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Social Capital and Networked Learning

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I read two fascinating books today, and their themes intersect, so I'll briefly comment on both.

_Bowling Alone_ is Robert Putnam's well-publicized treatise on the demise of social capital in the US. Social capital, briefly, is the gain that one gets from having a dense network of social contacts. This gain might come in the forms of assistance, advise, support, trust, positive norms, etc. Putnam's main thesis--backed by loads of data--is that social capital has been on the decline in the US since the 1960s as measured by communication with neighbors, participation in community groups (such as Parent-Teacher Associations or bowling leagues), social trust, etc. He posits that there are several main causes of this, including the fragmentation and isolation caused by urban sprawl and long commutes, the advent of television (which is a social capital killer), and a generational change.

Anyway, in one chapter, Putnam discusses possible countervailing trends, including the use of the Internet. There has been much speculation that virtual communities online are replacing other forms of community. Putnam raises some questions about this, based on three factors: (1) the digital divide (i.e., those individuals and communities that most need more social capital are least likely to be using the Internet); (2) the reduced social context clues of the Internet (i.e., the Internet eliminates much of the communicative content contained in face-to-face communication, through non-verbal cues, nods, touches, etc., and thus is not nearly as effective as face-to-face communication in building close bonds and trust); and (3) the narrowcasting feature of the Internet (i.e., people tend to communicate mostly in narrowly-defined interest groups and have less chance for the kind of chance encounters across social and class lines that make for strong neighborhoods and communities). Anyway, Putnam is not against the Internet -- far from it -- but he stresses that the social capital-building potential of the Internet is strongest when online communities supplement and build from face-to-face communities rather than replacing them.

Which--by the way--was almost the exact same message of the second book, _Network Science, A Decade Later: The Internet and Classroom Learning_ by Alan Feldman, Cliff Conold, and Bob Coulter. The authors of this book were involved with the Massachusetts-based TERC Project, which supported and investigated Network Science projects for a decade. Network Science is an umbrella name for a whole bunch of K-12 classroom science learning/teaching projects that make use of the Internet--often through the collection and sharing of data across classrooms throughout the US or the world.

Anyway, what the TERC folks learned about Network Science was extremely interesting, and their book goes far beyond "Oh, look at all the exciting new stuff kids can do on the Internet today". Basically, the networked interaction in these projects is often quite superficial -- kids put data up but don't take it down, kids take data down but don't have any idea how to analyze it, kids communicate with other kids elsewhere but seldom about science. The authors emphasize that the key to successful Network Science is to build a strong community of inquiry WITHIN the classroom. Then, and only then, can Internet-based resources supplement this classroom-based community. The authors also critique the oft-stated idea of teacher as a "guide-on-the side" rather than a "sage-on-the-stage" (OK, how many of us have said that--raise your hands! :-)) Basically, their point is that students are not little scientists, but rather that they are apprenticing to become scientists and they need a very experienced and knowledgeable master, as it were to help them do so. But this is not a "guide on the side" that gives them a bit of advice as they proceed on their own merry way, but really a mentor who carefully teaches them the trade of scientific inquiry, discussion, experimentation, and analysis, a "teacher as intellectual" as they say. (And, on another related point, they also have found that online training and support among teachers themselves is not very effective in helping teachers become better science teachers; echoing Putnam, they feel that the online environment is just not rich enough to support such a complex and difficult task and they suggest that online discussion can only complement but not replace face-to-face teacher training.)

Taken together, both of these books help dispel some common naive perspectives on the Internet and community. Social capital and communities of practice are extremely important for individual and social development. To the extent that the Internet builds on, promotes, and complements other forms of social networks, it can be invaluable. But viewing the Internet as a replacement for other forms of community is, in most cases, unrealistic and counterproductive.


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Last updated: March 9, 2001 in Hot Metal Pro 6.0