1 Question Interview – Stephen Downes

Stephen Downes works for the National Research Council of Canada where he has served as a Senior Research, based in Moncton, New Brunswick, since 2001. Affiliated with the Learning and Collaborative Technologies Group, Institute for Information Technology, Downes specializes in the fields of online learning, new media, pedagogy and philosophy. (To learn more about Stephen Downes’ work, visit http://www.downes.ca/)


Dear Prof. Downes,

I’m a master student in e-learning pedagogy at Universidade Aberta in Portugal and I’m studying the Theory of Cooperative Freedom with Professor Morten Paulsen. I came across your insight on these matters from your site and Blog and I hope that you can answer the following question. If it is acceptable for you, I would like to share both my question and your answer in our course forum and my personal blog at https://lealmaria.wordpress.com/

I was very interested in your distinction Groups vs Networks. Can we say it has a direct parallelism with the distinction Collaboration vs Cooperation? In terms of enabling student’s freedom, how would you describe each one?

Thank you for your time and I hope to hearing from you.

Best regards,

Maria Leal


Stephen Downes’ answer:

Hiya Maria,

I believe that you can draw a connection between the two distinctions. Collaboration belongs to groups, while cooperation is typical of a network. The significant difference is that, in the former, the individual is subsumed under the whole, and becomes a part of the whole, which is created by conjoining a collection of largely identical members, while in the latter, the individual retains his or her individuality, while the whole is an emergent property of the collection of individuals.

I have identified four major dimensions distinguishing the role of the individual in collaboration from the role of the individual in cooperation:

– Autonomy – in the case of a collaboration, the actions of the individual are determined with reference to the needs and interests of the group, and are typically directed by a leader or some sort of group decision-making process. Groups often have a ‘common vision’ to which each member is expected to subscribe. In a cooperative enterprise, each individual participates out of his or her own volition, and acts according to individually defined values or principles.

– Diversity – in the case of a collaboration, diversity of aim or objective is not desired. While individuals may engage in different activities, each is understood only in terms of the common end or goal, as in the production of a car on an assembly line. It is important that people speak the same language, sing from the same songbook, or otherwise exhibit some sort of identity with other members. In the case of cooperation, there is no common element uniting the group; rather, each individual engages in a completely unique set of interactions based on his or her own needs and preferences. There is no expectation even of a common language or world view.

– Openness – in the case of a collaboration there is a strong sense of group identity, a clear boundary between who is a member and who is not, often to the point of excluding non-members and even hiding large parts of the group’s activities from view. In a network, by contrast, there is not a clear boundary or even a recognized set of members. While membership in a group is an all-or-nothing thing, membership in a network may be tenuous, drifiting in and out, like a lurker at the edge of a conversation.

– Interactivity – in the case of a collaboration, information typically diffuses from the centre to the periphery as people receive their ‘marching orders’. A ‘broadcast network’ is more common of a collaborative organization. Management, structure and hierarchy govern the connections and flow of information. Group communication dynamics are characterized by a ‘big spike’, whether or not there is a long tail; that is, a few members will have an influence disproportionate to the rest, and will use their positions to define the ‘common’ or ‘shared’ values that will be held by the rest of the group. In a cooperative enterprise, by contrast, there is a relative equality of communications and connectivity; there will be no big spike or single centre of influence.

In general, the properties describing those of collaborative relate to mass. The creation of movements, whether nationalistic, religious or political, are based on amassing large numbers of people united under the same sign, set of beliefs or statement of principles. These mass activities are often instantiated in the figure of one person, a leader or inspiration. The same belief is held by each of the members, who will also share a certain language or jargon, and this belief propagates from one person to another through a process of diffusion, conversion or enrollment into the case.

The properties describing a cooperative, by contract, relate to organization. The creation of networks, whether they be economic or commodity marketplaces, infrastructure or communication systems, ecologies or ecosystems, social networks, local communities, and the like, is based on sets of interactions between members where these interactions form, as a whole, a unique, distinct and recognizable entity note based in the individual actions, beliefs or values of any, or even all, of the individuals, but rather exhibiting its own logic based on is organization.

It is interesting no note how the traditional ‘process’ freedoms relate almost entirely to the formation of groups or collaborations. They are not individual freedoms so much as a set of mechanisms that allow the creation and formation of new groups (which was a stunning advance for its time, an era when typically only one group at a time would be allowed to legitimately exist). Consider how ‘freedom of assembly’, ‘freedom of the press’ and even ‘freedom of speech’ allows people to create new groups, while ‘freedom of opinion or religion’ allows a person to join new groups.

In terms of freedom, it is my belief that a cooperative network engenders greater freedom. This is because, even though process freedoms (freedom of the press, freedom of assembly, etc.) may be the same in the two models, and indeed, essential for each of the two models, the network model allows more freedoms in other dimensions. In particular, an individual working cooperatively has greater empowerment; not merely the right to freedom of expression, but a channel to connect to others, and the means to live according to the beliefs expressed. And the individual in a network is free from a variety of pressures, pressures to conform, pressures to stipulate to a belief or creed, language requirements, nationality requirements, and the rest.
— Stephen

p.s. please feel free to share the question and answer freely with whomever you want.