Knowledge Networking


For much of the 1990s, innovators in online learning discussed students as learning in online communities - that students in a unit of study were a 'community', deploying ideas and concepts from the general field of knowledge about virtual communities. This probably remains applicable. However, the rise in thinking about 'networks' - especially online social networks - suggests a new approach. In this approach, a student who knows something about X, or wants to know about X (ie can either contribute to, or draw from the total pool of knowledge about X), is therefore going to learn better when they are positioned as a node in the knowledge network 'X'. By recasting our ideas about assessment to include both activities inside the learning community and also contributions outside it, we are creating that nodal possibility.

Understanding knowledge networks in relation to norms of community

Networks as connectivity

When we think about knowledge networks, the status of the individual 'member' of such networks becomes a key issue, particularly when comparing members of networks and communities. Individuals remain distinct and alone, while at the same time connected multiply to others in several networks. By this, I mean that the individual's sense of connection and purpose is less governed by the 'membership' of the network and more by their own individual circumstances, as compared to a community in which individuals to a greater or lesser extent suppress individual needs and expectations in favour of allegiance to group / community ambitions. There is a sense of 'reserve' in network membership which, while also present in many individuals within communities, remains stronger: the forces at work within a network do not tend to draw members closer together in the way that community forces do. Part of the reasoning behind this conclusion comes from the manner in which people are 'members' of a network: their membership is enacted through the information transactions, the degree to which they participate in information flow. Put simply community membership exists regardless of participation - one is either a member or not, and participation is a signal of the degree of commitment and contribution to the community. In a network, participation as an informatic node is membership. One does not join a network so much as connect with it: disconnecting is relatively easy, and connecting depends on having the knowledge deficit or surplus necessary to plug in. Good networks involve protocols and ports suitable for ensuring easy connection.

Knowledge community

A knowledge community differs from a network in that individual members have more collective, coherent purpose and consciously attend to the group of people, as a group, rather than as a network of individuals. Ultimately, a knowledge community is both its individual members and the sum of those individuals at the same time, working dialogically (i.e as well as conversations between members, there is an implicit dialogue between members and the single group which they form). Shared activities, sociability, and something beyond the instrumental focus on particular knowledges matter. Indeed, a knowledge community is most likely to be distinguished and have character through the internal and external transactions it conducts which are not to do with knowledge work. Shared interests in certain domains of knowledge bring a community together, but the community's success is dependent on the contextual processes of community formation and maintenance. It can be argued that a knowledge community comes into existence, or has a reason for existence, when a particular purpose or condition makes it necessary or possible for greater coherence between individuals.

Network or community?

An example of the difference might be seen in the Association of Internet Researchers. The Air-L email list, while the nominal origins of the 'community' that is AoIR, actually serves as one main medium through which a knowledge network around internet research is sustained. The Association itself is a community. Literally this difference is marked out in the fact that one can belong to the list, but not be a member of the Association. More substantially, we see how the knowledge community that is the Association involves intra- and extra-association activities and exchanges which focus on the Association itself, with the knowledge work being secondary, or a consequence of the Association. The list, in contrast, involves few if any interactions that are about 'sustaining' itself. It serves as the vehicle for individuals to form a network.

A special form of knowledge community: the learning community

While knowledge communities involve learning, as indeed do knowledge networks, not all knowledge communities are formal learning communities, because learning is not the specific purpose or condition of entry to those communities. Only where a community forms for the express purpose of learning, and where entry and activities within it are primarily concerned with learning outcomes for members, do we get a learning community. Normally, units of study within a university, can become or involve learning community formation. A learning community of this kind is constituted by the active work of teachers and students to make it so: simply studying or teaching is not enough. There are many university units of study which dont become learning communities because the individual learners remain individuated. A community needs to have some degree of explicitly shared purpose, and attention to the maintenance of the community's bonds that tie individuals together. Common experiences, a sense of belonging contribute significantly. It is one reason why a discussion-forum component within units of study can significantly contribute to the development of community: as in the classical understanding of 'virtual community' the sense of presence, persistence and exchange in a shared space promotes community.

A unit of study is not equivalent to a learning community

It should be remembered, however, that while students may enrol in a unit of study, not all of them will necessarily be part of the learning community. A formal, technical condition of being able to join the learning community is, of course, enrolment. If a person is not an enrolled student in a unit, then they can't be part of its learning community. This situation is given technical effect in internet learning through the inability to access the unit's shared spaces (website, forums etc). A small proportion of students will remain enrolled, but not actually be studying: they are not in the learning community. Another propotion of all enrolled students will actually study, but not engage in, or effectively be inside the learning community. They do not, or cannot, share goals and experiences and, while often successfully able to complete their studies, essentially avoid studying within the learning community. The majority of students will, however, be in the learning community, though their attachment, commitment and contribution will vary widely.

Differences between knowledge networking and learning community

Differences between knowledge networking and learning community as they relate to knowledge

Membership of a learning community is much more strictly regulated and managed by factors and processes ultimately unconcerned with knowledge work. For example, the person with much to contribute who is not a student or teacher, can't 'connect' because the community won't allow connection from 'outside'. One has to be inside the community to contribute, or pass information through a community member. Knowledge networks, by contrast, enable connectivity based on the value of the contribution / capacity of the connecting individual to transact informatically. learning communities, especially in a system which prioritises and valorises individual achievement and individual competition (e.g. grading students individually), create tensions between conflicting group and individual outcomes, group-oriented and individual-oriented 'success'. Knowledge networks are much more accommodating of difference, since there is essentially no 'group' - just connected individuals whose relations are one-to-one-to-one, (etc), not one-to-many-to-one.

Differences between knowledge networking and learning community as they relate to web technology

Learning communities can and should depend on the tools and spaces of the web, whether those be artificial systems such as Blackboard; or services/spaces within the web generally like Google groups / docs; or even specific tools or sites. The central requirement, however, is not the system or technology but the capacity of that system to create a space that is occupied by the community and, by analogy with physical space, therefore owned by it in some manner. This space becomes the place of community. The norm that the place is private, or mostly private, emerges because privacy implies a boundary between this place, and the space surrounding it; crossing that boundary locates one within the community, to do community-related work. One participates in a community, through web-based tools that, when constituted as a place in this manner, create the community as distinct from other places and spaces.

Knowledge networks, by contrast, focus on the nexus between people and ideas, between individuals and what they know or want to know. They 'do' knowledge work through the interlinking of numerous distributed nodes. A network, therefore, doesn't occupy space, doesn't create place (think, by analogy, of the difference between warfare between communities on physical terrain, and warfare between the West and Al-Quaeda - asymmetric warface between nations and a nation-less ideology). The de-territorialisation that network technologies produce (Castells) comes to the fore: not only are they de-territorialised in the sense that physical space and the places located in space are less relevant, but also that the space/place analogies become less useful in understanding what happens. If the 1990s was the era of virtual space, we might now consider ourselves to be in the era of virtualised relations, spread across spaceless networks and the places within space.

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