Friday, August 31, 2007

Well NOW!

The ABCs Of Fast Growth

Area Tech Firms Plug Into Education

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007; D01

Fairfax County school officials this fall are carrying BlackBerrys that connect to a database of student information, including parent contacts and medical warnings. Dartmouth students are using wikis, blogs, podcasts and other interactive media tools for their courses. A graduate school at Carnegie Mellon has bought new, Web-based software to administer financial aid.

The initiatives are all the work of Washington-area businesses -- part of a wave of education technology companies that have emerged in the region in recent years. Defywire, based in Herndon, makes the mobile database software that is being used by Fairfax schools. Learning Objects, in the District, sold Dartmouth the Web products, and Regent Education of Frederick created the financial aid software.

All told, more than 20 education technology companies have set up shop in greater Washington. Some cater to universities, others to local school systems. Some help educators manage big budgets and intricate bureaucracies; others provide tools for use in the classroom -- or, in some cases, seek to replace the classroom altogether.

What many of the companies share, executives say, is fast growth and a belief that schools will increasingly come to rely on technology, trends that they hope could be attractive to high-powered investors.

"The volume of opportunity in education technology is far greater than it was five years ago," said Frank Bonsal III, a Baltimore venture capitalist. He is trying to raise money to start a fund to invest in education companies.

One test of the sector's strength could come soon as a Herndon company called K12, a provider of online curricula, attempts to go public. Company executives declined to comment on their plans as federal regulators review their registration, filed late last month, to hold a $172.5 million initial public offering. The application said that sales at the company increased from $71.4 million in 2004 to $116.9 million in 2006.

Several company executives cited Blackboard, an education software behemoth based in the District, as a catalyst for new ventures. The company, they say, is evidence that an education software company can prosper. Venture capitalists have long been wary of putting money into these companies because school budgets are notoriously unpredictable and changing political priorities can affect the decisions of administrators.

Blackboard was founded in 1997 by a few 20-somethings who quit comfortable jobs to start the company. The dot-com boom swept up Blackboard, and it weathered the subsequent bust before going public. Last year, it had sales of $180 million.

"There's this whole new emerging category of academic technology that's just started to be invested in by universities," said Michael Chasen, Blackboard's chief executive. "That's helping to spawn new types of companies."

Those companies include firms started or populated by former Blackboard executives.

An original member of the team that founded Blackboard, Greg Davies, left to start Presidium Learning in 2003. He was looking to provide technical support to universities, which, he figured, would need help as they increased their investments in information technology.

At the beginning, Presidium had a few hundred thousand dollars in contracts, much of it acquired through Blackboard. "They've provided us with strong partnerships and access to their sales team," Davies said. Last year, Presidium did more than $10 million in sales.

Derek Hamner and Hal Herzog, founders of Learning Objects, are two other Blackboard alumni who have left the company but continue to capitalize on its software.

Learning Objects builds extensions to Blackboard's best-known product, a system that allows schools to manage their courses online. Specialized Web sites allow teachers to post reading lists, homework and other materials, and students can submit their work.

Learning Objects' software allows professors to use wikis, blogs, podcasts and other new media tools. "Students go out into the real world, and instead of coming back to class, they'll keep a journal or a reflective blog related to their experience that they can share" with their class, Hamner said.

Jill Stelfox, a former wireless executive and self-described "crazed mother," created Defywire in 2003 to allow teachers, coaches and other school officials to use their BlackBerrys and handheld devices to access information on students from a school's central database.

Venture capitalists have been impressed by the idea, in use in 40 school districts. Intersouth Partners of Durham, N.C., Amplifier Venture Partners of McLean and Anthem Capital of Baltimore have poured $17 million into the company.

Novak Biddle and Updata Partners of Reston have invested in Spectrum K-12, which makes special education software. The software is used to keep tabs on 6 million of the 44 million special education students in the country and is used in Montgomery and Loudoun counties.

The local market does not come without challenges. Bonsal, the Baltimore venture capitalist, said fellow investors are skeptical about putting money into education start-ups, although they are willing to back more-developed companies.

Ed Meehan, an Oakton venture capitalist who follows the education market closely, said the incentives for innovation in education technology are not the same as in other markets.

"The people who are making the purchasing often gain no personal benefit by picking a cool new technology," he said.

Even the big guys can feel the pressure. Blackboard may one day find itself squaring off against competitors offering similar course-management solutions at far reduced costs. One such technology, called Moodle, is free. Some companies have created businesses around hosting and supporting Moodle operations -- at, say, $1 a student. Martin Knott, chief executive of such a service, called MoodleRooms, said his two-year-old company grew at a rate of 1,500 percent last year, to 350 clients, and is expected to quintuple in size this year. UCLA recently switched to Moodle as its course-management software.

Oakland Wireless and Wireless Washtenaw!

Oakland, Washtenaw wireless systems coming soon

Posted on 8/30/2007 8:45:39 AM

Municipal wireless projects in Oakland and Washtenaw counties should be complete in 2008 and will offer considerable economic development benefits, officials of the two counties told a Great Lakes IT Report - WWJ Newsradio 950 breakfast Thursday.

The systems, Wireless Oakland and Wireless Washtenaw, will offer particular advantages for rural areas in western Washtenaw and northern Oakland counties, which are currently limited to broadband.

"West of Zeeb Road, we don't have access" to broadband, Washtenaw County deputy county executive and CIO David Beehan said during the event. He said business owners in western Washtenaw are telling the county, "We only have dial-up, and it's killing us."

Beehan and Phil Bertolini, Oakland County deputy executive and CIO, outlined their respective counties' progress toward free wireless Web access to a crowd of about 100 at Lawrence Technological University in Southfield.

Bertolini said the inspiration for the project came from a 2004 visit by Oakland County Executive L. Brooks Patterson to Dubai, which has universal Web access.

"Brooks said there's four square miles of Dubai, there's 910 square miles of Oakland County -- make it so," Bertolini said.

Both counties' projects involve no government investment or ownership. Instead, the counties are making government assets such as power poles and radio towers available for free to a private sector partner that provides the actual service. A basic level of service -- 128 kilobits per second, about twice as fast as dial-up -- is provided free, with higher speeds available at a price. The provider also gets advertising revenue from a portal start page that all users begin at.

In Oakland County, those upsell rates and prices range from $19.95 a month for 512 kilobits per second download speed to $39.95 a month for 1.5 megabits per second.

Berolini said Wireless Oakland's Phase I has covered 18.5 square miles, an area comprised of 35,000 households and businesses. So far, 11,000 of them have signed up -- far exceeding the county's initial projection of a 5 percent signup rate. Of the 11,000, about 200 are paying for higher speeds, Bertolini added.

Bertolini said Wireless Oakland is currently developing its rollout schedule for the rest of the county, which should be complete by the end of 2008.

Roughly the same schedule is in effect for Washtenaw County, which has a 15-square-mile pilot system operating in Saline, Manchester and downtown Ann Arbor. In Washtenaw, though, only 300 have signed up.

Both counties said government is one of the "anchor tenants" of the system and will use it extensively.

And Bertolini said the system is already paying off in terms of economic development.

"We already have companies contacting Oakland County and saying that part of the reason we are looking to locate in Oakland County is that the county is building a wireless network across 910 square miles," Bertolini said.

Behen said Washtenaw County got its inspiration not from Dubai, but from the fact that the private sector simply doesn't seem interested in providing broadband to rural areas.

"I'm not going to argue with the private sector," Behen said. "But in my position as deputy county administrator and CIO, I have to think a little bigger, and think about the quality of life for those areas."

Both plans also include programs to bridge the digital divide, once the wireless network is up and running. The counties will be providing free or low-cost computers and training for low-income residents.

Both speakers also said they're watching the development of WiMax technology carefully, but that it's still years away from widespread use. Oakland County is already using WiMax for backhaul, Bertolini said.

Monday, August 27, 2007

As Ed McMahon said: YOU Have to AIM to Send it In!

2007 Forum
2007 Innovative Teachers Forum Winners

Learning teams from the following schools have been chosen by our selection committee to participate in the 2007 Microsoft U.S. Innovative Teachers Forum:

Abington High School, Abington, PA
Aspen Valley High School, Colorado Springs, CO
Austin Jewish Academy, Austin, TX
Byng Junior High School, Ada, OK
Central Middle School, Portage, MI
Cleveland High School, Seattle, WA
Columbus East High School, Columbus, IN
Fayetteville High School, Sylacauga, AL
Ft. Sumner High School, Fort Sumner, NM
Highland Park High School, Highland Park, IL
Highlands Elementary School, Saugus, CA
J.Clyde Hopkins Elementary School, Sherwood, OR
Keith Valley Middle School, Horsham, PA
Libby Center Tessera Program, Spokane, WA
Mary Institute Country Day School, St. Louis, MO
New River Middle School, Ft. Lauderdale, FL
Park View High School, Sterling, VA
South Columbia Elementary School, Martinez, GA
St. John's Episcopal School, Dallas, TX
Sun Prairie High School, Sun Prairie, WI
Washington Elementary School, Washington, UT
William C. McGinnis Middle School, Perth Amboy, NJ

The winning teams described a wide range of collaboration strategies and projects which incorporate 21st century learning. For example, junior high students used math, science, and technology to develop an award-winning plan to increase school safety in their community, and elementary students learned about the real-life skills necessary to qualify for and run in the Iditarod race.

In the next couple of months, we'll bring you news and information from the Forum about the teaching and learning of these outstanding teams of educators.

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Geoffrey Canada' AIM Program

Harlem Program Finds Ways to Help Kids, Revive a Community

Cox News Service
Sunday, August 26, 2007

In a worn building in the heart of Harlem, up two flights of well-used stairs and down halls dotted with proud plaques and bright murals, 14-year-old Alec Strong sits before a shiny white computer learning Web site design and pondering a future full of possibilities.

