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Sharing Knowledge and Networks: Synchronous vs. Stigmergic (Part 3 of 6)

“You’re trying to get at two things—sort of the latent capacity of knowledge that exists with this system, and secondly, you’re trying to connect people as part of a network.” (Siemens)

A shared knowledge base and vigorous, responsive innovation.  These are the purposes, in my mind, for a robust network of open education resources.  Without open knowledge, we cannot accumulate a shared knowledge base, we will continue reinventing the wheel in our classes.  Without an open network, even if we are able to establish a shared knowledge base, we will not be able to foster the creativity and innovation in education necessary to keep up with the creativity and innovation in the world we are preparing our students for—while also keeping our eyes on what is and ought to remain timeless.  We must establish a shared knowledge base, and we must be able to be as nimble and responsive with that knowledge base as other industries are.

Siemens and Wiley articulate this in two slightly different ways.  Siemens speaks of the “latent capacity of knowledge that exists in the system.”  I understand this to mean that Siemens is looking to capture the existent but unarticulated professional knowledge of educators—knowledge that we all know teachers have, but which has not been shared—and looking to capture it by connecting people in a vibrant network.

Wiley explores the mechanics of this:

“In some cases, that network is synchronous, and you know who those other people are, and you’re collaborating with them in real time. And in other places, it's more of a stigmergy kind of approach, where other people have come before. They've left the artifact in this state, and when you pick it up, you're like, oh, I can see the next thing that needs to happen, and you pick that up and take it. And maybe both of those things are happening in parallel, in some ways.” (Wiley)

First of all, thanks for the word “stigmergy”—that’s a good one!  

What Wiley gets at here is that, first, synchronous knowledge sharing is a powerful tool for growth.  We see this every day in our best department meetings and professional collaborations: we’re working on something, have questions, talk with colleagues, and we all grow into something better.  We’re starting to see online versions of this in Video conferencing, Google documents, and more.  And Wiley also describes “stigmergic” interactions, when we work asynchronously on some kind of shared object (Wikipedia) or forking objects (GitHub).  Stigmergic collaboration is best exemplified, perhaps, in the great tree of academic scholarship, in which we all, in the words of John of Salisbury (way back in 1159), stand “on the shoulders of giants.”

So: we want to capture knowledge, collect it, connect people around it, and enable people to change it.  This reorders the five R’s a little bit for me.  At the foundation are: retain, reuse, and redistribute—these are capturing and sharing knowledge.  And then, to function in a changing world: revise and remix.  These are changing and innovating.

(Several years ago I assembled a taxonomy for creative design, for understanding and analyzing creativity, and the stages of work follow a similar progression: imitation, variation, combination, transformation, and original creation.  We start with the object, and then we change it.)

In the field of education, where the object is a shared knowledge base, and change means making it flexible, revisable, remix-able, in its entirely, these two stages are both enormous tasks, and we have much work to do.  Which comes first: establishing the knowledge base or the network?  Surely, they must be developed incrementally together.



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