Networks vs. Groups in Online Instruction

I’ve been reading¬†Teaching Crowds: Learning & Social Media (Dron & Anderson, 2014). I bought it to help me think about a research project, but it’s also really helping me make sense of my teaching. In the book, the authors discuss the differences between learning in groups, networks, sets, and with collectives. In this post, I want to discuss what I have learned about teaching – and about teaching online in particular – as it relates to groups and networks.

Teaching and Learning in Groups

The authors define groups as, “gathered together and exist for some purpose…group members regard themselves and are regarded by others as having some unifying purpose.” I think you can see a class as being a group. You can obviously break a class out into small groups for specific purposes over a defined time period and that accomplish specific objectives. But I think it’s fair to say that in higher education – in school, in general – we are used to thinking about ourselves under the group model. In a class, it is the teacher who typically sets the structure for how the group will behave (and what they will do). To some extent, these structures are set in place by colleges and universities and then have to be enacted with the groups by their instructors. But instructors do retain a certain degree of freedom.

An important aspect of a group is that they are exclusionary. This is an important point that I’ll return to when we get to networks. Some people got into the program, and joined the group, and some didn’t. As a member of a class, you have access to knowledge and experiences that people outside the group do not have because they are not a member. Anything that is created and shared within a class typically stays within its boundaries. And, if the group is super traditional, may only be shared and discussed between student and teacher.

Groups also tend to move at the same pace. We read X together. Assignments are due by Y date. We move through the syllabus at relatively the same pace. As a member, you could do some things at a slightly faster pace on your own accord (read ahead, complete assignments at a faster rate), but in general most content will be presented to you at the same time as the rest of the group.

The authors are not saying groups are bad. But I think it’s important to note that for teachers and students it is this structure that we are most accustomed to. So when we try to shift off that structure, we are disrupting a major cultural aspect of what it means to learn and participate in school.

Related: The Organization of Online Teaching

Teaching and Learning in Networks

While the authors provide a definition of networks, I think it’s best to understand it in terms of what a network looks like. A network is still a group. You are member of the network when you join thus making you a member of a particular kind of group. However, networks are concerned with the individual, and individuals potentially have more freedom over when and how they learn. However, the authors also point out that while a learner may have a lot of choice in a networked environment, that does not mean they have a lot of control. Too many options may confuse students and weaken learning. As a member of a network, you have greater control over your pace. They also do not need to be bound like you see in a typical class.

For example, in a group situation what happens in class stays in class. Any and all resources that were generated stay, at best, amongst the students. They do not benefit future students of the same class (typically). In a network, it’s not that everything has to be 100% open. I think you can have a network that is available to students within a program or who take certain classes. The resources that are generated within that network benefit current and past students. Future students have the potential to extend the work done by those who came before. Great ideas are not lost or limited to only a small subset of students. Teaching and learning becomes much less restrictive.

Related: Dual Pathways in Online Learning

Groups Vs. Networks in Practice

Reading these chapters on groups and networks helped me better understand myself as a teacher. My work, for about seven plus years now has been attempting to shift into a network model. I think I implicitly knew this but never did a good job of explicitly communicating it to my students and other faculty. As a result, I ran into problems. My problems ranged from being told we should teach the way we always taught to finding students resistant, or not understanding, what I was trying to accomplish in my class. Making these ideas explicit is pushing me to think about what I have done in my classes in the past, how what I have done aligns with groups or networks, and what I want to do in the future. My next post will explore where I have been, the challenges I have faced, and where I am headed.