One floor up, beside a small gym favored by baby-faced basketball players, 6-year-old Bria Jordon yells and knocks down two men more than twice her size. She bows to her martial arts sensei, who smiles as another lesson in discipline and fitness is completed.

A few blocks away is the public school where Aisha Tomlinson attended "Baby College" classes and learned there was a lot she didn't know about being a parent.

At nearby Promise Academy elementary, 8-year-old Noah Brown begins each school day reciting a pledge that ends with the words: "We will go to college. We will succeed. This is the promise. This is our creed."

All these faces belong to the Harlem Children's Zone, an ambitious project spanning nearly 100 blocks in one of New York's poorest neighborhoods.

As many cities struggle with pockets of crime and poverty, the zone has become a rare national beacon, widely admired and studied by local governments and charities because of its success in bringing education, social services, medical help and a sense of community to thousands of children and families.

The program has lately become part of presidential politics, touted by Democratic candidate Barack Obama as the basis for his poverty strategy. He called the zone "an all-encompassing, all-hands-on-deck anti-poverty effort that is literally saving a generation of children in a neighborhood where they were never supposed to have a chance."

Obama said in July that, if elected, he would spend billions of dollars to apply the zone's approach in 20 U.S. cities, spurring debate on whether the government can effectively replicate the program.

Many dedicated and generous people work to make the zone a reality, but it exists largely because of the vision and sweat of Geoffrey Canada, who overcame a poor and violent childhood in the South Bronx and dedicated himself to giving back.

"In communities like Central Harlem it's not just one thing that's really going badly for children, it's everything," said Canada, the zone's president and CEO. He said individual programs that address issues such as early childhood education or teen pregnancy are not enough to ensure that kids succeed.

The response, he said, is not to fight one battle, but to fight them all.

"That's how you reach the tipping point, really creating a conveyor belt that starts from birth with programs like Baby College and Harlem Gems for 4-year-olds," he said. "It supports young people straight through college."

Getting kids all the way through college is key, Canada said, noting that a high school diploma is not enough to ensure success in today's world. Helping new graduates stay connected to their community creates a positive cycle, he said.

"That's how you really begin to grow a young adult population which is prepared to take responsibility, by making sure young people feel that they have a place that they are responsible for and they have the tools to make a difference," Canada said.

The children's zone is part of a broader economic revival in Harlem that includes new construction and an influx of business after years of decline.

The zone grew out of a program called the Rheedlen Centers for Children and Families and began providing services to a 24-block area of Harlem in 2001. That area included about 3,000 children, most of them black and nearly two-thirds living in poverty.

It now encompasses 97 blocks and serves more than 9,000 kids and their families.

Children in zone schools have longer days, shorter summer vacations and many after-school options. Teachers are held to very high performance standards.

The zone's approximately 20 programs range from a family crisis storefront facility to Harlem Peacemakers, which trains young people to keep neighborhoods safe and puts them in classrooms to work with elementary school kids.

The scope of the effort is clear at the program's recently built $42 million headquarters on 125th Street, which houses a community center, sports and medical facilities, a cafeteria serving healthy meals and upper grades of the Promise Academy.

A conference area here resembles a war room, with a map of the zone's blocks dotted with program sites. Another map shows the high levels of obesity in Harlem compared to the rest of New York. Still another pinpoints the schools where hundreds of children from the zone have made it to college.

Leaders from cities from San Francisco to Miami have come here to learn what makes the zone tick.

The zone's annual budget is $50 million, with one-third coming from federal, state and city funds and the rest from private donations. Much of the private money stems from hedge fund wealth and Wall Street donors among the program's trustees.

The zone's results can be found woven through the lives of people like Harlem mom Flo Brown and her three sons.

Noah, who soon starts Promise Academy's 3rd grade, passed 3rd grade state reading and math tests a year early. Jeremiah, soon to be 4, will begin at the Harlem Gems pre-kindergarten in the fall, and 1-year-old Caleb also has the zone in his future.

The two older boys already talk about going to college, Brown said.

"I'm fully aware of the epidemic of our black men going to jail, dropping out of high school, or on drugs or being killed," she said. "Having three black men that I'm raising is very frightening for me."

"Trying to raise a family in Harlem in this day and age — we really couldn't afford a private school," Brown said. "I don't know that I could have done this in this environment without the Harlem Children's Zone. It's also created a village of sorts for me."

That village provided help beyond schooling. Brown said a zone asthma program, needed in a neighborhood with some of the worst asthma rates in the nation, helped Noah get through a time of frequent emergency room visits.

Brown also attended the Baby College, which teaches moms and dads about parenting. One often eye-opening class concerns discipline and how to punish children without hitting.

"All that stuff is embedded in you, so you think because this is the way you were raised this is the way we are supposed to raise your children," Brown said. "My husband and I are talking to our son, we're explaining things to our son."

Aisha Tomlinson, 42, said Baby College classes about seven years ago also taught her the importance of reading to her kids.

"The things that you didn't have, you definitely want your children to have," she said.

Older kids in the zone have programs like TRUCE, The Renaissance University for Community Education. The program provides after-school and summer activities for kids 12-19, focusing on academics, arts, technology and nutrition and fitness. Students here produce a cable TV show, a newspaper and have a Web site in the works.

Alec Strong has been part of TRUCE since he was 10. He said he wants to be a video game designer and the program provides an early step.

"Some students really have nothing and this program gives students something to look forward to," he said. "I'm looking forward to going to college."

On the Web:

Harlem Children's Zone:

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Importance: URGENT!

The Preschool Question: Who Gets to Go?

Va. Expansion Efforts Highlight Debate

By Maria Glod
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 22, 2007; A01

The children in Carrie Hamilton's preschool class yesterday drew wobbly hearts with wobbly letters underneath. They tapped the buttons on a toy cash register and raced cars over roads built of wooden tracks. Hidden in the games and giggles were lessons on the building blocks of reading and math.

These Fairfax County 4- and 5-year-olds are part of a national push to devote more public resources to the youngest learners. They are also at the center of a debate, underscored last week in a Virginia policy shift, over whether the government should offer preschool to all children or concentrate on those from poor families.

Nationwide, about 950,000 children are enrolled in state-funded preschool, a 36 percent increase from five years ago, said experts who track the programs. As advocates promote quality pre-kindergarten as a way to prepare children for school, strengthen the workforce and reduce crime, states have increased funding since 2005 for such programs by 75 percent, to $4.2 billion, according to the District-based organization Pre-K Now. Some in Congress have also proposed more federal money to help build state preschool initiatives.

The questions about which children will benefit most from government-funded preschool and how great the investment should be are at the core of Virginia's effort to expand pre-kindergarten but have also arisen in Maryland. Next week, in its first foray into all-day preschool, Montgomery County plans to introduce full-day, federally funded Head Start classes for 260 students at 10 elementary schools that serve low-income neighborhoods. This week, Prince George's County expanded its full-day state-funded preschool program by half, to 261 classes, also targeting students from poor families.

After campaigning in 2005 to offer free preschool to every 4-year-old in Virginia regardless of family income, Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) scaled back his plan last week and said he would focus resources on the neediest children.

In an interview yesterday, Kaine said his pledge to launch universal preschool was prompted by research showing that a tremendous amount of learning takes place before the first day of kindergarten. But education experts persuaded Kaine to build on the work of existing public and private preschools.

"Instead of just creating a system from scratch, why not take the existing network and focus on the goals of increasing access and increasing quality?" Kaine said. "We can change the financial criteria to help kids who can't afford it and have an impact on the quality of all parts of the system."

Virginia 4-year-olds who qualify for free school lunches -- those in households with incomes of less than $27,000 for a family of four -- are eligible for free preschool, and about 12,500 children take part at an annual state cost of about $50 million. Kaine's plan would extend benefits to children in families with incomes up to $38,000. The new proposal, which envisions enrolling about 17,000 more underprivileged children by 2012, would cost an additional $75 million a year.

Kaine also is calling for a state-led rating system to help parents gauge how providers measure up. Preschools, much like restaurants or hotels, would be rated on a five-star scale based on such factors as the educational level and training of teachers, class sizes and an expert's classroom observation.

Kaine's plan to offer universal preschool for all 100,000 4-year-olds in the state would have cost about $300 million annually.

Bruce Fuller, an education and public policy professor at the University of California at Berkeley who is a leading proponent of income-targeted funding, said research has shown that children from poor families get the biggest boost from high-quality preschool. He said universal preschool provides unneeded benefits to wealthy families and said the emphasis should be on helping children in lower-income homes, who tend to start school knowing fewer letters and numbers than their peers.

"We need to focus scarce dollars where the benefit is the greatest, and that's to children from low-income and blue-collar households," Fuller said. "If dollars are sprinkled across all families rich and poor, it's illogical to think early learning gaps will be narrowed."

But other education experts said the country should shift to preschool for all children. They say every dollar spent on public preschool will improve school performance, lessen the need for remedial education and have other long-term benefits.

A recent study of New Mexico's preschoolers showed that students in the state program learned many more words and scored higher on a test of early math skills than peers who didn't attend.

"Even though it costs more, the public is better off if they make sure it gets to all kids," said W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University. "Even middle-income kids, the middle 60 percent, have a 1 in 10 chance of failing a grade, a 1 in 10 chance of dropping out of high school. A lot of that can be traced to how far behind they were when they started kindergarten."

Libby Doggett, executive director of Pre-K Now, which backs universal access, applauded Kaine's proposal. "Given the political realities of the state, he's starting where he should," Doggett said, alluding to Virginia's budget constraints.

The federal Head Start program provides preschool for about 900,000 children from low-income homes across the country, and many states fund classes targeted largely to disadvantaged children. Georgia and Oklahoma offer universal preschool that reaches large percentages of children. Other states, including West Virginia and New York, are working toward such programs.

