That Group Feeling

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Oct 5, 2006, 8:12:31 PM10/5/06
to Teach and Learn Online

I can understand why a network rather than a group would appeal to Stephen Downes who performs the important role of a commentator, working from a base in an academic world where being published and cited is what is rewarded. For others who work in vocational education and training (VET) and schools, like myself, being part of groups and more importantly communities is what is rewarding for both myself and my students. I would like to suggest that a column describing the characteristics of 'communities' is missing from the centre of Stephen's most interesting 'groups' versus 'networks' (NZ) whiteboard diagram. For educators working in schools and VET colleges, the desire to communicate and share ideas and resources within trusted communities of practice rather than open-ended networks, I believe, is evident from the increase in such communities on services such as EdNA Online in Australia. Thank you Stephen and other TALOegians for continuing to stimulate my thinking and sharing your thoughts.

I'd be interested to know if you agree.
Irena White
Marketing Manager, Openbook Australia
Project Director, Openbook Learning
P: (08) 8124 0005   M: 0414 521 605

Sean FitzGerald

Oct 5, 2006, 8:23:59 PM10/5/06
to wrote:

I can understand why a network rather than a group would appeal to Stephen Downes who performs the important role of a commentator, working from a base in an academic world where being published and cited is what is rewarded.

Uh-oh! Tick... tick... tick...  :-)



Sean FitzGerald
Tel: +61 (0)2 9360 3291
Mob: +61 (0)404 130 342
Skype: seamusy
Second Life: Sean McDunnough

If we could see the miracle of a single flower
(or child) clearly, our whole life would change.
-- Buddha


Oct 6, 2006, 9:05:34 AM10/6/06
to Teach and Learn Online
Actually, I'm not too sure that the whole idea of community in an
online setting isn't a bit of a utopian buzzword. To me, a community is
a group. I think more and more educators regardless of sector will want
to participate as part of the network because then they control their
own participation. In a network, not all relationships are equal - in
fact, I can have many people on my network that I learn from who are
not even aware of my existence or even care what I have to say and
likewise, there are people subscribed to my blog, for example, that I
don't read or access for learning. Even if Stephen knows of my
existence (he's referenced a few things I've written!) I gain much,
much more from him than he does from me - that's the network in action.
In my opinion (and anyone can have a shot at shooting me down - it's
probably pretty easy) communities tend to operate on the premise that
everyone involved is pretty equal and that everyone in the community
will gain the same outcomes - group characteristics in my book. I think
it is also erroneous to suggest that educators prefer communities to
networks because until the advent of the read/write web, the network
option wasn't really available or easy to access. So they chose what
was available. Now however, it's as easy as starting your own blog or
wiki. Even a forum like this is a network in my view - I rarely post
here but read a lot, so I'm sucking out a lot more than I'm putting in.
And yes, I know, it says Google Groups.


Oct 6, 2006, 9:05:45 AM10/6/06
to Teach and Learn Online


Oct 6, 2006, 9:06:31 AM10/6/06
to Teach and Learn Online


Oct 6, 2006, 10:01:25 AM10/6/06
i reckon most of the terms we're using are fairly meaningless.

people have always networked, long before the internet or web 2.0 (which i think is *the* buzzword of the year). ditto groups. communities. cults. etc.

so what is it that we're really talking about here? when i participate on this bulletin board am i networking or partipating in a group? does it matter? if i talk to myself (which i sometimes do, posting snarks just for the hell of it, not expecting or attracting a response) does it become a journal entry?  i wrote earlier to a friend about the fluid nature of identity - how we're so "australian" when it comes to playing the allblacks but all bets are off when it comes to state of origin matches.  and does the word "group" mean a thing or does it actually refer to the myriad decisions we make about what we identify with (which then starts to look like a network model with the "i" at the centre)...

yaknow what? i don't really care about the semantics that much. my main problem is understanding how the utopian models can ever evolve from the society i'm living in where things like education laws and public budgets are tampered with by all kinds of different interests long before teachers can become the control freaks that "most" of them are...(hi leigh! :-)))), where we (especially our neighbours, the bastards) care more about mortgage payments and telstra stock than child abuse (in one poll last year council garbage collection issues rated more highly - have since regretted not keeping details/link), where education and training is limited by budget and time because and are x plumbers and tailors and butchers needed NOW and no matter how nice you want to make it some aspects of "learning" are repetitive, boring, difficult and so on.  sometimes in online or other forums i wonder whether i'm just dumb or something cos i can't see the connections between the two worlds being lived and described (and in some cases the worlds being described and the people doing the describing who are sometimes indistinguishable from the groups or individuals they're criticizing).

