Thoughts on SNA and online learning

Following the previous post

The structural paradigm of  Social Network Analysis (SNA) with its constitutive theory and methods, began to emerge around the 1930s, applied and influenced by a broad range of disciplines such as sociology, psychology and statistics (Scott and Carrington, 2011).

In social network theory a social structure is represented by a group of “social actors” connected by a set of relationships. These actors – or “nodes” – can be individuals, groups, institutions, organisations or even Web pages. There can be many different kinds of relationships – or “ties” – between nodes, which constitute a “map” of connections between the actors in a network. When a social network is visualised the nodes are usually represented by points and the ties by lines linking one or more nodes.

A visualisation of the network involved in a Twitter chat for Public Health teachingwe ran at Dundee Medical School in 2012.

A visualisation of the network involved on a Twitter chat for Public Health teaching we ran at Dundee Medical School in 2012. Created with TAGSExplorer.

The focus of SNA is on the relationships between nodes and the structure of these connections. The object of study is the pattern, nature and dynamics of these interactions, as opposite to the individual characteristics of the actors. This representation allows analysis of the social processes determined by the relationships between the individuals (Martino and Spoto, 2006). SNA enables to visualise the position of a social agent within a particular network, however, because less importance is given to individuals, this theory has less consideration for the influence of personal characteristics and individual agency in determining the success of a relationship.

The connections within nodes in a network facilitate exchange of “resources”  which can be influenced by the quantity and quality of the linkages and interactions. Looking at online educational networks through a SNA lens is a way to establish wether the ways in which individuals connect with a particular environment may influence their access to information and knowledge. As Rita Kop states “the Web is portrayed as a democratic network on which peer to peer interaction might lead to a creative explosion and participative culture of activity” (Kop, 2012 p3) but how is this potential being exploited in education? What are the processes beyond this interaction and how can they be used to facilitate students access to information, knowledge and ideas?

The potential of social media in forming networks, extending students knowledge and translating this into academic achievement is impacted by a multitude of elements such as individuals’ attitudes (Morrison, 2002), University environment and socialisation processes (Yu et al., 2010). Other mechanisms influencing this process may be the particular educational practices and experiences, the success of connections, the dynamics in which participants negotiate the structure of the network and exchange practices and many others which can not be controlled.

This analysis can be enriched by Bordieau’s concept of “social capital”, which introduces a set of dynamics between the social dimension, the identity dimension (habitus) and the individual’s practice. In this system of reciprocal influences it is interesting to look at the transformation processes and effects of elements such as “weak ties”, “brokers”, “latent connections” and “structural holes” in the information flow within a network.

Acknowledging the potential of these processes and of the structure of a network is vital for educators who aim to harness the changing affordances of Web 2.0 technology applied to pedagogical interventions.  According to Morrison (2002) the configuration of the network structure has an important role on the learning processes occurring during socialisation (p 1157). This is confirmed by a recent study on student engagement via social network where Badge, Saunders and Cann (2012) suggest that “where online communication channels are adopted, teaching staff need to ensure they have adequate network connections with all students, but especially to cultivate connections with and the networks of lower-performers” (p11). Student learning is influenced by the quantity and quality of connections in a network and by the students’ position in the network, which is determined by both giving and getting information from other student (Hommes, 2012).


Badge, J.L., Saunders, N.F.W., Cann, A.J. (2012). Beyond marks: new tools to visualise student engagement via social networks. Research in Learning Technology. 20:1-14.

Hommes et al. (2012). Visualising the invisible: a network approach to reveal the informal side of student learning. Advances in Health Sciences Education, 17(5), 743-757.

Kop, R. (2012). The Unexpected Connection: Serendipity and Human Mediation in Networked Learning. Educational Technology & Society, 15 (2), 2–11.

Martino, F. And Spoto, A. (2006). Social Network Analysis: A brief theoretical review and further perspectives in the study of Information Technology PsychNology Journal 4(1), 53 – 86.

Morrison, E. W. (2002). Newcomers’ relationships: the role of social network ties during socialization. Academy of Management Journal, 45(6), 1149–1160.

Scott J., Carrington P.C. (eds) (2011) Handbook of social network analysis. Sage, London

Yu, A.Y. et al. (2010). Can learning be virtually boosted? An investigation of online social networking impacts. Computers and Education, 55, pp. 1494–1503


Social Capital and online learning – a brief intro

I decided to post a brief section of my literature review after reading the article Natalie tweeted this morning, which portrays similar ideas.

I’m happy to see my reasoning is supported by others but I realise I should probably make an effort to at least try and publish some! Anyway, here it is and I’ll post more…

Access to knowledge, information and ideas is mediated by the fabric of social relationships within individuals in a social network. These can be seen as benefits gained from social interactions and can be conceptualised as “Social Capital”.

