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Week 14: Self Organization

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A. We've self-organized and decided to skip this last module and just keep playing Lineage [cheers of approval from other students].

B. [laughing along] I expected something like that would come up eventually, but not the first words out of your mouth!.

A. Give me some credit!

B. Keep working hard and I'll give you three. [groans of pain from students] So I believe we've saved the best for last.

A. After all the fun we've been having playing video games you think something is going to be even better?

B. Yes, I really do. This is where people's head usually start to really hurt. In talking about this topic at conferences around the world I've seen people get so fed up with what they interpret as my plain stupidity that they actually gestured with their arms and got up and left.

A. [as if standing up] I know what they mean! No, now seriously - what do they get so upset about? You mean self-organization?

B. Yea. People do ok with the "willful suspension of disbelief" when they think you're just telling a nice story. But when you try to convince them its not fiction, people become very angry.

A. Well, if you were trying to catch my interest you have. Let's have it.

B. Let's start with a proper definition. The FAQ for comp.theory.self-org-sys (hey! you should know what that is now!) says:

The essence of self-organization is that system structure often appears without explicit pressure or involvement from outside the system. In other words, the constraints on form (i.e. organization) of interest to us are internal to the system, resulting from the interactions among the components and usually independent of the physical nature of those components. The organization can evolve in either time or space, maintain a stable form or show transient phenomena. General resource flows within self-organized systems are expected (dissipation), although not critical to the concept itself.

The field of self-organization seeks general rules about the growth and evolution of systemic structure, the forms it might take, and finally methods that predict the future organization that will result from changes made to the underlying components. The results are expected to be applicable to all other systems exhibiting similar network characteristics.

I know you guys already think I'm a freak, but the whole FAQ is really great. I'd recommend it to you. I love reading it.

A. You can be kind of strange sometimes, but "freak" might be a little strong.

B. Thanks again for your vote of support. Randall Whitaker adds that we should probably be more precise in our language, as self-organization has become somewhat of a general term, meaning any of the following:

  • self-creation -- the notion that a given system's origin is somehow determined by its character or the specific circumstances in which it occurs.
  • self-configuration --the notion that a given system actively determines the arrangement of its constituent parts.
  • self-regulation -- the notion that a given system actively controls the course of its internal transformations, typically with respect to one or more parameters.
  • self-steering -- the notion that a given system actively controls its course of activity within some external environment or a general set of possible states.
  • self-maintenance --the notion that a given system actively preserves itself, its form, and / or its functional status over time.
  • self-(re-)production -- the notion that a given system generates itself anew or produces other systems identical to itself.
  • self-reference. -- the notion that the significance of a given system's character or behavior is meaningful only with respect to itself.

A. What is all of this supposed to mean?

B. Ok. Take a flock of birds, for example. Do you know how the birds decide which bird to follow?

A. [cautiously] This sounds like a trick question.

B. It is. And the answer is a bit of a trick, to. First, you have to go download a simulation environment called Netlogo . Seriously. Stop whatever it is you're doing right now and go download it and install it (very simple, double-click installation.)

A. Ok, ok.

B. While it's downloading, I'll say that Netlogo is a simulation development environment meant for kids to develop simulations in.

A. Kids?

B. Yea, like elementary or middle school kids. Got it installed?

A. [obviously paying more attention to the software than to B.] ...yea.

B. In the File menu, open the Model Library. In the Model Library, you'll see a group called Biology. Open the Flocking model in the Biology group. Once it's open, click the Setup button as indiciated here:

Netlogo Simulation

This will place all the birds on the canvas. Now if you click "go" the birds will fly, randomly at first, but soon they will group into one or more flocks and fly together. Go ahead. [waits] Know how they do that?

A. No idea.

B. Click the Information tab at the top and read the note title WHAT IS IT? [waiting]

A. So that's it?

B. Right. When several individuals follow a simple set of local rules (like the three described there), completely ignoring what is happening at a global level, behavior that seems intelligent can emerge.

A. Weird.

B. Go back into the Model Library (under File). In the Biology group, there's another model called ants. Open and run the model, and then read the WHAT IS IT?, and then run the model again. [waits]

A. So you mean the queen ant...

B. Does no directing or leading, no. It's not like A Bug's Life . Each little ant decides what to do as an individual, acting solely on local information. For exmaple, if ants leave different pheromone trails according to the work they are doing - one while gathering food and one while carrying out the trash, then as one ant wanders around and crosses several trails of food gatherers it can "decide" to go carry out some trash (since apparently no body else is doing it). This kind of indirect communication (leaving clues or cues behind) is called stigmergy.

A. Can you really say that the ant "decides"?

B. No, but we can definitely say that the ant is aware of clues or cues in its environment, and that these play a signficiant role in shaping its behavior. That's stigmergy.

A. Stigmergy?

B. Indirect communication. Let me give an example. Little ants die all the time - its a sad fact of little ant life. After a while their little bodies are littered all over the ant hill. Now, its neither hygenic or desirable to have dead bodies all over the place where you live. So how do suppose the ants deal with the problem?

