Friday, March 4, 2011

CCK11: Complex Networks and Knowledge

I think that the concepts of complex networks that I've gleaned so far from Morin and Sporns and of decalcomania that I've taken from Deleuze and Guattari lay two cornerstones for my emerging view of knowledge and learning.

First, complex networks suggest that knowledge is not a single thing, or single think (sorry, I couldn't resist, and I may yet edit this awful wordplay); rather, knowledge is a network of patterns enclosed by larger patterns and enclosing smaller patterns. Any given knowledge pattern is constantly open to the dynamic interactions of all those other various patterns on their various levels. This reinforces Morin's admonition that we define any entity—a cell or a word, say—not from its boundaries inward, but from its center outward. Or better yet, we should define a cell from its center both inward and outward. The center of the cell is not an endpoint of definition; rather, it is the starting point of definition, and to understand the cell, we must move from that center both outward to larger patterns and inward to smaller patterns. The cell must be understood as itself and as a part of an enclosing ecosystem and as an ecosystem for other entities, all dynamically interacting with each other, affecting each other and being affected by each other. Any given knowledge is like this cell: recognizable and addressable as itself, and yet not completely understood without consideration of its constituent parts and its ecosystem and of the ways that it interacts with both those micro and macro scales.

Thus, my knowledge of Connectivism is in fact a pattern of neurons, but that is just a starting point. Moving inward, that pattern of neurons encloses various patterns in different regions of the brain. Each of those patterns encloses individual neurons and individual electro-chemical processes, which enclose individual cells and electrical charges, which enclose other things, and other things, and other things, all the way down to quarks and strings, and maybe beyond that if we ever develop instruments that can see that far in. Back to our starting point and moving outward, the pattern of neurons that is my knowledge of Connectivism is enclosed by my conversation in MOOC CCK11 (among numerous other conversations I'm having—for instance, this blog), which is enclosed by an ecosystem of larger thought about education, which is enclosed by a larger system, and then a larger system, and then the entire Universe, and maybe beyond that if we ever develop instruments that can see that far out. To understand completely my knowledge of Connectivism, then, I must understand everything else.

This, of course, is absurd silliness. It is also our hope for the future. There is no end to learning anything, so we should never be bored. However, in the everyday discourse of common day, we simply can't let a single cell or bit of knowledge bleed into everything else in the Universe, even though it is quite literally connected to everything else in the Universe. A cell or an idea must in some useful way be recognizable and describable and must have potency in and of itself. How do we get out of this predicament?

Perhaps Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler have an answer for us in their book Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives (2009). In describing how social networks work, they note that the influence of people extends out to about three degrees of separation. In other words, the patterns of our own lives influence our friends, our friends' friends, and our friends' friends' friends. After that, the potency of our patterns of behavior and belief fade and lose their efficacy. Perhaps some mechanism similar to this is at work among the various levels of patterns of any given entity. What do I mean?

Well, consider my knowledge of Connectivism as a single cell. My knowledge is still a recognizable entity with some potency within the context of this blog, though this blog also discusses other things. My knowledge is still recognizable and potent within the context of MOOC CCK11 and the larger discussion about Connectivism, but I think you an begin to see that my unique knowledge is beginning to fade in this larger conversation as it joins to and is overwhelmed by more voices and stronger voices. As my voice moves into a choir, my own unique tone and tenor becomes blended and a different voice emerges, a group voice. Connectivism means something different at this scale. Though my own meaning may still be recognizable, at two or three degrees removed from my single voice—my single understanding—the unique pattern of my knowledge begins to fade into the wider pattern of the general conversation about Connectivism. When we move up to a larger choir—the discussion of education in general—then my voice is quite lost, its identity and potency subsumed by and faded into the cacophony of voices. There are still a few voices potent and identifiable at this scale—Dewey, Piaget, Bloom, etc.—but most voices have long since drowned.

Thus, while I can trace the connections of my single knowledge about Connectivism to infinity and back (assuming I have the time, patience, focus, tools, and skill set), it makes great sense day-to-day to speak of my knowledge of Connectivism as a unique, identifiable entity with its own potency and contours and center. Being an English scholar, I think this entity is something of a convenient fiction, but it makes life much easier to manage.

I'll talk next post about decalcomania.
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