Building Ecologies – making room for communities and networks

I had a really fun time hanging with folks at the CADE/AMTEC conference last week. The main thrust of most of the conversations was about the building of communities and I was fortunate enough to be talking to Stephen Downes, George Siemens and Terry Anderson. I rounded out a great deal of my thinking in those discussions, and have decided to adopt George’s ‘ecology’ language to find a place for my rhizomes to live. It’s a very strange thing to have to find a bunch of language to describe what is already happening… but it is the way of things. Until the language is there… it’s very difficult to describe to people what you are talking about. For now I will just say that the method of learning is rhizomatic (see earlier posts) and the structure that supports these rhizomatic discussions is a particularly tuned ecology.

An ideal ecology for a learning community would have some basic structures about it. It would be consistent in the face of expectation. It would have ‘values’ or ‘branding’ that would define what it is, would be policed or disseminated by members of the community. It needs to have some kind of economy that sustains it. It needs to display its membership rules and benefits in some way. Successful ecologies either have to be so simple that they are transparent, or have a training system that is useful or transparent.

Ecologies – A sketch starting point.

‘Ecology’ as I mean it for this conversation represents that sometimes ephemeral idea of place. What is it about a certain coffee shop, in a certain place in time, that seems to create such great conversations? Or how does a given teacher just seem to have that knack to have their students create such great work. And what is it about certain things that it doesn’t matter how much money is thrown at them… people never gather there… or the work never gets done. These ‘ecologies’ good and bad, contribute to the way things get done in them. A well designed ecology, I would argue, also includes the inter-relational agreements between the folks in that ecology. Let’s take the coffee shop analogy and stretch it out a little…

One of the formative intellectual experiences of my life was sitting at the Grad House at Dalhousie University. There were a group of folks that came there most days… some philosophy students, business, german, history, biology… who would sit around the same group of tables and talk. Some times for hours. It’s also where I learned to play pool. And taunt people while they’re playing pool, without making it completely obvious. (If you know, for instance, that your opponent is particularly obsessed by time (or almost late for class) asking the person next to you for the time just as they shoot can be very helpful) This was not an organized group, there was no one who made phone calls to anyone… matter of fact, I think I only had the phone number of one person in that whole group at the time. There was no real shared background… or shared interest… except in arguing about stuff. Those discussions were frighteningly rhizomatic in their journey around the disciplines that we were all familiar with… by the time that the six months that it really held together were over, I understood both how to debate properly and, more importantly, I had my first rhizomatic sketch of a theory of knowledge.

My position then is that this particular ecology was near perfect for allowing those discussions to happen… indeed… as it formed the structure within which those discussions did happen… that particular conclusion is inevitable. There was a basic expectation that things would be there when you arrived… the seating, the coffee, the lack of music, the beer and the people at the same time everyday… or thereabouts. The setting, in this sense, becomes transparent. But it only remains so as long as it is consistent… I believe that this is a key feature of successful ecologies – consistency in the face of expectation.

Another feature of a successful ecology are clearly understood ‘values’ (you could also see this as ‘branding’ if you like. This is a funny word, and one that Stephen particularly didn’t like in our discussions in Winnipeg, but I can’t think of a better one. Call them mores, call them guidelines and ethic… it’s a semantical argument no matter where you turn. But this coffee shop community had a few very solid rules that were never discussed but were strictly enforced. All rhetorical arguments were immediately ridiculed. Any argument that broke any of the 50 or so philosophical rules governing logical fallacies were pounced upon. Taking personal offense to a critique was returned by a mob taunting response. There were others… I suppose… hard to recall now.

It should have some kind of functional economy. The way this comes out in a university is clearly different than on a website… but it should be there. In this case, we were keeping our den open by buying their products… which had them clean our mess.

A word about membership

Membership in a community or network needs to mean something. This is, contrary to the new cool of ‘inclusion’ by necessity an exclusive thing. It is something that needs to be EARNED in order for it to be worth something. This is, I think, partially where the traditional education model breaks down. The old apprenticeship model was somehow based on the need to be ‘responsible’ for your education. You were ‘earning’ your way towards your profession.

