15 June 2011

What is a definition of networked learning?

A UK academic has been assisting with the editing of the Wikipedia entry for Networked Learning, and it looks as though we might disagree on a suitable definition. I take issue with a definition suggesting that networked learning is tied to ICTs.

The most stable definition of networked learning was developed by CSALT, a research group at Lancaster University, UK. Their definition states that networked learning is "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." [1]The central term in this definition is connections. The interactions this term points towards include human interactions with materials and resources, but interactions with materials alone are not sufficient and networked learning requires aspects of human-human interaction mediated through digital technologies. This definition takes a relational stance in which learning takes place both in relation to others and in relation to learning resources.[2]

I challenged the CSALT based definition when it first appeared back in August 2006, and tried to pen a more inclusive definition that didn't exclude methods of networked learning that weren't based on computing or computer networks. But Chris stands by the claim to an authoritative definition.  

The definition is in current use and it is one of the most widely referenced over the past 9 years. Opinions on the definition may vary but it should be represented as it is in circulation and supported by severla books and the conference series. — Preceding unsigned comment added by Chris R. Jones (talk • contribs) 16:06, 16 March 2011 (UTC)

To be honest, this Wikipedia project is the first I've heard of CSALT, and I've not yet attempted to verify Chris' assertion to authority. My perspectives on a definition are shaped by reading Illich, Downes, Siemens and more recently Wenger (of course many others, but these names capture it), but I find it difficult to use such references to support a rewording of the definition, in the face of an academic institution. I'm wondering if anyone reading this might assist? Either in changing my mind, changing Chris', or helping us write an inclusive definition with all necessary citations.


Downes said...

I've added a couple of edits to the page, including an early account from Gilly Salmon, that softens the CEALT definition a bit.

Searching for references to networked learning, I found numerous references to my own 'Learning Objects' paper, as well as to our 'Future of Learning in a Networked World' as well as my 'Future of Online Learning'. I didn't add either reference to the article - it's a bit too self-serving - but the history is there.

Thomas Steele-Maley said...

Leigh, Im interested in this deliberation and will follow. I will add this brief post I wrote today to the mix

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Steven and Thomas. I've left a comment on Thomas' blog suggesting that Steven's work is still too centered on ICTs. There have been occasions where he has gone broader, such as my old favorite Groups vs Networks (are you preserving that video btw Steven? Google Video goes offline soon, if not already). We're all guilty of using present day technology trends and interests to explain networked learning, but it was in 2006 when I started demanding we look at Illich and the 70s generally, to discover a different way of explaining it, free of the rather limiting scope our computing network metaphors give us.

Alexander Hayes said...

Why try and define it ?

As we spoke of the other day...perhaps just your position on it is enough.

Just state your own. Has it changed? Are you thinking differently on it ?

I agree on the reflection that computing network metaphors are limiting and too simple for such an immense and important topic.

stevenparker said...

Hi Leigh, I've taken this from the TALO thread and put into the post as I don't want the point to be lost in the context of a conversation about what networked learning is.

"Here are my two cents on how I understood networked learning in 2007, taking the emphasis of technology and putting it onto people as 'nodes' in the the network. The "A pattern language" book nails networked learning from this point of view. I am glad I found it, esp in how the book articulates the design elements of physical space, culture and people in an easy to understand format with tips on how to get the most out of each other, by our human nature. I can see a issue in our over emphasizing the dominance of technology when you start talking about cultural networked systems for then you are moving into the hazard of Skinerian operant conditioning, which can be referenced ad nauseum of late.

From a management point of view at work we're moving towards enabling bottom up networking culture (as much from necessity to innovate and remain competitive as anything else). Its so rewarding when you sit back and watch the energy of a group of people learning from each other to innovate and froming networks. I'm having some good local projects successes with some change management practice techniques that focus on facilitation and workplace psychology. Kotter would be the most recent example I'm exploring

stevenparker said...

PS. The 'I am a learning object' mp3 is a conversation between myself and Vicki Marchant from the Illawarra TAFE.

Chris said...

Hi Leigh and all,

I think that networked learning as a term grew up with the Internet and this can be shown by seeing when references to networked learning turned up in the literature. The term has been defined in this way by the Networked Learning Conference series since 1998, and originally by the CSALT research team at Lancaster University (UK).

I think that if we remove ICT from the definition it becomes something like social learning and looses its specificity. The CSALT definition has also helped a group of researchers and practitioners to cohere over a long period of time. While we have our own take on things the definition has allowed us to agree on a common area of work.

