Social networks and learning networks

An example of a social network diagram.

Image via Wikipedia

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.

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About Kimberly McCollum

I'm a former middle and high school science teacher and current stay at home mom.
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2 Responses to Social networks and learning networks

  1. Andrea says:


    I found your post very thought provoking. I have been thinking about this myself since yesterday was the first day we began the Web 2.0 unit in my class. I showed my students google reader and what it can do for their personal learning networks and they were in awe. I even heard some uhs and ahs throughout the lesson. I think you are right about not being able to generalize one way of creating a learning network. I think a network only happens when two people are willing to connect. “It takes two to tango” kind of mentality. You can’t have a network if people aren’t willing to connect and I guess that is what has guided me in my personal learning network choices. For example, I choose to subscribe to delicious instead of diigo since I feel like more people are using delicious and the folksonomies are more heavily weighed by the masses in delicious (I’m not completely sure this is true but I’m basing my choice on what I think is going on). The network is what drove me to choose delicious over diigo. I chose to blog about my Africa trip since I knew there would be a network of people back home reading and conversing on my blog. Every now and then I will make a PLN decision that will eventually flop because nobody was connecting to me for a number of reasons. Different choices could work for different people. In relation to networks of practice, I can say that my personal learning network (inanimate and electronic) would be non-existent if I wasn’t a member of a university. My personal learning network is a direct product outcome of the social network or network of practice of the university institution I am a part of. I look forward to more posts on this topic. Thanks for sharing your insights 🙂

  2. Pingback: Communities vs network of practice : The (e)Grommet

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