Some neophyte reflections on learning as part of a network

By Ch’aska

I’m a little nervous about being the first blog-poster on the CCLN. Why? Because I am not an expert in the field of collaborative conservation, or any field, for that matter. As it turns out, however, expertise is not a prerequisite for knowledge building. While an expert can be a reliable source of good information, the way we conceptualize of and value knowledge is changing; it is no longer thought of as stuff inside experts’ brains– what’s more interesting is how knowledge flows between members of networks. It has come to be valued for its ability to do things more than for what it is.

If you’re not convinced of the power of knowledge networks, take a look at the success and ubiquity of email, social networking, peer-to-peer exchange, crowd-sourcing, and the models exemplified by Wikipedia and the Google search engine. It looks to me that the network is displacing the expert as the dominant source of meaning-making. Just what constitutes knowledge has kept philosophers in business for millennia, but insofar as it relates to collaborative participation, I like the notion that knowledge is partly a relational process of co-constructing interpretations of information and that learning communities can evolve by exploring spaces of possibilities (Seiling, 2010). The CCLN is intended to provide this kind of exploratory space, and core strength of a decentralized network is that we can cover more ground from many perspectives. In thinking about this learning dimension of the CCLN, it occurred to me that it’s kind of self-referential with regard to collaborative conservation itself. If I may digress just a little…

Ideally, collaborative conservation (or community-based natural resource management or co-management or most any flavor of participatory governance) should strive to incorporate diverse perspectives as a matter of principle. The pluralism of ways of knowing, evaluating, justifying behavior, and so forth, make interactions between invested players systemically complex, whether you use the colloquial or the scientific connotation. That is to say, the substantive state of a collaborative initiative is the result of the path it has taken (a path incorporating political context, interpersonal relationships, etc); unforeseen structures may emerge from the process and create new feedbacks (like unlikely alliances, offshoots, or new understandings of the issue); and the outcomes of the initiative are anybody’s guess. So given this complexity, there is a lot of talk in the literature about how social or collaborative learning is critical for the generation of new knowledge and the sharing of existing knowledge across boundaries and among members of the group or larger community. Whether and how this happens is another animal, but again– while a group working as a collaborative might call in an expert to help interpret information, the emphasis is on the process of socially embedded learning amongst non-experts. (If you’re interested in the topic of social learning, check out http://www.learningforsustainability.net/social_learning/ for a good list of references).

As apparently self-similar as these scales of learning networks may be, social learning for CC on the ground in a face-to-face environment is qualitatively different than the kind of learning we hope the CCLN will facilitate. For one thing, people obviously learn differently when they are together in a room talking than when they are asynchronously typing out their perspectives and uploading materials with a nebulous group of online co-learners. The CCLN isn’t intended to replicate or substitute actual collaborative decision-making processes; rather, it’s hoped that it will be a resource for folks interested in or practicing collaborative conservation, that it will connect people to one another and foster new partnerships, and that maybe it will spawn discussions about related ideas at a broader scale than what would be possible in a face-to-face exchange.

It’s too early to say just what combination of roles the CCLN will fulfill. We hope that by priming the pump a bit on our end, the network will begin to self-organize and take on a life of its own. So if you think there is value this project, please engage! Beyond just tapping into the information being uploaded by us and other members of the network, contribute new information, make new contacts. And don’t leave me out here by myself–speak up, disagree or otherwise share your thoughts and opinions on the blogs or the discussion board, be you an expert, a dilettante or on a completely different spectrum!

*Note that there is a discussion board already started for comments or concerns about technicalities of sharing on the CCLN. If you have any problems, please let us know!

Galloway Seiling, J. (2010). Knowledge generation as a complex relational process. In A. Tate and K. Richardson (eds.) Complexity and Knowledge Management: understanding the role of knowledge in the management of social networks (pp. 93-108). Charlotte: Information Age Publishing Inc.