I'm intrigued by the references to Alexander and design patterns because one fo the originators of the CSALT definition is Peter Goodyear and he has written widely about the application of Alexanders ideas in education.

Chris said...

An after thought. The last Networked Learning Conference hosted a series of Hot Seat discussions and the plan is to do something similar in the run in to NLC 2012 in Maastricht (NL). Perhaps the readers of this blog could join in on these discussions. Still a bit vague but the planning is underway now. See


stevenparker said...

Hi Chris

References in literature to a definition of networked learning as a technocentric activity probably reflect the huge growth in the market of ICT technologies and products since 1998, this may have directly influenced academia to focus more on the technology products themselves and how they influence people to form networks rather than the human behaviours and processes people employ to successfully operate in learning networks offline (as talked about in the book ‘A Pattern Language’).

I can see where Leigh is coming in questioning the ICT predominance in your definition of networked learning, a concept which for me is implicitly about connections between people NOT technology.
Yes technology does enhance networked learning practice but the older references like ‘A Pattern Language’ and Illich are useful in that they reference the concept before consumption of ICT products held dominance in our education thinking.

In the future further exploring the concept of networked (implicitly social) learning will probably focus on the types of behaviours exhibited by humans in different contexts to form successful learning networks to suit their needs (with and without technology).

For example

I expect a richer definition of networked learning practice with a more human focus and I fully support Leigh in his academic questioning of where the definition is at currently.

Ove Christensen said...

From a learning perspective it doesn’t make sense to define networked learning according to what physical installments that enables establishing of networks. Networking in its own right goes way back and you had networked learning long before the invention of the Internet and electronically enabled networking. Networked learning is close related to social learning which also happens with and without social media.
From a concept historical perspective it makes sense to describe the different uses of ‘networked learning’ and here you’ll find the connection with the communication through the net.
I believe that it is important to define things from specific perspectives and if possible go from the broadest sense and narrowing it in in specific meaning (cluster). And networked learning in its broadest sense with regard to learning through network is totally without ICT.

Chris said...

Ove has written that it doesn't make sense to define networked learning in relation to any particaulr technology. However this misses the point that networked learning, if it ignores the actual historical development of the term around the emergence of Internet technologies, reduces to something indistinguishable from social learning.

In my opinion if networked learning means learning related to any kind of social network is becomes an amporphous and over extended term that looses its analytic power.

If I was looking for examples of networked learning preceding the use around the developemnt of the Internet where would I look?


Leigh Blackall said...

Good to see you back Chris, thanks for staying with us.

I don't think anyone is suggesting that NL must remove reference to the Internet of ICTs, but we're arguing for temper the definition so that it is not determined by it.

I for one, do understand your worry that widening the scope of the definition may render NL a meaningless phrase at some stage. I think the opposite is true, if we don't widen the scope, then it will become meaningless just as the technology becomes more and more ubiquitous. If NL remains determined by ICTs then it is a phrase with a limited life span as our cultures adapt and absorb the technology.

I'm still looking for references to NL pre Internet, and you're aware of my additions to the Wikipedia entry for the 1970s, namely Illich and Alexander, who's ideas where implemented.

I've been adding other possible references to the Wikipedia entry's discussion page, including references to networks as imagined in the 19th century (railways, telegraphs and phones, electricity).. ICTs we might say, but the reference I've added is to sociological ideas inspired by that infrastructure.

History aside, the challenge we're making really relates to today. Your own interview with Yrjö Engeström shows you are in disagreement with him too, as he is clearly siding with our proposal to widen the scope. Yrjö is very clearly arguing that NL should not be considered as closed off from a wider social learning. I've added a link to that video interview on the Wikipedia discussion page, along with a copy of some discussion I've had with Russell Butson at the University of Otago about this issue. Russell makes a similar point as Yrjö, saying that learning doesn't happen because of a computer network, any more than learning happens because of a classroom. There is always some communal element to it - the social learning dimension you're positioning as separate to NL, when I think many of us see it as intrinsically connected to it.

Chris said...

Hi Leigh and all,

I am not saying that understanding learning cannot be helped by playing back the idea of networks and noting that social networks play a role in learning with and without Internet technologies.

My point is that networked learning arose as a term alongside the Internet. A social understanding of learning has developed in a separate way, related to the cultural turn in the social sciences. Engestrom and Wenger both come out of that new understanding of learning.

