Descriptive (network) versus normative (community) based development of e-learning in organisations

As part of a conversation on the Moodle site for the Online Connectivism Conference Stephen Downes posts the following.

Only individuals in a community have agency. Which means that we need to look very closely at what happens when someone says “the community begins to establish which knowledge is important.” What this means is that some few members of the community undertake this action, and are then in some way able to impose this as a directive on the community as a whole.

We need to distinguish between two senses if ‘becomes important’ here:

1. The sense in which the phrase is descriptive, an emergent phenomenon, that we are able to identify after the fact, and

2. The sense in which the phrase is normative, an individual action, which becomes definitive of membership or good conduct in the community.

The first is very easily established via a network. But the second requires a somewhat more cohesive and restrictive organization, which requires an injunction on individual freedom of action.

When somebody says a network “isn’t sufficient” I always look to see what it is that the network is deemed to be insufficient for. And on analysis, it is always some stipulation – some custom, value, belief or law – that one person wants to impose on another.

To my mind, the only impositions that can be justified are those that are necessary to counteract other attempts to impose one person’s will over another, those, in other words, that preserve autonomy, diversity, openness and interaction.

A timely post that connects with some discussions we were having locally at CQU yesterday about supporting e-learning within a university. It also connects with vague ideas expressed in an earlier post.

The current local problems – well, one of them

In terms of implementing e-learning at CQU we’re too much in the normative sense, as explained by Stephen. There are too many individuals or small groups who have defined what is “good” and attempting to enforce that definition on everyone else.

The groups/individuals doing this include

  1. Blackboard staff
    These are staff employed by CQU to support the use of Blackboard. Their emphasis is always on how to efficiently and effectively use Blackboard to solve problems. Even if it is the wrong problem. This is an example of one of the flaws which Introna (1995) identifies with teleological design process. The loss of the big picture and its replacement with an emphasis on solving their bit of the problem. See the previous post for some discussion of this and pointers to other material.
  2. Senior staff
    Staff in fairly important positions that are confident in their abilities and intelligence. People who have formed opinions about how best to do something. This might be as minor as replacing the green in the logo with pink. It can extend to “every course will use problem-based learning” type statements.
  3. Individual academic staff
    I’m sure every university has the small number of very vocal academic staff who are absolutely certain that what they do and how they do it is just the bee’s knees, often with little evidence to support the belief, and they will make sure that they must be allowed to continue doing what they do, exactly the way they want to do it, with the tools they want to use.
  4. Well-meaning technical staff
    I’ve recently seen lots of examples of staff with technical skills knowing of a technology that might provide some advantage and then making the decision to implement it in the belief that it will make a difference. But this is almost always done without any interaction or understanding of the students or staff and the real impact it will have on them. Is this what was really needed?
  5. Controlling senior staff
    These are the managers who are frustrated by the mistakes of a number (often a very small number) of academic staff and then implement a very normative decision upon all staff to prevent those mistakes from happening again. Though often the decision is almost completely clueless and does nothing to address the problem. The only success these types of decision often have is to annoy those staff who were doing the right thing in the first place.
  6. The above list is not meant to denigrate or insult any existing staff. It’s an attempt to identify some categories by which the normative sense impinges on the development of e-learning. I can see myself, at various times, in at least 3 of the 5 above categories.

    Networks and the nature of universities

    Now we enter a realm where time is running out and my thinking is very wooly.

    The basic problem though is if you agree that learning towards the descriptive/emergent sense Stephen describes is “better”. Then how can you create this within an organisation like a university. The nature of universities is that resources are scarce and hence having normative decisions made is standard. Someone decides where the resources gets put, which gives power, which leads to more normative type decisions.

    With e-learning the easy use of technology to support and enhance learning is scarce. Where “easy use” consists of at least tools that are difficult to use and staff who don’t have the background/skills to use the tools. So do you address this, in part, by removing the scarcity of “easy use” of technology.

    But what about the normative decisions that have already been made in the organisation? i.e. the excepted norms and ways of doing things.

    Obviously, I need to do more thinking and more reading.

    Anyone have the answer?

3 Replies to “Descriptive (network) versus normative (community) based development of e-learning in organisations”

  1. “if you agree that learning towards the descriptive/emergent sense … Then how can you create this within an organisation like a university.”

    It’s not clear to me that you can. Universities are designed to preserve existing power structures, to institutionalize the imposition of one person’s will over another.

    The best (and only) approach I have been able to find is to conduct *oneself* as a node in a network with as little regard as possible to the power others purport to wield. Not because you will succeed. But because others will see your freedom and begin to emulate it.

  2. Way down deep, I think I agree. You can’t and modeling the behaviour may well be the best approach.

    If I were to make use of what power I have within an organisation to impose/encourage a descriptive/emergent sense throughout the organisation, would that mean I’m starting to lean towards the normative?

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