learning IS often a frustrating, repetitive, behaviourist, tedious, stimulus/response kind of activity.  for instance learning to ski sucks. and is humiliating when 2 year olds nearby pick it up in 4 minutes. and takes AGES to master. no wonder people drink so much while they're doing it.  plumbing, while lucrative enough, involves dealing with lots of sewage. no amount of web 2.0 or open ended courses is ever going to change that. or reduce the need to make sure the people have a specific skills cluster related to it.  and alot of people work in jobs where they wouldn't do it unless they got paid.  most people probably. but they still have to learn how to do it.  or is it the job of the educator to encourage them not to work? (which becomes difficult if the educator is your greedy neighbour who's building that ugly extension and needs a plumber).

dunno what i'm really saying here - this must be one of those "journal" moments i'm having.



Leigh Blackall

Oct 6, 2006, 4:16:29 PM10/6/06
There it is! did you see it? communication in a group:
...before teachers can become the control freaks that "most" of them are...(hi leigh! :-))))

Concious of who is reading, writing in terms of that awareness, writing in a flow on from the previous writer. Hardly any posts stand alone.

Writing (or communicating) in a network is far more individual. For example, when writing to your blog I would say first of all you write for yourself, you write for your blog, and in a way that fits you and your blog style. Indeed, this is what has historically been the main criticism of blogs. Each post (should) clearly referenece others, paraphrase, position itself, etc. And in this way, its/your relationship within a network grows.

Then there is communication in a group - such as this email list. Your online identity (limited by text, pixels and maybe some sound) is dilluted by its existence in this group. I would say that most outsiders say, "you know the TALO group.." rather than, "you know Rose in the TALO group.."... and to take this further, there have been times where the focus of the TALO group has not been in an area I identify with personally, and I am slightly torn by a sense of identity loss when that happens - perhaps becuase I have invested too much of my identity into this group.

So, I am going to try and make an effort to concentrate more of my presense within a network, as in the long run it is more secure and satisfying. I will still watch and listen to groups, but I'm going to make my contributions to the group communications read as though they were made from a networked perspective....

starting now...

Leigh Blackall
skype - leigh_blackall


Oct 7, 2006, 2:25:42 AM10/7/06
to Teach and Learn Online

On Oct 7, 2:06 am, "grahamwegner" <> wrote:

> And yes, I know, it says Google Groups.

>From where i'm sitting it now says Google Groups BETA, which must mean
that you guys are in ALPHA ... you dogs! i'm feeling so emasculated by
it all I think i'll go and start my own page, or add a file ... hmmm...
any podcasts of interest handy ... is this an LMS?



Oct 7, 2006, 7:22:19 AM10/7/06
to Teach and Learn Online
What sort of idiot posts the same thing 3 times - sorry? Somebody show
this guy the door...stick to my blog, I think, the embarassment factor
is lower. I sort of agree with Rose that it is all semantics but people
will argue over the exact meaning of semantics until the cows come
home. If I'm going to be bandying a phrase around like say, "Networked
Learning" then I owe it to those who spend their professional life
developing that concept that I get it somewhat right. But the word
learning community or online community gets thrown around so much and
appropriated for so many scenarios, I have no idea what it really
I don't think Stephen forgot about communities - it just doesn't really
come into what he was exploring (from my perspective.)
Now, I'm only pressing Post once no matter what my browser tells

minh mcCloy

Oct 7, 2006, 8:54:37 AM10/7/06
There is the sense of being linked to which is qualitively different to being part of - networked or grouped.

"You will be grouped according to your age." " You will be grouped according to your interest." " What's your ethnic group?"

Compulsory grouping is very hard on the solitaries amongst us. Choosing instead, to establish links with others who offer possibilities & potentialities is an attractive alternative.

Groupers often feel so rejected when an individual doesn't want to group with them. Groupers will sometimes lash out & call such folk sad & lonely - or even witches & heretics.


Oct 7, 2006, 7:09:43 PM10/7/06
to Teach and Learn Online
This is all very slippery....