The definition provided by CSALT, and used by me and others, includes information and communication technologies and this distinguishes it from more generic social theories of learning such as Communities of Practice/Legitimate peripheral participation (Wenger) and expansive learning (Engestrom).

I have to say that when I interviewed Yrjö (7 years ago?)I wasn't aware of any "for or against" positioning. Indeed I was very pleased with Yrjö's way of expressing his ideas, especialy the Narnia/Harry Potter distinction between separate worlds and worlds that intertwine. As Internet technologies become ubiquitous learning and networks certainly do merge in many ways.

Neither I nor anyone connected to the CSALT definition has ever claimed learning happens because of the Internet or computing, indeed we have always stressed that network learning requires human-human interaction, even if mediated by Internet technologies. There are differences amongst proponents of this definition about what kinds of relationshiups are necessary. David McConnell has a strongly collaborative notion of NL whereas I would argue that NL can develop using (either or both) strong and weak links. We tend to agree around the term dialogue, arguing that NL requires dialogue in some form or another.

As you know I also reference Illich as a precursor of NL but in his writing he does envisage learning Webs using computing technology. Alexander is in a different category but as you also know Peter Goodyear, one of the originators of the CSALT definition of NL, has developed the use of Design Patterns for educational design and has recently co-authored an edited collection dealing with this.

So to conclude. I do not separate social views of learning from NL (although some who use the definition have a more psychological view e.g Goodyear). Personally I have a social view of learning but I think that my social view of learning and my views on NL are related but distinct.

Do you have an example of networked learning that doesn't include computing or the Internet?

Leigh Blackall said...

Yes I think I do Chris: Illich and Alexander. I think you are wrong to attribute Illich's learning webs to ideas inspired by computing networks. I challenged that on the discussion page of Wikipedia. But Illich used the phrase "learning webs", not "networked learning" so you might not be ready to accept Illich as directly relevant. Alexander - inspired by Illich, uses the exact phrase "Network of Learning", and is clearly not inspired or framed by computing networks. I haven't yet found others, unless you're prepared to go back to the 19th Century, where "networks" were a buzz term then too. I'm looking for an exact enough use of the phrase "networked learning" from those times, if only to build an argument off wiki and into the conference gathering you introduced us to. As Steven Parker said in an earlier comment here, the present buzz around computing (and the technical affordance of more rapid publishing processes) accounts for the volume of writing that you point to - post 1990s. I don't think its right to think that "networked learning" is a concept derived from that volume.

Chris said...

Hi again,

I'm a bit bemused by your response. We both (you and I) look back to Illich, but his writing explicitly discusses computing. To clarify my own view this is what I wrote in the 2009 book I co-edited:

"When Ivan Illich wrote about de-schooling society, in the very early days of computing, he imagined being able to network expertise and interests in ways that then seemed technically difficult, using a mix of computer databases, mail and telephone (Illich, 1970). It is still shocking to read Illich write using the terminology of learning webs, educational objects, skill exchanges and peer matching. These ideas still find their echoes amongst the most technologically forward looking research activities today. The technological elements of Illich’s learning webs are now available on any networked computer, both commonplace and relatively simple to use, yet educational practice has remained, in some significant ways, largely unchanged."

Alexander uses the term "network of learning" but his main contribution was around the idea of design patterns. His interest was largely focused on architecture. His ideas about design have been taken up in relation to networked learning but I know of no other direct impact of this in education and learning apart from the use of design patterns e.g Goodyear.

So I guess I am still looking for that example.

Leigh Blackall said...

I think it would be best to quote Illich at this point Chris. There are at least two works of his that relate directly to this issue. Deschooling Society and Tools for Conviviailty. In the Wikipedia discussion page, I quoted Deschooling, in particular chapter 6, where he described Learning Webs, which I assume you are referring to.

Here's what I wrote there, copied here:

I'm not convinced that Illich was envisioning "Learning Webs" as necessarily being computer mediated. If our shared reference is to his 1971 book Deschooling Society, then it is in chapter 6 where he introduces his ideas of how "Learning Webs" would work, and it comes across to me to more a principle for learning, than one linked to computers and computer based networks. In the interests of helping others into this question, I've picked a few quotes to try and support my reading of it:

"The same people, paradoxically, when pressed to specify how they acquired what they know and value, will readily admit that they learned it more often outside than inside school. Their knowledge of facts, their understanding of life and work came to them from friendship or love, while viewing TV, or while reading, from examples of peers or the challenge of a street encounter. Or they may have learned what they know through the apprenticeship ritual for admission to a street gang or the initiation to a hospital, newspaper city room, plumber's shop, or insurance office. The alternative to dependence on schools is not the use of public resources for some new device which "makes" people learn; rather it is the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment."

