March 25, 2017

Networks and learning

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 Although they come in an infinite variety, all networks are ultimately about nodes and connections with things (like data, for example) passing through them. (The flow can be two-way, such as on the internet, or a cell-phone network, or one-way, as with broadcast radio.)

Apart from information flow, networks exhibit other learning-friendly properties. We see these clearly on the internet. From random access data retrieval, to an endless array of presentation formats, the network allows us to learn in unique ways.

Networks have emergent qualities
Sometimes these properties are more than the sum of their parts, and emerge in ways you cannot predict. A thousand networked computers are not the same thing as a thousand computers without the connections. The connections mean that data can be shared and the learning can begin, which is good because human beings are pre-disposed to do just that if the environment supports it. I find it remarkable to see how people instinctively look for ways to collaborate (a powerful way to accelerate learning) in these contexts, so the trick is, obviously, to design for the possibility.

This chicken/egg relationship between the technology and the pedagogy (nature/nurture) has been a revelation to me. There is an element of simply starting out with an effective network and working from there. (The origional design must, obviously, know what its purpose is.) The academic team at ChinesePod know that the learning properties are sometimes invisible, but inherent to the network, so often it is a matter of uncovering them. What emerges, then, is not just the knowledge itself, but the knowledge also of how to go about learning it, and of the knowledge of how networks lead to learning in context. The learning is a product of the interaction, rather than something pre-packaged . 

Learning groups versus networks
Learners necessarily behave differently on a network than they would in a learning group. Stephen Downes recently pointed out how groups tend towards unity, coherence, segregation, and ‘focus of voice’. They require hierarchical organization, a central authority, and a pre-determined sequence of activities. They act in a synchronized way, as with a school, for example, because the knowledge to be imparted exists in advance (it is the teacher’s possession). The upshot is that a particular viewpoint is magnified by the perspective of the teacher, or external agency such as a textbook. 

By contrast, the ChinesePod or SpanishPod users are not  really  groups at all. Those networks are about diversity, autonomy, openness, and individual pursuit. Although there is constant and endless interaction in the communities, no two of the users follow exactly the same path. In this sense, the learning is not managed by some external agency, but by the individual, based on his own needs. This, to me, is important. I beleive the element of choice, personalization, and autonomy will inform  the standards of the next phase of online learning.

Ken Carroll

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  1. AuntySue says:

    Donning my scarf and polishing my most radical crystal ball here.

    I predict that the next phase will focus much less on providing ample tools and networks for students to use. That approach, as liberal as it may be currently, is in a way stifling and controlling, once you lift yourself to the modern level of expectations and view it all afresh.

    Sure, students need some carefully planned well structured tools to get their creative juices flowing. But once they’re in there and doing it all together, they get some new collaborative ideas to try and want the infrastructure to just let it happen, right away, so they can see if it works.

    I don’t have a clear vision of what this means in concrete technical terms, but I know that after a long while working within these currently ultimate levels of freedom, new limits and controls from above become apparent more frequently, and start to pinch, hard.

    The service is the lesson material and the responsiveness from teachers. From that we can build on much more for ourselves. But the service is not, and never should be, an eked out ration of tightly preconfigured facilities that can only be changed by popular demand followed by a controlled development process. Down the track, as online students mature, we are going to revise our appreciation levels and expectations. Way down the track. Coming soon.

    Hey, want to do a little experiment in your head? I’m going to ask you to imagine a certain picture, and quickly say what part of that picture is the salient feature, what seems most prominent, noticeable, what sticks out most for you. OK? This picture is only made up of round dots and lines. It is a simple diagram of a network, comprising nodes and connections. Quick! What’s the salient feature for you?

    There is no “right” or “good” answer, but your first gut reaction will tell you a lot about how you think of the function of networks, and perhaps where you see your role or the most important role or function. Whatever it is, you might consider viewing networks the other way as well sometimes, in order to get closer to the essence of network idea, and to the different network ideas that exist in other people’s imaginations.

  2. trevelyan says:

    @Aunty –> I think people in general like the idea of fewer data/software constraints because it is an attractive ideology. But we easily confuse technical freedom with lifestyle convenience (another type of freedom, I suppose) and adopt passive consumer roles by default that benefit companies and projects that are less open than others.

    I personally get more value from Yahoo’s contribution to open source (Hadoop, Lucene) than anything Google is working on, yet Yahoo is not the darling of the market…. Google produces a lot of free services, but isn’t strong on data sharing.