I do think as Minh says there are qualitatively different ways of being
grouped. To me a networked perspective represents a lesser commitment
to time, collaboration and group identity than a community. Networks
associate and share but for me communities go beyond associations to
work together. I was taken by the term used much by Jim Gee of
"affinity groups". He prefers this term to "community" and thinks it
more aptly describes what is happening in the plethora of things people
call communities. I think if we used "affinity groups" and
"communities" as the distinctions then the picture might become clearer
for both in terms of our own participation in them.

As Leigh suggests, I too think identity is built in affinity groups and
communities but I think the one is broad where the other is deep. I
think we need both kinds of groups. Not every aspect of our identity
needs us to associate as deeply as community might require. To this
end, Etienne Wenger suggests the next big concern is not whether
community exists but how do we manage multimembership. He has described
being connected to more people than he can productively maintain
relationships with. I am a member of about 15 groups (affinity and
community) but I can rally only manage active participation in about 4
maybe 5 at any one time. The rest of the time I drop to the periphery
in the other groups and treat them as networks (loose ties and
commitment). That changes with time and different groups move up in
priority and activity. I spend a lot time being guilty that I do not or
cannot commit the time to the memberships I have. I liken this to
charities. I would love to be able to give to them all but I had to
make a decision to select two or three and support them more fully,
keep a watching brief on others and review my position regularly. So I
agree with member multimembership is the next big problem.

So the upshot of my ramblings - is something a community or an affinity
group? Maybe it's all in the perspective of the person answering the
question at the time. That's why it's so slippery.

Oct 13, 2006, 1:43:35 AM10/13/06
to, Teach and Learn Online

As the one who cast the first pebble into the pond of this debate I'd just like to say that I was delighted to catch up on the postings today after a week away.

Prompted by the following recent newspaper article, I'd be interested to know if others feel, as I do, that the message in this article could just as easily apply to those of us who engage in online 'community/group/networks' such as TALO. Do you agree that the diversity (of views - and passions - as expressed in these postings) undermines trust and if so, how can this be overcome? I'd particularly like to hear some more of Leigh's practical suggestions on this issue


Irena White (hello Bronwyn - you may remember me as Irene Spencer!)

PS To anyone going to the Global Summit ( next week,  I look forward to meeting you there!

Ethnic diversity 'breeds mistrust'

By Peter Wilson

October 10, 2006 12:00
Article from: The Australian

ETHNIC diversity seriously undermines the trust and social bonds within a community, according to important new research that casts a gloomy shadow over optimistic theories about the benefits of the social melting pot in immigrant societies such as Australia.
The worrying findings about the effects of ethnic diversity were developed by Robert Putnam, a Harvard University political scientist whose previous research on community dynamics has been highly influential among policymakers in the US and cited by Australian prime ministerial aspirants Peter Costello and Mark Latham.

Professor Putnam has delayed releasing the results of his research for fear of the impact it could have on politicians and other policymakers, but he revealed its thrust yesterday in an interview with London's Financial Times newspaper.

His extensive research found that the more diverse a community, the less likely were its inhabitants to trust anyone, from their next-door neighbour to their local government.

The loss of trust was even felt within ethnic communities - people were more wary of members of their own ethnic groups, as well as people from different backgrounds.

The impact of the research will be amplified because of the status of Professor Putnam, whose book Bowling Alone was closely studied by governments and academics around the world after its publication in 2000.

Bowling Alone spelled out the extent to which "social capital" has fallen away in recent decades as fewer people join the volunteer and community groups that have long played a role in social cohesion.

The title referred to Professor Putnam's finding that many people were dropping out of groups such as bowling clubs and spending time alone, rather than in social networks.

Both the federal Treasurer and the former federal Labor leader Mr Latham borrowed concepts from the book in speeches on social capital.

Professor Putnam, who is now working in Britain, told the Financial Times that, after several years of research, he had held off publishing his results until he could develop suggestions that might help compensate for the negative effects of diversity, saying it "would have been irresponsible to publish without that".

His most important finding was that "in the presence of diversity, we hunker down".

"We act like turtles," he said. "The effect of diversity is worse than had been imagined.

"And it's not just that we don't trust people who are not like us. In diverse communities, we don't trust people who do look like us."

His research was conducted in the US but he believes its findings are likely to be mirrored in other countries.

It will be studied closely in Australia and most European countries, where governments are increasingly struggling with the political and social fallout of immigration and ethnic and religious diversity.

