do twice as much. Also, different resources can be utilized. There is a fungus, for example, that can break down resources and deliver them to the network where the network would not be able to access them. New resources can be created.
In an online group, one member may have a need, and another member may combine two resources together to meet that need. This sort of thing also happens in nature.
Self-organizing systems occur when local factors at the decision-making level form global systems. We look at them, and assume there must be a hierrchy - that the queen bee or the queen ant is making the decisions. But what is happening is that each member makes decisions independently, and information is shared. This also happens in physics, when there is a form shift, say, from liquid or solid. The 'decisions' are made at the molecular level, and once one molecule shifts, it quickly spreads to all the other molecules.
In online communities, individuals may feel they don't have that much influence, but one person making a decision may influence a much larger group.
There are lots of solutions to any given problem. We tend to assume there is one best solution, but - Herbert Simon - there are many solutions, depending on various factors, such as cost, for example.
Small world networks happen naturally. Watts again. It's a lot of individuals that are hooked together, and there are some hubs. This is the six degrees of separation concept. These networks are 'scale free' - they can grow essentially without limitation. They make resource sharing very effective.
If you look at online groups, because the membership is so high, there's a pretty good chance that people will have the resource that you want. It's basically 100% - if you have 100 people or more, if the resource exists, you can get it.
The idea of social capital - there are people who spend huge amounts of time finding, explaining and discussing resources. People do this (some say) in order to build social capital. There is also some research into the concept of mavenship, through marketing.
Finally, looking at resource use to support learning. If you look at learning, it's about using resources.
After the lit review, I came up with the concept of an Online Self Organizing Social System (OSOSS). They provide access to resources, transform resources, nurture members, provide access to muiltiple communities. There is no central authority, but they provide an effective system of communication.
Looking at some specific OSOOS - for my study, they had to be viable, they had to have high activity levels (certain numbers of posts), large membership, have public access, and have archives. I wanted a uniform infrastructure because the infratructure could influence the outcome - so I chose Yahoo Groups. I avoided technology topics, because we had looked at that before. I wanted to make sure there was actually dialogue. And some groups - mostly about money and banking - had odd posts, solicitation, etc., and I didn't want to wade through all that.
To study the group, I read all the posts (for a year), followed up outside reosurces (books, websites), and did reosurce identification, via a rubric for types of resources. I did a summary of activities for the threads, devloping a rubric as I went. Finally, I carried out the analysis. The groups selected for case studies were organic beekeepers, microbiology, vegitarian recipe exchange, and bathtub brewers.
Vegetarians - a number of unsolicited resources were offered that met an unstated need. They tended to post very specific needs. Most resources ahared were personal experience, and there was a great deal of negotiation of resources - try this, have you ever tried this, etc. And people very frequently posted appreciation for resources.
Microbiology - requests for resources were asked to be sent directly to the poster (send it to my email, not the group) - this happened a lot, and a recommendation that I make is that if you're in a group, send it to the group. There was agreat deal of mentoring. People were more likely to express decontextualized needs - people would simply ask - this tended to promote negotiation of need - "well what do you need thta for?" Needs were usually questions of practice, and sometimes outrageously general requests. Threads tended to involve only two or three members.
Brewers - posts tended to related to community practices. There was a sense that there is this whole community of bathtub brewers, which really surprised me. There was mentoring to amazing detail in this - people would follow-up questions a month later. There were unsolicited resources posted, as in the vergitarian group. The brewers loved to change the name of the thread - it seemed that every iteration created a name change - so I suggested that people keep thread names the same for a topic, because they're hard to follow otherwise.
Beekeepers - would keep the name of the thread long after it had transformed into another topic. The opposite extreme. Discussions were often about proper practice - what is organic beekeeping, for example. Relied heavily upon opinion and encouragement. Information was often presented as fact, even though it was opinion or based on personal experience. There was a lot of negotiation of need, and the request often changed. Quoted messages were used a lot, which made it really easy to follow. Extremely long threads - I thought, how do these people have the time to respond as they do - how did they find the time to produce the list of resources?
Major types of resources (taxonomy) included personal experience (anecdotes and stories), substantialities (copied materials), referrals, opinions, offers for future assistance, and encouragement (the brewers were great at that)/
So the pedagogy of peer to peer process, we get the concept of 'regotiation' - is a term that captures this process of posting a need, responding to a need, posting a reosource, etc, the iterative process that meets the need. Also, there was the issue of 'macro learning' - how do I learn to learn (in this environment) - how to post a question, etc. And then, finally, content learning - they were learning about how to make beer, keep bees, etc.
the principles I came up with:
- Resources are more easily accessible in an OSOSS - that's why they're part of the group. If they can get the need on their own, they probably won't post to the group. A plant that get everything it needs tends not to form symbiotic relationshiops.
- Resource transformation - one resource can be used multiple ways. People would report different ways of using them.
- Individuals often need the aid of others to identify the 'real' need. I think I need a car. But what I really need is an easier way to get to work.
- OSOOS is a structured place to give people a place to meet, identify needs, and to share and store resources.
- They don't need to be complicated - if you have email, forwarding, and attachments, that's enough.
- Resource sharing should take place within the network rather than offline or in private spaces. I noticed that groups that tended not to be as viable tended to encourage people to post resources in another spot. It discouraged people from contextualizing resources.
- The resources posted are useful both to the community members, but also to the broader internet community. Finding them through Google, for example. Sometimes the context is clear, other times its difficult.
- The more diverse the community, the more stable it tends to be. Boundary members are especially important - creates links with other groups. Before it blossoms into a large group, the initial members need to be more active. But ionce it's established, the workload drops dramatically.
A comment from earlier talked about pooled ignorance - I am glad to be able to say that wasn't the case.
I want to look in the future about why some OSOSS die. What made them fail? Also, I wsn't able to study interactions that took place outside the OSOSS. Also, the study looked at the how but not the why. I'm really interested in the role of the maven within the group. Groups seemed to have 'cheerleaders' - I want to look at that more. I want to understand why some needs get addressed and others don't. And I want to think about applying the results to structured, formal learning environments. (SD - why?)
Comment - on the second point - why not do research on the jerks? I know some groups, one guy, destroyed three or four goups. People argue about whether to shut him down or call him names. It destroys the group. yeah, I only met this once, there was an animal rights activist, and there was an off-topic debate. But I'm not sure I'd want to be the one researching that.
(Asked for a URL - none available yet). SD - relation between openness and diversity, stability and usefulness? By diverse, I mean members coming from lots of different places. The stability of the group was helped by having diverse membership - it was a question of boundary membership - of someone has a need, I can go to another group and pass the question along. It's the strength of weak ties. People in your circle - they know what you know. Someone from, amybe, Georgia, or Indiana, or Zimbabwe, will have access to different resources, ways of thinking.
"We sometimes want to come up with a universal theor of instructional design, but we need to undertsand, certain things fork in different places."