17 May 2008

Six Degrees of Here Comes Everybody

I wrapped up my reading of Here Comes Everybody earlier in the week and am still thinking about several ideas contained within the text. The book is about how recent platforms like blogs, wikis, Twitter, Flickr, and other social networks have changed our abilities to organize and effect action. While there are no examples provided about education, I believe that there some lessons to be learned from all of this.

Here is an older idea we can consider in a new context:

With this graphic, Shirky is showing how the complexity of possible connections within an organization grows faster than its size. The group on the left has five members with 10 total connections; the middle has 10 members needing 45 connections; and the one on the right has a mere 15 members, but needs over 100 lines to connect everyone.

Stop for a moment and think about the web this would create within your classroom of 30 kids...let alone how a school or district has had to traditionally organize itself in order to make communications seemingly efficient.
As groups grow, it becomes impossible for everyone to interact directly with everyone else. If maintaining a connection between two people takes any effort at all, at some size, that effort becomes unstable...Running an organization is difficult in and of itself, no matter what its goals. Every transaction it undertakes---every contract, every agreement, every meeting---requires it to expend some limited resource: time, attention, or money. Because of these transaction coasts, some sources of value are too costly to take advantage of. As a result, no institution can put all its energies into pursuing its mission; it must expend considerable effort on maintaining discipline and structure, simply to keep itself viable. ---pp. 28 - 30
So, what do businesses and schools do in order to minimize these costs? We create an organizational hierarchy so that every person does not have to know every other person in order to make the group function. The problem with this is that as schools continue to get bigger, they need more managers to help organize things...and this costs more money.

Shirky proposes another option. As social networking tools continue to become mainstream, they will change the activities we engage in because costs will decrease. In other words, you don't have to find people to serve on a committee, pay them to meet, arrange meeting space/snacks/etc. How many times have you sat in a staff meeting wondering "How much is this costing taxpayers?" in light of teacher time, benefits, and so forth. It gets mighty expensive in a hurry. Instead, if there's an issue within the school, social networking tools would easily allow those who have an interest in the topic (including all stakeholders) to find one another and have a (digital) place to communicate and collaborate---all without spending a dime. A group who uses a shared on-line meeting space, such as Google Docs or a wiki, and can tweet or IM others who might be interested, is all that's needed to get the ball rolling. And no more sitting in a staff meeting listening to the same person drone on about the tardy policy.

I would think that this is going to be a very frightening proposition for most school districts. In a world where control of information is diminished, so is the prestige of central office. Makes me wonder a bit about the network filters we have. Are we protecting kids? Or are we really protecting administration by limiting the workforce's ability to self-organize?

Okay, so you're thinking that the graphic above doesn't adequately explain what happens in a school district. Fair enough. Unless you're a one room schoolhouse sort of a place, I can't think of any district where every staff member has a personal connection with every other staff member. We really look more like this, don't we?

Each of the smaller clusters might represent your department or school. Some people within your base of operations tend to stick within the group. Other members, however, have connections with other groups. In this way, you can also make connections with everyone, but not everyone has to be personally involved with everyone else. When I look at this, I see myself as someone who would be at one of the five points connected to form a star in the middle. I have always been someone who likes to float---and also someone who can facilitate connections between a lot of different groups. Tell me what you need and I can tell you who should ask. Within those connections, I can think of several people who do not do this. The circles they move in are very small and they're quite happy with that.

If you're looking at this and wondering what is so different about it from a traditional hierarchy (because people can get information either way), I think the primary difference is choice. In a typical organization, there are layers of control concerning what groups you can belong to and what information flows down. In Shirky's depiction, members make a choice to participate and be part of the group. You connect due to your common interests and needs. Social networking platforms provide cheap and efficient ways to make that happen.

So what does this mean for schools? First of all, it means that we can work toward solutions in very different---and likely more cost and time efficient ways. It also means that instead of people who have the information controlling what does and does not occur, this ever-flattening world means that those who use the tools will be part of the conversation. Those teachers, parents, and students who are technologically illiterate are going to be left behind. And because most districts block social networking tools, only those people who learn about them outside of the school day are going to have the greatest voice. We're talking about a small, but powerful, minority here. Central office had better be scared. Unions had better take note, too. Teachers are far less than six degrees away (more like three) from being able to organize and manage the schools they want and that kids need.

1 comment:

Clix said...

I think there's a lot more to it thatn that. I realize the diagram is symbolic, but I think it's important to note that there are different types of relationships, and even within the same type, some are weaker and others are stronger. I like the graphic at the top better, but I think the lines should be different weights or colors or ... maybe both. I dunno. ;)