19 September 2013

Don't be a node. Be a nexus.

Encountering the word 'node' in publications and discussions about networks and connected learning left me with an uneasy feeling. It sounds much too much like a pejorative nickname than how I would like to define myself. It's mentioned in George Seimens' Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and Jeff Utecht's Reach and it just bothers me.

When I visualize a 'node', it's like a lump with wires sticking out of it. I understand the implication that we're each a dot on a matrix of lines of digital communication, but connected learning means more than that to me.

image cc European Southern Observatory


When I visualize a nexus, however, it's made of energy. It can do everything a node can do, but better. It's more efficient, more dynamic, and it's not limited by wires. Rather than thinking of myself as a cog in the machine, I want to be the energy that makes it run.

Out of curiosity, I checked the dictionary (Merriam-Webster):

node : a place where lines in a network cross or meet

nexus : a relationship or connection between people or things

That word, 'relationship', jumps out at me, grabs me by my shirt collar, and shouts, "you're more than an IP address!"

A node is sterile; a nexus is dirty.

A node is stationary; a nexus is always in motion.

A node is concrete; a nexus is abstract.

Thinking of myself as a nexus also appeals to me because networks are not limited to the digital domain. If a node connects lines in a network, a nexus connects networks and develops relationships among them.

Am I waxing semantic? Truly. However, I do believe that one thing all of the contemporary learning theories share is the importance of mindset. How we think of ourselves is critical to who we are in life on the unstable ground of knowledge in the 21st Century.

photo by Jenny E. Ross
The same is true, if not more important, for our students. If I were a polar bear standing on the last ice floe in the arctic, what would I teach my cubs? I wouldn't teach them what I learned from my teachers, certainly. Indeed, I wouldn't know what to teach them. I wouldn't know what they need to know.

When I visualize how I want students in my class to learn, I see them developing relationships and building their own connections of understanding. In agreement with Gerhard Fischer's Understanding, Fostering, and Supporting Cultures of Participation, I believe that the future is collaborative. Empathy and creativity are the two most important attitudes or habits-of-mind that citizens of the future need. My responsibility is to start the journey with them, like a polar bear plunging into the ocean for a long swim into the unknown. My old habits won't work. What I 'know' isn't relevant anymore. What is important is how I adapt.

We should not be nodes, passive, modular, static. We need to be nexuses. Active, independent, dynamic.