A. Like this ( MP3 )?

B. Nice - but no. And movie quotes are my thing. Each ant follows a few simple rules. Pick up dead bodies and put them in piles. Prefer to put the bodies in bigger piles as opposed to smaller ones. What do you suppose happens when each ant follows this rule to its logical end?

A. [thinking] All the dead ants eventually end up in a single giant pile?

B. Precisely!

A. As enthralling as the burial rituals of insects are, can we connect this back to instructional technology now?

B. Sure. But before I begin, you've got to see the slime simulation in the Biology folder. Take a look at that.

A. You really are a freak, you know? I can only think of one other person so excited about slime...

B. Ok, ok. That's more movie references for you today than me (yes, I know you're talking about Ghostbusters ), so mind your manners! Anyway, what you should have gotten from all that jabbering and simulating is this: it's very possible for a large group of agents, with no centralized leadership whatsoever, to behave intelligently -- providing that the environment can be manipulated so that cues and clues can be left (which can influence future behavior).

A. And...

B. And Erin Brewer and I thought - if ants can coordinate their entire colony on this principle, couldn't learners coordinate their educational experiences using a similar, completely decentralized mechanism?

A. Come again?

B. Could we replace the sort of access to a teacher that learners normally expect with access to a couple of thousand other students?

A. [staring blankly]

B. Get it?

A. Obviously not... cause I thought you just said that we don't need teachers, and students could just all teach each other.

B. Now you're getting it!

A. You've got to be kidding! Does the phrase " if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch " sound familiar to you?

B. ...Keep going. You're almost there...

A. [ignoring B.] It's pooled ignorance! It's definitely not what I want as a student. I didn't pay good money for tuition just to come talk to a bunch of know nothings! [voice rising] I want a teacher!!

B. Ok, you've arrived. That's the feeling. People refuse to believe that such a system could work. And yet you see support groups like PerlMonks which work wonderfully. Ask Slashdot provides lots of great expertise. I think you saw lots of help provided back in the Newsgroups you looked at and web boards we studied.

A. Maybe, but that's not education.

B. You have to let it all go, Neo (finally, I get to make a movie reference!). You have to think about learning more broadly. You have to think about supporting learning more broadly. To quote Eric Raymond :

Often, the most striking and innovative solutions come from realizing that your concept of the problem was wrong.

Formal education is one piece of machinery that can facilitate learning. There are potentially many others. A key piece of being able to build innovative learning technologies is being able to think differently about learning. If you conceptualize the problem "how can we help people learn better?" in the context of formal education, like so many people do, your solutions will look just like theirs.

A. Well what is the point, then, if not to make schools better?

B. Making schools better is a worthy goal, and there are lots of people working on it. But this brings us back to the directions in the Questions assignment. Check your assumptions. Why are we interested in making schools better? Shouldn't we be interested in helping people learn better?

A. Hmmm.

B. I'll grant you that schools are one of the biggest pieces of machinery supporting learning right now, which should make them a priority target for research. And it does. But there are other vehicles. There are also other questions. Instead of "how can we help people learn better?" we might as "how can we help more people learn?". And here is the point at which I push my biases onto you. This latter question, the one of increasing opportunity, is where my heart lies. [pauses, and sighs] But back to our topic...

A. Thank you.

B. These same mechanisms can be leveraged to support student learning. Erin Brewer and I first described this in a paper called Online Self-Organizing Social Systems . We described a specific example of the evolution of a group like this ( Slashdot in this case) in the OSOSS - Crisis / Response model.

A. But that doesn't have anything to do with education. They're talking about computers and games and stuff...

B. Well, it doesn't have anything to do with education, but it has everything to do with learning. The questions people are asking, the answers that people are giving, the feedback and clarification that is going on, is definitely teaching and learning. But lest you think that these sorts of mechanisms couldn't work when wrapped around academic content, look at Open Learning Support for MIT OpenCourseware . It's a system designed to facilitate self-organization around open educational resources, like the materials in MIT's OpenCourseWare collection.

A. I should just go look around?

B. Start by reading Scalability and Sociability in Online Learning Environments . It lays out a little more background info about the design and theory behind OLS.

A. So is there an assignment this week?

B. Yes. Here you go:

Assignment: OSOSS

  • Download this simulation . Run the simulation in Netlogo and complete the two activities in the Things to Try tab.
  • Take a screenshot of your best attempt on each activity (so two screenshots total). If you don't know how to do this, on Windows try something like Screenshot Utility . On OS X, try something like Grab (in your Applications folder).
  • Upload the two screenshots to your blog.
  • Write a small piece about your experience playing with the model, focusing on salient relationships you noticed between parameters and model behavior. Did changing specific parameters have the effects you expected? Post this piece to your blog as well.

And I think you know what to do...

A. Right. See you next week.

B. Our last time together...

Copyright 2008, by the Contributing Authors. Cite/attribute Resource . admin. (2008, May 20). Week 14: Self Organization. Retrieved January 07, 2011, from Free Online Course Materials — USU OpenCourseWare Web site: This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License Creative Commons License
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