Professor Putnam found that trust was lowest in Los Angeles, "the most diverse human habitation in human history", but his findings also held for rural South Dakota, where "diversity means inviting Swedes to a Norwegians' picnic".

When the data were adjusted for class, income and other factors, they showed that the more people of different races lived in the same community, the greater the loss of trust.

"They don't trust the local mayor, they don't trust the local paper, they don't trust other people and they don't trust institutions," he said.

Apparently fearing that his research would be used to justify clamping down on immigration and ethnic diversity, Professor Putnam stressed that immigration benefited the "importing" and "exporting" societies, and that trends "have been socially constructed, and can be socially reconstructed".

Leigh Blackall

Oct 14, 2006, 4:55:52 PM10/14/06
hmmm, I wonder if Putman studied ethnic dyversity in online comunications. While I'd say that TALO would fit the typical Australian teacher profile, I like to think many of us would go out of our way to try and build trust with those from 'other' backgrounds. I think that lack of face to face is the element that protects us from many of our own prejudices and so could be a tool to help build trust. Language is the primary barrier. Physical appearances, accent, body language and custom, gender, dress etc are not present when we communicate, so are not so much barriers to us building trust.
In saying that however - I think ideas on what we could be doing to build multiculturalism into TALO would be great. Looking at the membership, I can see there are quite a number with names that would indicate an other than English background...


Oct 15, 2006, 12:52:20 AM10/15/06
hi Irena

I don't know anything about this guy's work but it seems like he's making sweeping generalisations about things (even thought he does at the end concede the point about social construction and deconstruction - pity he doesn't elaborate).  Reading Richard Florida would make one conclude different things about diversity. So I reckon that people just use these sorts of reports to bolster whatever it is they believe anyway. Just like always.

In groups like TALO (which I thought was pretty cohesive until earlier this year when I made a "hey - isn't it great that we never play dirty like those other forums" type statement and all hell broke loose... :-))) I think one of the things that keeps people lurking and contributing within this group is that there is a variety of personalities, opinions and views on things and people aren't afraid to nut these out via public smackdown, work together to reach new understandings, agree to disagree, agree with the fervour of true believers and everything in between. 

I don't think there's a causality between trust and diversity, especially.  The correlation in my opinion is between trust and respect where different views and diversity becomes a really good thing that acts as a moderating, educating, stimulating dynamic within any group or interaction depending on the type of environment that has been modeled and enacted. So for me, respect is the linchpin. And that, as we have seen in recent years, can be socially constructed and/or manipulated as easily as the market for iPODs.


minh mcCloy

Oct 15, 2006, 1:28:15 AM10/15/06
but is TALO a group or an interaction or a set of raging rebels lobbing contrary communiques to one another while trying to fend off the slings & arrows of outrageous politi-crat obfuscations?

nono no i'm not trying to limit TALO to being merely one of the above i know it is more - just lobbing.

I keep wondering about the nature of groups. As a teacher I aim to become redundant & to have supported the development of autonomous individuals. The tryanny of the group(s) takes considerable social, cognitive & emotional skills to manage. How to avoid the charge of heresy or just being stuck up.

I did Personal Development with Years 5&6 for a couple of years & we talked about groups a lot - in, out, queen bees, tough boys, losers, loners, newbies etc etc. We approached it as an opportunity to apply our problem-solving techniques which we had studied & practised.
It went well but then they went to high school.



Oct 15, 2006, 4:31:41 AM10/15/06
ermm....  outrageous politi-crat obfuscations, i think.  :-))) 

i reckon the idea of autonomous individuals in just about any context is a crock - as an young woman i used to love to lope around with a haughty sense of my own aliendated island-ness ("john donne didn't know squat" i'd sniff to whoever cared to enquire).  however with the wisdom of impending decrepitude i've concluded that we're interdependent at best and feebly dependent, hairless critters the rest of the time - i think the predisposition is built into our mammalian makeup or something.  and on top of that nowadays we wouldn't know what side to scratch ourselves on unless the media and other influences told us so the whole rugged individualism thing is (in my mind) a lie that we tell ourselves to fend off the existential despair that threatens to engulf if we don't.  and for the most part, that's not a bad thing in itself, but in recent times i'm becoming a bit concerned about the extent to which we demand and fantasise about an idealised world/life that meets all our preferences, needs etc and caters to our delusions about power (and rights) as individuals - i think it makes us narcissistic and it also (imo) vulnerable to the sorts of advertising messages that urge us "go on - you deserve it", "because you're unique" (like the 15 million others who will wear this cheaply made, expensively branded product).  and in the meantime we fight each other about things like the water supply, citing things like "user pays" whereas our parents' generation was more genuinely "commons minded" and perhaps generous in spirit (shyness wasn't labelled "social anxiety disorder" back then, as far as i can tell and some people could expect to grow out of it or even be accepted for it).

