Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Nodes and Edges of Connectivism

I've just finished reading Scott Weingart's Demystifying Networks, Parts I & II, in which Mr. Weingart tries to correct the misuse of networks by humanities scholars. He provides a basic and quite clear explanation of what networks are and what they are not, how current technology can analyze networks, and what technology can say about networks, and most importantly, what it cannot say about networks.

Along the way, he provides the DNA for networks, and this reminds me of how fractal and complex networks are, with networks nested within networks and interacting across multiple scales. If networking is part of the DNA of connectivism, then what is the DNA of networking? Weingart gives me a few handles to work with.

He starts his discussion by defining networks in a typical fashion: networks "stand for any complex, interlocking system. Stuff and relationships [emphasis in the original]." He calls the stuff nodes and the relationships edges, in keeping with common terminology. A network, then, is a collection of nodes that are in some way related along recognizable edges. Stuff and relationships, or nodes and edges, are part of the DNA of networks. This is simple and intuitive enough, and Weingart makes this definition directly applicable to connectivism when he notes that
generally, network studies are made under the assumption that neither the stuff nor the relationships are the whole story on their own. If you’re studying something with networks, odds are you’re doing so because you think the objects of your study are interdependent rather than independent. Representing information as a network implicitly suggests not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever’s going on.
Starting with these basic concepts, then, I immediately think that there isn't any information – or any other thing, for that matter – that cannot be represented as a network. Indeed, I agree with Weingart "not only that connections matter, but that they are required to understand whatever's going on." I think this is Downes' point when he says on his blog, "At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks."

Both the Universe and our knowledge of it are network phenomena. Actually, I already object to that statement as it seems to suggest that our knowledge is something apart from the Universe. It isn't. Our knowledge is somehow an active node in the universal network, connected along multiple edges, just as natural an emergent phenomenon as rocks are.

I don't know that either Weingart or Downes would completely agree with the statement that everything is a network phenomenon, but it makes sense to me. I can usefully model everything as a network – this very post, for instance.

This post is a multiscale network: nodes joined by edges to form the nodes joined by other edges at other scales. As nodes, letters network to form morphemes, which network to form words, which network to form sentences, which network to form paragraphs, which network to form posts, which network to form blogs, which network to form conversations, and so on. And this covers just the syntactical view of the network. We can then look at the semantic networks in which subject, verbs, objects, and other nodes network together to create concepts, which network together to create arguments and explanations, which network together to create a belief system, which network with other belief systems to create a conversation, and so on.

It is quite useful to me, then, to think of this post as a network structure, and whatever knowledge emerges herein "is distributed across a network of connections" that shifts in scale from letters and morphemes to conversations about networks, education, and knowledge. This knowledge emerges for me as I write – adding, rearranging, deleting, and shifting words and sentences about – and for you as you read – scanning for patterns of meaning using the syntactical cues I've left behind. I hope that the pattern of knowledge that emerges for you as you read this post is reasonably similar to the pattern of knowledge that is emerging for me as I write this post. If the two patterns are reasonably self-similar (and I'm not exactly sure how we can ever establish that for certain), then I will believe that I have communicated my message to you, that I have somehow transferred knowledge from me to you, even though we both know that nothing was transferred.

But there is no guarantee. Every speaker, writer, or actor is aware that an audience can perceive very different patterns in the same configuration of words, sentences, and paragraphs. My father – an old-fashioned, hellfire-and-brimstone preacher – frequently remarked that most of his congregation heard sermons that he never preached. The message they heard depended more on their own sense of guilt and sinfulness than on his choice and arrangement of words.

Once this post is published, then, it becomes a node in a network of people (you and I) who each engage the overall network of writer, reader, and text from different vantages. It should be no surprise, therefore, that knowledge emerges in different ways for each of us, sometimes slightly different, sometimes radically.

If nothing else then, the complex, multi-scale, network nature of writing helps me understand and explain why even a simple piece of writing such as one of my brilliantly clear and concise writing assignments can receive such divergent interpretations, with almost every student doing something different. If knowledge was a discrete, transferrable thing, then I could give all my students the same thing, but because knowledge is an emergent pattern scattered across a network of words, I can hope only for a reasonably similar pattern blossoming in the minds of my students. Sometimes the magic happens. Sometimes it doesn't.
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