A brief history of networked learning George Siemens September 28, 2008

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A brief history of networked learning

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 sciences.

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 emperors.

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 disciplines.

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. 119).

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 learners.

Table 1. Five Stages of Network Development



One: Infrastructure

Development of the physical structure and connection of classrooms to resources, each other, and the internet

Two: Merging with existing fields

Adoption of principles of community from sociology and use of network elements from mathematics and physics to describe shape and structure of networks.

Three: Changing views of cognition

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.

Four: Popularization

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.

Five: Processes of learning, knowledge, and education

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

Araujo, L. (1998). Knowing and learning as networking. Management Learning, 29(3), 317–336.

Barabási, A. L. (2002). Linked: The new science of networks. Cambridge, MA: Perseus Publishing.

Baumeister, H-P. (2005). Networked learning in the knowledge economy: A systemic challenge for universities. European Journal of Open, Distance and E-learning. Retrieved September 26, 2008, from http://www.eurodl.org/materials/contrib/2005/Baumeister.htm

Boyd, D., & Ellison, N. (2007). Social network sites: Definition, history, and scholarship. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, 13(1). Retrieved September 26, 2008, from http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol13/issue1/boyd.ellison.html

Castells, M. (1996). The rise of the network society. Malden, MA: Blackwell.

Cole, M., & Engeström Y. (1993). A cultural-historical approach to distributed cognition. In G. Salomon (Ed.), Distributed cognitions: Psychological and educational considerations (pp. 1–46). Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

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de Laat, M. (2006). Networked learning. Retrieved September 26, 2008, from http://www.e-learning.nl/files/dissertatie%20maarten.pdf

Gruzd, A., & Haythornthwaite, C. (2008). Automated discovery and analysis of social networks from threaded discussions. Paper presented at the International Network of Social Network Analysis. St. Pete Beach, FL, USA

Harasim, L., Hiltz, S. R., Teles, L., & Turoff, M. (1995). Learning networks: A field guide to teaching and learning online. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

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