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Online Edge

Let’s Get into Groups

Learning together has never been easier.


If you want to sum up in one neat sentence all of the changes and disruptions the Web is bringing about these days, Clay Shirky would like to suggest it this way: Today it is exceedingly easy to connect with other people and create group action in ways that don’t require the traditional structures, and that fact changes everything—including schools.

Creating, sharing and connecting work in groups and networks in eff ective, ethical and safe ways is a critical skill set for our students.

Shirky is the author of Here Comes Everybody The Power of Organizing without Organizations, (, a book that I would humbly suggest should be on every educational leader’s reading list, not so much because it is a book about schools; it’s not. But more than any of the other recent attempts to make sense of the Web-induced shifts that the world is experiencing, shifts that Shirky describes as “tectonic” in scope, it is a book that most clearly and plausibly sets the table for the big discussions we are going to have to have about education if we want to remain relevant.

Groups for Learning

Whether it’s the over 8,000 “affinity” groups that have formed on the Barack Obama Web site, or the over 350,000 extensions of the Harry Potter narrative that have been written by fans at FanFiction. net, or the potential for terrorists to find and connect with one another in ways never before possible, millions (if not billions) of people are learning from one another around whatever it is they are passionate about. And that has huge implications for schools, not only in the context of rethinking the content that we teach, but recognizing the huge challenge of preparing our kids for that reality.

As Shirky points out, the relative advantages of institutions like schools are being lost as more and more people find each other online. The reality today is that while schools in general still face relatively little competition in terms of “educating” students, schools in their current iteration are no longer absolutely necessary to getting an education. And while that may have always been the case, Shirky writes that the increasing ease with which we can work outside of the traditional structures of education (and more) “will transform the world everywhere groups of people come together to accomplish something, which is to say everywhere.”

Networked Society

Preparing students for this networked society is a daunting task for an educational system that has done relatively little to explore or understand the effects of these shifts in practical terms. Yet creating, sharing and connecting work in groups and networks in effective, ethical and safe ways is a critical skill set for our students. Shirky suggests a framework that we might consider using as a lens for looking at our K12 curriculum.

First, we need to teach students how to share their work online in ways that allow them to connect to others who share an interest in that work. From there, we teach cooperation, which can be based on conversation around a common group identity. And within the group, we can move to collaboration, a process in which Shirky says “no one person can take credit for what gets created, and the project would not come into being without the participation of many.” Finally, participating in a networked society means engaging in collective action, the most difficult type of group effort. It is an environment of shared responsibility that ties the user’s identity to the identity of the group.

As we all know, many of our students are already engaging in these types of activities in and out of school, and they are taking better advantage of the tools and opportunities in large measure because most have known little else. We, on the other hand, have firm ties to a system “whose purchase on modern life will weaken” as these group-forming technologies expand. The good news is that if we decide to embrace the potentials of the moment, we can share our own stories, collaborate in new ways, and create some real action for change using the very tools that are challenging our hold on learning and education.

Will Richardson is an author and educator who also blogs about teaching and learning at Listen to Richardson’s interview with Clay Shirky at