In Florida, voters approved a constitutional amendment in 2002 that mandates pre-kindergarten for all children, but critics contend the quality of the program has suffered because of a lack of funding. Last year, California voters rejected a ballot measure that would have taxed the wealthy to pay for universal preschool.

In the District, more than 5,000 children are enrolled in full-day preschool programs in public schools.

The nonprofit preschool of Annandale Christian Community for Action, where Hamilton's students played yesterday, is one of several private centers in a pilot program started by Kaine to help Virginia reach more children from disadvantaged homes. This summer, the center has new state funding for 26 additional children.

Camilla Torejo, 4, showed off her artwork as classmates flipped through books, played computer games and zoomed around with toy cars. "I made this heart and this heart and this heart," Camilla said. Next to them, she wrote her name.

Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Batter UP!

Published Online: August 14, 2007


Why Education Reform Is Like Baseball

Thoughts for the Days of Summer

By Jeanne Century

If you are looking for an entertaining summer read, what could be more promising than a David-and-Goliath baseball story? That’s what I expected as I opened Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-seller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. But before I had finished the first chapter, I realized this was more than a sports story, and that my hopes of being distracted from the work of improving education were not going to be realized.

Moneyball tells many stories, one of which is how General Manager Billy Beane of the Oakland A’s used an otherwise disregarded statistic—on-base percentage—as a strategy for selecting players. His scouts were accustomed to the more traditional approach to finding baseball stars: traveling across the country and recruiting those who looked “right.” Beane’s analytic approach was decidedly unpopular, and the story of its implementation before the 2002 season is yet another illustration of the fact that, whether in baseball or education, systems are stubborn.

Moneyball tells about a system that did not want to change; of practices held steadfast in tradition; and of how a leader, with the right motivation and insight, innovated for success. So, as this season winds down and you sit watching nine innings, consider these nine lessons for educators drawn from an unlikely place: America’s simple favorite pastime—baseball.

1. Don’t go for the home runs … just get on base and the rest will come. Beane didn’t win baseball games by hoping for home runs. Home runs are rare, and hope doesn’t win games. He understood that individual players don’t win games; teams do—when they work together in a process of creating runs. In education, we identify isolated strategies that we hope will be our home runs. But experience tells us that a better approach is to get solidly and clearly “on base.” Then, the system can work, each piece supporting the other, stepping up when necessary and stepping back to “sacrifice” if that is what will win the game. The only way the system can work is if everyone buys in and does his or her part.

In a quickly changing world, practices that once worked can become ineffective artifacts, and those most familiar to us may be the very ones that are in fact standing in the way of improvement.

2. Money is important, but it is not the answer. Beane had to spend his team’s meager $40 million wisely; other clubs had several times that amount. So he set out to identify ways he could use his money more efficiently. As Lewis writes, “[I]n professional baseball it still matters less how much money you have than how well you spend it.” Instead of investing in one big star, Beane sought out those players who were regularly and consistently getting on base (see lesson one). We in education need to find ways to get on base. Small steps are enough if they are consistent and well informed. The smartest strategies don’t necessarily cost the most money. Indeed, some of them don’t cost anything at all.

3. Be willing to change the things that are the most familiar. When it came time to make changes, Beane identified a part of his organization that looked most like the others—his scouting department—and that is where he made changes that were key for his success. Educators can take a lesson from this. In a quickly changing world, practices that once worked can become ineffective artifacts, and those most familiar to us may be the very ones that are in fact standing in the way of improvement.

4. Decisions should be made with personal investment, but not overpersonalized. In baseball, the people who make the decisions generally have played the game at one time or another and, as Lewis puts it, they “generalize wildly from their own experience.” This sounds familiar? We all have personal experience with education, and it is easy to think that what worked for us will work for others. We need to make good decisions grounded in personal experience and beliefs. But we need to recognize that beliefs built on the experience of one person, or even a few people, may not hold the answers for the country as a whole.

5. Make decisions based on experience and evidence, not on impressions. Lewis tells us that baseball scouts had a dislike of short, right-handed pitchers and a “distaste” for fat catchers. But Beane looked past appearances and turned to performance. While scouts chose players without looking very far below the surface, Beane looked at past performance and made informed decisions based on what was most likely to happen next. In other words, he paid attention to history to inform his shaping of the future. In education, we need to hold our goals clearly in our sights while remembering to look below the surface and consider all that we know. Informed by our history, we can look optimistically forward.

6. The changing environment makes old rules obsolete. Lewis notes that some practices of baseball are vestiges of a time long gone when players wore no gloves and fields were rough expanses of dirt. Likewise, the education system was invented at a time when the world looked quite different, and yet, the instruction and function of our schools often looks very much the same. Even as ball fields have built lights and digital scoreboards, the object of the game has stayed the same. Likewise, the object of our “game” stays the same, but the setting is very different. We need to discard the obsolete practices and find those that will keep us apace in our growing world.

7. There is resistance to new knowledge and ideas. The book explains that as baseball statistics became more sophisticated and available, those inside the sport relegated them to a “cult” of users. Lewis notes that “there was a profusion of new knowledge and it was ignored. … [Y]ou didn’t have to look at big-league baseball very closely to see its fierce unwillingness to rethink anything.” This sounds painfully familiar. In education, we say we want to innovate and improve. But saying it and acting on it are two different things. Few are willing to let go of the familiar to take the risk of embracing the promising, but still unknown.

8. People do things even when there is evidence that they don’t work. Oddly, in baseball and education alike, people do things even though it’s clear that they don’t work. In baseball, for example, players might steal bases even when it seems to be statistically pointless or even self-defeating. In education, we know that an incremental, evidence-based approach will get us where we want to go. And yet, we continue to implement popular (albeit unproven) strategies on unrealistic timelines because that is what the constituents want, even if, in the end, it won’t help win the game.

9. A system is a system is a system. Lewis quotes the innovative baseball statistician Voros McCracken, who once wrote: “The problem with major-league baseball … is that it’s a self-populating institution. … [T]hey aren’t equipped to evaluate their own systems. They don’t have the mechanisms to let in the good and get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of everything, and they rarely do the latter.”

As I sat in the warm summer sun, I had to check the cover of the book, just to make sure I hadn’t accidentally picked up a book about education.

Jeanne Century is the director of science education and research and evaluation at the University of Chicago’s Center for Elementary Mathematics and Science Education.

Friday, August 17, 2007

Thank You for PARTICIPATING in this Virtual Community!

August 15, 2007

Building Virtual Communities

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach

from Technology & Learning

Online communities of practice are central to 21st century professional development. In this excerpt from, an expert shares her views—and we invite yours.

Building Virtual Communities

Author, consultant, and social learning theorist Etienne Wenger describes virtual learning communities as electronic communities of practice where you find groups of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion for a topic. These communities deepen their knowledge and expertise by interacting on an ongoing basis. According to Wikipedia, traditional communities of practice are "based around situated learning in a colocated setting." In the blogosphere however, we see community developed not by common location, but through pockets of common interest.

Capacity Building

I spend a lot of time participating in communities online. I have had the opportunity to see some of the best and some of the worst in action. I am thankful for the new electronic models of professional growth that inspire me daily to think and collaborate differently. The diversity of ideas and thoughts represented in my community 21st Century Collaborative push the boundaries of my thinking as I share knowledge and do my part to advocate for educational reform.

The way I see it, social networking tools have the potential to bring enormous leverage to teachers at relatively little cost. The burning question: How can we accelerate the adoption and full integration of 21st century teaching and learning strategies in schools today?

What Makes a Community Successful?

A burgeoning body of opinion suggests virtual learning communities are becoming the venue through which agents for change operate. The potential is enormous, as knowledge capital is collected and the community becomes a sort of online brain trust, representing a highly varied accumulation of expertise. However, successful virtual learning communities are hard to come by, and many seem to fade away almost as soon as they get started. This past June at the EduBloggerCon at NECC several online community leaders tried to think about components and attributes of successful learning communities. The following are tips and tricks garnered from my lessons learned as I have created and led virtual learning communities for various purposes over the last seven years.

The Community Organizer

Typically, community organizers foster member interaction, provide stimulating material for conversations, keep the space organized, and help hold members accountable to the stated community guidelines, rules, or norms. They also build a shared culture by passing on community history and rituals. Perhaps most important, community organizers are keenly aware of how to empower participants to do these things for themselves. Organizers use their group facilitation skills to help all members of the community to become active participants in the process. They work hard behind the scenes to support socializing and relationship-and trust-building.

Points to Consider

Besides finding the right organizer, other key attributes of successful online communities include:

  • a shared vision of what constitutes the mission or niche of the community

  • a core group willing to chime in on a variety of topics, self-monitor, and keep the conversation rolling

  • opportunities for content creation such as book reviews, book chats, lesson sharing, and other professional development input

  • regular posting of relevant, provocative issues.

Here are some questions you need to ask when designing your learning community:

  • Will communications be asynchronous, synchronous, or both?

  • Will we need file-storage and file-sharing capabilities?

  • How will we share and store links to Web-based resources?

  • How will we support collaboration on projects?

  • Will we need archiving capability for Webcasts, chats, and threaded discussions?

  • Will we need polling or surveying tools as part of our work?

  • Is voice capability important for our synchronous events?

  • Is a member profiling tool an important feature?

  • What recruitment and rollout strategy will we have?

  • Is the community open or closed?

Measuring Impact

Evaluation needs to be built in to this work from the beginning. In addition to any evaluation done in connection with scholarly research, it is critically important for organizers to use "just-in-time" assessments that allow for continuous improvement of the virtual community experience. Since this is a relatively new field, many research questions remain to be answered.