  3. tvan says:

    Regarding the premise that a network is less constrained than a group, I couldn’t agree more. In my Chinese class, I purposely restrain myself (usually not adequately) from asking a question that is only tangentially related to the lesson topic. This is partly out of necessity due to limited class time. However, on CPod the topics wander freely, sometimes pointlessly (to me), sometimes into areas that provide valuable insight into the language, culture, etc.

    Of course, all these ideas go back to the 1950’s and the open systems approach. However, I think the establishment of the Internet accelerated the speed with which networks now evolve and change. I’m waiting for the day that they dump the textbooks (already happened in a couple of my MBA classes) and go primarily to online content as has already happened in the broader learning community.

  4. Ken Carroll says:


    No doubt that learners’ expectations will change over time. I’m not sure that I understand your point about reversing the roles to get a better perspective on users’ perceptions, but I think there is a difference between a network and a Community of Practice. A network, by definition, is simply a series of connections without social, hierarchical, or other structures. A CoP is top-down, in the sense that there are people on the network who know more about the object of the learning and lead it to a certain extent. We assume the role of practitioners (who went through the learning discipline) and necessarily see the community from that perspective. It is always a good iddea, however, to take your advice and view it from the other side.

    Great example. Because the learnign paths are not all pre-planned, it can lead to unexpected places in the comments, etc. This comes down to a basic discipline that anyone must have with online learning – the focus to stay on traget and ignore the extranerous stuff.

  5. chris says:

    This is so vast am actually awed by the potential of learning online (I changed my career on the back of it by becoming a computer programmer after all).

    Most of us are ingrained with an anti-pattern about learning, anti-patterns (that I know about) come from programming design patterns (can be used in other industries too). An anti-pattern is a standard way of solving a particular problem that people fall into but that leads to undesirable or sub-optimal consequences.

    Most of use still carry an anti-pattern in our head to do with the act of learning about something, that pattern is ingrained during school years and university and involves teachers and classrooms and guidelines and textbooks and exercises and tests and homework etc. etc.

    I still see people carrying this pattern into the networks and attempting to marshal, categorize, codify, basically behaving like and expecting others to behave like classical students, searching for definitive guidance etc. etc. But it isn’t going to work like that, you are going to have resources, places to practice, and people (some of whom may be able to teach you something), some maybe will get some help from you, you are responsible for the outcome.

    I remember when I was learning programming and web technologies I talked with someone who was taking courses and certificates who thought I was a maniac (how could I ever get a job), he poured through textbooks and aquired certificates, I found out how programmers thought and wrote programs. He said to me “anyone can write a program from a book, how will that get you a job?, you need certificates”. There was no answer I could give that he would understand, I wasn’t writing programs from books I was writing them for real and getting better all the time. Even back in 1999 learning to be a programmer was easy to do online if you really wanted it. Before I got a full time job I was actually getting paid in a few case for what I was doing to learn, whilst others were sitting in classrooms (doing their MSC in Computing). The thing that gets me is why didn’t more people do this?, why don’t they? Why when two years ago I posted on my company intranet to see whether anybody else wanted to learn Chinese did someone tell me, “I really want to learn but I haven’t found a course, I think they are starting one in September” (it was January). I told about all the stuff I was finding online they replied “ohh I don’t want to get into bad habits or do it wrong” (don’t they trust themselves). The course never got started, recently they told me they envy me, yet still aren’t prepared to go it alone.

    The joke is I think even some of the ancient Greeks got it with their “walking philosophy” there need to be places where you can just let fly, fling ideas around, test their mettle, regroup, rethink, sythesise, come back and do it again. Not places where you constantly have to check your grammar, marshal your sources, validate your opinion, quote the right people. An idea that has general merit should survive the test of time no matter where it came from.

    Perhaps ancient Greece was not the best place to go in the circumstances, so 三人行必要我师--孔子
    On that basis, give me access to the right places and I can surely find my teachers.

  6. chris says:

    Oh yes and if we assume the learners are so dumb that they NEED every single step of the way spelled out for them, then perhaps they are too dumb to learn anything useful (a catch 22).


  1. […] Carroll talks a lot at work about the movement of learning from the classroom to the network, and how that’s a game changer. He’s right, and at Praxis we’re helping to push […]

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