However, in order to handle personal parcels, which people send to friends and relatives all over the country, you have to build a network that can deliver to any location you are asked to deliver to. Until such a network is in place, you are in no position to take on parcel delivery. So, in concrete terms, what sort of network do you need to build?
Delivering the Goods is the story of how one of Japan’s most successful and well known courier companies became that way. The Yamato Transport Co has been around for about 100 years, but in the 1970s they decided to shift their company focus from commercial shipping to consumer parcels, a market up until then had only been serviced by the country’s postal system. President and CEO Ogura Masao describes his thought process on establishing his delivery network and on the types of connections needed for the transport industry, and more specifically for the consumer parcel delivery market. In not so overt terms, the book is a description of theories about networks being applied in a particular instance.
The quote above gives a good sense of how the problem of establishing a successful network is a problem that includes applying connections in context. Ogura admits in the book that there is no problem to set up a transport network, but his challenge was to create one that allowed a high enough quality of service in order to be successful. I found a lot of correspondence in these descriptions with how I think of Connectivism. For the book, the particular instance is the consumer transport industry; for Connectivism the instance is Education.
Yamato Transport Co. needed to think of what sort of connections they had to make, right down to the finest details such as which side of the car should the driver exit. That is, they had to set and promote certain limits on their potential connections (network theory) based on the actual connections of their particular instance (consumer transport industry). The description of how Ogura determined the best sort of connections to create is what made Delivering the Goods a beneficial read for me. In this light, the book provides several worthwhile comparisons between Transport and Education.
The Physical and The Altered
Weaving in and out of Ogura’s narrative is an analysis of the nature of transporting goods as a physically based activity. As a result of a certain amount of uniformity of packaging in the transport industry, much of his consideration isn’t about what is being transported but rather on the limits of moving physical matter from one place to another. However, Ogura can’t stop here completely. There are times when he does need to think about the nature of parcel being transported in more detail, and these times seem to be based on when transport has the potential to alter the parcel. For example, consumers don’t know about packaging the same as commercial companies who ship large quantities. Ogura needed to solve this types of potential packaging problems because a poorly packaged parcel can easily be damaged, partially lost, or altered in some other way. And, although not the basis of his network, this consideration played an important role in determining the quality of his network, connections and thus service. Other examples in the book such as frozen, perishable and easily breakable goods even look at the nature of what is being transported more individualistic.
Education networks are much less physically defined than transport industries, so there is certainly no uniformity of packaging when we consider how thoughts and ideas are represented. Ideas being altered is almost a given when it comes to educational transactions; in transporting a parcel it is easy to see when the package/transport has altered the goods inside…with words, thoughts and ideas we can never be so sure. Listening to a lecture with or without video is a simple example of how the packaging of ideas can shape the quality of learning. A lecture high in visuals and low in description of those visuals will alter the audio only version of the lecture significantly for the learner. Being aware of the ways in which messages are altered because of the connection, the learner can either decide a better way to connect with the lecture, compensate this inadequacy with additional reading, or choose another lecture. The lecturer/Course Designer could possible provide more vocal description to off-set the drawbacks of audio learning.
The above lecture example is a fairy simple one, I think. With ideas difficult to unpack, caught up in language, expression, tone, good or bad choice of words, gestures, actions, and all of the context and prior meaning that they encounter, a focus on connections in education instances needs to include explicit consideration of how ideas are represented. These are as much a part of any communication based connection as are intended thoughts; the same as transporting frozen oranges includes that fact that they potentially will thaw. The common ideas of network theory have different implications as they are applied in different instances. A general goal of the transport industry is to avoid altering the parcel; in Education is it always the goal to avoid altering an initial idea? Or do we accept that a learner, their worldview, and all their prior learning can meet an idea at a unique point along the route of a connection?
Contact Points along Routes
Sometimes it’s easy to think of connections as the typical Q-tip shaped line between two points. This trap is especially easy to fall into when considering physically based networks such as the transport industry – parcels do tend to travel from A to B for the most part. When they don’t, it offers some insight. One exception to this norm, explained by Ogura, was the creation of Kuroneko hubs in small neighborhoods across Japan. One of the dilemmas in establishing a consumer delivery type of service is that the points of contact are not only scattered around more than in commercial shipping, but the company does not know ahead of time where a parcel’s destination is until they arrive at the door. A partial solution to this was to have outlets established in Sake shops and other locally owned stores, where residents could drop off their package for a 100 yen discount. It’s an innovative idea, because not only do parcels move through Ogura’s network, but people do…at least partially.
This slight change in connection means a great amount for the quality of the Yamato network, and can show a lot from a solely network perspective. When a customer walks down to the local shop to drop off a parcel, the route of the connection itself isn’t altered, it still exists from A to B. What changes is the point of contact along that route. And, because the Yamato network is measured mainly in physical distance and position, we can again think of the connection in terms of what is altered – here would be point A or, the sender. The types of connection characteristics reacts differently to different networks. Yamato cannot expect much more than a small distance for customers to travel; this is why the outlets need to be numerous and local. Education, with different intentions than the physical transport of goods, affords much more exaggerated movements along a route. The effect of applying a network theory concept has different implications for different instances.
Think of RSS feeds/readers and how they enable learners themselves to traverse more of the route, altering how each individual learner controls the educational information to suit their own needs. RSS not only makes it easier for learners to access information, but it changes how they encounter the ideas existing for any given topics of intentional study. Again, this is a simple example. As an Idea goes through various media and people, it travels further along the route; As learners impose more of their own control and interpretation on the information they encounter, they move further along the route. Viewing the connection in this way can give the learner insight into what they can gain from that particular connection, and how they can measure it…which is a much more difficult thing to ascertain in a educational instance than it is in a delivery service one.
The book offers many other examples such as the Kuroneko hub. Ogura often talks about Virtuous Cycles and Participatory Management. I’m not sure if these are common business terms or his own, but they do have interesting implications for educators and connections. Neither idea is that difficult to imagine simply from their name, and especially Virtuous Cycles you can get a sense of how educators who are well aware of the implications of different types of connections can push, pull, guide, back-off, model and instruct at the right times to help keep these cycles going, becoming ever more learner-propelled. Knowing both about connections and context is key, however, as I envision this connection strategy is much like pushing someone on a tire swing: the right push at the wrong time can easily kill momentum. Perhaps this is true for all network theory ideas applied in context.
Knowledge or understanding is an object of aspiration, rather than attainment. It’s a matter of quality. It’s possible to claim the same for transport, as 41 delivery boys riding Mama Chari bicycles could very well deliver packages to all of Japan over a long period of time. This type of unsuited network and whatever connections would be of low quality and silly to think about, considering the intentions of the Yamato Transport Co. Doing such a thing in an educational setting would be equally as silly. How learners connect, what they do with their connections and their meta-knowledge about those connections all determine the quality of learning that takes place. For applying a network in particular instances, it’s not just a matter of setting up for the most potential connections possible, it’s a matter of informed value judgments on what types of connection suit the particular intentions.
I make this point, which may seem like an obvious one, because there seems to be a tendency in the literature and discussion about connectivism to dwell on the idea that a thought or a message is not the same as how that thought is represented. Certainly true…but trains of thought seem to gravitate to this idea as an end point, leaving context out in the cold. A thought and how that thought is represented are not the same object, however an applied connection includes both. As easily as it can be claimed that connectivism is non-representational, it can also be that representation is actual meaning. Both aspects are half of the consideration, and both aspects play an equal potential determining factor in the quality of an educationally applied connection. The essence of Connectivism, for me, considers the inclusive separation of meaning and representation.