Sheryl Nussbaum-Beach is a regular speaker on teacher leadership and virtual community building. Her Web portal is 21st Century Collaborative.

21st Century Digital Learning Environments would like to hear your comments on and experiences with virtual learning communities:

  • What role does Web 2.0 play in the development of teacher leadership and implementation of school reform through the communities in which we learn and play?

  • What are the components of successful, thriving virtual communities?

  • Do intentional roles and norms lead to building the trust that is necessary for a community to grow?

  • Does part of the answer to meaningful change and implementation of 21st century skills and dispositions in schools lie in the collaboration that occurs in virtual learning environments?
To participate in the conversation, visit

The TIP(S) of the 21st Century ICEBERG!

November 1, 2006

Tips for Building an Online Community

Susan Taylor

Attention school administrators: using technology to support virtual collaboration and establish an online community can serve as a useful tool to “keep the fire burning” among a planning group and help bring positive resolution to the task at hand.

The value of bringing the school community and various stakeholders together to address problems, find solutions and generally contribute to improving situations on the campus cannot be overstated. The most common way to bring people together is to host a face-to-face meeting. However, most issues are not resolved during a one-time meeting and follow up is usually required. In today’s world of competing priorities, it is difficult to find the space and time amenable to everyone’s schedule to allow for follow-up and ongoing conversations. To the rescue comes Virtual collaboration, and it can make a real difference.

Virtual Collaboration Tools

Virtual collaboration may be either Synchronous or Asynchronous. The difference: if it occurs during real-time activities like video teleconferencing or audio conference, where people are in different places participating at the same time, it is Synchronous; but if it enables participants to join in from different places at different times, then it is Asynchronous.

Some strategies to support virtual collaboration include the following:

  • Establish regular times for team interaction
  • Send agendas to participants beforehand
  • Designate a team librarian
  • Build and maintain a team archive
  • Use visual forms of communication where possible
  • Set formal rules for communication and/or technology use

Establishing an Online Community

To accommodate an online community, it is useful to think about the media being utilized and its effect on group dynamics. Kimball (1997, p. 3) provides some useful questions to help you with this process:


Questions for Facilitator/Manager

Electronic Mail

  • What norms need to be established for things like: response time, whether or not Email can be forwarded to others?
  • What norms are important about who gets copied on Email messages and whether or not these are blind copies?
  • How does the style of Email messages influence how people feel about the team?

Decision Making Support Systems

  • How does the ability to contribute anonymous input affect the group?
  • How can you continue to test whether “consensus” as defined by computer processing of input is valid?
  • How can you help participants have a sense of who is “present?”
  • How can you sense when people have something to say so you can make sure that everyone has a chance to be heard?


Questions for Facilitator/Manager

Video conferencing

  • How can you best manage the attention span of participants?
  • Where can video add something you can’t get with audio only?

Asynchronous Web-Conferencing

  • How do you deal with conflict when everyone is participating at different times?
  • What’s the virtual equivalent of eye contact?
  • What metaphors will help you help participants create the mental map they need to build a culture, which will support the team process?

Document Sharing

  • How can you balance the need to access and process large amounts of information with the goal of developing relationships and affective qualities like trust?

Building trust and establishing relationships is cited as a challenge for online communities, so begin with a face-to-face meeting and then pursue the online community. During your face-to-face meeting, let people know that you want to continue the conversations and ask people to join your online community by submitting their Email addresses to you.

To reach as many people as possible, keep things simple in the beginning. Initiate your online community with listserv messages. Begin by sending a message to your group thanking them for attending your recent meeting. One way to begin interaction is to post a question and ask people to respond.

Consider if you want responses to go out to everyone on the listserv or if you want all responses to come to you and you will compile the responses and send back to everyone. Compilation of responses may help ensure anonymity for your members and encourage participation in the beginning when the trust level may not be where it needs to be.

As your online community grows, it will be useful to host an audio conference or another face-to-face meeting to continue the work on building trust.

Remember to offer content and information focused on participants’ interests. Provide resources to help participants make informed decisions. Although information sharing does not encourage community interaction, it may serve to reinforce continue use of the online community.

Use opportunities to share success stories and reward or recognize members.

As your group becomes comfortable with the online community, you may want to consider providing more sophisticated methods to support and maintain your community. Of course, this will be determined by your members’ level of expertise and ability to meet the technology requirements.

Email: Susan Taylor


Kimball, L. (1997). Intranet Decisions: Creating your organization’s internal network, Miles River Press.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

21st Century Digital Learning Environments

AIM for Technologically EVOLVED Learning!

A Classroom Evolved

Students Advance Because of Technology and Real-World Application

By Missy Raterman

Diablo Valley College is one of three publicly supported two-year community colleges in the Contra Costa Community College District in California. DVC serves more than 22,000 students of all ages through more than 2,600 courses offered in 57 occupational specialties.

Many students at the college come from underrepresented socioeconomic groups. Thanks to a grant package that provided wireless technology, cash, and professional development, new learning experiences ignited student interest in the subject matter and helped them get a better focus for their studies.

Calculated Improvement

When Diablo Valley College Calculus II professor Despina Prapavessi was asked whether students entered her course with a strong background in the type of mathematics that they would be expected to engage in during the semester, she replied, "This particular class happened to have a rather weak background in many of the fundamentals they would need to build on for the purpose of the course, but once technology was incorporated in the classroom, participation and learning improved close to 20 percent."

As a recipient of a 2005 Hewlett-Packard Technology for Teaching Higher Learning grant award package, Prapavessi was able to redesign her curriculum with a focus on technology. This gave way to immediate results. Once technology was incorporated into the classroom, 17 percent of Prapavessi's students improved their scores by one to two letter grades during the 18-week semester. This course also reported a 98 percent attendance rate and Prapavessi saw a level of camaraderie between the students that she had never before experienced in her 16 years of teaching at DVC. Along with improving their ability to collaborate on projects in the classroom, students also strengthened their independent, critical thinking skills. These positive additions to the classroom environment resulted in a spike in the number of students with an overall score of 83 percent or higher.

During her course redesign, Prapavessi had a two-fold philosophy of teaching that guided her course development. She felt it was important that the curriculum supported:

  • Inquiry-based learning: A method that encourages students to question why they want to learn the subject at hand and creates the need for the learning to be relevant beyond the objective of classroom testing.

  • Cooperative-based learning: A method that stresses the importance of the social experience of classroom learning and supports the building of strong relationships between teacher and student, student and student, and student and curriculum.

To achieve this type of environment, Prapavessi felt that it was important to create memorable and active learning experiences, "It's important that students own their learning," she said.

Make it Fun

The award package Prapavessi received included, along with other amenities, 20 tablet PCs which were shared with two other classrooms in a rotation cycle. Personal familiarity with tablet PCs allowed Prapavessi to maximize the impact of having the technology in her classroom. Prapavessi experienced several positive results, which included:

Flexibility: Students could walk around the room taking notes and collecting data or work as a group in areas outside the classroom.

Ability to give feedback in real-time: The tablets, along with the software programs used in the course of the semester, allowed for instant submission and feedback of work during in-class problem solving exercises. Prapavessi was also able to garner anonymous submissions from students by way of the tablet PCs and then cast the submissions on the projector screen, using a software program to work through the students' misconceptions as a group.

Confidence: The new method of communication seemed to lighten the mood in the classroom so that students felt more comfortable making mistakes, which in turn made them more open to learning. The anonymity that the tablet PC submission process was able to provide in terms of feedback cycles also led to instances of many students "tagging" their submissions and including jokes to share on the projector, providing students with a way to laugh together while learning.

Keep it Relevant

Along with the inclusion of new technology in the classroom, Prapavessi's redesigned curriculum incorporated fieldtrips that allowed students to see how calculus is relevant in the real world. These trips included a visit to the Pacific Southwest Forest Service Station where students saw how mathematics can be used to study hawk migration and elk movements. A trip to Roche Pharmaceuticals prompted positive reactions from students. One student said, "The field trip was like the word problems we learned in class but more complex. So now we know that the math formulas we are learning are actually used in real life." The technology alone did not enhance the learning that occurred in the classroom. Rather, it was a combination of real-world applications and relevant teach-friendly technology that worked together to make learning accessible and pertinent to the students.

In the words of Jim Vanides, program manager of the Worldwide Higher Education Grants in the HP Corporate Philanthropy department, "If you take technology and throw it into a classroom where a professor is really focused on teaching the way they've always taught with no plan to really change the learning environment, you risk having the wrong things happen. It's the combination of exemplary teaching plus the power of the technology where the magic happens."

More Than Just the Hardware

HP's educational philanthropic philosophy initiatives focus on three major areas:

Transforming the learning experience: Integrating technology into classrooms to revolutionize teaching and learning processes.

Leading students to high-tech careers: Increasing the number of students on paths toward high-tech careers, emphasizing groups that are underrepresented in the technology sector.

Student success in math, science and engineering: Enhancing skills in math, science and engineering through national and district-wide school reform and teacher professional development.

When the U.S. HP Technology for Teaching Grant Initiative was launched in 2004, the grant supported projects in more than 400 schools. The original vision had been to commit $25 million over the course of what was intended to be a three-year program. However, HP will be funding its fourth year of grant recipients and has provided more than $36 million since 2004, impacting 589 K-12 public schools and 155 two- and four-year colleges and universities engaged in transforming teaching and learning through the integration of technology in the classroom and beyond. "The philosophy really is: plant a bunch of seeds, see which ones grow and then help those projects who are having the most success really blossom," says Vanides. During the past 20 years, HP has contributed more than $1 billion in cash and equipment to schools, universities, community organizations and other nonprofit organizations worldwide. However, HP strives to provide more than just the hardware for the educators and communities it supports, as Vanides notes, "If you just give away hardware, you might as well forget it."

