Why Linking Matters: Network Effects and Other Benefits

March 27, 2018 Leave a comment

“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

Image by David Amano, shared under provision of Creative Commons Attribution license 2.0.

In an earlier post in this series on networks and education, we 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.

Now 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 and a diversity of community partners and real-world learning experiences both within and 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 (or can be) internally connected to multiple intelligences and ways of knowing–analytical/intellectual, embodied/somatic, emotional, spiritual.

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, 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.” … To continue reading this post on the Education Week website, go to this link.

“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

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