This concept, which is also a theory, is rooted in the work of several scholars, starting from Bourdieu (1986) and Coleman (1988) who provided the first definition of social capital. The theory was then extended by the work of Burt (1992), Putnam (1995) and more recently by Lin (2001).

Social capital was defined by Bourdieu as “the aggregate of the actual or potential resources which are linked to possession of a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition”  (Bourdieu, 1986 p 51). Social capital allows individuals to access resources – e.g. information – through relationships with members belonging to the same network (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007). This  process is not linear or transparent, in fact a person’s actions or practices are influenced by a complexity of social forces acting in the immediate locus where the action is exploited (“field”) and a set of dispositions of thoughts and behaviours assimilated over time by the individual (“habitus”).

The dynamics of reciprocal influence between a social structure and an individual’s ways of thinking and acting are explained by Bourdieu with a formula which highlights their interdependence:

[ (habitus) (capital) ] + field = practice (Bourdieu, 1984 p101)

These factors, if applied and understood within an online educational activity, could help theorise why different students embark in different trajectories and degrees of learning and engagement. If the success of an online educational intervention depends upon the relationships, the dynamics between participants, the medium itself and the social interactions, it is vital that we understand these processes. Steinfield, Ellison and Lampe (2008) argue that “the ability to form and maintain relationships is a necessary precondition for the accumulation of social capital” (p435) and this mechanism could determine the access to certain benefits – information, knowledge – by network members.

Putnam (2000) outlined the concepts of bonding and bridging capital, which reside in the fabric of relationships within a network. Bonding capital refers to the emotional benefits that individuals who have a very close personal relationship with each other can profit from, while bridging capital encompasses informational benefits derived from weak connections. These two processes can explain the acquisition of knowledge in a community of learning.

The importance of the strength of weak ties in bridging capital was highlighted by Granovetter (1973). The power of these connections resides in the fact that they allow individuals in the social network to access pieces of information that would otherwise be inaccessible. Another concept that emphasises the importance of weak ties in the information flow is that of “structural hole” introduced by Burt (1992). A missing connection – a “hole” – between two nodes, or two networks, can be bridged by an individual, a “broker” who can span the hole, bringing together otherwise disconnected contacts (Burt, 2000).

Applying these concepts to a social network of students engaged in an online educational activity, could help understanding on how knowledge flows within the network and subsequently how to moderate and facilitate this exchange between users. Lin (2001) has emphasised the importance of social networks and interpersonal relationships in the development of social capital, which he describes as “resources embedded in a social structure which are accessed and/or mobilized in purposive actions”  (p35). The access and subsequent use of resources embedded in the network facilitates the flow of information and gives some form of profit. So we have three ingredients in the notion of social capital: resources, accessibility and use. (Lin, 2001 p35). While these elements have been conceived within studies concerning the structures of society and the use of social resources in relation to socioeconomic statuses (Lin, 1982 in Lin, 2001), it is apparent that the mechanisms of accessibility and use of resources in an online social network can influence the creation and use of social capital. It is important to highlight the fact that it is not an intrinsic characteristic of technology that allows growth of social capital: it is the specific ways that individuals use technology which determine the amount of this benefit (Valenzuela, Park & Kee, 2009).

Further reading: The Habitus of Digital Scholars by Cristina Costa – and her Blog Post


Bourdieu, P. (1986) The Forms of Capital. In: John G Richardson (eds) Handbook of theory and research for the sociology of education. New York: Greenwood Press.

Burt, R.S. (1992) Structural holes: the social structure of competition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Coleman, J.S. (1988) Social capital in the creation of human capital. The american journal of sociology. 94(Supplement): S95-S120.

Ellison, N.B., Steinfield, C. And Lampe, C. (2011) Connection strategies: social capital implications of Facebook-enabled communication practices. New Media & Society. XX(X):1-20.

Granovetter, M. (1973) The strength of weak ties. American journal of sociology. 78: 1360-1380.

Lin N (2001) Building a network theory of social capital. In: Lin N, Cook KS and Burt RS (eds) Social Capital: Theory and Research. New York: Aldine de Gruyter. 3–29.

Putnam, R. (1995) Bowling alone: America’s declining social capital. Journal of Democracy. 6:65-78.

Putnam, R. (2000) Bowling alone: The collapse and revival of american community. New York: Simon and Schuster.

Valenzuela, S., Park, N., Kee, K.F. (2009) Is there social capital in a social network site?: Facebook use and college students’ life satisfaction, trust and participation. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 14:875-901.