Forging On

The learning for educators doesn't stop once the funding runs dry. Vanides is involved in several continuation projects that focus on the development of grant recipients and non-recipients. He is also committed to connecting educators with educators. "This is not about 'Here's some technology, have fun and good luck,'" Vanides says. "It's really, first and foremost about helping students learn better and giving professors a chance to redesign their course, and the technology is supposed to support all that. The projects are more about teaching than they are about technology, and what's interesting is that the technology allows teachers to do some things that they were never able to do before ... it creates a whole new social environment," says Vanides. Prapavessi remarked on this in her classroom, too: "It's refreshing to be able to have the freedom to explore new methods of teaching. For me, it makes the learning feel less fragmented."

The continuity and connectedness of the grant initiative is evident from the funding to the classroom and beyond. The process starts with visionaries like Vanides who strive to connect educators with global learning tools; the process is supported by the grant initiative which requires measurable outcomes; the process is enacted by leaders like Prapavessi who support students through innovative redesign and willingness to learn alongside them; and the process is further fueled by classroom software tools. With the right perspective, there are really no limits to what technology can inspire.

Friday, August 10, 2007


August 10, 2007

Published: August 6, 2007

'Competitiveness' Bill Aims to Bolster Teaching

This article was originally published in Education Week.

Congress approved legislation Thursday that seeks to bolster mathematics and science education through improved teacher recruitment and training and promote successful classroom practices through federal grants.

The bipartisan legislation, which the House approved by a 367-57 vote and the Senate passed unanimously, had the backing of numerous business and education organizations. Members of Congress have dubbed the proposals, now consolidated into one bill, “competitiveness” legislationRequires Adobe Acrobat Reader, because they believe it will strengthen the quality of the U.S. workforce and gird the American economy against foreign competition.

The bill now goes to President Bush, who lawmakers believe will sign the bill.

"In my mind, there will be no more important legislation that passes the Congress this year," Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of its sponsors, told reporters this week. "This is the prime model of bipartisan cooperation."

The bill would establish several new federal math and science programs and expand existing ones. If Congress appropriates money for all the programs, it would cost $43.3 billion over three years, though much of that spending would be devoted to research programs in technology, energy, and other areas.

The measure would broaden the Robert Noyce Scholarship Program, which provides grants of $10,000 a year to college majors in math- and science-related subjects who agree to teach in high-need schools. Among other changes, the bill would provide awardees of the program, which is administered by the National Science Foundation, up to three years of scholarship funding, instead of the current limit of two years. In addition, scholarship recipients would be given additional time to complete their teacher training, under the legislation.

Furthermore, the proposal addresses some of the math and science priorities identified by President Bush. It would create "Math Now," a program in which the U.S. Department of Education would award grants to states to attempt to implement proven strategies in math instruction. The legislation says the goal is to help students reach grade level in math and prepare them for algebra, a subject most students take in 8th or 9th grade.

In the past, Bush administration officials have likened Math Now to the federal Reading First program, a $1 billion-a-year effort that seeks to improve instruction through the promotion of researched-based practices in reading. Department of Education representatives have faced charges of favoring certain commercial reading products in awarding grants to states, but Reading First has also won praise for improving instruction and achievement from state officials and researchers. ("White House Suggests Model Used in Reading To Elevate Math Skills," Feb. 15, 2006.)

'In Harmony'

The "competitiveness" legislation also appears to address another of President Bush's goals by authorizing new grant programs to increase the number of Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate classes in schools nationwide.

Additionally, the bill calls for the secretary of education to contract with the National Academy of Sciences to convene a national panel to "identify promising practices in the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics in elementary and secondary schools."

Last year, the White House set up the National Mathematics Advisory Panel, a 17-member group charged with studying effective classroom strategies in math and presenting recommendations to the president. Lee Pitts, a spokesman for Sen. Alexander, said the panel established in the new legislation would "extend the work of the math panel into science, technology, and engineering." It is not meant to duplicate the math panel, he added.

The House and Senate originally approved separate versions of the math and science legislation. Lawmakers from both chambers met in a conference committee in an effort to resolve those differences and produce a final bill for consideration by the House and Senate.

Speaking with reporters Aug. 1, two sponsors of the House and Senate bills, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and Sen. Alexander, said negotiations over the final bill were not difficult.

"We were very much in harmony," Rep. Gordon said. "The conference was short and sweet."

The bill would establish two new competitive grant programs within the Education Department, according to a conference report released by lawmakers this week. The first is aimed at expanding master's degrees in science- and math-related fields. The other would support programs that encourage undergraduates to obtain bachelor's degrees in science- and math-related fields and foreign languages at the same time they are gaining teacher certification. The legislation authorizes $151 million for the bachelor's degree program and $125 million for the master's degree program in fiscal 2008, according to a summary of the conference report.

The bill only authorizes new spending on federal math and science programs; it does not guarantee they will get that money. Appropriations for those programs are currently included in three separate spending bills under consideration by Congress, said Mr. Pitts.

Francis M. "Skip" Fennell, the president of the 100,000-member National Council of Teachers of Mathematics, in Reston, Va., said his organization was pleased with the legislation, especially provision within it that seek to provide support and assistance to inexperienced and struggling educators.

"We know that the lack of proper mentoring and support for teachers is one reason so many leave the profession in the first years of teaching," Mr. Fennell said in a statement. Math coaches, he said, "will help early and midcareer teachers and afford better learning opportunities for students."

John J. Castellani, the president of the Business Roundtable, also praised the congressional action. "If we are to maintain our competitive edge, we must improve the education our students receive in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," he said in a statement. "America's ability to compete in a 21st-century economy rests on our continued investments in math and science education. The U.S. Congress has confirmed its commitment to ensuring that we are prepared to continue to lead the world in research and technology-well into the future."

Associate Editor David J. Hoff contributed to this story.

LEARNING in the 2.0 WORLD!


A Learning Theory for the Digital Age

December 12, 2004
George Siemens

Update (April 5, 2005): I've added a website to explore this concept at


Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism are the three broad learning theories most often utilized in the creation of instructional environments. These theories, however, were developed in a time when learning was not impacted through technology. Over the last twenty years, technology has reorganized how we live, how we communicate, and how we learn. Learning needs and theories that describe learning principles and processes, should be reflective of underlying social environments. Vaill emphasizes that “learning must be a way of being – an ongoing set of attitudes and actions by individuals and groups that they employ to try to keep abreast o the surprising, novel, messy, obtrusive, recurring events…” (1996, p.42).

Learners as little as forty years ago would complete the required schooling and enter a career that would often last a lifetime. Information development was slow. The life of knowledge was measured in decades. Today, these foundational principles have been altered. Knowledge is growing exponentially. In many fields the life of knowledge is now measured in months and years. Gonzalez (2004) describes the challenges of rapidly diminishing knowledge life:

“One of the most persuasive factors is the shrinking half-life of knowledge. The “half-life of knowledge” is the time span from when knowledge is gained to when it becomes obsolete. Half of what is known today was not known 10 years ago. The amount of knowledge in the world has doubled in the past 10 years and is doubling every 18 months according to the American Society of Training and Documentation (ASTD). To combat the shrinking half-life of knowledge, organizations have been forced to develop new methods of deploying instruction.”

Some significant trends in learning:

Many learners will move into a variety of different, possibly unrelated fields over the course of their lifetime. Informal learning is a significant aspect of our learning experience. Formal education no longer comprises the majority of our learning. Learning now occurs in a variety of ways – through communities of practice, personal networks, and through completion of work-related tasks.

Learning is a continual process, lasting for a lifetime. Learning and work related activities are no longer separate. In many situations, they are the same. Technology is altering (rewiring) our brains. The tools we use define and shape our thinking.
The organization and the individual are both learning organisms. Increased attention to knowledge management highlights the need for a theory that attempts to explain the link between individual and organizational learning.

Many of the processes previously handled by learning theories (especially in cognitive information processing) can now be off-loaded to, or supported by, technology.
Know-how and know-what is being supplemented with know-where (the understanding of where to find knowledge needed).


Driscoll (2000) defines learning as “a persisting change in human performance or performance potential…[which] must come about as a result of the learner’s experience and interaction with the world” (p.11). This definition encompasses many of the attributes commonly associated with behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism – namely, learning as a lasting changed state (emotional, mental, physiological (i.e. skills)) brought about as a result of experiences and interactions with content or other people.

Driscoll (2000, p14-17) explores some of the complexities of defining learning. Debate centers on:

Valid sources of knowledge - Do we gain knowledge through experiences? Is it innate (present at birth)? Do we acquire it through thinking and reasoning?

Content of knowledge – Is knowledge actually knowable? Is it directly knowable through human experience?

The final consideration focuses on three epistemological traditions in relation to learning: Objectivism, Pragmatism, and Interpretivism

Objectivism (similar to behaviorism) states that reality is external and is objective, and knowledge is gained through experiences.

Pragmatism (similar to cognitivism) states that reality is interpreted, and knowledge is negotiated through experience and thinking.

Interpretivism (similar to constructivism) states that reality is internal, and knowledge is constructed.

All of these learning theories hold the notion that knowledge is an objective (or a state) that is attainable (if not already innate) through either reasoning or experiences. Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism (built on the epistemological traditions) attempt to address how it is that a person learns.

Behaviorism states that learning is largely unknowable, that is, we can’t possibly understand what goes on inside a person (the “black box theory”). Gredler (2001) expresses behaviorism as being comprised of several theories that make three assumptions about learning:

Observable behaviour is more important than understanding internal activities
Behaviour should be focused on simple elements: specific stimuli and responses
Learning is about behaviour change

Cognitivism often takes a computer information processing model. Learning is viewed as a process of inputs, managed in short term memory, and coded for long-term recall. Cindy Buell details this process: “In cognitive theories, knowledge is viewed as symbolic mental constructs in the learner's mind, and the learning process is the means by which these symbolic representations are committed to memory.”

