What is an Online Self-Organizing Social System?

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In other words...

This structure allows many individuals in a decentralized manner to self-organize in order to solve problems and accomplish other goals.

The rise of technology lends itself to create a culture of students supporting students to go along with teacher-student supports in place in most class settings, be it online or face to face. Teachers can reach many more students with online capabilities available in most student homes, but can the teacher adequately support through feedback and communication for all students? There are limitations to how many students a teacher can support. This makes the need for students to support students.

Most classes were designed for the teacher to support tens of students, not thousands of students. The idea of automated responses and feedback comes into play. Is that enough to personalize the learning? This is another reason students forming support systems is vital to the success of online learning, especially in larger settings like mentioned above.

A lot of time and money have been spent to develop automated feedback. However, this feedback lacks human interaction and personalization. Computers cannot adjust on their own, so while this feedback may work in most anticipated situations or responses, there will be exceptions.

Some of these self-organizing systems form using tools like blogs or shared google docs. Students can add to these daily, on their own time. The discussions that arise help students support each other in the online learning in a way automated feedback cannot.

To understand OSOSS, we must first understand each part.

What exactly is a social system?

Merriam-Webster defines a social system as:

  1. 1 : the patterned series of interrelationships existing between individuals, groups, and institutions and forming a coherent whole : social structure

  2. 2 : the formal organization of status and role that may develop among the members of a relatively small stable group (such as a family or club)


Take a look at the definitions and charts to help explain what makes up a social system.

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Next, what is Self-Organization?

To understand OSOSS, we must also understand what self-organization is. According to Complexity Academy, self-organization is "a process of pattern formation within social systems that requires dense distributed peer-to-peer interactions within an unregulated environment in order to take hold." Take a look at the video below for a deeper understanding.
Social Complexity 6: Self-Organization

Now, how do those two parts combine to form an Online Self-Organizing Social System?

The social system and the self-organization come together in the very suitable online environment to form OSOSS. The venue of the internet allows time and distance to become obsolete. All a person needs is an internet connection and interest in a particular topic to participate in one of these OSOSS.

Let's look at an example of an OSOSS...

One example of a OSOSS is Slashdot.org. (See the link below.) This website has a lot of traffic daily. People review articles and submit selections to be published on the site. The editors review submissions and decide who gets published. Then, a discussion thread is available for each article posted. This discussion helps facilitate the comments, additional thoughts, etc to further investigate the topics.

What makes Slashdot an effective OSOSS?

Wiley argues, “The threaded discussion itself is equally interesting. Community members meeting certain criteria have the ability to “moderate” or evaluate the quality of individual comments. “Meta-moderation” allow other members of the community to evaluate the appropriateness of moderators’ ratings. For example, if a moderator with an axe to grind against Microsoft moderated an informative comment regarding the XP operating system down to –1, meta-moderators would mark this moderation as “Unfair.” This system of meta-moderation provides the larger community a powerful balance against “the tyranny of the moderators.” The combination of Slashdot’s moderation system with its meta-moderation system creates a powerful infrastructure for real-time peer review.”

What impact do OSOSS have on Online Learning?

The structure of the OSOSS lends itself to make some differences in the systems. However, the ability to adapt based on the human interaction overcomes most of these situations. Some moderation is needed so that bogus or unrelated comments do not hinder the learning mediation.

This statement, “OSOSS provide a conceptual framework for a new method of indexing, discovering, combining, using, and evaluating digital educational resources,” sums up how OSOSS work. The OSOSS allows members to share and engage in conversations that matter to the members. Because the internet reaches such vast distances, no one member is burdened with knowing all the answers. Experts can be sought out and quoted in these systems.

In summary, the OSOSS are important to the future of online learning because they support large numbers of learners without scalability being an issue. Learners can get meaningful human to human support anytime and anywhere. Learning objects are successfully embedded in meaningful context so that discovery can lead to understanding.

Final Thoughts...

I think the collaboration of people with a common goal, be it learning or something else, is quite powerful. The main takeaway for me on OSOSS is that the internet provides an almost limitless scope for collaboration between humans. This is something we as educators have known for years to be vital. Teachers work very hard to support their student learning with personalized feedback and individualized instruction. When the number of students to teacher ratio makes that impossible, this phenomenon of OSOSS happen. The internet lends itself as a great venue for not only the development of, but also the sustainability of these OSOSS. They are continuously evolving and growing based on the human interaction within these systems.

How is the future being shaped by OSOSS?

Take a look at how students who do not live near the best schools are now starting to gain access to the best teachers. The future is NOW!


Eriksson, D. M. & Wulf, V. (1999). Self-organizing social systems:

A challenge to computer supported cooperative work. Cybernetics and Human Knowing, 6(2), 1-4.

Wiley, D. A. (2002). Connecting learning objects to instructional design theory: A definition, a metaphor, and a taxonomy. In D. Wiley (Ed.), The Instructional Use of Learning Objects. Bloomington: Association for Educational Communications and Technology.

About the Author...

Shannon Stone
EDU 652