Networks and Communities – Hot Seat Review

I’ve just caught up with all of last week’s activity on Etienne Wenger’s hot seat; part of the online preamble to the Networked Learning Conference 2010. In his initial post, Wenger asked “what do the concepts of network and community mean to you?”

Whilst many of the early responses inevitably resembled kicking a semantic football around – networks as subsets of communities, and vice versa – some very interesting discussions emerged. Interestingly, several contributors assumed networks as personal, despite Wenger’s apparent original context – on two occasions he stressed “given a group” – requiring distinctions to be made between different types of networks. Theoretical concepts help define parameters necessary for research and developmental models, and Elvis Mazzoni stressed that our understanding of networks and communities is dependent on the theoretical perspectives and methods of analyses one adopts. But how useful are these in describing or explaining the messy reality of our academic or professional experiences?

I see myself as an increasingly active participant in what could be loosely defined as a community of practice; namely educational researchers at my University. We reside in different rooms, departments and buildings, and constitute a range of academic roles and foci, yet there is a sense of a collective endeavour defined by our academic discipline, and partly scaffold by institutional support systems. My trajectory is essentially one that started on the periphery, particularly having come into this from a different discipline.

At the same time I am equally, if not more so, engaged – in a largely self-directed way – in developing and maintaining highly distributed connections with students and professionals in my field and its peripheries, through the use of interrelated social media platforms and tools. Not only are these a core element of my studies, but also represent an extension to my immediate learning and research environments, challenging traditional academic practices of peer review and dissemination.

Rather than representing concrete reifications of community and network, I think these more resemble complex, shifting patterns of orientations. I think many of us operate like this, frequently negotiating between domains that are co-located and distributed, bounded and unbounded, formal and informal. In doing so, we are implementing and engaging in what can be loosely thought of as ‘community-orientated’ and ‘network-orientated’ activities. Similarly, Maarten de Laat referred to ‘aspects’ of community and network. These activities are interconnected, flexible and potentially conflicting (I liked Marteen’s idea of ‘convergence’ and ‘divergence’) – I’m not sure we are consciously distinguishing between the two, but they are both crucial.

Perhaps models like Activity Theory, with a focus on activities and processes, can provide workable analytic frameworks that cut across both concepts? Which reminds me that this week’s hot seat – hosted by Yrjo Engestrom – started today and should be just as interesting…

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