so for me the current conversation about groups is bringing up a whole bunch of stuff that i haven't been able to yet articulate (as you can tell from the garbled paragraph above... :-/) but i'm getting a sense of it bit by bit. and some of it relates to the paradox of how being in (a range of overlapping, interdependent) groups in my view can actually facilitate the development of resilient, empathetic, compassionate, flexible humans who might survive the false messages about "individuality" and other merchant-driven memes. and our identifications with groups (or not) are in my mind as powerful as the other stuff we've been hearing about (like the humiliations of being left out, expected to conform etc).

as for high school, I've often wondered if we ever leave - so many of our workplaces mirror it, our political environments (eg parliament question time), our culture and so on.  no wonder harry potter has been such a hit with adults and kids alike.


minh mcCloy

Oct 15, 2006, 8:31:27 AM10/15/06
rose you go girl :)

i don't see autonomy as an alienated condition - for me it carries the sense of self-governing; of making & taking responsibility for your own decisions, of being able to seek & offer interactions that are mutually beneficial & to be able to comfortably & consciously engage in altruistic activities.

As for interdependance - how not? I once spent a half year exploring the development of interdependance in a stone age society with Year 3s. Another whole year spent exploring Living on an Island (as in castaway - long long b4 reality tv). The first one to deal with - the boys will hunt & the girls will - do everything else, but this girl makes really good bows & arrows (dad was an anthropologist) - well the best hunters will hunt & ...... - but what if something happens to either group? And so on. Remember this took a year & they were 7/8 yo. ( I was 22)

Explicitly knowing that we are interdependent informs my notion of autonomy.

I did a quick trawl thru some dictionaries for autonomy & still feel comfortable with it.


On 10/15/06, rgrozdanic <> wrote:

Stephen Downes

Oct 15, 2006, 9:43:11 AM10/15/06


I think that people misunderstand what I mean by autonomy. It's like when I talk about learner-designed learning. People seem to assume I am talking about casting learners unaided into the sea to fend for themselves. As though they could never ask for advice. As though there would never be anyone willing to guide them or support them.

The same with autonomy. The presumption is that what I mean is a person who is an island, who does not depend in any way on others, who is ruggedly individualistic. Some sort of weird Ayn Rand fantasy of epistemological superhumans, a Nietzsche-inspired fantasy about people being able to completely determine, with no input from anyone or anything, what is true, what is right, what is good.

But that's not what I mean at all. Nothing close. That's why I have included openness and connectedness as additional criteria for epistemic goodness. That's why I talk about communities and networks at all. I do believe that the contributions of other people are important and essential. I am well aware how much external influences - yes, including media and advertising - can and should help determine our thoughts and beliefs. I would even draw you a picture depicting the causal relationships, how sensations effect neural states. Like this: From:

For one thing, maintaining an opposite point of view is irrational. Given what we know of human cognition, there are no belief states that are completely independent of our experiences. We are not born (contra Descartes and a whole school of misled Rationalists) with ideas burned into our brain, like some sort of mark of the Creator. What we come to believe is caused by what we experience. Our mental contents are reflections, perceptual echoes, the materials of our experiences playing back against each other, mixing and mashing and reforming.

In just the say way, contrasting autonomy with determinism is irrational. When I say that somebody's contribution to a network was 'not autonomous', I do not mean that they are under some sort of mind control, a robot at the whim of some Svengali. Yes, again, it is true that all mental states are caused by perceptions and experiences. But it does not follow (and should not be inferred) that all mental states are determined by these perceptions and experiences.

These sorts of extremes - complete independence, and complete dependence - are the result of what I might call a naive causal view of the world. This is the view (that all of use were taught as children) that the world operates like clockwork. That when you do something, there is a knowable and determinate effect. A causes B. And if there is a B, then there must be some determinate A that caused it. But the world isn't like that. Once events reach a certain level of complexity, the story about causation breaks down.

