#ResearchMaterials “A brief history of networked learning”(SIEMENS, George (2008)) [rtf] (Via @GoogleAlerts: CMAC)

21 Jan

Great material that Google dug up; thought of archiving here for future reference and sharing with CMAC-Lab’s Page on Facebook (via my own Notes)

SIEMENS, George (2008): A brief history of networked learning [rtf]

George Siemens: september 28, 2008

Networks have underpinned human learning well before the proliferation
of technology evident in society today. The development of expertise in
hunting, gathering, and farming require knowledge to be shared with
each new generation. Upon inculcation into farming, for example, the
younger generation built on the work of others. Small advances in new
techniques and tools served to continually advance disciplines such as
farming, blacksmithing, soldiering, and more recently, philosophy and

Network learning is today more evident because it finds its existence
in explicit network structures: mobile phone networks, the internet,
and the web. Each generation likely views itself as the guardian of new
intellectual insight and scientific advances, overlooking the enormous
progress brought forward by previous generations. When discussing
network learning, we find ourselves on a small pinnacle of a large
mountain. The network structures now prominent in technology were
previously served by social interactions, written scrolls, religious
writings, and the communication structures of generals, kings, and

With this slight acknowledgement to the underlying nature of learning
networks in the overall development of humanity, a more considered
discussion of developments of learning networks over the last several
decades follows.

Recent developments in network learning occur against the backdrop of
social learning theory, advanced by the aid of technology. Literature
on learning and networks has progressed over the last decade, as
indicated by university centres such as Helsinki’s Centre for Research
on Networked Learning and Knowledge Building (University of Helsinki,
n.d.), research projects at Open University of the Netherlands (2006)
and Lancaster University (2004), and dissertations (de Laat, 2006)
researching the suitability of networks as a structural underpinning
for education. However, the term network has become somewhat
convoluted, making discussion of networked learning difficult.
Baumeister (2005) echoes this reality:

Within a university setting there is a lot that can be networked: e.g.
within a single course, within a faculty, within a research group and
between academics, institutions or corporations outside. Taking all
this together it will become evident that the term is layered with
meaning, and that is why in use it is seldom free from ambiguity.
(Networking in Practice section, ¶ 7)

This concern is, in part, a consequence of educators/researchers using
the term broadly, without clearly demarcating underlying concepts or
the various meanings the term has acquired in its diverse use to
describe physical infrastructure, social connections, and graph theory
in math. While networks in these domains meet general network
definitions – as two or more connected nodes – discussion of learning
networks in particular is often imprecise, failing to distinguish
between how the term itself has developed over the last several decades.

One of the first references of network models for education can be
found in Illich’s (1970) description of learning webs. Illich suggested
learning webs so “we can provide the learner with new links to the
world instead of continuing to funnel all educational programs through
the teacher” (p. 73). Illich’s view outpaced technology by several
decades. More recently, networked views of education have grown in
prominence with the development of the internet.

Five significant stages can be noted in how networks are viewed within
the educational space can be found in a review of literature:

(a) infrastructure development;

(b) merging with fields which have an existing research base;

(c) theoretical and transformative views of learning, knowledge, and cognition;

(d) practicality and popularization of social network services; and

(e) as a model for detailing the process of education and learning.

Development of network stages generally relies on the formation of
previous stages. For example, while the development of infrastructure
is required before other elements can be considered, the inclusion of
research from existing fields, theoretical, practical, and learning
domains develop in an interrelated manner.

Stage One: Development of Physical Infrastructure

As the internet developed in prominence, educators started to focus on
ways to incorporate the emerging field into educational settings. In
order to participate, classrooms needed to be physically wired. For
example, in 1986, the National Science Foundation Network was created
in order to connect researchers and academics (Harasim, Hiltz, Teles,
& Turoff, 1995, p. 6). While computer networks were used for
teaching and learning as early as 1960 (p. 7), broad use for students
was not possible until computers were prominent in schools (Hiltz,
2004, p. 27) and schools were physically wired to the internet. The
significant investment by schools, colleges, and universities from
1980–2000 in computers, networks, and related technology represent the
view of networks as based in physical infrastructure. As such, early
definitions of learning networks were focused on infrastructure:
“Learning networks are composed of hardware, software, and
telecommunication lines” (Harasim et. al., p. 16) and as “groups of
people who use CMC [computer-mediated communication] networks to learn
together, at a time, place, and pace that best suits them and is
appropriate to the task” (p. 4).

