Networked learning

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Networked learning is a process of developing and maintaining connections with people and information, and communicating in such a way so as to support one another's learning. The central term in this definition is connections. It adopts a relational stance in which learning takes place both in relation to others and in relation to learning resources.[1] In design and practice, networked learning is intended to facilitate evolving sets of connections between learners and their interpersonal communities, knowledge contexts, and digital technologies.[2]

Networked learning can offer educational institutions more functional efficiency, in that the curriculum can be more tightly managed centrally, or in the case of vocational learning, it can reduce costs to employers and tax payers.[3] However, it is also argued that networked learning is too often considered within the presumption of institutionalised or educationalised learning, thereby omitting awareness of the benefits that networked learning has to informal or situated learning.[4]


Network and networked learning theories can be traced back into the 19th Century, when commentators were considering the social implications of networked infrastructure such as the railways and the telegraph.[5] More recently, networked learning has its roots in the 1970s, with the likes of Ivan Illich's book, Deschooling Society, through to more recent commentary in the early 2000s, largely inspired by the Internet and social media.


In 1971, Ivan Illich envisioned 'learning webs' as a model for people to network the learning they needed:

I will use the words "opportunity web" for "network" to designate specific ways to provide access to each of four sets of resources. "Network" is often used, unfortunately, to designate the channels reserved to material selected by others for indoctrination, instruction, and entertainment. But it can also be used for the telephone or the postal service, which are primarily accessible to individuals who want to send messages to one another. I wish we had another word to designate such reticular structures for mutual access, a word less evocative of entrapment, less degraded by current usage and more suggestive of the fact that any such arrangement includes legal, organizational, and technical aspects. Not having found such a term, I will try to redeem the one which is available, using it as a synonym of "educational web." Ivan Illich, 1971[6]

In 1977 Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein, Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King and Shlomo Angel wrote and published A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. In this seminal text, mostly referred to by architects, lists a "Network of Learning" as the 18th pattern,[7] and cites Illich's earlier book as "the most penetrating analysis and proposal for an alternative framework for education." Alexander et al. go on to advise builders and town planners interested in establishing learning networks with:

" in piecemeal ways to decentralize the process of learning and enrich it through contact with many places and people all over the city: workshops, teachers at home or walking through the city, professionals willing to take on the young as helpers, older children teaching younger children, museums, youth groups travelling, scholarly seminars, industrial workshops, old people, and so on. Conceive of all these situations as forming the backbone of the learning process; survey all these situations, describe them, and publish them as the city's "curriculum"; then let students, children, their families and neighborhoods weave together for themselves the situations that comprise their "school" paying as they go with standard vouchers, raised by community tax. Build new educational facilities in a way which extends and enriches this network."

In the 1970s, The Institute For The Future at Menlo Park in California experimented with networked learning practices based on the Internet and computer conferencing.[8][9][10] Soon after their reports were published two educational pioneers in the use of Internet technologies, Hiltz and Turoff, linked education directly with this pioneering work.[11]


In the late 1980s Dr. Charles A. Findley headed the Collaborative Networked Learning project at Digital Equipment Corporation on the East Coast of the United States.[12] Findley's project conducted trend analysis and developed prototypes of collaborative learning environments, which became the basis for their further research and development of what they called Collaborative Networked Learning (CNL),[13] and Collaborative Learning-Work (CLW).[14][15][16]


Since the development of the Internet as a significant medium for access to information and communication, the practice of networked learning has tended to focus on its use. In the first phase of the Internet its use for networked learning was restricted by low bandwidth and the emphasis was largely on written and text based interactions between people and the text based resources they referred to. This textual form of interaction was a familiar academic medium, even though there was recognition of the unique qualities hypertext emerging in the online form.[17][18]

In 1991, Jean Lave and Etienne Wenger published Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation, in which they cited numerous examples of networked learning within a wide range of settings for informal learning and within communities of practice.[19]

In the later half of the 1990s, open, interactive, situated and networked views of learning were marginalised by educational institutions as they tended to develop or deploy content and practice through proprietary learning management systems (e.g. Blackboard Inc, WebCT), and collaborative work tools such as IBM Lotus Notes/Learning Space and Quick Place), generally following concepts around "e-learning". These systems enabled the restriction of access and the management of students for the administrative concerns of educational institutions.[20]

Since 1998, an international Networked Learning Conference has been held biannually. The conference proceedings from all the conferences since 2002 are available via the conference web site.[21]

CSALT, a research group at Lancaster University, UK, associated with the Networked Learning Conference series and several edited collections, defined networked learning as "learning in which information and communication technology is used to promote connections: between one learner and other learners, between learners and tutors; between a learning community and its learning resources".[22] This definition seems to ignore historical use of the term however, where computing was not of central importance.