Consider, for example, a bolt of lightning. We have all (I presume) seen lightning, and know that it occurs during a thunderstorm. We are told that the cause of the lightning is the buildup of electrical charge in the thundercloud. The thundercloud, in turn, is caused by the buildup of water droplets in the air, condensation caused by the interaction of a warm and humid air mass with a cold front, this cold front in turn caused by the rotation of the Earth and the uneven heating of the Sun.

I remember once, one hot July night in Edmonton, returning home from the Power Plant, mad at the world and just wanting to get away, I saw the lightning flashing south of the city and jumped into my car to go chase it. A couple hours later I was out on the flat prairie, the lightning bolds shooting straight down, huge, towering, overwhelming bolts from the sky. I got out of my car and walked around the field, feeling the rain pelt against my face, watching the bolts streak down, one after the other, feeling so terrified by the storm I was at the same time one with it, part of it.

And I asked myself, had I been struck by lightning at that point, what would have been the cause of it? Would it have been the dismissive behaviour of those around me in the bar? Would it have been some irrational perception on my part? Would it have been my foolish walk around the field in a thunderstorm? Would it have been the buildup of an electrical charge in a cloud? Would it have been the uneven heating of the Earth by the Sun? What would have caused that bolt to have that impact at that time? And the answer is: nothing. That when we say this thing caused that thing we are placing an interpretation, based on some gross oversimplification, on the state of affairs.

There is no contradiction between saying that our thoughts and experiences are caused, and saying that we make choices. This becomes especially the case when we see that our choices in turn result in new thoughts and experiences. What we are is that entity (that amorphous assemblage of neural connections that, when thought of as a unit, can be seen as recognizing input and creating output) that recognizes certain states of affairs as states of affairs - as things, as causes, as Herman from next door.

So when I am talking about one thing being autonomous from others, I am not talking about the one thing being free from the causal influence of others, but rather, I am telling a story about how it is that the input of that one thing to the network as a whole is determined, and more accurately, how it should be seen as determined, how it should be regarded as determined, how - were we building a network of some sort - it should be enabled or permitted to be determined. When I say something is 'determined' or 'not determined' I am talking about, not some essential state of nature, where all things are one of These or one of Those, but rather, how we should consider that thing to be.

What was the cause of the lightning? If it was determined, then something made it strike at that time in that place. If it was undetermined, then the storm decided to hurl a lightning bolt at that time (neither wording really satisfied - and yet these are the words we have to work with, because our bias toward a naive causal view of the world is built into the language). What I want us to do, with respect to humans, is to take the attitude that the storm decided to hurl the lightning bolt. Not as an uncaused completely indeterminate event (because obviously it's not) but rather, seen this way, as a grounded, meaningful event (indeed, the source of meaning).

What does that mean in practice? It means that we ascribe to ourselves the possibility of  choice (in fact, Gestalt alternatives, oscillating ways of seeing the world, the decision to perceive a duck rather than a rabbit), that this choice will be ascribed as the cause of our external actions, including especially our contributions to the network, in the sense that "When I say 'A' it is me that is saying 'A', and not some other person saying 'A' through me." In other words, we are saying that we see the origin of 'A' as being located inside ourselves rather than external to ourselves. It would be like saying that the cause of the lightning bolt is in the storm - it isn't some direct consequence of warm and cold air masses, and it wasn't in some sense 'drawn out' by some foolish person walking in a field tempting fate.

What this means in practice is that there ought not be an identifiable dependence (that is, an explainable correlation) between what someone else says or does, and what you say or do.

Think of it as akin to the distinction between being told to do something, and having someone suggest that you do something. These two circumstances may be perceptually indistinct. In each case, a person leans over to you and says, say, "You should vote no." And then you  utter the words, "I vote no." The difference between the two states is one of interpretation, one where we decide as observers or as participants to apply one frame to it, as opposed to another. The difference between thinking to ourselves, on hearing the words, 'I have no choice' as opposed to 'I have a choice'.

In order for it to be possible for a person to rationally say that 'I have a choice' there must, in fact, be a choice. It much be possible for the person to have uttered some statement other than the one that was suggested. This implies, first, that some sort of consideration or processing of the suggestion occurs, and second, that as part of that consideration, alternative actions emerge as genuine possibilities. So that you could, as a rational person, see two possible and acceptable states of affairs, one where you said 'I vote no' and one where you said 'I vote yes' (and even one where you decline to vote at all).