Stage Two: Merging with Existing Fields

As the physical structure of networks developed, connecting schools,
universities, and students to the internet and each other, the
awareness of learning networks increased. Educators turned to
disciplines such as sociology, which had an established research base
on networks. In a 1997 paper on asynchronous learning networks, Hiltz,
cited above in relation to the development of infrastructure,
collaborated with sociologist Wellman, to explore the social networking
implications of computer-mediated communication. Computer networks, in
linking people and computers, “become social networks, or the basic
building blocks of societies” (Hiltz & Wellman, 1997, p. 45). With
Turoff, Hiltz (1981) had previously built on Wellman’s work in
sociology with the 1978 publication of the Network Nation, which
explored the role of computer mediated communication as a
transformative agent in society. Other sociologists, such as Castells
(1996) and Watts (2003) contributed to popularizing network views of
interaction, communication, and social organization through publication
of popular mainstream texts, The Rise of the Network Society and Six
Degrees, respectively. In the field of physics, Albert-László Barabási
chronicles his awakening to the power of networks in the 2002
publication of Linked. Barabási issued the statement: “Networks are
everywhere. All you need is an eye for them” (p. 7), indicating the
increased awareness of networks as an underpinning structure in many

Toward the end of the 21st century, the language and concepts of
networks from sociologists, mathematics, and physics had penetrated
much of society. Network concepts were in common use to describe the
surprise success of a long dormant book on Amazon, the spread of
diseases through sexual networks, the spread of SARS in 2003, and the
1996 power blackout in the U.S. and parts of Canada (Barabási, 2002, p.

Educators began adopting the terminology of networks from research in
fields of sociology, mathematics, and physics. In particular, educators
adopted a relational and community-based focus in the application of
computer networks (de Laat, 2006, p. 75). Hiltz and Wellman (1997), for
example, applied community principles as a means of expressing the
value of networks mediated or enabled by technology.

Stage Three: Theoretical and Transformation Views of Learning, Cognition, and Knowledge

The third stage of development in network views can be found in the
concept of cognition and knowledge distributed across networks of
people, aided by technology. Salomon (1993) suggested the development
of distributed cognition—cognition that occurs “in conjunction or
partnership with others” (p. xiii), is due to three reasons:

(a) the growth of computers as tools to assist in intellectual activity,

(b) growing interest in Vygotsky’s theory of cognition as a product of a particular context or social setting, and

(c) dissatisfaction of the limitations of cognition when viewed as solely “in-the-head” (p. xiv).

Culture and knowledge are distributed as a result of “everyday
interactions among people”, resulting in the “social distribution of
cognition” (Cole & Engeström, 1993, p. 15), again supporting the
importance of social interactions as a means of learning.

Technology aids in the distribution of cognition as it enables us to
“project ourselves outward digitally” (de Kerchove, 1997, p. 38), or,
more boldly, “to treat the Web as the extension of the contents of
one’s own mind” (p. 79). The capacity to form networks with ideas and
other people increases as people project themselves outward. Through
the internet, these networks of external projections can form on a
global level. Wellman (2001) classified the ability to form networks
with others through technology as “networked individualism” (p. 5),
where people use their own networks “to obtain information,
collaboration, orders, support, sociability, and a sense of belonging”
(p. 5). Araujo (1998) similarly suggested that both learning and
knowing reside in “heterogeneous networks of relationships between the
social and material world” (p. 317). In order for individuals to have
access to the knowledge of a particular society or culture, connections
need to be formed with others through the use of mediating artefacts,
like technology, as advocated by activity theory.

Stage Four: Popularization of Networks

Much of the research on networks has, to date, been confined to
discourse among academics, as evidenced by the long history of network
theory in sociology and mathematics, with generally limited public
interest. Until recently, a lack of common public awareness existed on
how networks function and their value for individuals and
organizations. The popularization of social software raised the profile
of networks.

While networked technologies for socialization were already in use in
late 1960s (Scholz, 2007), adoption was hindered until the disparate
tools of communication were brought together in more user-friendly
integrated suites, such as with the development of Six Degrees in 1997
(Boyd & Ellison, 2007). Between 1997 and 2001, as chronicled by
Boyd and Ellison, many companies launched new features and social
networking services. Social networking, however, did not become main
stream until the 2003 launch of MySpace, which lead to the global
phenomenon (Boyd & Ellison) of social networking services including
the launch of Orkut, Bebo, Cyworld, and Facebook. Statistics vary on
the level of adoption of social networking sites, but some suggest over
80% penetration (Salaway & Borreson Caruso, 2007, p. 12) among
students in academic settings. A potential secondary benefit may be the
development of network thinking skills on the part of learners, as they
discover ways of finding information and people, as well as solve
problems through active involvement in a network.

