This is also posted as a comment to: Bates and Downes on new knowledge: Round 3

I don’t think Stephen and I are going to agree on the value of academic knowledge. However, I do agree that there is a useful distinction that Stephen makes between groups and networks, although I don’t agree with the necessarily perjorative terms used about groups. Both groups and networks have their value, and each also can operate in ways that neither Stephen nor I would like. Thus I think there is a danger in labelling here (groups bad, networks good) without looking carefully at how different groups and different networks function, and what their purpose is.

While networks are defined by how the ‘nodes’ connect together, their value will depend on what happens across the network, and the nodes are a critical part of determining what happens. If we are talking about knowledge, the nodes will often (but not necessarily) be people, and people will be sharing, contributing and developing knowledge across the network. Moreover, all kinds of knowledge will be going across different network configurations.

To come to the crux of my argument, academic knowledge is rapidly enhanced and expanded by electronic networks, but it is still dependent, in most cases, on people going through some form of educational process that focuses on the standards and ways of thinking that are associated with academic knowledge. Stephen may not be interested in this form of knowledge, but I am, because it has in my view proved extremely useful, and continues to be useful. There are other networks that operate on other areas of interest (such as disgusting food – see The Sneeze – Half zine. Half blog. Half not good with fractions:, which in turn may create or construct knowledge, but it is not academic knowledge. Note that that once people in a network identify a common area of interest, they then de facto become a group focused around that interest.

The argument (I think) is whether education can be better done through unstructured electronic networking alone, through more structured methods, such as group work either in a face-to-face context or online, or through a combination of both structured and unstructured learning environments. I believe there are various ways in which academic knowledge can be developed, but the most effective way seems to me to be a combination of structured and unstructured activities.

Where I do agree with Stephen is that we do not necessarily need the old structures of education based on physical classes or groups. We can achieve many of the purposes of education without the need for continuous and ongoing physical presence. However, groups do have their uses, in that they can provide structure and support that facilitates academic learning. Groups can operate equally well online as well as physically, for educational purposes. The freedom and serendipity of electronic networks though can add immense value to the development of academic knowledge, but only if those contributing to the network share or learn the values of academic knowledge. (I am not disputing that other forms of valuable knowledge can be created by random networks without this necessity – my focus here is on academic knowledge).

Lastly, I have to say I find myself amused that I am defending academic knowledge, but I don’t want to confuse ‘knowledge’ with ‘education’. Like Stephen, I believe that we have gone terribly wrong with our system of education, but it is not the principles of academic knowledge per se that I think are the problem. Yes, we have focused too much on academic knowledge in schools, given it too strong an emphasis, but even within the field of academic knowledge, we have focused too much on content (as measured by standardized testing), and not enough on learning processes, such as critical thinking, problem solving, and the values and principles of academic knowledge. But in moving to new methods and approaches, and the use of new technologies, we should be careful not to throw the baby out with the bath water – even if Stephen doesn’t like the baby.


  1. I’m still trying to figure the differences between your view and Stephen Downes. Seems like you agree more then disagree and the fundamental difference is the emphasis on the influence of networks and importance of academic knowledge. Downes asserts the importance of knowledge created through connections in a social network, while you maintain that it is more dependent on the individual within the network. You believe academic knnowledge is still important in this framework and Downes dismisses it? I’m going to have to go back an reread all the post together. It is a fascinating debate.

  2. Hi, Thomas

    You are correct in thinking that Stephen and I profoundly disagree about the nature and importance of academic knowledge, and this is the core issue for me.

    I do believe networks are important for the creation and dissemination of all kinds of knowledge. Most importantly, they widen the participation in the creation of academic knowledge, and help to speed up its dissemination, but this still depends on those participating following the values and principles of academic knowledge.

  3. Hi Tony,
    I am interested in reading both yours and Stephen’s views on knowledge.
    How about?
    The primacy of learning is connections (adapted from George)
    Learning is about creation of knowledge via those network connections, where
    That’s what I have found from the application of connectivism and networked learning.
    My concept of learning is this: if we are supporting the notion that learning allows for mistakes – even in our interpretation of each others views, then we could be innovative and creative in exploring about learning and learning theories, without worrying about criticisms, comments, control and judgment, which often leads to arguments and unnecessary ill-feelings between academics and non-academics.
    The concept of academic knowledge versus practical knowledge lies also with the value one attached to his/her life experience. So, for an educator with a theorist’s perspective, academic knowledge is highly important. For an educator who has to facilitate a course with a group of learners, with the learners’ first in mind, a pedagogy that works with that group of learners is more important to the theory itself. In other words, a theory that doesn’t apply to that context will not be proved useful or successful. Another example is the use of andragogy versus heutagogy. It seems that heutagogy would offer a more practical solution when applied in informal social learning – especially with Web 2.0.
    When everyone becomes a creator (such as a blogger, a writer, a poet, even an actor (in the early ages), then learning is fun, and learner-centred, and that explains how learning occurs individually and socially (especially when people are given a free choice in how, when, what, where and who to learn with under our current ecology).
    There are implications with such mode of learning – security issues, confusing knowledge sources and misinterpretation of knowledge, the injustice, the prejudice, loss of identity associated with such “applied knowledge creation process towards learning”, loss of control from the instructor’s perspective, loss of “students” by the institution, loss of a common education foundation (especially if people are educated at home or unregistered virtual school etc. So, the implications could he huge – on the individuals, the community and the whole education system. What will be role of higher institutions? What will be the role of educators – professors, and administrators?

    I resonate with your views that:
    Most importantly, they widen the participation in the creation of academic knowledge, and help to speed up its dissemination, but this still depends on those participating following the values and principles of academic knowledge.

    I think the knowledge creation process could define the learning process to some extent, whether we value the knowledge created could also be scrutinised under the lenses of the people, of the community and the academic circles. But would that be part of education in the 21st century for everyone? This would allow for people to learn through mistakes, and not blindly believe in the presence of pure academic knowledge or “in search of excellence” in knowledge, which is having a short life span, and would result in ephermeral academic knowledge. Rather, we could be educating ourselves through an emergence process, with the creation of emergence knowledge which keep us creative and innovative, so we could prepare ourselves and next generation in tackling the challenges and complex problems – like the fiancial crisis that we are facing.
    I have discussed these further in my blog and

    With renewed thanks.

  4. Sorry for the typing mistake, should be ephemeral academic knowledge.
    This keeps us re-think about the different perspectives of educators and the importance of open conversation and sharing of perspectives amongst scholars and educators.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here