Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

This is a 6 week course being run by Howard Rheingold in his Social Media Classroom. It is a semi-open course – in the sense that the course materials are open to anyone and everyone  – but access to activities and discussion is only open to fee paying participants.

After some deliberation I decided to attend this course for a number of reasons

  • I have recently realized that I need a balance between the open networked MOOC experience and smaller more closed learning environments which are designed for close encounters, challenge and deep learning. It is not impossible, but harder to get this in a MOOC.
  • Linked to this recognition of needing a balance between large loose learning environments and more intimate communities, is a consideration of the balance between cooperation, collaboration and competition. These are topics we will discuss in depth in Howard’s course.
  • Following my experience of Etienne and Bev Wenger-Trayner’s intense Academic BEtreat last summer, I am keen to compare it with this intense online course, and to compare both these with the MOOC experience, to further explore the affordances and designs of different online learning environments

First impressions

The Reading List

I signed up for Howard’s course 3 weeks before the start and was encouraged to complete all the reading for the 5 weekly topics before the start of the course. I am used to feeling overwhelmed once online discussion gets going, but I do not usually experience this before even starting the course. I have found the reading very demanding. It has been a long time since I have had to read so much in such a short space of time and on reflection I realize that although I am usually reading for most of every day, it is usually short forum posts, blog posts, Twitter feed etc. This on its own is worth reflecting on.

My strategy for dealing with this was to decide not to attempt to read everything but to

  1. Watch all the videos first, required and recommended – and make notes
  2. Read all the short required texts
  3. Read as many of the short recommended texts that I have time for
  4. Read what appear to be the key texts for each week.
  5. Not even pretend to think that I can understand or suddenly become a mathematician or economist within a couple of weeks – so not even attempt to engage with those bits
  6. Relate as much as I can to my own personal context – to try and make sense of it all.
  7. Keep an open mind until after the orientation session. Howard said that we could still withdraw at that stage.

Well I attended the Orientation session and I haven’t thrown in the towel

The Process

It is clear that the process of learning will be as much an experience as the content – which is what I had hoped. Howard is very clear about his expectations for participation, active learning, co-construction of knowledge, discussion in the forums and the development of a learning community.  Blogging is recommended but, unlike participation in the forums, is not a requirement. The intention is that through the use of a variety of media tools and by taking on specific roles (my role is live session note-taker) we will by the end of the course see the world in a different way through having new frameworks and lenses for looking at cooperative behaviours.

The Topics

The topic this week is Cooperation in Biology and we have been introduced to

  • Lynn Margulis and Endosymbiosis. Margulis’ observations on symbiotic arrangements between micro-organisms helped her to ultimately convince the science world of the importance of cooperation in evolution (but not without considerable difficulty)
  • Stuart Kauffman and co-evolution at the molecular level. This idea is still controversial.
  • Parasites, Symbiotes, Co-evolution and Mutualism, between plants and animals, such as in the pollination of flowers by birds and bees.
  • Commensalism – one organism benefits without harming the other, unlike parasitism where one benefits at the expense of the other and mutualism where both benefit.
  • Superorganisms – an organism consisting of many organisms e.g. leaf cutter ant colonies.
  • Rhizobia – nitrogen fixing soil bacteria.
  • Mycorrhizal networks – soil inhabiting fungi in the root systems of forests, which link plants of the same and different species.
  • Imaginal cells – in the development of butterflies from caterpillars (I found this link to be helpful in explaining this).
  • Ecosystems – community of living organisms and non-living components, which interact as a system – through complex synergies.

A Cautionary Word

Howard has warned us that

We have to be careful about extending biology metaphors to humans.

We should look for relationships and analogies between levels, but look at them critically and not adopt them too readily.

Cooperation and competition are two sides of the same coin and seem to be co-drivers of evolution

And I have just been pointed to this article Evolutionary Ecology of Technology –  which further discusses these points – so it’s back to the reading.

4 thoughts on “Towards a Literacy of Cooperation

  1. suifaijohnmak January 27, 2013 / 12:51 pm

    Thanks for pointing to this paper on technological evolution http://www.santafe.edu/media/workingpapers/12-12-022.pdf I found it fascinating, though I don’t think the mathematical theories would have helped in arriving to the discussion or conclusion. The use of advanced mathematical theories in working on the technological evolution doesn’t add much to the framework upon those changes of technology were based upon. It may be worthy to approach those technological model using Calculus and differential equations and integration formula, though I reckon they might only be useful to prove a certain concept. Besides, there weren’t much mention of the principles of Complexity Theory where different agents have interacted and played a part in the evolution and emergence of new and novel design features, which to me seems to be critical in the discourse in technological evolution. I also think that the concepts presented have relied overly on theoretical modelling with advanced calculus, that might lead to limited readership and application. I am also not sure if that is a PhD paper, or one that was derived from a PhD dissertation. This paper may be useful for those who are proposing a model on technological evolution based on mathematical modelling. Do you think that is the case? John

  2. jennymackness January 30, 2013 / 5:09 pm

    Hi John – sorry about the delay in getting back to you. Yes there was too much maths in the paper for me. With your background you probably understood it better than I could. I think I have learned more from the videos on EDCMOOC and the initial discussion there. Thanks again for your comment. Jenny

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