Thinking in networks
When he made this statement at Babson College in May 2012, Reid Hoffman was referring to startup companies, but he could very well have been giving advice to any undergraduate student, or indeed any teacher or academic. Let's be honest. We all need help. Education has always been a team sport, whatever side of the classroom you sit on. I know I increasingly rely upon my own colleagues, but that collegial reliance has extended beyond the walls of my institution. In fact it did so several years ago, even before the introduction of social media, through the use of e-mail and bulletin board services (remember them?). Social media has simply provided an increasingly powerful range of tools to extend personal learning networks (PLNs) to virtually any part of the world. I regularly hold conversations with colleagues in multiple time zones, because I can. I am connected, and I am thinking now as Reid Hoffman advised, in networks.
It would be a mistake to think of networks simply as connections (See my previous post entitled 'the importance of being networked'). They are much more complex than that. Networks involve connections, but they also hold the capability to boost the power of those connections exponentially, through multiple nodes of knowledge production and rapid amplification of ideas. In a mimicry of the myriad connections in the human brain, each node has the potential to link with many other nodes, and thus extend the power of the network exponentially. I can send out a Twitter link, which may be retweeted by a dozen of my Twitter followers. Each of those may have thousands of followers who don't follow me. They in turn retweet to their independent followers. Within a few minutes, or even seconds, my link is being shared by potentially hundreds of thousands of people worldwide. If they like my content, they may track back and follow me on Twitter too. This is why I say that retweeting is not repetition of ideas - it is amplifcation.
And Twitter is just one of a multitude of social networking tools available to teachers and academics. Other networks are available. The ability to connect these networks together (e.g. Twitter feed into your blog, or Facebook links mirrored in LinkedIn) means that teachers are never alone. Suddenly the team sport has become a relay that can go in any and all directions simultaneously, and every time the baton is passed on, it reproduces itself, so other teams can join in. As I have already suggested above, all we are really doing with social technology is replicating what we see in nature. Cell division and rapid proliferation of genetic material across an organism. Viral reproduction of genetic material between and across organisms. Rhizomatic spread of connections in a similar manner to brain cells or underground root systems. We are passing on memes instead of genes. It is the meosis and mitosis of ideas. At the moment though, we are merely scraping the surface of immense, almost infinite potential, and Reid Hoffman is right. If we want to exploit the power of this for the benefit of our students, we need to start thinking in networks.
Thinking in networks by Steve Wheeler is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License. Based on a work at steve-wheeler.blogspot.com.