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:
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”.