The last sentence should be enough to argue that Illich is not suggesting the use of computers per say, he's talking about a new perspective on learning, where it is networked through webs. Admittedly, the Internet gives us this most easily, but it is entirely possible for people to adopt his perspective on learning where computers and the Internet are not available. For example, Illich uses the Bolivian experience to give context to his idea:

"To give an example: The same level of technology is used in TV and in tape recorders. All Latin-American countries now have introduced TV: in Bolivia the government has financed a TV station, which was built six years ago, and there are no more than seven thousand TV sets for four million citizens. The money now tied up in TV installations throughout Latin America could have provided every fifth adult with a tape recorder. In addition, the money would have sufficed to provide an almost unlimited library of prerecorded tapes, with outlets even in remote villages, as well as an ample supply of empty tapes.
This network of tape recorders, of course, would be radically different from the present network of TV. It would provide opportunity for free expression: literate and illiterate alike could record, preserve, disseminate, and repeat their opinions. The present investment in TV, instead, provides bureaucrats, whether politicians or educators, with the power to sprinkle the continent with institutionally produced programs which they-or their sponsors--decide are good for or in demand by the people."

I've certainly been quick to see the link between Illich's example and the Internet too, but I wouldn't go as far as to say his imaginings are informed by the computing and computer network theories of the time. His is a principled approach to learning (and technology) more broadly (Tools for Conviviality)

"[Learning webs are] the creation of a new style of educational relationship between man and his environment."

Chris said...

I agree that Illich preceded most of the new Internet technology, but he did envisage the use of computers in his networks. In Deschooling Society he writes:

"The most radical alternative to school would be a network or service which gave each man the same opportunity to share his current concern with others motivated by the same concern.
Let me give, as an example of what I mean, a description of how an intellectual match might work in New York City. Each man, at any given moment and at a minimum price, could identify himself to a computer with his address and telephone number, indicating the book, article, film, or recording on which he seeks a partner for
discussion. Within days he could receive by mail the list of others who recently had taken the same initiative. This list would enable him by telephone to arrange for a meeting with persons who initially would be known exclusively by the fact that they requested a dialogue about the same subject."

This is the same kind of vision that now fuels concepts of learning by way of social networking, in the narrower sense of that facilitated by SNS.

So where do we disagree?

1. We both agree that technology does not cause anything, least of all learning and that NL requires human-human interaction.

2. We both accept that Illich's views area precursor of modern ideas about networked learning.

3. I simply argue that we should differentiate between theories of social learning, general and not technology dependant, and networked learning which relies on computer networks (i.e. the Internet and latterly the Web).

Leigh Blackall said...

Thanks Chris. That is a good quote to pick, and it does obviously align to social networking software. But I think in the wider context of what Illich wrote, it is fair to say he was not defining learning webs with this example. Nor would he define NL with ICTs.

But yes, it is point 3 we are debating. Regardless, in terms of Wikipedia's policies, as well as academic etiquette, it stands that the authority rests with the ICT based definition, due to the works you cite as agreeing with that usage. I'm happy to challenge that over a longer term and formally, arguing for a more inclusive and socially grounded definition.

I appreciate the need to differentiate NL for research purposes, but have not yet come to accept that ICTs are an appropriate defining element.

Thank you for all your effort in clarifying your position. I'll work on my arguments in coming months and submit them through formal channels. Our work here has been a good testing ground for them. Thanks.

My arguments will probably take the following form:

1. That the dependence on ICTs will render NL redundant, if or when computing becomes ubiquitous, and people's behaviors continue to change around computing, to the point where a distinction between computer networks and social networking will no use.

2. Differentiating the communal and social aspects away from NL, leaves it as technologically determined - which I think significantly weakens the potential of the concept if we consider networking more as a social activity.

3. Historical references Illich, Alexander, Holt (I'm guessing), Wenger, Engestrom.. and many contemporaries, spoke directly or indirectly about NL as not determined by ICTs. Related to this is what I think will be a fascinating foray into 19th Century ideas about networking.

I hope these arguments will be received by people at the Networked Learning conference and related journals. I'll let you know when I have something written up.

Leigh Blackall said...

