Birds, Social Media and Scale-free Correlation

I wrote elsewhere about the beauty of the flocking of starlings that is called murmuration. Their murmurations that look like swirling clouds that pulsate, twist and get wider and thinner are intriguing to watch, but how do the birds do it?

I read online that this can be caused by a threat, such as a raptor nearby, but I have seen them flock while walking in a woods and in my backyard trees without any threats seen. In fact, I learned many years ago that if they were roosting in trees nearby and I clapped loudly they would usually take off. Maybe a loud clap sounds like a gun.

Beyond the beauty and wonder of the murmurations, there is interest among scientists who don't normally pay attention to birds by computer scientists and physicists. They are interested in how group behavior spontaneously arises from many individuals at once. Schools of fish are another group behavior studied.

Researchers call this "scale-free correlation." The studies indicate that, surprisingly, flocks of birds are never led by a single individual. You probably have seen flocks of geese that seem to have a "leader," but flocking is actually governed by the collective actions of all of the flock members. Watching these murmurations, as opposed to the straight-ahead flight of a flock of geese flying in formation seems so fluid that it approaches magic.

 

Information moving across the flock so quickly and with nearly no degradation is something I might talk about in communication courses as a high signal-to-noise ratio. Other communication terms that enter into murmuration study include scale-free correlation and effective perceptive range. Those terms can be simply explained as the ways that allow a starling on one side of the flock to respond to what others are sensing all the way across the flock.

A study on starling flocks led by George Young at Princeton determined that starlings in large flocks consistently coordinate their movements with their seven nearest neighbors. This immediately made me think of relationships online, especially in social media.

One thing that comes to mind is Dunbar's number which is a suggested cognitive limit to the number of people with whom one can maintain stable social relationships. That number was proposed in the 1990s by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar, who found a correlation between primate brain size and average social group size. By studying primates and sing the average human brain size, he proposed that humans can comfortably maintain 100-200 (often averaged out at 150) stable relationships. 

That number seems too high to me in real life but it might make sense with social media where words like stable, relationship and friends have other meanings.

That Princeton study also found that the shape of the flock, rather than the size, has the largest effect on the 7 number. It's like playing that game of Telephone. When one person passes a message along to the next person, who repeats it to another and so on, the message degrades as the size of the group increases. The starlings are playing telephone only with their seven nearest neighbors. They have made the shape of their group different, despite the large size of the flock.

I wonder if the studies of starlings might be extrapolated to explain social media behaviors. I may have 600 friends on Facebook, but I think that I "shape" my group of close friends much smaller, and that group connects me to other smaller groups within that 600. I use lists on Facebook, for example, one comprised of poets. (Lists is a feature that is not really promoted by Facebook these days.)  I really only have direct and active communication with about a dozen of them, but the group has almost a hundred members.

How starlings achieve such a strong correlation still remains mostly a mystery.  I suspect that social media networks are also researching these kinds of correlations.

Slack on Campus

I'm calling this post "Slack on Campus" - not to be confused with slackers on campus. Slack is a cloud-based team collaboration software package of tools and online services (Slack Technologies).

It began as an internal tool for the company Tiny Speck while they were developing an online video game called Glitch. I have used it nominally with two non-educational organizations. I did not find the software intuitive or particularly engaging for collaboration. My use was limited, partially because other users did not participate enough to make it a truly collaborative workspace.

I also wasn't a fan of the name Slack which doesn't suggest productivity. According to the company, "Slack" is an acronym for "Searchable Log of All Conversations and Knowledge."

It is a freemium product which means that as a "free/premium" product or service (pricing strategy) it is provided free of charge, but money (premium) is charged for additional features, services, or virtual (online) or physical (offline) goods

I think of Slack as business software and I don't think of it as something for education. The first thing I've discovered that might change my mind is a project happening at Arizona State University where they are using "Slack as a Digital Campus."

"ASU is using the Slack Enterprise Grid as the communication hub for students, faculty and the staff. Via app integration (Zoom, Google Drive, Dropbox, Polls, etc.), Slack provides direct access to resources for student success; student services, tutoring, advising, professor office hours, social outreach, group projects, research, libraries, and more. The goal is to improve and enhance the learning experience by giving educators and students a deeper sense of connection to the ASU community and an easier path to accessing support. The embedded deck summarizes the intended Slack transformation journey for students, faculty, and staff across ASU and can be shared with anyone."

At ASU, Slack is taking the place of things that were once on different web pages but also were collected at some schools in learning management systems (LMS). ASU is the first university to adopt Slack for the whole enterprise.

The ASU website says that: "Slack is the equivalent of ASU’s digital campus - a collaboration hub that enables real-time communications and connections in a searchable platform for real-time messaging, content sharing, learning, and more."

I have read some of the same research that ASU seems to have based their project on. Students, in particular, are far less reliant on email to communicate. Some schools have reported issues with students not reading their campus email which is often used to send important information about courses, billing, and financial aid. Email is still used by many faculty for course communication, even in online courses that use an LMS. 

