Connections as Content

I've been going over some of the research log notes I made last year and found a very interesting entry:

- Students are preparing for the final exam. - Most of them printed out other students' blogs and their own to study from. - They printed out entries that they interacted with most (by posting comments or commenting on their own blogs) or entries that seemed to reflect their own understanding of the covered material. - Rather than focus on a specific author they deeemed especially knowledgeable, most students printed various responses to the same topic, written by more than one classmate. - Seemed more interested in ideas and their development than individual authors. - Almost all of them said that the comments and discussions that they engaged in are a reflection of "how their understanding grew over time" and how their ideas "got used."

I found this log entry interesting because of how it relates to an informal conversation between Stephen Downes and George Siemens that I read a couple of days ago. When I read my note, I realized that my students printed off entries that they connected with as learners. In other words, the act of making a connection led to content creation. Connections became content. My students, it occurred to me, would probably agree with Stephen and George:

< .stephendownes> well - to paraphrase some of the recent discussion on your site, the semantic web is all about content, the social web is all about connections < .georgesiemens> yes - that's the distinction I'm grappling with personally < .stephendownes> I have posted back on this - will take some thinking - but from my point of view, the two are logically indistinct < .stephendownes> ie., content just is connections, connections just are content < .georgesiemens> I've stated that connections are more important...but the more I reflect on it, all of our growth in knowledge (through connections) is reflected in content.

So, an entry written by a student on, let's say Animal Farm, is simply content. However, when it is plugged into a social network of a classroom blogging community, when it is composed inside that community, it acquires additional meaning, additional relevance as it gets interpreted, re-interpreted, commented on and discussed. All these emerging connections then help the author grow along with his or her text. As the text gets distributed over the network, the author gets distributed with it. The content - an individual piece of the semantic network - gets incorporated into the social web and acquires connections. What's more, it grows as a result of these connections.

My students reviewed for their exam by studying connections generated by individual nodes. They created their own collection of Small Pieces Loosely Joined:

The result is a loose federation of documents - many small pieces loosely joined. But in what has turned out to be simply the first cultural artifact and institution the Web has subtly subverted, the interior structure of documents has changed, not just the way they are connected to one another. The Web has blown documents apart. It treats tightly bound volumes like a collection of ideas none longer than can fit on a single screen, that the reader can consult in the order she or he wants, regardless of the author's intentions. It makes links beyond the document's covers an integral part of every document. What once was literally a tightly-bound entity has been ripped into pieces and thrown into the air.

My students clearly realized that studying from their own notes, their own blog entries, would be somehow inadequate, that the static entry residing on their blog was just a catalyst and that the key part of their understanding grew out of that catalyst. What the social network did with the information seemed to matter more than the initial node. It was the distribution over the social web of the class blogosphere that contributed more to their understanding than the initial entry, regardless of how insightful it might have been. Their printouts were an attempt to trace the development of ideas, to trace the route that an individual entry took once it entered the bloodstream of the blogging community. They seemed to have realized the value of connections and that connections as distributed content were more valuable as learning objects than the initial individual entry. This leads me to think that once the original entry is distributed throughout the class blogosphere, its value as a learning object increases exponentially. The students seemed to be more interested in what the social network did with the idea than the idea itself.

I know from subsequent interviews and their work in the blogosphere that what made blogging meanigful and engaging to my students was the fact that every entry they posted had the potential to become a node in the blogosphere, a source of numerous connections. Students wrote to contribute to the community and they learned best when their thoughts were commented on and discussed by others. In fact, they said that they really enjoyed following their material around the blogosphere as it "got used" by other students.

This reminds me of Etienne Wenger's notion of meaning. He argues that "meaning exists neither in us, nor in the world, but in the dynamic relation of living in the world." Meaning is negotiated through the interaction of two processes: reification and participation. These two processes "both require and enable each other" because

... reification always rests on participation: what is said, represented, or otherwise brought into focus always assumes a history of participation as a context for its interpetation. In turn, participation always organizes itself around reification because it always involves artifacts, words, and concepts that allow it to proceed.

My students printed blog entries composed by their peers because they were tracing what Wenger calls "histories of interpretation." These histories of mutual engagement seemed more important to them than their own work. They represented more than personal or collective participation. They were viewed as connections that developed over time, as reification and participation that grew out of their community. Etienne Wenger would probably say that my students became invested not just in their own work but also in the shared history of learning and that they sensed that it was more important than their individual contributions.

I'm hoping that similar trends will emerge this year and perhaps lead me to a better understanding of connections and connectivism.