Not enough connecting?

Over the past few weeks, I've read two books about Actor-Network Theory: Reassembling the Social and Prince of Networks. Like the CCK09 course on Connectivism, there's a big emphasis in these books on connections. Bruno Latour makes a wonderful distinction between intermediaries who pass along what comes through like an empty conduit and mediators that do the work of translating the throughput. Rather think of networks as systems of pipelines or subway systems, he considers a network as a reflection of the quality of the translation work. The higher the quality of the mediation, the larger the network that results. While that facet of networks are emergent results that simply happen, he explores the work of making connections when faced with resistance, tests of strength and black boxes seeking to remain closed.

This morning I was reflecting upon all the different kinds of work that connecting involves. I wondered if student engagement, like Latour regards networks, could be a reflection of the quality of all that connecting work. The Web 2.0 tools, that are being relied on to generate increased student involvement, could be under-performing the students expectations as a support system for all that connecting work. If that pattern is occurring, we could expect the tools of engagement to result in increased disengagement.

Here's what I'm thinking is the full spectrum of "connection work" that tools for engagement ought to support:

  1. Seeing connections: Recognizing "traces" of interrelationships is far from easy. Latour recommends eliminating distinctions like global/local, context/content and macro/micro to detect subtle connections.
  2. Making new connections: Getting help, support, or follow through is difficult when we're facing resistance or apathy. This work calls for political maneuvering and negotiation skills.
  3. Experiencing connections: Connections can be very enjoyable, gratifying and fascination when something we've put out there goes beyond our launch, getting translated, transformed and combined with others.
  4. Articulating connections: Connections get stronger by exploring both ends, conversing back and forth, comparing viewpoints, and exploring tough questions together. The value of the other end of the connection becomes more obvious and refined.
  5. Using existing connections:  Well established connections allow for cooperation, collaborations, P2P projects, and crowdsourcing to get things done faster, more resourcefully and even more creatively.
  6. Blocking connections: When we set up boundaries, filters or black boxes, we keep out others from seeing what to connect to or from making connections. Our form of isolation may be done to protect property rights, avoid piracy, control a brand/reputation or many other motives.
  7. Abandoning connections: Connections are usually high maintenance if they prove to be useful. Cutting down on the maintenance workload results in the loss of neglected connections.
If the tools for engagement got all this work done "on steroids", it seems very likely that student engagement would be "through the roof". That may not require any change in the tools, only a change in how they are used. Perhaps the only problem behind the "declines in student engagement" is "not enough connecting" getting done, supported and celebrated.


  1. Hi Tom, I agree with your analysis that the quality of the connection will be hugely important. The tools with which we connect are not neutral, they can allow for more or less engagement. For some people the anonymity afforded by a blackboard based course may be helpful, similarly for those where time and space would preclude any other means to connect. Still, if the reason for the initiatives of online courses is to lessen contact (reads as reduce costs, fewer staff, and less time) then the engagement is likely to reflect this, no?
    The art of engagement, of connecting, is what needs celebrating in good teaching. Reminds me of Parker-palmer in the courage to teach, ailsa.

  2. Hi Ailsa, Thanks for the confirmation of what I proposed here. I'm thrilled by what you're adding to it. No connection occurs in isolation or free if prescriptions in tools. Every connection is under the influence of contextual parameters. With all those strands in mind, it might be easier to celebrate the work getting done in educational settings. Thanks for your comment!