Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Connectivist Dynamics in Communities

I was asked, "if you could give me some orientation on how I could integrate some questions in the survey (or maybe in the Social Network Analysis) that explain or prove the existence of connectivist dynamics inside the community and if it’s impact can be tested."

That question, in turn, begs the question of what exactly would constitute connectivist dynamics. On the one hand we could say simply that it's network dynamics, and that if we detect network properties (as revealed, say, in social network analysis) then we have connectivist dynamics. But I don't think that just any network constitutes a connectivist network. What distinguishes a connectivist network is that it produces connective knowledge. This is what makes it suitable for learning.

So what constitutes connective knowledge? In my paper An Introduction to Connective Knowledge http://www.downes.ca/post/33034 I describe a 'semantic condition' consisting of four major elements. These elements distinguish a knowledge-generating network from a mere set of connected elements. This, I would say that a test for these four elements would identify a connectivist dynamic within a community.

1. Autonomy - are the individual nodes of the networks autonomous. In a community, this means, do people make their own decisions about goals and objectives? Do they choose their own software, their own learning outcomes? If they are in the network, and function within the network, merely because they are managed - because they're told to be in the network and told what to do in the network - then they are merely proxies, and not autonomous agents. proxies do not produce new knowledge. Autonomous agents, however, do.

2. Diversity - are the members of the network significantly different from each other. Do they have distinct sets of connections? Do they enter into different states, or have different physical properties? Are they at different locations? In a community, this means, do people speak different languages, come from different cultures, have different point of view, make different software selections, access different resources? If everybody does the same thing, then nothing new is generated by their interacting with each oother; but if they are diverse, then their participation in the network produces new knowledge.

3. Openness - does communication flow freely within and without the network, is there ease of joining (and leaving) the network? In a community, this means, are people able to communicate with each other, are they easily able to join the community, are they easily able to participate in community activities? In practice, what one will observe of an open community is that there are no clear boundaries between membership and non-membership, that there are different ranges of participation, from core group interaction through to occasional posting to reading and lurking behaviour. If a community is open, then it sustains a sufficient flow of information to generate new knowledge, but if it is closed, this flow stagnates, and no new information is generated.

4. Interactivity and Connectedness - is the knowledge produced in the network produced as a result of the connectedness, as opposed to merely being propagated by the connectedness? If a signal is merely sent from one person to the next to the next, no new knowledge is generated. Rather, in a community that exhibits connectivist dynamics, knowledge is not merely distributed form one person to another, but is rather emergent from the communicative behaviour of the whole. The knowledge produced by the community is unique, it was possessed by no one person prior to the formation or interaction in the community. Such knowledge will very likely be complex, representing not simple statements of fact or principle, but rather, will reflect a community response to complex phenomena.

My contention is that, if these four dynamics are detected within a community, then a connectivist dynamic exists within that community, and (consequently) the probability of that community producing (new) connective knowledge is increased.

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