Constructivism suggests that learners create knowledge as they attempt to understand their experiences (Driscoll, 2000, p. 376). Behaviorism and cognitivism view knowledge as external to the learner and the learning process as the act of internalizing knowledge. Constructivism assumes that learners are not empty vessels to be filled with knowledge. Instead, learners are actively attempting to create meaning. Learners often select and pursue their own learning. Constructivist principles acknowledge that real-life learning is messy and complex. Classrooms which emulate the “fuzziness” of this learning will be more effective in preparing learners for life-long learning.

Limitations of Behaviorism, Cognitivism, and Constructivism

A central tenet of most learning theories is that learning occurs inside a person. Even social constructivist views, which hold that learning is a socially enacted process, promotes the principality of the individual (and her/his physical presence – i.e. brain-based) in learning. These theories do not address learning that occurs outside of people (i.e. learning that is stored and manipulated by technology). They also fail to describe how learning happens within organizations

Learning theories are concerned with the actual process of learning, not with the value of what is being learned. In a networked world, the very manner of information that we acquire is worth exploring. The need to evaluate the worthiness of learning something is a meta-skill that is applied before learning itself begins. When knowledge is subject to paucity, the process of assessing worthiness is assumed to be intrinsic to learning. When knowledge is abundant, the rapid evaluation of knowledge is important. Additional concerns arise from the rapid increase in information. In today’s environment, action is often needed without personal learning – that is, we need to act by drawing information outside of our primary knowledge. The ability to synthesize and recognize connections and patterns is a valuable skill.

Many important questions are raised when established learning theories are seen through technology. The natural attempt of theorists is to continue to revise and evolve theories as conditions change. At some point, however, the underlying conditions have altered so significantly, that further modification is no longer sensible. An entirely new approach is needed.

Some questions to explore in relation to learning theories and the impact of technology and new sciences (chaos and networks) on learning:

How are learning theories impacted when knowledge is no longer acquired in the linear manner?

What adjustments need to made with learning theories when technology performs many of the cognitive operations previously performed by learners (information storage and retrieval).
How can we continue to stay current in a rapidly evolving information ecology?

How do learning theories address moments where performance is needed in the absence of complete understanding?

What is the impact of networks and complexity theories on learning?

What is the impact of chaos as a complex pattern recognition process on learning?
With increased recognition of interconnections in differing fields of knowledge, how are systems and ecology theories perceived in light of learning tasks?

An Alternative Theory

Including technology and connection making as learning activities begins to move learning theories into a digital age. We can no longer personally experience and acquire learning that we need to act. We derive our competence from forming connections. Karen Stephenson states:

“Experience has long been considered the best teacher of knowledge. Since we cannot experience everything, other people’s experiences, and hence other people, become the surrogate for knowledge. ‘I store my knowledge in my friends’ is an axiom for collecting knowledge through collecting people (undated).”

Chaos is a new reality for knowledge workers. ScienceWeek (2004) quotes Nigel Calder's definition that chaos is “a cryptic form of order”. Chaos is the breakdown of predictability, evidenced in complicated arrangements that initially defy order. Unlike constructivism, which states that learners attempt to foster understanding by meaning making tasks, chaos states that the meaning exists – the learner's challenge is to recognize the patterns which appear to be hidden. Meaning-making and forming connections between specialized communities are important activities.

Chaos, as a science, recognizes the connection of everything to everything. Gleick (1987) states: “In weather, for example, this translates into what is only half-jokingly known as the Butterfly Effect – the notion that a butterfly stirring the air today in Peking can transform storm systems next month in New York” (p. 8). This analogy highlights a real challenge: “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” profoundly impacts what we learn and how we act based on our learning. Decision making is indicative of this. If the underlying conditions used to make decisions change, the decision itself is no longer as correct as it was at the time it was made. The ability to recognize and adjust to pattern shifts is a key learning task.

Luis Mateus Rocha (1998) defines self-organization as the “spontaneous formation of well organized structures, patterns, or behaviors, from random initial conditions.” (p.3). Learning, as a self-organizing process requires that the system (personal or organizational learning systems) “be informationally open, that is, for it to be able to classify its own interaction with an environment, it must be able to change its structure…” (p.4). Wiley and Edwards acknowledge the importance of self-organization as a learning process: “Jacobs argues that communities self-organize in a manner similar to social insects: instead of thousands of ants crossing each other’s pheromone trails and changing their behavior accordingly, thousands of humans pass each other on the sidewalk and change their behavior accordingly.”. Self-organization on a personal level is a micro-process of the larger self-organizing knowledge constructs created within corporate or institutional environments. The capacity to form connections between sources of information, and thereby create useful information patterns, is required to learn in our knowledge economy.

Networks, Small Worlds, Weak Ties

A network can simply be defined as connections between entities. Computer networks, power grids, and social networks all function on the simple principle that people, groups, systems, nodes, entities can be connected to create an integrated whole. Alterations within the network have ripple effects on the whole.

Albert-László Barabási states that “nodes always compete for connections because links represent survival in an interconnected world” (2002, p.106). This competition is largely dulled within a personal learning network, but the placing of value on certain nodes over others is a reality. Nodes that successfully acquire greater profile will be more successful at acquiring additional connections. In a learning sense, the likelihood that a concept of learning will be linked depends on how well it is currently linked. Nodes (can be fields, ideas, communities) that specialize and gain recognition for their expertise have greater chances of recognition, thus resulting in cross-pollination of learning communities.

Weak ties are links or bridges that allow short connections between information. Our small world networks are generally populated with people whose interests and knowledge are similar to ours. Finding a new job, as an example, often occurs through weak ties. This principle has great merit in the notion of serendipity, innovation, and creativity. Connections between disparate ideas and fields can create new innovations.


Connectivism is the integration of principles explored by chaos, network, and complexity and self-organization theories. Learning is a process that occurs within nebulous environments of shifting core elements – not entirely under the control of the individual. Learning (defined as actionable knowledge) can reside outside of ourselves (within an organization or a database), is focused on connecting specialized information sets, and the connections that enable us to learn more are more important than our current state of knowing.

Connectivism is driven by the understanding that decisions are based on rapidly altering foundations. New information is continually being acquired. The ability to draw distinctions between important and unimportant information is vital. The ability to recognize when new information alters the landscape based on decisions made yesterday is also critical.

Principles of connectivism:

Learning and knowledge rests in diversity of opinions.
Learning is a process of connecting specialized nodes or information sources.
Learning may reside in non-human appliances.
Capacity to know more is more critical than what is currently known.
Nurturing and maintaining connections is needed to facilitate continual learning.
Ability to see connections between fields, ideas, and concepts is a core skill.
Currency (accurate, up-to-date knowledge) is the intent of all connectivist learning activities.
Decision-making is itself a learning process. Choosing what to learn and the meaning of incoming information is seen through the lens of a shifting reality. While there is a right answer now, it may be wrong tomorrow due to alterations in the information climate affecting the decision.

Connectivism also addresses the challenges that many corporations face in knowledge management activities. Knowledge that resides in a database needs to be connected with the right people in the right context in order to be classified as learning. Behaviorism, cognitivism, and constructivism do not attempt to address the challenges of organizational knowledge and transference.

Information flow within an organization is an important element in organizational effectiveness. In a knowledge economy, the flow of information is the equivalent of the oil pipe in an industrial economy. Creating, preserving, and utilizing information flow should be a key organizational activity. Knowledge flow can be likened to a river that meanders through the ecology of an organization. In certain areas, the river pools and in other areas it ebbs. The health of the learning ecology of the organization depends on effective nurturing of information flow.

Social network analysis is an additional element in understanding learning models in a digital era. Art Kleiner (2002) explores Karen Stephenson’s “quantum theory of trust” which “explains not just how to recognize the collective cognitive capability of an organization, but how to cultivate and increase it”. Within social networks, hubs are well-connected people who are able to foster and maintain knowledge flow. Their interdependence results in effective knowledge flow, enabling the personal understanding of the state of activities organizationally.

The starting point of connectivism is the individual. Personal knowledge is comprised of a network, which feeds into organizations and institutions, which in turn feed back into the network, and then continue to provide learning to individual. This cycle of knowledge development (personal to network to organization) allows learners to remain current in their field through the connections they have formed.

Landauer and Dumais (1997) explore the phenomenon that “people have much more knowledge than appears to be present in the information to which they have been exposed”. They provide a connectivist focus in stating “the simple notion that some domains of knowledge contain vast numbers of weak interrelations that, if properly exploited, can greatly amplify learning by a process of inference”. The value of pattern recognition and connecting our own “small worlds of knowledge” are apparent in the exponential impact provided to our personal learning.

John Seely Brown presents an interesting notion that the internet leverages the small efforts of many with the large efforts of few. The central premise is that connections created with unusual nodes supports and intensifies existing large effort activities.

Brown provides the example of a Maricopa County Community College system project that links senior citizens with elementary school students in a mentor program. The children “listen to these “grandparents” better than they do their own parents, the mentoring really helps the teachers…the small efforts of the many- the seniors – complement the large efforts of the few – the teachers.” (2002). This amplification of learning, knowledge and understanding through the extension of a personal network is the epitome of connectivism.


The notion of connectivism has implications in all aspects of life. This paper largely focuses on its impact on learning, but the following aspects are also impacted:

Management and leadership. The management and marshalling of resources to achieve desired outcomes is a significant challenge. Realizing that complete knowledge cannot exist in the mind of one person requires a different approach to creating an overview of the situation. Diverse teams of varying viewpoints are a critical structure for completely exploring ideas. Innovation is also an additional challenge. Most of the revolutionary ideas of today at one time existed as a fringe element. An organizations ability to foster, nurture, and synthesize the impacts of varying views of information is critical to knowledge economy survival. Speed of “idea to implementation” is also improved in a systems view of learning.