In 2000, John Seely Brown and Paul Duguid released The Social Life of Information and introduced the concept of Networks of Practice (NoP's), an informal and emergent social network that supports the sharing of information between individuals clustered around a practice. Building on the work done by Jean Lave and Étienne Wenger on community of practice (CoP's), Seely Brown and Duguid argued that a network differed from a community in that the relationships among members were more informal and fluid when compared to communities. While CoP's were often localized with strong inter-personal relationships providing group cohesion, NoPs were more global with relationships that were both strong tie and weak tie relationships.[23]

Salmon (2001) wrote "learning is built around learning communities & interaction, extending access beyond the bounds of time and space, but offering the promise of efficiency and widening access. Think of individuals as nodes on a network!"[24]

From around 2004, the idea of networked learning had a popular resurgence, corresponding with the emergence of social media and concepts of open source, such as is covered in Yochai Benkler's 2006 book, The Wealth of Networks.[25]

George Siemens is a theorist[26] on learning in a digitally based society. He is the author of the article Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age and the book Knowing Knowledge - an exploration of the impact of the changed context and characteristics of knowledge.

In 2005, George Siemens published a paper in the International Journal for Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, called Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age[27] in which he argued the need for a new learning theory, one that captured the essence and represented the process of networked knowledge creation and learning. In 2011, the International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning published the first peer reviewed collection of scholarly articles on Connectivism. This special issue was edited by George Siemens (Athabasca University and Grainne Conole (Open University, UK).[28]

In 2007, Starke-Meyerring, Duin, & Palvetzian first described Globally Networked Learning Environments (GNLE)- networked learning environments which are specifically designed to connect students from different parts of the world.[29] GNLEs are designed to facilitate dialogue and collaboration across and within groups of students, to develop greater understanding and competencies for global work and citizenship. GNLEs take many different shapes and forms.[30]


Connectivist MOOC[edit]

Success in a MOOC, by Neal Gillis and Dave Cormier

A massive open online course (MOOC) engages networked learning methods within the typical structure of a course.[31] The first such course so named was Connectivism and Connective Knowledge 2008, hosted by Stephen Downes and George Siemens.[32] More like an online event, MOOCs invite open online participation around a schedule or agenda, facilitated by people with reputation or expertise in the topics, relying on successful formations of learning networks to assist people studying the topics.

Earlier examples of online courses using networked learning methods:

Open and networked research[edit]

A brief animation of the core aspects of what makes research open.

Some researchers have used networked learning methods to collaborate and support each other's research. The Wikiversity page for Doctor of Philosophy is supporting a small group interested in pursuing a PhD title informally. They name their practice OpenPhD or Open and Networked PhD.


Architecture of productive learning networks[edit]

Academics at the CoCo Research Centre, University of Sydney, have been carrying out an extensive analysis of examples of networked learning, in collaboration with the developers and organisers of learning networks in various parts of the world. Their work has focussed on the architecture of learning networks - aiming to identify arrangements of tasks, tools and people that contribute to successful learning networks. Some conclusions from this work have been published in The architecture of productive learning networks, which also includes a chapter on the history of networked learning.[34]

Situated learning[edit]