What would prevent you from having that choice? First, your input might be in some way circumvented. For example, when somebody purports to express your vote for you, but substitutes their own point of view for yours. Second, your input might be coerced. For example, when the consequences of uttering 'I vote yes' are so horrible that it cannot be considered as a viable alternative. Third, you might fail to consider or process the request. For example, you way respond automatically because you have been conditioned or hypnotized in some way.

Now again, it is important to keep in mind, what these scenarios describe are ways of seeing a situation, as opposed to three ontologically distinct types of entities. This is not some sort of taxonomy that I am offering (I don't offer taxonomies). These are three vectors you can consider to be more or less the case such that, when the preponderance of the interpretation is in one direction, the choice was non-autonomous, and when the preponderance of the interpretation is in the other direction, we say the choice was autonomous.

And these vectors are very much matters of point of view. To take the most obvious case, what constitutes 'so horrible that it cannot be considered as a viable alternative'? This clearly will vary depending on the person's point of view. Some people may be prepared to tolerate anything but death or dismemberment. Others would not fear the same being done to themselves, but with fold at the thought of it happening to a loved one. Others would not consider expulsion or exclusion by a group to be tolerable. Being singled out as the lone dissenter might be unbearable for some. These circumstances - what counts as too horrible - is a matter of interpretation.

So when a person, acting as a node in a network, wishes to participate autonomously in a network, what this means is that this person would prefer that, on the whole, (a) their utterances be expressed to other members of the network accurately, (b) that there not be sanctions or punishments for making certain utterances, and (c) the be afforded the time and the capacity to consider matters in their own light before making an utterance.

So when a person, building or designing a network, wishes the participants to participate autonomously, what this means is that they would tend to (a) ensure each member's voice is communicated accurately and completely, (b) create a space or mechanism for that person such that they are shielded from sanctions or retributions, and (c)  ensure they are presented with information in a timely manner and given the tools (including the education and the background knowledge necessary) to make informed decisions.

These considerations explain why I tend to disfavour small groups. See also Konrad Glogowski, 'To Ungroup a Class'. Small groups tend to fail on all three counts. First, when the decision of a group is reported, the view expressed is often the reporter's (and there are no mechanisms in place to prevent that). Second, for some people (namely, me) small groups create greater pressure to conform (especially when the group is given a task to perform or an outcome to produce). And third, the process is often constructed in such a way as to prevent consideration of the matter at hand - wither there is no time to present such considerations, or the considerations are overwhelmed by group members who have not taken the time to consider.

I haven't talked here about why autonomy is necessary in well-functioning networks. The long story is probably the subject for another day. But in a nutshell, the response is this: better decisions are made when more perspectives and more variables are taken into account. Each person in a network brings new perspectives and variables to the table. This, increasing the number of people in the network improves the functioning of the network. If, however, their participation is not autonomous, then the impact of those perspectives and variables are never brought into play. They are overridden by whatever entity is creating the non-autonomous behaviour. This weakens the network, because of the missing perspective, and worse, it disguises this weakening because the individual entity may be perceived as autonomous, even when not.

-- Stephen

(I've also posted this on my blog)


Oct 15, 2006, 8:53:13 PM10/15/06
On 10/15/06, minh mcCloy <> wrote:

Explicitly knowing that we are interdependent informs my notion of autonomy.

me too, minh



Oct 15, 2006, 9:29:08 PM10/15/06
stephen as you know i'm still trying to line up my thoughts like good little soldiers and they're instead behaving like those sprightly spring lambs we saw in new zealand so i won't attempt to respond to your detailed post below just yet.

the only thing i do know is that my own ideas about the importance/sanctity of the individual per se are starting to morph - even things like the notion of "learner centredness" - is that really about making an individual learner the centre or is that more about ensuring you're not making yourself the centre? and what serves the learner anyway? is it about pandering or the more difficult task of authentically engaging and supporting?

i remember an article by phillip adams (a local journalist) many years ago when he talked about the internet and how it ran the risk of turning everyone into a "community of one" and, while it was easy to see why this could be a good thing, it may be harder to anticipate some of the other outcomes - examples he used included people like neonazis being able to find endless sources of reinforcement for their beliefs and so on.  the point he was making was that in removing the irksome reality of other people/ideas/environments, one creates the conditions for very distorted world views.  and it's interesting that you talk this way about groups (with groupthink and peer pressure et al)  whereas i think that *networks* are the environments that are more likely to engender this kind of thing cos one can keep on seeking reinforcement through nodes without ever having to engage or confront the diversity of attributes you'll find in a group (given that all groups will share some characteristics but not all).

anyway - still not happy with how i'm phrasing this - will go away and think some more


Bronwyn Hegarty

Oct 16, 2006, 7:37:01 PM10/16/06
you make a grand argument for autonomy and your explanation brings up visions of the antithesis to autonomy...lines of zombies sitting straight-backed in front of computer screens inputting data and code to keep the machine running. Dr Who showed this scene recently in one of the latest episodes.

