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Why Linking Matters in K-12 Education: Network Effects and Other Benefits

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By Curtis Ogden, Senior Associate at the Interaction Institute for Social Change

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"We cannot live for ourselves alone.  Our lives are connected by a thousand invisible threads, and along those sympathetic fibers, our actions run as causes and return to us as results." - Herman Melville

In an earlier post, Connection is Fundamental, I explored the underlying vitality of connection and flow in our world and how this can create opportunity and health in our lives and in learning. According to network theory and practice, it can make a big difference when we are aware of who is and is not connected and then act intentionally to build and leverage relationships in both number and quality. Stories from a variety of fields illustrate the phenomenon of small and great change being rooted in creating ties and flows between different actors and elements in a system.

Networks for Education and Learning

First, let's take a step back and ask, what is a network? A basic definition is that networks are nodes and links. That is, they are elements of different kinds (people, schools, other kinds of organizations) that are tied together (consciously or unconsciously) in some larger pattern by one or more types of connectedness--values, ideas, friends and acquaintances, likes, exchange, transportation routes, communications channels. Social networks, comprised of individual people or groups, can be experienced in person and also virtually.

In the world of education and learning, here are some of the ways networks show up:

  • Open classrooms - Digital technology is used to connect students to a wide array of information, but also to a diversity of students and teachers beyond a classroom's walls. (e.g., CommunityShare)
  • Communities of practice -  Students, teachers, and school or district leaders connect their learning, engage in inquiry, and refine practice through learning webs within or across schools and districts.  
  • Community schools/schools robustly connected to local community ecosystem - Connections create opportunities for authentic learning, job readiness, and student resilience; wrap-around services ensure fuller suite of supports for students. (e.g., Dudley Street Neighborhood Initiative)  
  • Networks of schools - Schools are connected by their alignment to a model or philosophy, influencing a culture shift within the broader field of education.  
  • Movement networks/"networks of networks" - Collectives of schools or education organizations push for transformation in the field toward greater equity, democracy, "education as a public good" (e.g., National Public Education Support Fund).
  • You (yes, you!) as a network (student, teacher, leader ... all learners) - As individuals, we are internally connected to our multiple intelligences and ways of knowing--analytical/intellectual, embodied/somatic, emotional, spiritual.

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The Value of Networks for Education and Learning

So what is the big deal about networks? Is there really anything new here? These are questions that come up in my work, though seemingly less often over the past five years or so with the proliferation of various social media. On the one hand, networks have always existed as long as life has existed, so there is not anything new here. On the other hand, the various digital tools and technologies that have evolved to rapidly and dramatically shrink the world are showing us what more intricate and efficient forms of communication and exchange can make happen.

And while it is true that virtually all collaborative forms of social organization meet the basic definition of being a network (coalitions, alliances, organizations, communities), not all such forms leverage to the same extent what are called "network effects."

"You've got to keep asserting the complexity and the originality of life, and the multiplicity of it, and the facets of it."- Toni Morrison

In their seminal paper, "NETGAINS: A Handbook for Network Builders Seeking Social Change," Madeleine Taylor and Peter Plastrik describe some of the network effects that are worthy of the attention of social change agents and educators.

  • Rapid growth and diffusion - Through various nodes and links, as well as the ongoing addition of new participants and new pathways, robust and intricate network activity can expand quickly and broadly. This can be important for spreading timely information and other resources and catalyzing action in ways that relatively simple and static organizations cannot. A great example of this is how various social media memes have spread like wildfire in recent years, leading to great amplification and mass mobilization around a variety of civil rights themes.

  • Small world reach - As a network adds connections and those connections in turn add other connections, the overall reach of the network can shrink geographic and other forms of distance and separation. The resulting ability of linked participants to discover and work with one another across expanses and barriers means that new partnerships and ideological convergences can happen, leading to greater efficiency, shared intelligence, and innovation. There are numerous examples of this happening in regional and global networks that have come together across cultures, physical distance, and time zones to learn from one another, create common agendas, and start new ventures. See here some of Steve Waddell's work on global action networks (GANs).

  • Resilience - Provided that a network is not overly centralized and dependent upon a single or limited number of larger hubs that hold (and sometimes hoard) most of the connections to other nodes, it can withstand certain pressures and recover from disruptions. This includes the loss of some nodes and links as it refashions itself from the rich and diverse array of participants and pathways. Redundancy of roles and overlapping functions support a network's ability to absorb shocks without collapsing completely. This is the case with diversified and intricate ecosystems, economies, and other forms of social networks.

Adaptive capacity - To the extent that it is intricately connected, diversely composed, characterized by relatively free flowing information and an ability for participants to self-organize, a network can respond quickly to environmental shifts, assembling a variety of capacities and responses and disassembling them as needed. A prime example of this is how the self-organized initiative Occupy Sandy demonstrated its ability to respond more rapidly to a natural disaster than a more centralized and controlled federal response.

Though implied above, it is also important to note that in any network it is not just the number and pattern of links that matter, but also the quality and depth of the connections and what these facilitate with respect to resource flows. For example, deeper trust and familiarity may lead to more robust and responsive sharing.

Furthermore, it matters who is connected to whom (and who is not), and what resources flow in which directions between these actors or segments of a network. As patterns of connection move and strengthen and flows of resources are enhanced in different ways and reach different parts of a network, this can add up to structural and systemic change, such as shifts in who has access to different opportunities and forms of power and influence in systems at different levels (classroom, school, district, community).

"To get strong cells, you need strong bonds." - Sally J. Goerner

When you consider the perspective of individual participants in a network, there are other forms of value to highlight. When colleagues and I have informally polled people and helped formally evaluate various types of networks and networked activity, some of the most commonly mentioned benefits from robust networks and network activity include:

  • Inspiration and support

  • Learning and skill development

  • Access to information, funding, and other resources

  • Greater systemic/contextual awareness

  • Breaking out of isolation and being a part of something larger

  • Amplification of one's voice and efforts

  • New partnerships and joint projects 

When these individual benefits are combined they can have a multiplier effect in networks. Check out the research of Nicholas Christakis and Jim Fowler on how behaviors and emotions, such as happiness, can spread in a network.

None of these effects or value are necessarily guaranteed or fully realized in every network. Experience shows that what is required is both attention to and intention around certain network dynamics and features. More on that in future posts.

For now, the invitation is to think about the networks and networked activity in which you are engaged as educators, change agents, and learners and how these may or may not be leveraging network effects and creating value for participants.

What do you see and experience as valuable in your education networks? What else would you like to see and experience? How might that happen?   

Next Generation Learning Challenges invites you to respond to these ideas about network effects in education and learning. Please comment below and join the conversation in the NGLC Networks for Learning group on LinkedIn. The group asks how we design our networks, how we act within and across them, what we know works well, and how they can best drive future learning shifts in K-12 education.


Photos, from top: Students and teachers on the first day of school, by Da Vinci Schools; used with permission.; Educators visiting Cesar Chávez Multicultural Academic Center in Chicago, by NGLC; used with permission. 

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