Sunday, April 1, 2012

Connectivism and the network of power and counterpower in education (#CCK12)

From the dawn of humankind, inequality has existed. There are people who are better at some things and there are people who are worse at some things. As a corollary, a person can be good in some things and worse in other things. Fundamentally, it is how important the activity that one is good at that determines a person's social ranking i.e. a good hunter during the prehistoric era will rank higher in rank, whereas at present time, a person who is good at hunting may not be as ranked highly as someone who is good writing.

What happens then is that for every era, a particular activity is more important than others, and people who are good at these activities are the ones who are invested with power. History is littered with stories of the dominant social classes such as the landowners during the agricultural era, the factory owners during the industrial age, and now, the drivers of the internet are the richest group of men. There is always a dominant class, and a dominated class.

According to Manuel Castells, "Whoever has power determines the rules of the institutions..." He discusses various interrelated concepts such as
a. networks in power, b. network power c. networked power and d. network making power.

He believes that there are networks in power that control the fortunes of those that are in the network and even those outside it. In this particular concept then, those who are in the network that control information, control those within and outside of the network when it comes to traffic of information. What is disturbing in this concept is that in order to maintain power, those within the network will keep those outside the network out.

Network power on the other hand refers to the implementation of standards to all its members and those that want to be a member.

Networked power  is the concept wherein some members have power over others within the network. It can be coercive power or persuasive power. They always act in concert, intimidating members of the network to act according to the will of those holding the power. The persuasive power is always more influential than coercive.

Network making power is the most crucial form of power, as it has the ability to the network to form networks and to program and reprogram  the network so that it will always continue to serve the interests of those who make the network.

Using Castell's construct, I would like to explore the seat of power in education and the effect of connectivism on this network power of education. Modern education is now, more than ever enshrined within networks. Students use the internet freely, within the classroom and outside. They learn from their teachers but more so from the internet. Think Connectivism.

Thus, it is very important to look at the the powers that exist within this sector and the present educational environment of our students.

The networks in power in many traditional universities still exist to separate the academics from the outside world. The traditions are very much present to segregate those that are within, those that are enrolled, versus those outsiders who do not belong. Even within the universities, there are people who make the rules and there are members of the networks that follow. The regents make the rules, while the full professors are more powerful than the associate and assistant professors, and all the academics are more powerful than the lay employees and the students.

The network power of the universities is very much represented by the degrees and certificates that the students earn, marking them of sufficient standards. But do these certificates really reflect the amount and depth of learning?

How about the network making power within the universities? Many universities subscribe to and are now currently reliant on networks to maintain their standing. The Ivy League is one of the oldest among these networks. All universities of repute have to be members of some body that determine the minimum required standard for each member. They program and reprogram the necessary requirements for each member universities, from the required per capita bandwidth available to the students, to the impact factor of the publications that are required to maintain standing within the network.

How then does the internet affect this network? The internet in the beginning held so much promise to be the counterpower to this exclusive clubs of knowledge. The internet has threatened the bastions of education by seemingly able to democratize the knowledge. Not only do we make information available to everyone with the internet connection, but, we allow the community to compile their own knowledge. There is Wikipedia and all the wikis. Even this blog is part of the community driven knowledge formation. Or is it? Would I have been writing this blog had I not been enrolled in a module on connectivism? That is for another blog post to answer.

In Castell's own words, "Whenever there is domination, there is always resistance to domination. This is the only general law of humankind." Does the internet represent this resistance? There are many characteristics of the internet that seems to fit the description. In social networks, despite the boundary between members and non-members, the most successful networks are those that invite people in. Because the bigger the membership of the network, the more effective it becomes. This is opposite of traditional members where network power is derived from excluding others.

In networked power, the standards seemingly started from top down. There are specific ways to communicate, there are protocols and languages that you have to learn i.e. javascript, internet protocols and routing; intricate IP addresses. But the development of the internet is seemingly inclusive, that now, with the new interfaces, we do not need to learn those languages, the internet has learned to speak the common human language. The more successful websites and software are those that are intuitive. Now, there are devices that do not even need the written language, there are devices that follow the voice command, and some even reply in a human-like fashion (although AI may not yet exist).

So does the internet really represent the counterpower? Does connectivism as an educational landscape represent the breakdown of the traditional universities and schools?

Allow me to explore some counterarguments. The internet is fantastically democratic, yes. Internet stats website estimates that at the end of 2011, there are about 2.27 billion internet users in the world out of a population of 6.9 billion people. By sheer number, one would think that it is inclusive, right?

Well, if we use the network theory of power to look at the internet, we are in for some surprises.

The internet may have the billions of users, but in reality, the rules are not made by them. There are very few players that can influence the system. They are our internet giants, much similar to those holders of power in the different stages of development. For instance, Google (of the "do no evil" fame), controls the search engine market at 80% of the global market. Microsoft's Internet explorer controls 54% of the browser market for desktops, whereas Safari controls 61% of the tablet/mobile browser market.Bill Gates' Microsoft is by far the most dominant of the operating system's share at 92%, while iOS controls that mobile/tablet operating systems at 62%. In terms of social media marketing, Facebook may generate a measly 0.71% referral rate but that is by far the most powerful, as evidenced by second placer you tube at 0.05% referral rate. (All stats in this paragraph are taken from Net Market Share,

Well, firstly, all of these companies that are dominant are in the US, and yet North America (not just the US) has only 12% of the internet users. It clearly demonstrates networked power wherein, certain members of the network can exert power over the rest of the members of the network. They also control the standards and protocols for the rest of the users, simply because of their dominant market positions. If you want to be searched, you have to be visible to Google. If you want market referrals, then you have to play by FB rules. If you want to be seen clearly in the internet, then your website has to be optimized for internet explorer. These are clearly characteristics of network power.

And among the greatest fears of competition commissions around the world is the monopoly that exists within these segments of the virtual world. Clearly, networks in power are trying very hard to keep new players at bay, as well as terminate the competition or expand market services either through bundling (think Internet Explorer and Windows OS), through buy outs (think Skype and Pay Pal being bought by e-Bay) or through exclusive distribution (think Apple products and iOS and Safari).

What is even more interesting is that these companies have the network making power. They can actually persuade us to see and read, watch and view specific sites within the web. And by default, they can make things invisible to us by design. Governments have realized this power and some have exercised coercive powers over these companies for them in turn to "persuade" us of their versions of the truth. Imagine China and the internet censorship, and selective programming. In this instances, does the internet collude with the coercive powers that it is suppose to subvert?

It is a fact of life that the revolutionaries, when they succeed, become enshrined in power and will in an unavoidable twist of fate (as Castell has put out), generate a counterpower, a resistance. Has the internet, once the hope for democratizing education (and continues to be a source of hope), already transiting as the mainstream, and has been suffering from the corruption of the power networks? Is it therefore about to generate an opposition? What will this form of countermovement be?

I cannot wait to find out...


Castells M. Network Theories of Power. 2010. University of Southern California. As viewed on on 31 March 2012.

Internet World Stats. Internet Users Statistics. Miniwatts Marketing Group. 2011. As viewed on on 01 April 2012.

Net Market Share. Various market share data. 2012. As viewed on on 01 April 2012.

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