The popularization of networks through social network services relies
on the stages of network views previously considered. For example, the
International Network for Social Network Analysis (INSNA, founded by
Wellman in 1978) has extended its exploration of sociological
interactions to include the networks formed through Facebook, Orkut,
and other networking sites (SOCNET, 2008). Connections, the journal of
INSNA, published several articles on virtual social networks (Petróczi,
Nepusz, & Bazsó, 2007) and blog networks in America (Lin, Halavais,
& Zhang, 2007), indicating the growing awareness of online social
networks by researchers from sociology. Online social networks have
also proven to be valuable for researchers, particularly sociologists,
in understanding how networks form, providing “rich sources of
naturalistic behavioural data” (Boyd & Ellison, 2007, Networks and
Network Structure section, ¶ 1).

Stage Five: Integrated Learning, Knowledge, and Education Networks

By 2005, the definition of learning networks (in this instance,
asynchronous) advocated by experts reflected a greater emphasis on
people: “ALN’s [asynchronous learning networks] are people networks for
anytime anywhere learning” (Hiltz & Goldman, 2005, p. 5). Veen and
Vrakking (2006) also adopted a view of networks as existing in both
technical and human dimensions, with technology serving a dual role of
storing and connecting information and enabling the development and
maintenance of social networks (p. 42). The four stages previously
discussed form the basis for networks to be utilized for teaching and
learning at the fifth stage. Within this stage, educators are beginning
to explore how network models can assist not only collaborative
learning in online and blended environments, but with pervasive mobile
learning (Rennie & Mason, 2004, p. 109), determination of social
network structures from analysis of discussion forums (Gruzd &
Haythornthwaite, 2008) and online community conversations
(Haythornthwaite & Gruzd, 2007). Educators seeking to understand
how learners interact with each other through online forums, email, or
blog networks, can rely on the principles of network analysis developed
by sociologists. Similarly, educators can use data analysis or
visualization tools to evaluate the quality of learner interactions
with each other and with the key concepts of a particular course.


Concepts of networks (summarized in Table 1) are more prominent in
society, due to the rise of networking sites such as Facebook. This
popularization, unfortunately, has led to the term network acquiring a
degree of vagueness with multiple potential meanings. While initially
associated with the physical network of wiring schools or the
organizational networks of schools and universities working together,
such as the Ohio Learning Network (2007), recent discussions of
networks have turned the focus to social software and knowledge and
learning networks. The multiple potential meanings of the term network,
as expressed by the five stages of network development, need to be
recognized and reflected in order for educators to more precisely
communicate concepts of connectivism and networked learning.

Connectivism, as a theory of learning, is developed against the
backdrop of physical network infrastructure, development of the social
learning theory, and distributed conceptions of cognition and knowing.
As presented in the introduction, learning networks have always
accompanied the development of human knowledge. Even when not
explicitly acknowledged, they served as an underpinning structure to
the development of fields of science, literature, and technology. The
advancements of the last several decades have made networks of learning
explicit. Networks are reflected not only as physical information
communication technologies, but as the very means through which
knowledge is distributed for addressing complex challenges.
Connectivism reflects these developments in suggesting the need to
craft new views of learning more reflective of the daily reality of

Table 1. Five Stages of Network Development

Stage One: Infrastructure
Contribution: Development of the physical structure and connection of classrooms to resources, each other, and the internet

Stage Two: Merging with existing fields
Contribution: Adoption of principles of community from sociology
and use of network elements from mathematics and physics to describe
shape and structure of networks.

Stage Three: Changing views of cognition
Contribution: Situated and distributed theories of cognition
developed based on Vygotsky’s (1986) cultural-historical theories,
inadequacies of established theories of cognition (which exclude
acknowledgement of artefacts and cognition in distributed manner) and
increased emphasis of computer networks.

Stage Four: Popularization
Contribution: Increased awareness of network concepts through
publication of mainstream books, Linked (Barabási, 2002), Six Degrees
(Watts, 2003), Rise of Network Society (Castells, 1996), social
networking sites (SNS), and the development of individual’s network
skills through the use of SNS.

Stage Five: Processes of learning, knowledge, and education
Contribution: Integration of domains one-four in the practice of
education, where learning and knowledge are seen as distributed within
networks, assisted by the use of technology, analyzed with the network
structure principles from related fields, and directed through growth
of network awareness and skills on the part of learners. Connectivism
and networked learning reside at this level.

Works Cited

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(Loved ’em Footnotes, gotta admit!)

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