Media, news, information. This trend is well under way. Mainstream media organizations are being challenged by the open, real-time, two-way information flow of blogging.

Personal knowledge management in relation to organizational knowledge management

Design of learning environments


The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe. Our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. A real challenge for any learning theory is to actuate known knowledge at the point of application. When knowledge, however, is needed, but not known, the ability to plug into sources to meet the requirements becomes a vital skill. As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses.

Connectivism presents a model of learning that acknowledges the tectonic shifts in society where learning is no longer an internal, individualistic activity. How people work and function is altered when new tools are utilized. The field of education has been slow to recognize both the impact of new learning tools and the environmental changes in what it means to learn. Connectivism provides insight into learning skills and tasks needed for learners to flourish in a digital era.


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This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License

Managing the Connected Organization


If knowledge is power, what is connected knowledge?

The knowledge economy operates on the complexities of connections. All individuals, communities, systems, and other business assets are massively interconnected in an evolving economic ecosystem. In the connected economy, each network actor (individual, team, or organization) is embedded in a larger economic web that affects each participant and, in return, is influenced by that participant. In such a connected system we can no longer focus on the performance of individual actors -- we must manage connected assets.

Efforts at making sense of this new world are beginning to reveal some basic principles at work in the complex adaptive systems we call our organizations.

"There is a central difference between the old and new economies:
the old industrial economy was driven by economies of scale;
the new information economy is driven by the economics of networks..."

Information Rules
by Carl Shapiro, Hal R. Varian

Recent research on productivity and effectiveness in the knowledge economy provides insight into what works in the connected workplace. Certain patterns of connections appear around both effective individuals and successful teams when performing knowledge work. We have also discovered where to add 'missing links' that change a poor economic network into a better conduit for information, influence, and knowledge.

Improving Individual Effectiveness

Is it who you know (social capital) or what you know (human capital) that leads to success? This has been often debated with good arguments on both sides. Most managers today side with the "what you know" crowd.

In the late 1980s management researchers were starting to notice that some managers were better, than other managers, at accomplishing objectives through relationships. John Kotter, of the Harvard business school, discovered that effective general managers spend more than 80% of their time interacting with others. Other management scholars were also starting to see the importance of conversations and relationships in managerial work. Individual mastery was no longer the key -- it was human capital and social capital working together to create productivity and innovation. Ron Burt, of the University of Chicago, a leading researcher on the social capital of managers has found, through numerous studies, that certain patterns of connections that individuals build with others brings them higher pay, earlier promotions, greater influence, better ideas and overall greater career success. Burt believes that good social capital provides a much higher return on investment in human capital -- the two work together.

Arent Greve, a researcher at the Norwegian School of Economics, is also interested in the contribution of human and social capital on organizational outcomes and individual productivity. He studied project managers in a knowledge-based services company in Europe. He viewed human capital as the knowledge and skills attained by the individual over his/her career. Social capital was defined as a property of personal networks -- the ability to reach others, inside and outside the organization, for information, advice and problem-solving. He found something very interesting. As expected, better human capital and better social capital both had a positive effect on productivity, but unexpected was the effect of better social capital was noticeably stronger! Project managers with better personal networks were more productive -- they were better able to coordinate tasks and find the knowledge necessary to accomplish the goals of their projects.

Improving Team Effectiveness

Meanwhile in a high-tech firm in Silicon Valley, Morten Hansen, also of Harvard, had a similar research agenda. The key difference was that Hansen was interested in the productivity and effectiveness of teams. Hansen found that teams who could easily reach other teams and access the knowledge they needed were more successful than teams with poor network connections. Both Greve and Hansen found that the ability to reach a diverse set of others in the network through very few links was the key to success.

Hansen took his research one step further. He examined the difference between those teams that had many direct connections to other project teams and those that used both direct and indirect ties to reach the resources they needed. Hansen found that those teams that used only direct ties to seek and find information were soon overwhelmed with too many connections. The teams that used the power of the indirect tie, while at the same time limiting their direct ties, were more successful -- they did not spend as much time interacting with the network to get what they needed. A sparse radial network in which your direct ties are connected to others that you are not connected to, has been shown, by Burt and others, to provide many benefits and opportunities.

Hansen discovered one other insight that is key for knowledge management. A diverse radial network with many unique indirect ties is good for monitoring what is happening in the organization and for discovering pockets of knowledge and expertise. Yet, this type of network may not be useful for transferring knowledge. Although indirect ties help you cast a wide net and see far into the organization (and beyond it), these ties are not always efficient for transferring and utilizing knowledge once it is discovered. It depends on what type of knowledge needs to be transferred. Explicit knowledge, which can be easily codified, can be transferred indirectly through various technologies such as email, FTP, WWW or documents through interoffice mail. For example, sharing a presentation done previously for the same customer. Complex tacit knowledge knowledge requires direct interaction and sharing of experiences between two or more individuals. To transfer tacit knowledge a direct tie with the knowledge source(s) must be established. Trust and understanding must be built -- this is similar to apprenticeship. Explicit knowledge travels over computer networks, but tacit knowledge is shared and learned via human networks.

Improving Information Flow

Network ties are distributed unevenly in organizations. People that work together form networks together -- clusters emerge around established work relationships. Engineers working on Project X form a cluster, those working on Project Y form a cluster, and those working on Project Z form a cluster. Everyone knows everyone else within the local cluster, and yet only a few individuals have boundary spanning ties to other clusters. Strong, frequent, ties are usually found within clusters, while weaker, less frequent ties are found between clusters.

Clusters of concentrated connections appear throughout an organization and throughout industries. Some clusters have many ties outside the group, while other clusters have only a few. Poor connections between clusters result in very long path lengths throughout the organization. In such a network it is easy to access those in your cluster but not those in other clusters. This often results in distant clusters not knowing what information and knowledge is available elsewhere in the organization.

Often the knowledge you need is in clusters other than your own. Networks have a horizon beyond which it is difficult to see what is happening. Research by Noah Friedkin, at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has shown that this horizon of observability is usually two steps in a human network -- your direct contacts and their direct contacts. Around three steps out, things are real fuzzy -- you do not have a good idea of what is happening in that part of the network. Beyond three steps, you are blind to what is happening in the rest of the network -- except for obvious 'public' information known by everyone. So the popular idea of it being a 'small world' because we are all separated by an average of 6 degrees is misleading. Six degrees is actually a very large world -- one, two and three degrees is a small world! It is usually those separated by two degrees where the 'small world' discoveries happen -- it is here where you discover the person next to you on the plane is related to a friend from your university days.

In a network of very long path lengths between clusters, your ability to find the knowledge or information you need is very constrained. If the knowledge that you seek is not within your network horizon[1 or 2 steps], then you assume it is not available in your organization and you reinvent it, or pay for it on the outside. Exasperated with this network horizon in his organization, a former CEO of HP once lamented, "If HP only knew what HP knows".

The natural response in many organizations is to throw technology at the problem. A very poor, yet quite common, solution is to mine knowledge from employees, codify it, and store it in a knowledge database. Many large consulting firms tried this approach in the 1990s with usually poor results. They found that people were not always willing to make public their best knowledge and that codifying tacit knowledge was like trying to nail jelly to the wall.

Why not use the power of the network itself to create a solution? Improve the organizational network and then use technology to help people communicate across wide spans of the human network. At first blush, improving an organization-wide network may seem an overwhelming task. Where do we start? First, look at the networks and communities of practice/interest/knowledge that have organized around a specific topic, product, service or customer. Usually the whole organization does not have to be included in the problem space. Second, map out the network nodes and their connections (who goes to whom for expertise/knowledge/advice on X?). From this network map, you can see the various clusters and how they are connected. Figure 1 below is a network map of project teams. A line connecting two teams indicates a two-way information flow or exchange of knowledge.

Figure 1

This network of 17 project teams all work on subassemblies to a larger product. The teams are composed of mostly engineers, technicians, and project managers. All teams have less than ten members. Three clusters are evident in the network of project teams.

Before we look at how to improve the overall connectivity of the network, let's digress back to social capital. Which team has the best social capital in this network? Which team can access all of the knowledge and resources in the network quicker than the others? (Hint: this network is drawn to reveal the answer.)

Common wisdom in networks is "the more connections, the better." This is not always true. What is always true is "the better connections, the better." Better connections are those that provide you access to nodes that you currently do not have access to. Although Team F and Team Q have many connections each and have excellent local access (to the nodes near them), they have only fair access to the rest of the network. Team O has the best social capital (aka network benefits) in this network of project teams. Team O achieves this with only three direct ties -- it is connected to others who are well connected. Team O's indirect contacts bring access to information and knowledge not available locally.

The average path length in this network is 3.45 with many paths longer than the network horizon. Even in this small network there are nodes[teams] that are nearly blind to what is happening in other parts of the network.

In the summer of 1998, writing in the scientific journal Nature, a stir of excitement was generated by two mathematicians from Cornell, Steven Strogatz and Duncan Watts. While investigating small-world networks (those with many clusters), they discovered that a few randomly added crosscuts between unconnected clusters would improve[i.e. lower] a network's characteristic path length significantly. The benefits were not just local, but spread throughout the network and this improvement could be achieved with just a few added ties in the network. Very small adjustments could cause large positive changes -- a common dynamic in complex adaptive systems.

Looking back on our project team network in Figure 1, how can we improve the connectivity with just one added link? Which two nodes would you connect to bring everyone in the network closer together?

Although many combinations will increase the access of everyone to everyone else, the greatest measurable effect is when we add a crosscut between Team Q and Team F. The average path length drops a whole step! The longest path in the network is reduced from 7 steps to 4 steps. In human networks, the fewer steps in the network path, the quicker information arrives with less distortion.

