Social Media in Education, Disorganizations and the Lifecycle of Emergence


5 years ago a small group including me and Teemu Leinonen formed the Finnish Association of Free, Libre and Open Source Software in Education (FLOSSE). Although we did some great things the effort didn’t last because the people involved were not that interested in running a traditional association. As in Robert Putnam’s book Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital, internet enables individualization of leisure time via the Internet and as a result, participation in traditional formal associations is in a decline.

As Clay Shirky outlines in his book Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, as the transaction costs (in reference to British guru on economics Ronald Coase) for cooperative work drops as a consequence of internet enabled mass collaboration, things tend to happen in a decentralized way without the need for centralized formal organizations. There are many examples of such forces at play, e.g. Wikitravel or OhMyNews.

In Finland we have witnessed the emergence of a decentralized virtual organization called Sometu (sosiaalinen media oppimisen tukena – social media in support of learning). This (dis)organization consists of over 3000 teachers, researchers and other people interested in social media in education. Sometu was formed in the end of 2007 and has grown rapidly since. Their main tool is Ning, but they use a wide variety of other social media tools to carry out educational experiments.

Now that Ning is going more commercial and social media conversation is becoming more overheated and tiring on the educational sector, people like Teemu Leinonen (at ITK-conference) and Tarmo Toikkanen have started to question the aim of Sometu and its mission. Sometu has started to live a life of its own as an echo chamber for educational social media fanatics with their own little experiments with a questionable degree of impact. With a more clear purpose such a (dis)organization could become much stronger and meaningful force in transforming the educational sector. Will it be capable for this?

With great interest I read Dave Pollard’s post on the Lifecycle of Emergence. He talks how intrigued he is of “flow” models depicting the dynamics and cyclic nature of complex systems. He talks about the details of his discovery of Meg Wheatley and Debbie Frieze’s (Berkana Institute) model of Lifecycles of Emergence and explains the model with the following picture:

lifecycleofemergence1 Social Media in Education, Disorganizations and the Lifecycle of Emergence

The Lifecycle of Emergence. Illustration: Dave Pollard, original by Chris Corrigan

When I saw this picture Sometu network immediately came to my mind. As I see it, it was set up by pioneers who named the network. Then it started rapidly evolving as a network as other enthusiasts joined, eventually emerging as a community of practice for using social media in educational practice. A lot of attention and success stories were built, illuminating the (dis)organization’s activities. As more newcomers joined and as the activity and transparency of the group’s activities grew, it became a major system of influence for educational transformation – until someone said that the emperor wears no clothes.

As with anything, technology is like a chair without two legs if the cultural transformation underlying it is missing or unclear for the user. If things get technologically driven – as Sometu seems to be too much so for some people – the question then becomes what is the cultural innovation behind the scenes. This could be concentrated as a mantra, mission or vision for such an organization, but such statements may become empty in meaning.

Influencing real change in education is exceptionally hard. Networks like Sometu need to carefully examine the real competencies they have and focus on those to avoid decline and jump to a new cycle of opportunities. This will be hard, especially if even the originating founders don’t know themselves what would be the forces that will keep their vague network together in the future – simple interest in tools for education is not enough.

Just as Bruce Sterling said to mobile developers at the Mobile Monday Amsterdam:

“I want you to think real hard about the values you are going to save and stop worrying about the plastic”.

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  • http://tarmo.fi Tarmo Toikkanen

    Good analysis, although I'd actually place Sometu currently somewhere between the connecting and nourishing phases. Its impact on the educational sector is still very small. The current growing pains are about Sometu gradually becoming a player in the educational field, and starting to have impact. Organizing around that needs to happen. I certainly don't see Sometu having peaked yet. But my post which you referred to is about anticipating and planning for the eventual decline.

  • http://kempedmonds.com kemp

    Great post on Social Media in Education, especially around the nings and collab groups we form and their challenges. Thanks for the insight from Finland

  • Markku Pelkonen

    Teemu,
    Good post on a topic which is stirring around the “storm in the water glass” of the Finnish learning scene. I have to agree with Tarmo on the connecting-nourishing phases. The current system of influence is still unfortunately on a very high level of technological lobbyists and public bureaucracy. An interesting element in disorganization's seems to be the very human drama elements. People are so focused on their shared obsessions that when something very expected happens (such as Ning putting a price on the platform) it send some shocks to the system. Maybe the saying “it takes peanuts to feed monkeys” is true after all :-D

  • http://twitter.com/markoteras Marko Teräs

    Thanks for a good post Teemu! I totally agree with you and there are a couple of lines that are very nicely put and in your face.

    What troubles me in these conversations about social media are always the talks in the business sector what impact it could have in marketing (or can it) or in the education sector how it could help in e-Learning (or can it).

    In the meanwhile the larger paradigm change in the social side is left unnoticed and that's why many companies and organizations struggle in getting the real benefit from it, because they think this as a some kind of a technological breach – which is only part of it.

    And with all these “experts” floating around: of course it is harder to try to grasp the real change and easier to be the “Geek, tech wizard and social media enthusiast” of our times – even if they weren't and jumped to the train just a week ago.

    Like you said; the tech doesn't help squat if the real change behind it all isn't explained or in some cases taught. I have seen what happens when you just put out a community site which people should start using for their benefit: nothing.

    People need more understanding about the culture and for example what kind of teamwork works in order to get benefit of the tech, if in many cases it is even necessary. And in that context the top-down hierarchical and “I just do when I'm told” mentality doesn't work.

    Like Mr. Shirky so nicely put it, “Technologies that match our social skills”. And if your skills are poor, so will be your performance, no matter what service or app you're using.