Another argument for using enterprise collaborative tools is an old one: It's what they will find after graduation in the workplace.

 

ASU document
                  Click here for the full document

ASU made Slack available University-wide in the spring 2019 semester and have been promoting it as a way to foster deeper communities of practice and leadership, enabling discussions and activities by team or subject matter.

Any form of collaboration that allows peers in different areas but with shared academic focuses, projects, passions, and expertise to work together is a good thing. If using Slack or other software works to break down silos, I'm all for it.

Slack is not without critics. One criticism is certainly a fear that has been expressed by schools before: storing user data exclusively on cloud servers which is under Slack's control, not the school's control or shared control and storage. Another issue is their privacy policy which allows the workspace admins to access all public and private channels without consent from any parties using the app.

Kindergarten Comes to America

In 1873, the St. Louis, Missouri, school board authorized the first public kindergarten in the United States. We take the idea of kindergarten and pre-school education for granted today, but the concept was not only foreign but radical then.

Friedrich Froebel had developed what he called a “kindergarten” (garden of children) in Germany in which teachers acted as the “gardeners.” Teachers would provide the environment and the resources to nourish the minds of the children and stand back and let them grow.

I consider this an early effort in learning space design. The classrooms were bright and colorful with "stations" around the room for different activities. Some schools also provided easy access to outdoor play areas. The classroom had kid-sized tables and benches - an idea that seems so logical but had not been used earlier. 

Of course, the kindergarten concept included more than just the physical space, but the learning space was considered a far more important part of the learning process than it was in the other grades.

In the U.S., Susan Blow was the driving force behind the kindergarten movement. She visited Germany after the American Civil War and was impressed by Froebel’s kindergartens. The idea that children were learning language, math, and science concepts through play was a radical idea.

When she returned home, she made a study of the kindergarten concept. She wrote that “If we can make children love intellectual effort, we shall prolong habits of study beyond school years.” Her father was able to get the St. Louis school superintendent to open an experimental kindergarten. He agreed and sent Susan Blow to New York to study for a year.

Susan offered to direct the kindergarten for free if the school board would provide her with classroom space and a teacher.  She ended up being the director for eleven years, at her own expense. She retired in 1884 when the St. Louis schools had 9,000 kindergartners. She died in 1916 at which point the success of the kindergarten experiment had led it to be introduced in more than 400 American cities.

kindergarten
   The colorful "chaos" of a kindergarten and preschool classroom - Image via Flickr

Silos

siloesThe new semester is starting at most American colleges and I'm thinking about the silos on campuses. I don't mean anything having to do with agricultural programs which probably have a silo or two. I mean the figurative silos that are still quite real that appear in departments and schools on campus.

I had bookmarked a headline saying that "Facebook was granted a patent to silo group posts." That's about moderators of Facebook Groups getting more leeway in controlling who sees the comments made on their forums. Some have described it as a patent for shadowbanning - secretly restricting who sees a user's content.

My inspiration to write this post came from that social media story, but it set me thinking about education, especially higher education silos.

Silos are also increasing when it come to online and streaming media. Netflix, Disney, HBO, and other providers are "taking back" their content and siloing it in their own platforms. People have been unbundling and cord-cutting to lower costs and customize what comes into their home, but now they mean to rebuild and might need a half dozen services to get what they want. Ironically, this is how cable companies first emerged - by creating packages of channels for you.

A few years ago, a Forbes article stated that "College Silos Must Die For Students To Thrive" and asked "If academics — the heart of the university — do not silo students, then why are student-focused university departments siloed from each other? Wouldn’t student needs be better served if cross-functional sharing of institutional knowledge were common practice within colleges and universities?"

The authors say that the five functional areas of the university that are most important to students are Admissions (including financial aid), Academics, Student Affairs, Career Services, and Alumni Relations/Advancement. Typically, these five have minimal interaction with one another. They exist in silos.

Silos in higher education aren’t limited to departments. They include academic units, athletics, student support services, foundations, alumni, research and business operations. 

Why create a silo? Usually, it is to keep focus in one space and hold onto perceived "turf." The problem with silos is that they discourage interdisciplinary opportunities, which is probably something you will find written into many universities' mission and priorities.

I have worked at colleges where these silos existed. The bigger the institution, the more likely silos seem to occur. For example, you would find IT services housed within a college or school that did not share staff, software, equipment or practices with other schools within the university. In large state universities and university systems, as one example, it is not unusual to find multiple learning management systems being used. That means that training and support can't be "pooled" across campus. Faculty who teach in multiple departments or programs may have to learn and design for several systems.

There are pressures to break down silos. Technology is one pressure. Purchasing power and avoiding duplication of services are other pressures. Calls for transparency and accountability favor structures without silos. Take a look at your campus structure this fall and see if silos exist. Are they increasing or decreasing?