Have just read Philippa Levy's paper, ''
A methodological framework for practice-based research in
networked learning
and am writing up my notes as a new blog post. Yet again, my issue and confusion over the definition of networked learning is having an impact on my ability to appreciate work like Philippa's. I had to go looking for the publication of the research she is referring in the above paper, to try and work out where she is coming from, I'm still looking for an accessible copy. In the process of looking though, I came across this paper by Benjamin Kehrwald at the University of Southern Queensland, in the Faculty of Education: Learner Support in Networked Learning Communities: Opportunities and Challenges, with this definition right up front:

"The network component of networked learning refers not only to technology, but also to particular social structures (networks) in which relationships are structured by networked logic and the accompanying notions of culture, power relations, production and experience ( Castells, M. (1996). The information age: ecomony, society and culture
volume 1. Oxford: Blackwell.)."

The Castells reference lead me also to this book: The Rise of the Networked Society (2009), with chapter 3 devoted to, The Networked Enterprise: the Culture, Institutions, and Organisations of the Information Economy.

As with my challenge to the definition you are defending Chris, Benjamin is using Castells to point out to a wider understanding of networks and networked learning. With this wider appreciation, the likes of Levy's work, indeed all the papers in the book you recommended me, Advances in Research on Networked Learning (Edited by Goodyear and others), suffer from the more limited understanding of networked learning, not just determined by computer networks, but unanimously by university settings! Even Kehrwal, who acknowledges the wider scope of it, limits his work to university staged courses for education.

What a shame universities, the place where most research and theorising can afford to go on these days, appears so consistently limited in its outlook. This partly explains why technology like Learning Management Systems have survived as long as they have - because so much of the research has centred on its use!

I'm becoming more confident that I've found a significant gap in the literature around networked learning, and will try and test this further in my notes to follow on Levy's paper.

Leigh Blackall said...

Notes on Philippa Levy's methodological framework for practice-based research in networked learning

Chris said...

Hi Leigh,

good to see your comments on Philippa's stuff. She has been active around the NL conference for some years. Ben Kehrwald also comes to the conference and he is now at Massey and edits the Journal of Flexible and Distance Learning. Might be a good person to contact.

I also wrote about the relationship of NL to wider ideas about networks and you can find an early journal article here: http://oro.open.ac.uk/15354/

Networked learning is not restricted to universities as you say but universities are an important site for NL. I am quite interested in the way networks and the network society interacts with both the infrastructure and the institution of the university. I ahve written a little about this in relation to the development of the OU and the OUVLE. Universities have a place in learning because they are the bodies responsible for providing credentials and warranting those credentials (something Brown and Duguid write about in the book Social Life of Information). The techno-optimists who envisage technology doing away with institutional constraints are often misguided in ignoring the social, economic and political reasons why education and learning largely take place within institutional boundaries.

Mike Johnson said...

There are a few ironies flopping around here I wanted to note...
1. Although it is argued that the NL definition is too computer-centric, the '2001 CSALT definition' group have often decried and debunked so-called
learning that IS techno-centric in their research and the manifesto (which could be linked from the Wikipedia page) http://csalt.lancs.ac.uk/esrc/manifesto.htm makes a pitch for the vital human element in the definition and learning technology practice... Something worth standing up for.
2. Although it is argued that the CSALT NL definition is too computer-centric, the networked learning page is very sparse in terms of examples of anything but ICT-mediated learning. Indeed, learning is mediated...
3. It is an argument from a speculative prediction to posit that any NL definition based on ICT will become extinct. Papers to the networked learning conference have tracked the evolution of ICT's and learning practices but, even in this rich media/video rich age, we still resort to text (just as I am doing now) - I expect we will be doing so for a long time to come. Is it sensible to dismiss that as anachronistic or accept a status quo that has proved productive for the generation of knowledge and could be expected to continue that way, in various guises, for some time to come?

Leigh Blackall said...

Hello Mike, thanks for these points.
1. I hadnt seen the manifesto before. Not a bad effort for 2002. And the Way Back Machine confirms its existence at that URL for that long. Definately should be linked to the Wikipedia article. I hope you will do that. Has the been any talk of updating that manifesto?
2. It would be wonderful to cite examples of work looking at NL beyong ICT use, or within institutional settings. Ive only pointed to the obvious: Lave and Wenger, Illich, Alexander and co.
3. I think i see your point - of course text remains, nor did it replace non written forms of communication, but im not sure how this relates to the argument that a techno-institution centric understandings of networked learning is too limiting?