Some have argued that using formal education as a setting for researching networked learning misses most if not all of the value proposition of networked learning.[35] Instead, Fox proposes situated learning and actor-network theory as the better approach for research.[36]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Dirckinck-Holmfeld, L., Jones, C., and Lindström, B. (2009) Analysing Networked Learning Practices in Higher Education and Continuing Professional Development. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers, BV
  2. ^ Networked Learning Editorial Collective (NLEC) (2021). "Networked Learning: Inviting Redefinition". Postdigital Science and Education. 3 (2): 316. doi:10.1007/s42438-020-00167-8. S2CID 220687002.
  3. ^ Steve Fox. Studying Networked Learning. Chapter 5 in Networked learning: perspectives and issues By Christine Steeples, Chris Jones. Springer 2002.
  4. ^ Steve Fox. Studying Networked Learning P81, in Networked learning: perspectives and issues By Christine Steeples, Chris Jones. Springer 2002.
  5. ^ "The first of these, the old Saint-Simonian 'cult of networks', feeds the contemporary desire for a horizontality of social links. The 19th century was characterized by the building of many network infrastructures – telegraph, railway, electricity – and a corresponding egalitarian ideology. Applying the French Revolution ideology to an industrial ground, Saint-Simon, who was both engineer and philosopher, built a theory of the network as the best means to connect people and to strengthen citizenship (Musso, 2003)." Musso, P. (2003) Critique des réseaux. Paris: PUF in Rebillard, Franck & Touboul, Annelise. (2010). Promises unfulfilled? 'Journalism 2.0', user participation and editorial policy on newspaper websites. Media, Culture & Society Volume 32
  6. ^ Ivan Illich. Deschooling Society, Chapter 6: Learning Webs. Calder & Boyars, 1971.
  7. ^ Alexander, C. Et al. (1977). A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction. New York Oxford University Press. Pp99
  8. ^ Vallee, J., Lipinski, H., & Miller, R. H. (1974). Group communication through computers; Design and Use of the FORUM System. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for the Future.
  9. ^ Vallee, J., and others (1978). Group Communication Through Computers. Volume 4: Social, Managerial, and Economic Issues. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for the Future.
  10. ^ Vallee, J., Johansen, R., Lipinski, H., Spangler, K., Wilson, T., & Hardy, A. (1975). Group communication through computers: Pragmatics and dynamics. Menlo Park, CA: Institute for the Future.
  11. ^ Hiltz, S. R., & Turoff, M. (1978). The network nation—human communication via computer (1st ed.). Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
  12. ^ Findley, C (1987). Collaborative Networked Learning Project - Digital Equipment Corporation. Primary documents stored on Internet Archive
  13. ^ Findley, Charles A. 1988. Collaborative Networked Learning: On-line Facilitation and Software Support, Digital Equipment Corporation. Burlington, MA. and Collaborative learning-work
  14. ^ Wright, Kieth C. and Davie, Judith (1999) Forecasting the Future: School Media Programs in an Age of Change. Scarecrow Press: Maryland, pps.33,106.
  15. ^ Findley, Charles A. 1989. Collaborative Learning-work. Presentation at the Pacific Telecommunications Council 1989 Conference, January 15–20, Honolulu, Hawaii.
  16. ^ Findley, Charles A. 1987. Integrated Learning and Information Support Systems for the Information Age Worker. Presentation at World Future Society Conference, Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 1987.
  17. ^ Harasim, L. (Ed.). (1990). Online education; perspectives on a new environment. New York: Praeger.
  18. ^ Mason, R., & Kaye, A. (1990). Towards a new paradigm for distance education. In L. Harasim (Eds.), Online education: Perspectives on a new environment. New York: Praeger.
  19. ^ Lave. J, Wenger, E. (1991). Situated Learning: Legitimate Peripheral Participation. Cambridge University Press
  20. ^ Watson, W. & Watson, S. (2007). An argument for clarity: what are learning management systems, what are they not, and what should they become? TechTrends, Springer Verlag (Germany), 2007, 51(2), pp.28-34.
  21. ^ "Home, Networked Learning Conference 2016 - NLC2016, Lancaster University UK".
  22. ^ Goodyear, P. Banks, S. Hodgson, V. and McConnell, D. eds (2004) Advances in Research on Networked Learning. London: Kluwer Academic Publishers p1
  23. ^ Seely Brown, John; Duguid, Paul (2000). The Social Life of Information. Harvard Business School Press.
  24. ^ Salmon, G. Changing Learning Environments, Association of Learning Technology (ALT) Conference, 2001
  25. ^ A complete PDF of the book is freely downloadable on the wiki of the book and is available (see HTML version) under a Creative Commons Noncommercial Sharealike license
  26. ^ Siemens, G., Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, International Journal of Instructional Technology and Distance Learning 2 (10), 2005.
  27. ^ George Siemens. Connectivism: A Learning Theory for the Digital Age. International Journal for Instructional Technology and Distance Learning, January 2005
  28. ^ Ed. Conole, G. Siemens, G. Special Issue - Connectivism: Design and Delivery of Social Networked Learning. International Review of Research in Open and Distance Learning, Vol 12, No 3 (2011).
  29. ^ Starke-Meyerring, D., Duin, A. H., & Palvetzian, T. (2007). Global partnerships: Positioning technical communication programs in the context of globalization. Technical Communication Quarterly, 16(2), 139-174.
  30. ^ Starke-Meyerring, D., & Wilson, M. (Eds.) (2008). Designing globally networked learning environments: Visionary partnerships, policies, and pedagogies. Rotterdam: Sense Publishers.
  31. ^ Mak, Mackness and Williams (2010). The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC. Seventh International Conference on Networked Learning
  32. ^ MOOC or Mega-Connectivism Course Archived 2008-08-03 at George Siemens 28 Jul 2008
  33. ^ Leinonen, Teemu; Vadén, Tere; Suoranta, Juha (2009-02-07). "Learning in and with an open wiki project: Wikiversity's potential in global capacity building". First Monday. 14 (2). doi:10.5210/fm.v14i2.2252.
  34. ^ Carvalho, L. & Goodyear, P. (Eds.) (2014) The architecture of productive learning networks, New York, Routledge.
  35. ^ Illich. Deschooling Society. Calder & Boyars, 1971
  36. ^ Fox in Networked Learning: Perspectives and Issues, P82. Springer 2002.


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