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About a year ago, I started teaching a course on Instructional Technology in Teaching and dived head first into the world of Web 2.0. Somewhere a long the way, I found a blog post that mentioned the term “personal learning network” and was intrigued because it described the process that I was using to learn about instructional technologies. I felt that if my students could learn to develop their own personal learning networks, they would become less reliant on me as their instructor and better prepared for a life time of learning. However, I’m not sure how to teach people to develop personal learning networks. Much, perhaps even most, of my knowledge about how I’ve developed my own personal learning network is tacit rather than explicit and I have grave doubts about the validity of generalizations based on a sample that includes only myself.
One of the difficulties in teaching about learning networks is trying to decide what a learning network is. I’ve seen definitions that describe a learning network as a group of people who help guide your learning (Tobin 1998). I’ve also seen broader definitions that include any resource that you that you can refer to when you need to learn something (Smith). Those who’ve read my previous post on “The nature of networked information” can probably guess that prefer the broader definition.
If one accepts a broader definition of learning networks, as I would like to, then documents or other artifacts can serve as nodes in the network. I don’t know enough about analysis to say for sure, but I suspect that the including inanimate objects adds a level of complexity to the analysis of the network.
I don’t have figures to back me up, but I suspect that many, if not most, web-based (and some traditional) learning interactions are mediated through some sort of document or other resource (e.g. blogs, wikis, podcasts, books, video, etc.), rather than direct communication between two individuals. How should such ties be represented in a network analysis? According to Granovetter (1973) ties between individuals are by definition “positive and symmetric”. Do two individuals who know each other only through comments on common blog have enough of a connection with each other to be described as having a weak tie, or would the tie be better described as negligible? What terminology describes unidirectional relationships such as those between an author and silent audience member? What should I be reading to find answers?
From McPherson, Smith-Lovin, and Cook (2001), I learned a little about the role of organizational foci in shaping social networks. Most of our non-kin ties form as a result of our association with institutions such as school, work, and voluntary organizations. This week, I’ve been reading The Social Life of Information by Brown and Duguid. The chapter that I read last night introduced the concept of networks of practice (related to, but distinct from Lave & Wenger’s concept of communities of practice). I believe the idea of networks of practice can provide some insight into the ways in which institutional forces influence our learning networks.