Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Formalism in CCK11

Our CCK11 Elluminate conversation today, 2011 Feb 09, featured guest speaker Neil Selwyn, who said several times that he thought we might lose something valuable if we indeed ever managed to rid our educational selves of formal institutions and practices. I imagine that he meant such things such as universities, school boards, curricula, programs of study, grading scales, and college deans. I think I have a faint appreciation for his point, but first I want to quibble with his use of the term formal.

To my mind, Mr. Selwyn was contrasting the wide open, free, self-directed, personalized, sometimes chaotic connect-and-collaborate informal structures of networks with the closed, restrictive, other-director, depersonalized, usually well-defined command-and-control formal structures of hierarchies. Popular usage of formal suggests that hierarchical structures are formal while network structures are informal, but I disagree. I take formal to mean any structure that is capable of generating a recognizable form on the basis of some regular procedures. If this is so, then a flock of birds is a formal structure: it is recognizable as a structure (a flock) and it is formed on the basis of a few, regular procedures. A fractal image is just as formal as, say, a triangle. A swirling eddy of water is just as formal as, and much more common than, a perfectly executed circle. Some forms are rigid and geometric, while others are flexible and fractal, but all are forms and, in that sense, formal.

That being said, hierarchies are different from networks, or rhizomes (to use my favorite term). Hierarchies are closed, rigid, and authoritative. Networks are open, flexible, and collaborative. Hierarchies are imposed on reality. Networks emerge from reality. I greatly prefer networks over hierarchies, and I suspect that many in CCK11 share this preference and predisposition.

Still, I think that Mr. Selwyn has a point. Hierarchies have built much of human culture for the past few millennia, and perhaps we dismiss them at our peril. It's at least an idea worth contemplating for a few minutes. Of course, in the past, we hardly had any options. If we wanted to build large organizations (churches, states, businesses, universities), then we almost had to resort to hierarchical structures, bureaucracies and such. We did not have the technology to enable one hundred thousand people to spontaneously gather and coordinate their behavior for some effort or play. We needed churches and states for that, so we built them—some big ones, too. In some ways, then, hierarchies have been one of the crowning achievements of humanity. I just happen to believe that they've been rendered somewhat irrelevant by networks, but perhaps not totally irrelevant.

The question, then, is what do hierarchies do well that we should keep them, at least in special cases?

Clay Shirkey posted an essay entitled Ontology Is Overrated that addresses this very issue, I think. What he calls ontological classification is very much like what I refer to by the word hierarchy. They both impose a prescribed order on reality rather than allowing an order to emerge from reality (this is reminiscent of Deleuze and Guattari's distinction between tracing reality and mapping reality). Shirkey makes a strong case that the new technology allows for humanity to largely abandon ontological classification schemes for more flexible tagging schemes for tracking and finding information. However, he notes, classification and hierarchy still have some strengths. Hierarchical classification works best when the domain being organized has:
  1. Small corpus
  2. Formal categories
  3. Stable entities
  4. Restricted entities
  5. Clear edges
This is all the domain-specific stuff that you would like to be true if you're trying to classify cleanly. The periodic table of the elements has all of these things -- there are only a hundred or so elements; the categories are simple and derivable; protons don't change because of political circumstances; only elements can be classified, not molecules; there are no blended elements; and so on. The more of those characteristics that are true, the better a fit ontology is likely to be.
Shirkey adds that this scheme also benefits from being used with certain types of people, those who are:
  1. Expert catalogers
  2. Authoritative source of judgment
  3. Coordinated users
  4. Expert users
If the educational objective fits the above characteristics for both content and students, then traditional hierarchical structures may provide the student and teacher real benefits over a network structure. Thus, the first introduction to a new programming language might benefit from a more formal approach, in the sense that Selwyn was using the term. However, becoming a really good programmer means that eventually we leave the formal behind and move toward the more informal.

Even as I write this, something in me rebels. I'll have to think some more.


  1. I was thinking about this in a similar way, not as astute as yours :), but in relation to our Elluminate sessions.

    I think there's a big energy that happens when we log in to Elluminate and get to hear someone like Neil. That's a formal structure (teacher gets guest speaker on certain day and time, to talk about certain subjects) that operates as a network (no one is forced to be there, required to talk/type, etc.)--and I think it works. Although some of the technology issues (such as, I can't use a microphone) are annoying, I have found myself walking away from the sessions really thinking, really engaged.

    That's a formal structure I wouldn't want to go away even in this relatively informal course.


  2. Leah, I agree that hierarchical education does have some real energy that we shouldn't just dismiss. However, I still believe that network structures will come to dominate the educational landscape, just as hierarchical structures have for the past millennium. And we have to keep in mind that these are not absolutes, but rather points on a sliding scale. The same class can have elements of both and slide back and forth on the scale as needed.

    Thanks for the comments.

  3. To fall into the ontology trap, Selwyn is probably using Formal in, well, it's formal sense in traditional educational theory that often divides learning or education into formal (K-12/post-secondary), non-formal (training, non-institutional), and informal (personal, self-directed) learning. They are not extremely "clean" categories, as I am taking CCK11 as part of a University certificate program, as one example. I just think it is fair to consider terms in discursive contexts, which is not to say that your definition of formal isn't perfectly useful for talking about education.

    Only certain networks are open, flexible, robust, etc. Connectivists and others may prefer these networks to other forms and I agree they are beneficial for some/many forms of learning. I don't agree with the groups/networks distinction, I think if you want to talk about certain kinds of networks, that is fine. I also think it is good to explore what kinds of networks work better in certain contexts and this is worthy of study and experimentation. I like a lot of what happens in CCK11, and most of my own learning in the last decade has come from blogs, user communities, etc. I have a technical, job, however, and these spaces are where the tech people provide the most timely information.

    I think it is very difficult to talk about using network theory and analysis in Connectivism if you aren't going to apply it all types of networks.

    I will have to delve into "Ontology is Overrated", I was intrigued by the title; but haven't had time yet.

  4. DTRSmith, thanks for the comment. Like you, I too "think it is fair to consider terms in discursive contexts." Indeed, that is part of the point I am trying to make about networks: all entities (including words such as formal) are parts of networks such as discursive contexts, and we cannot understand the entity without referencing the network within which it is couched. We cannot understand formal, even in a dictionary sense, unless we understand the context within which it is used. And as far as I can tell, each entity is itself a network. For instance, the individual word formal is a networked pattern of sounds, letters, usages, and meanings that functions and draws life from the larger networks within which it is used and interacts with other words.

    At the end, you say that "only certain networks are open, flexible, robust, etc." I don't know of these closed networks, at least not in the sense that I am using the term network. I googled the phrase closed networks and discovered that it is used mostly to designate a "telecommunications network used for a specific purpose, such as a payment system, and to which access is restricted." I know a bit about networks, having built several in my professional career, and they all emerge from and are maintained by an incredibly rich ecosystem of electrical energy, manufactured devices, money, people, etc. Closed networks are closed only in a very narrow sense: that some people are given access while others are denied, and we all know numerous stories of supposedly closed networks being opened without permission. I suppose there are other communications networks (governmental, commercial, and religious) that try to remain closed, but those too seem all too vulnerable to breaching. Thus, as far as I know, closed networks are extremely rare, and even when they occur, they are seldom truly closed.

    If I have misunderstood your point, please correct me. Or if I just don't know networks, then please provide me some examples. I'm a fairly open network always ready for learning.

    And please find time to read Shirkey's article. It's worth it.