I seem to have been hit with a plethora of new words lately. Surprisingly (to me, anyway), I met at least three new words when proof reading the index for an upcoming book. I won’t say what they are, because you probably know them already and then I’d be embarrassed.

But I’ll take a chance that not everyone knows stigmergy. Have you heard of it? Before I tell you what it means, I’d like to outline the meanderings  that led to my discovery of this uncomfortable-sounding word.

In musing about what to write in this blog post, I decided to peruse the online distance education journals, with the aim of writing a few pithy summaries of articles that excited me (this is what I used to do for RIDALink). First, I went to one of the lesser-known journals (I hope its editor isn’t reading this!), the Online Journal of Distance Education Administration. Scanning the contents, I fixed on the article ‘Developing an International Distance Education Program: A Blended Learning Approach’. Seemed interesting enough – well planned and presented case study of an approach to ‘global learning’ by way of a Master’s program being offered through a collaborative partnership between a ‘North American University (NAU)’ and a ‘Central American University (CAU)’ – but as I continued to read, I started to have misgivings.

Sentences like: “sensitivity and understanding of cultural and political issues … is essential in an international context where learning is being transferred from one cultural context to another” [italics added], and “developing countries do not have as much knowledge or resources to create higher institutional components of knowledge itself” somehow didn’t sit comfortably with me, and seemed to belie the collaborative claim.

Now, am I being oversensitive and reading more into the statements than was meant –  just another latte-sipping, chardonnay-swilling leftie getting all self-righteous?! Further, someone could probably search my writings and find similar statements that bear challenging. In fact, many years ago John Biggs did rightly challenge something foolish I wrote about Hong Kong learners early in my time there.

I then turned my attention to an old favourite, the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning. Under the usual enticing array of articles for Vol. 9, No. 1 was, as one of the CIDER Notes, an Elluminate recording titled ‘Designing the Undesignable: Social software and control’, hosted by Jon Dron. I’ve played a little with video-conferencing software (in fact ran a Monash Educational Technology Committee meeting quite happily with it), so was curious to observe both the delivery and the interplay.

I nearly gave up, as the beginning was the usual mucking around getting going … took about five minutes to really get started. But I was glad I persisted, as it showed some worthwhile interactions and, more importantly, included challenging discussion on choice and control in online environments. And, in outlining his ’10 design principles for a social software ecology’, Dron introduced me to stigmergy. Other principles included adaptability, evolvability, parcellation, trust, etc. It’s all discussed in detail in his new, expensive (he said it, not me!) book (Control and Constraint in E-Learning), or you can glean some of it from his recent article in Educational Technology and Society.

To get to the point (finally!): stigmergy, what is it? According to its originator in 1959, the word (a combination of the Greek stigma/sign and ergon/action), it means ‘Stimulation of workers by the performance they have achieved’. Originally applied to termites and the construction of their columns, the word has been appropriated by the geeks, and is being applied to emerging phenomena with respect to computing and the internet. You’ll find all this in the discussion of stigmergy in Wikipedia, which is itself (so it claims) an example of stigmergy in action.

So, will we hear more about stigmergy? Actually, I doubt it, mainly for the simple reason that it’s an ugly word … hmm, another famous wrong call of history?!

2 thoughts on “Stigmergy

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