I believe that as long as we are in charge of our imaginations, have the liberty of free thought and can think for ourselves, we have autonomy. Like you I believe it is important for individuals to be given the respect and space they need to express themselves safely, without retribution but will add that at the same time they should do it with respect and empathy for their audience. It is a two way exchange.

Autonomy is part of a dynamic, interchange and essential to the functioning of a network - which I see as an ecosystem containing small groups wherein like-minded individuals or species (groups) reside who need to remain true to each other to keep their identity.

Autonomy can still exist within groups but it is more often over-ridden than in a network by the need to maintain the cohesiveness of the group. Why? Autonomy is less important within a group as uniformity protects the group. For example, a herd of antelope is protected from predators by remaining together. If one or two stray from the group they may find fresher pasture but they are also in more danger of being picked off by predators. If they stay together there is more competition within the group for food, but as long as they keep moving together they will be more likely to stay alive and reach greener pastures.

On the other hand, a network needs to retain its individuality and celebrate autonomy  otherwise it will stagnate and become one big yawn...who wants to agree all the time? But as I said previously if we acknowledge each others' uniqueness thoughtfully and respectfully oh wot an interesting interchange we will have.

Oct 25, 2006, 2:55:04 AM10/25/06

Thanks for your comments Rose

My interest in Robert Putnam's research (below) is largely related to the role of teachers in both face-to-face and online environments where trust (or as you point out 'respect') are, I still believe, critical elements in guiding effective learning experiences. I find claims such as "They [members of diverse communities] don't trust the local mayor [and hence maybe also the teacher/facilitator], they don't trust the local paper [and hence maybe also online postings], they don't trust other people [and hence maybe also others in their online groups/networks] and they don't trust institutions [and hence schools, colleges, universities]" to be a very scary scenario if it appears that this can truly be proven by Putnam's research.

For me the 'answer' to 'that group feeling' lies somewhere in the ideal of 'communities of practice' (somewhere between the definitions of 'groups' and 'networks' in Stephen Downes' proposed model which prompted this discussion - please see * below). And for me, a 'community of practice' implies a sense of common purpose as the key driver and motivator for learning rather than just bobbing around like Putnam's 'turtles' in an endless sea. This is where I believe the processes for creating online communities suggested by Gilly Salmon are more relevant then ever and the criteria for measuring the health of an online community (as proposed below by Janine Bowes) worth putting to the test:

Data collected Indicators of “good health”
List membership at end of month Increase or stability depending on stage of community development (new or mature)
Number of new members during the month A steady or increasing number of new members indicates good health
Number of members left (and reasons if known – members were automatically sent an email if they unsubscribed, asking for reasons) Generally lower than the new members and for reasons of natural attrition rather than dissatisfaction
Number of messages posted More is not necessarily better!  Over time an optimum level of traffic became apparent.  This would not necessarily be the same for all communities.  Some people become intolerant of too much traffic
Number of individuals posting messages (raw number and as percentage of membership) Ideally there will be contributions from a range of people
Number of individuals posting 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 or more messages Multiple postings may indicate ongoing active engagement (desirable) but too may indicated an overly dominant member.
Number of messages posted by list facilitator (raw number and as percentage of total number of messages) The facilitator ought not to be overly dominant.  However, there may be a level of direct stimulus needed to sustain quality activity.
Deepest thread – topic and number of messages Generally, the deeper the thread, the higher the quality of debate and engagement
Most popular topics This often informed the choice of structured activities as a response to self identified needs
Top 10 posters Ideally not always the same 10 people!


... another pebble lands in the pool!



*  I could not provide a URL for Stephen Downes' New Zealand 'unfconference' groups/networks whiteboard model - the only reference I can give is to suggest searching on Google for 'stephen downes oldaily groups networks new zealand' - I could not get to this page by using the search bars on

rgrozdanic <>
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15/10/2006 02:22 PM

:: TALO :: Re: That Group Feeling

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