Figure 2

The connection between Teams Q and F may be the optimal connection in network efficiency, but it may not be a practical connection. Both of these teams already have many ties and may not have the time and energy to support another one (remember what Hansen discovered about too many direct ties?). What is an alternative connection? If you cannot connect the highly connected nodes, how about connecting their respective network neighbors? Instead of connecting Q and F, how about connecting D and Z? This connection will not reduce the path length as much, but it is between nodes that are not overburdened with connections.

Leading Edge Management

One of the benefits of consulting with organizational network analysis is having leading edge clients. Not only are they open to new methods to improve their organizations, they usually end up teaching me quite a bit. One such client is Vancho Cirovski, Vice President of Human Resources at Cardinal Health. Vancho, an expert soccer player and coach, first noticed an interesting phenomenon on the playing field. Teams that were more integrated and communicated well amongst themselves on the field, more often than not, beat a collection of individually superior players who were not interacting well on the field. I saw a similar phenomenon on my son's soccer team. They had good players, but were divided up into several cliques which did not get along with each other -- the team as a whole underperformed consistently. It is the chemistry of the mix that matters!

Vancho saw the same effect in project teams inside organizations. He has summarized these concepts of managing connected organizations using Einstein's famous formula:

    E = MC2
    • M is the Mastery of each individual (human capital)
    • C are the Connections that join individuals into a community (social capital)
    • C is the Communication that flows through those Connections
    • E is the resulting Effectiveness of the team or organization.

Vancho further stipulates that the two Cs, communication and connections, combine to form another C: Chemistry, which leads to team or organizational effectiveness.

A common reason for the failure of many mergers and acquisitions is the failure to properly integrate the two combining organizations and their cultures. Although a formal hierarchy combining the two organizations may be in place, the right work relationships are never formed and the merging organizations remain disconnected. Ralph Polumbo, Vice President of Integration for Rubbermaid's 1998 acquisition of its European competitor, Curver, wanted to make sure the two organizations were combining effectively. He decided to map and measure the melding of information flows, work relationships and knowledge exchanges -- connections that help cultures combine. His vision was one of a boundaryless organization with no fragmentation along former constituencies. He wanted to track where integration was happening and where it was not occurring. By examining his human and social capital concurrently, he was able to visually monitor the successful integration of both organizations. An organizational merger is illustrated here.

How can managers improve the connectivity within their organization? Here are a few places to get started:

  • Look beyond the individual -- uncover their interconnections and multiple group memberships.
  • Know the difference between tacit and explicit knowledge and how it is shared and transferred.
  • Reward people for directly sharing their know-how, for including others in their knowledge-sharing networks.
  • Design computer systems that facilitate conversations and sharing of knowledge -- think communication, not storage/retrieval.
  • Help women and people of color connect to key knowledge flows and communities in the organization. This may help eliminate the glass ceiling.
  • Recruit new hires through the networks of current employees -- they will be happier, adjust quicker, and stay longer.
  • When transferring employees keep in mind their connections. Exchanging employees with a diverse network of ties can create shortcuts between departments or teams and greatly improve the overall information flow. Transferring employees from one department to another creates an overlap which enhances the transfer of information and influence between the two groups.
  • Ensure better coordination of behavior between departments or projects by adding crosscuts to minimize the path length of their information exchange networks. To reduce delays you want some redundancy in the paths -- if one is blocked then alternative communication paths are available.
  • For the HR department it is no longer sufficient to just 'hire the best'. You must hire and wire! Start new networks, help employees and teams connect --connect the unconnected!

What is connected knowledge? A competitive advantage! Your competition may duplicate the nodes in your organization, but not the pattern of connections that have emerged through sense-making, feedback and learning within your business network. And if you get Vancho's take on Einstein's formula correct, then connected knowledge is pure energy!

In the 1992 U.S. presidential race, one simple phrase refocused and re-ignited a jumbled campaign effort by Bill Clinton -- "It's the economy, stupid". Adaptive businesses see the benefits in managing connected organizations. We can adapt the old campaign slogan to reflect the new business reality -- "It's the connections, stupid!"

Software and Training in social network analysis are available from the author.

Copyright © 1999-2004, Valdis Krebs

Organizational Hierarchy

Adapting Old Structures to New Challenges


"We may not be interested in chaos, but chaos is interested in us." - Robert Cooper

When change was slow, and the future was pretty much like the present, hierarchical organizations were perfect structures for business and government. The world is no longer predictable, nor are solutions obvious. Old structures are no longer sufficient for new complex challenges.

Businesses have noticed the changes and are adapting. From GE's boundaryless organization to Toyota's amazingly flexible supply web, agility and adaptability are the mantra. Unfortunately most governments are not as quick and creative. Instead of the out-of-the-box thinking found increasingly in the business world, governments are busy shuffling boxes on the organization chart.

Figure 1 below is a typical organization chart of a generic hierarchical organization -- either business or government. Two nodes are connected by a gray link if there is a formal reporting relationship and information flow. The nodes on the bottom row represent sub-organizations, while the top two rows are individuals.

Figure 1 - Original Hierarchy

Assume the above organizational chart roughly represents the U.S. intelligence community. Node 001 is the President and nodes 007 to 016 are various intelligence agencies. Nodes 002 to 006 are the leaders of those various agencies.

Intelligence Czar

The U.S. government is currently facing a dual problem in the intelligence community:

  • improve accuracy -- WMD in Iraq?
  • improve agility -- stop terror attacks

One of the solutions being discussed is adding a new formal position to the intelligence community. This new box would be an 'intelligence czar' to which all other intelligence leaders and their agencies would report. The thinking behind this proposed solution is for there to be one aggregation point for all intelligence. Node 017 in Figure 2 represents this new position.

Figure 2 - Adding the Intelligence Czar[017] to Original Hierarchy

Connecting the Stovepipes

Another solution to integrate intelligence is to connect the various agencies to each other and start to demand and reward knowledge sharing between them. This does not require a new position. It does require the leaders of the agencies to share knowledge and information and to propogate this new culture down in their organizations where appropriate -- it requires the intelligence community to become a community! This may require new leaders who are open to connecting the stovepipes. Interconnecting the intelligence leadership is displayed by the horizontal green links in Figure 3a. [We moved nodes 003, 004, and 005 so that all green links would be visible -- their new positions on the chart have no further significance.]

Figure 3a - Horizontal Links added to the Original Hierarchy

Which solution is better? The new formal position or the interconnecting of existing positions? It depends on your goal. If you want accountability and budget responsibility then the hierarchy will work. But, if you want a smart, agile learning organization -- able to adapt to a changing enemy -- then the interconnected structure will probably perform better. The interconnected structure spans various organizations with diverse data and perspectives allowing for cross-pollination and learning.

Mathematics of Hierarchies

We apply the small-world network metrics of Watts & Strogatz to Figures 1, 2, and 3 above. One of the key metrics in the small-world model is the average path length, for individuals and for the network overall. A good score for an individual means that he/she is close to all of the others in the network -- they can reach others quickly without going through too many intermediaries. A good score for the whole network indicates that everyone can reach everyone else easily and quickly. The shorter the information paths for everyone, the quicker the information arrives and the less distorted it is when it arrives. Another benefit of multiple short paths is that most members of the network have good visibility into what is happening in other parts of the network -- a greater awareness. They have a wide network horizon which is useful for combining key pieces of distributed intelligence. In an environment where it is difficult to distinguish signal from noise, it is important to have many perspectives involved in the sense-making process.

Below are the path length metrics for each of the 3 networks above. Two metrics are of high importance. Since the President is the key destination for intelligence, his distance from the rest of the network is critical. The average path length of the whole network is important for sense-making and learning within the group.

Network President's PathOverall Path
Figure 1 - Original Hierarchy 1.67 2.88
Figure 2 - With Intelligence Czar 2.56 2.84
Figure 3a - Interconnected Agencies 1.53 2.13
Table 1 - Small World Metrics

We can see that Figure 3a is a win-win. Both the President's average path length and the group average path length are reduced. Information flows quicker, with less distortion, and President is more involved.

Figure 2 is OK for the overall group, but it increases the President's path length by almost one step. We want our President to be closer to the intelligence community, not further away! Our simple analysis shows that the Intelligence Czar option puts an extra communication burden on the President. Even if the person in this position is top notch, we are still distorting and delaying the information flows by adding this position. The centralized czar does not compute!

Figure 3b below gives us insight into why interconnecting the stovepipes is a better option. We redisplay the organization in Figure 3a by 'link patterns' and we see a totally new perspective. Figures 3a and 3b have exactly the same connections -- 3b is the emergent network view of the new organization. By adding the horizontal ties we have transformed a simple hierarchy into an interconnected group. Recent research by psychologist Patrick Laughlin of the University of Illinois shows that groups outperform even the best individuals in decision making. Intelligence information is rarely clear or complete -- a key reason for having many perpsectives and diverse experiences for cross-pollination and sense-making.

Figure 3b - Emergent Network w/Horizontal Links [Same Links as Figure 3a]

Some may ask: What about combining both solutions -- the new position and the horizontal connections? That combination does improve the average path length for the whole group, but the President's path length remains longer [as in Figure 2]. It is not a better choice than Figure 3a/3b.

It looks like new connections win out over new nodes!

The Report to the President of the United States by The Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction came to the same conclusion. Based on their findings: "In sum, today's threats are quick, quiet, and hidden" they concluded, "We need an intelligence community that is truly integrated".

In a similar finding, this RAND report explores organizational culture, integration, and the drawbacks of compartmentalizing information instead of sharing it.

Software and Training in social network analysis are available from the author.

Copyright © 2005, Valdis Krebs