While membership is a community (or network) activity, the way that it becomes clear to the larger community is an ecological issue. Whether a small community is needed and the membership is increased through word of mouth, or whether its, membership needs to mean something to someone. Often good ecologies manage this by counting forum threads or posts… or by offering contributors some kind of ‘street cred’ based on their form of membership.

Training and MUDs

Terry and Stephen got into an interesting discussion during the “best online course” discussion. Stephen had described that in the old MUDs in order to be trusted to help design the online world, you needed to go on ‘quests’. In order to accomplish these quests, you would need to have both the dedication and the programming skills which would qualify you to build the world. You became a ‘wizard’ and were allowed ‘membership.’ Terry responded that it was people like Stephen who kept him from being a member.

The webcast academy has been an interesting model of this. In order to become a ‘webcaster’ in the worldbridges community, you are required to accomplish a certain set of goals. You need to webcast three shows, of your own planning, with your own guests, and be able to save and publish that work. For some folks it takes up to a year… others a couple of weeks. It is a sufficient barrier, however, that people feel proud of finally making it to the community. We created a ‘sub-ecology’ that allows for the necessary training to attain a certain level of membership.

Quick wrap up

Ecologies then, are the structures that allow good community to happen. Rhizomatic learning is wonderful… but it needs a place to live and needs to have some of the above criteria (if not all of them) in order to be able to thrive. I’m very curious about this could transfer into our traditional places of learning. How would we need to change our schools and universities in order to allow people to feel responsible to their learning?

note : (i’ve been fussing with this post for days and have finally given up and posted. Hopefully my next post on the issue will be more lucid)

Author: dave

I run this site... among other things.

9 thoughts on “Building Ecologies – making room for communities and networks”

  1. Dave,
    Excellent food for thought. Rhizome was a new one for me. Of course I’ve out of the blogosphere for a while and missed your earlier posts. but I plan on checking them out.
    You make some great points about ecologies. I’ve toying the term for a while now as well, but have not put specific elements in to help define learning ecologies. This makes me think a lot. Thanks! Brent

  2. > An ideal ecology for a learning community would have some basic structures about it.

    Dave – do ecologies have the properties you outline here?

    When I think of an ‘ecology’ I think of a network of interconnected life, such as in a jungle or in a swamp. These are characterized by the fact that there is no purpose, there is no value – it’s just a bunch of life-forms doing their own thing, interacting with each other.

    Fo me, the ecology metaphor came to life in 2004 when I read this: “If we can revise our attitudes towards the land under our feet, if we can accept a role of steward, and depart from the role of conqueror, if we can accept the view than man and nature are inseparable parts of the unified whole – then Tasmania can be a shining beacon in a dull, uniform, and largely artificial world.” Olegas Truchanas, 1971.

    I think we typically want to impose some order onto an ecology – but in so doing we wreck the ecology. Our values, principles, laws – these are for ourselves as individuals, and neither characterize nor describe an ecology.

  3. I’m worried about the same thing Stephen… I’ve been thinking about it like an ant colony in those weird glass things. Ant hills absolutely work better. No doubt. But, if you’re careful, you can set things up so that a colony will work. Same said for fish tanks. Are they are nice as a coral reef… of course not. But it’s pretty tough to let a coral reef naturally develop in your house… i suppose it possible 🙂

    If we want communities (the Emerge group in the UK comes to mind) to deal with situations… because we know that networks/communities do better jobs than appointed groups in a traditional bureaucratic structure… then we have to do something

  4. Dave,

    I share the malaise of knowing we have some of the pieces but are clueless about the overall puzzle. Ecology is an appropriate term IMHO. However, learning ecology is too restrictive a concept. Learning is but an aspect of our ecology; it’s actually what enables us to adapt and prosper in the larger frame. In an era of collective intelligence, distributed cognition, and group mind, learning may not be the lens we need to look through.

    Just a thought.


  5. Is your idea of ‘earning’ a place in a community similar to traditional notions of ‘rite of passage’? I’m intrigued by the idea that healthy communities do seem to have hierarchies and roles. The important factor is not total equality but a feeling that you could move roles if you put the right effort in.

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