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Networks, Groups and Sets

Fig.1. My groups, sets, nets and collectives … based on an article (unpublished 2014) by Dron & Anderson.

Groups: Any OU Tutor group – you are put in it, you don’t, in an informed way, form a group or elect to join one group over another. I also belong to a ‘group as cohort’ of some 16-20 postgrad students on the university of Birmingham’s First World War (British Military History). Here only by default of signing up in 2013. But also groups you join or form yourself. Or is a set a sub-group?

Sets: OU Tutor groups can become ‘set-like’ and ‘net-like’ – it depends wholly on serendipity that would only be resolved through psychological profiling to ensure a mix that would foster team work! An example of a set that is becoming a networked group are the reader review forums in Amazon. In the last year threaded discussions, particularly on controversial books, have become heated, protracted and informative. I belong to such sets related to Elearning as well as books coming out to mark or exploit the centenary of the First World War.

Nets: ?

Collectives: a writers group that formed between 1999 and 2002 in Diaryland, a group with interests related to grandparents and great-grandparents who were either combatants in the Machine Gun Corps the Royal Flying Corps or during the Third Battle of Ypres, ‘Passchendaele’; applied eLearning in business (corporate eL & D), probably a still quasi-association of OpenStudio links of the more active and reciprocally linked students – especially if and where these have ‘leaked’ into external social platforms (LinkedIn and WordPress blogs).

Whilst the terms are interesting they are open to considerable debate and constant change. Instead of terms, network theory should be brought in to give the number, strength and ‘vibrancy’ otherwise we risk being stuck in a debate on semantics. Web 2.0 connectedness is too big, too messy, too fast changing …

Creating things in a social context – construct, connect, social cognition – is not new. Think of university student amateur theatre groups from uni, to the Fringe and ‘Beyond the Fringe’. The greater the sharing, the greater the benefits – unless that becomes your modus operandi and the assessment process is out of kilter, typically reverting to an essay rather than the artefact as a product of a collective effort (such as an end of term play, exhibition, film or other event that is conducive to collective enterprise).

‘Permission to make mistakes’ is the creed of creatives and entrepreneurs alike. Connectedness equates also to distraction – at some stage you have to close yourself off, shut the doors and turn off the Internet. i.e. for all the networking writing is a lonely and singular task. Team tsks are a different story.

We have needed typology since Noah’s Ark, to try and agree terms so that conversations can be succinct and make sense. The risk here, and I’ve seen it in learning design, is that the terms become set in concrete in the minds and in the usage of an exclusive handful of academics and so ceases to be pertinent to others who cannot speak in that rarified language – this article shows a creep in that direction.

The likelihood of ‘creativity’ emerging from the kindle formed by the twig-like links between groups and sets, the natural ‘serendipity’ of creation evolving from mistakes and exposure to a myriad of ideas has been put on speed by Web 2.0.

Do you understand the same thing from Dron and Anderson’s four terms?

On the basis of definitions provided by the Merriam-Webster dictionary it is difficult to distinguish between groups and nets as both contain people that are connected in some way, or between collectives and groups, as a collective is a group. A set suggests belonging or use, which also makes it group-like, though less ‘connected’. For these reasons I disagree with the way Dron & Anderson (2014) try to define these terms.

Were these categories useful?

No. There are other and more suitable ways to look at how people relate to each other … and relate to themselves (there are internal relationships that allows the individual to take sides, and have an internal debate). Activity Theory tries to show how groups, also called nodes are connected; Yrjo Engestrom has developed the idea to talk not of ‘networks’ but of ‘knotworking’, the tangle of attachments that form where a node connects. Better though would be to think move on from a debate about the terms which will always be ill-defined and contentious and think of network analysis as a science. Networks are of interest because of how much they tell us about the way systems behave, so much so that it is considered a science worthy of study. The ‘read-write Web’ as the authors call it, or the Semantic Web or Web 2.0 is readily suited to network analysis.

What additional questions would you like to ask them?

Independently of sets, groups, collectives and nets ‘memes’ as ephemeral artefacts are also nodes that represent ideas that float as it were between the connections between people. Identifying such memes and seeing how they connect and how such connections and links shift is of interest. This might identify people in ‘sets’ taking as its meaning to ‘set course’ or take a direction … this movement in a common direction towards or with the meme is what identifies this aggregation of shared ideas.

The authors indicate considerable bias by using phrases such as the ‘protective cave of closed systems’ implying that isolation, or working alone is a negative, even an absolute. In any day we will elect to be alone or with others … while at night we may think we are alone when we sleep but our unconscious mind has other ideas. Similarly to suggest that leaving such a cave is a ‘leap into the unknown’ may be how they feel to ‘expose themselves’ but is not how anyone who is inclined to perform sees it – for them ‘being on the stage or in the limelight’ is a leap into the known.

Their argument is weak and hurried. The neuroscience, Darwinianism and psychological aspects of learning individually or in a community, team or or as tribal activity requires far greater development, probably with a neuroscience, evolutionary biologist and a psychologist contributing to the paper.

‘Increased exposure to knowledge also means increased exposure to ignorance, and sometimes, malevolence’.

Think of Hamlet. He exposed himself to the ignorance and malevolence of his own tortured mind. You don’t have to expose yourself or your ideas to feel these things.

Whilst the ‘read-write Web’ exposes us to new ideas and ideas with more flavour (Dron & Anderson, 2014), they also do the opposite, exposing us to old ideas and the bland. It is like walking through a metropolis – you cannot be influenced by everything, only by those things you find or stumbleupon. This might reinforce your beliefs, or alter them depending on how and where you look.


Engestrom (2008). From Teams to Knots (Learning in Doing: Social, Cognitive and Computational Perspectives) (p. 238). Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.


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