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looking biologically at knowledge communities

June 10, 2007

Recently there has been an overexploitation of the community ideas, which has some ways become as powerful term in computer-based systems as the computer metaphor in cognitive systems.

For example Wenger’s idea of communities of practice is conquiring the World, both in education and work.

Communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

Each community has some core area towards where those who do not belong to this group stream for. The community is thus always keeping and renewing its’ practices.

In education this idea has transformed into the learning communities conception, and there are attempts of forming knowledge-building communities. For example in Estonia we attempt at creating a knowledge-building community of teachers in LeMill environment:

a Web community for finding, authoring and sharing learning resources

The essence of the community in biology and in social systems seems to have some resemblance, thus, i got an idea what if to take the “biology glasses” and look at the processes in these networked knowledge communities.

Of course, I am not the first one to try it. There is a very powerful “rhizomic versus taproot metaphor” from Delueze and Guattari circling around since 1980ies.

For Deleuze and Guattari, a rhizomic knowledge was the opposite of the arborescent or tree-like knowledge with its hierarchical systems of understandings and where everybody and everything had its place in an economy of power and totalising theory.

Deleuze and Guattari argued that a ‘rhizome ceaselessly establishes connections between semiotic chains…a rhizome or multiplicity never allows itself to be overcoded…a rhizome may be broken, shattered at a given spot, but it will start up again on one of its old lines, or on new lines’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 2002, p. 7-9).

Deleuze and Guattari state that, The rhizome is an accentered, nonhierarchical, nonsignifying system without a General and without an organizing memory or central automation, defined solely by a circulation of states.

Now, what intriques me here is some contraversity between he community of practice ideas which seem to be following the taproot kind of central area ideas and the totally center-free rhizomic model, which I feel is much more likely in networked systems.

The taproot communities are formed around people while the rhizomic communities are artifact and meanings centered.

Now, if we want to create a knowledge-building community, it seems the rhizomic model, which centres ideas is more valid than the person-based taproot-model. My previous work-experiences in Miksike learning community proved that people came for ideas and materials – the more there was free content, the more they visited the site, but they didnt form networks. Networking was triggered by activities at some extent, possibilities of doing something for their own purposes with new web-based tools in which the others could participate (eg. quizzes for the schools etc.).

This arises another interesting issue, related to activity theory – new tools seem to initiate the community formation. They provide new means of realizing one’s intentions and objectives.

In LeMill the overall intention is that teachers would form communities around shared (or individual) content-creation. The model supported by Tigerleap foundation favours community-formation at teacher-training courses where people learn the tools and MUST create content. It is believed that later these teachers will become active users of the environment.

Personally i do not believe that this is the right model, because ownership of new tools cannot be achieved with short time. The tools do not come alone – they are part of new paradigm, new kind of thinking which is much harder to accept. Teachers do not see why they should create something for the others. At some extreme cases, they are also against of using the others as a source of ideas.

But which would be the model that works?
Can the community be formed like a taproot, initiated by central person?
Or would the new members in LeMill identify themselves as part of the community and the Wenger’s community of practice idea would work?
Or is there some other kind of pattern under the community-formation, especially at inital phases where there is no community core yet? Something rhizomic for example…
Something conquring the territory for my species? maybe ..what always happens in biological communities, at grasslands. How could we initiate this kind of grassland-formation and increase the ‘biodiversity’? because this kind of community is less vulnerable to extreme conditions and changes compared to monocultures.

In one of my earlier writings i tried to compare the lifespan of the community with the lifespan-diagrams of biological communities. I would ask now, in what stage of community are LeMill different communities, and can we look at the different periods of the community-formation using different models?

Some interesting papers:
Rhizome@internet

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