online learning

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


Some Thoughts on Participant Pedagogy

This week I am participating in a MOOC, a peculiar one, defined by the authors “a meta-MOOC“. This is in fact “a MOOC about MOOCs”, where participants are exploring collaboratively what these new “mystic entities” are, what we can expect from them and other issues they could bring involving online learning, pedagogy, teaching and assessment.

I am writing this post in an attempt to complete today’s task, which asks us to reflect upon participant pedagogy. Reading the short introductory piece to this activity I bumped into concepts like “hybrid” and “critical pedagogy”, which are put side by side with “participant pedagogy”, along with terms like “active”, “reflective”, “student-centred” and “power”.

These concepts are being increasingly discussed together, in relation to the rise of hybrid education, an education that encourages learning by offering a composition of different experiences and pedagogical strategies, often through the use of emerging technologies (my interpretation, please feedback!).

These are all important keywords in an online learning environment, BUT, as we noticed while working on the Google Doc for task1, these concepts are far from being new or innovative. They are just being highlighted by the increasing use of communication technology in teaching and learning. In our article we mentioned Socrates and again, while reading this sentence in the “Participant Pedagogy” piece…

“It is often a force of will for me to keep from explaining — to keep from providing details that carve out the space for learning too distinctly. What I expect from students, more than anything, is that they take their learning into their own hands — that they do the (often difficult) work of finding the right tools and the right recipes to meet the very loose demands of an open-ended task.” Jesse Stommel (@Jessifer)

…I could not help but thinking of the Greek term “techne maieutiké”. This literally means “the art of the midwife”, and was used by Socrates himself to refer to the dialectic art, which helps students “giving birth” to their personal thought.

Socratic teaching was based on dialogos (dialogue, conversation) and on 2 important points:

  • respect for the person one is talking to
  • the relativity of human knowledge, which is never conclusive or definitive.

Image source: opensourceway‘s Flickr stream

Now, I really think these are the basis for a participant pedagogy, both in a traditional educational setting and an hybrid one. Collaboration, dialogue, mutual interaction make learning happen in a dynamic process, where it is not a final product we are aiming at, but the process itself with all its characters of change, de-stabilisation, complexity, transformation. Participant pedagogy brings many challenges as it is never a linear process where knowledge is simply transferred from teacher to learner. Participation means active confrontation with others,  exchange, mutual enrichment; it can bring communication issues, misunderstanding, negotiation of rules, meaning and content.

These challenges and issues become heavier, more problematic in a way, with the rise of hybrid pedagogy, open education, and massive open online courses. These do change the relationships between teachers and students, who become empowered by the endless range of possibilities offered by the mediatic environment and increasingly feel the need to participate more actively in teaching activities, taking responsibility for their learning and even designing their own teaching and learning material.

Can we then extract the teacher entirely from the classroom? Should we?

Well, we could just enrol students to endless MOOCs (with no teachers!), leave them to be taught by YouTube University and Wikipedia. But here we are playing with the quality of the experience that a learner can do and finally with the shaping of their identity. Self-reflection, critical thinking, autonomous thought are skills that need to be nurtured through dialogue, online and face to face, and some kind of intervention from whom has gone through this growth before, has understood the quality and character of these experiences from a pedagogic point of view.

Collaboration between teacher and student here takes the role of Socratic maieutics. Educational technology and online material have a great power but teachers (and peers, I would add!) are the ones that can

“discern what is on a student’s mind (even though the thought may be novel and half-formed); sees how it relates to the material; and knows how to question, encourage, challenge, or otherwise prompt the student to find his or her own way out of confusion, to a clearer expression of thought or a more powerful argument or analysis.”  (Pamela Hieronymi)

Participation, especially when it happens online and within people who have never met before can be a challenge itself. An online learning environment is a place that needs to be explored exactly like a physical one. This is at least true for me. It brings uncertainty, or, as @VanessaVaile said

sounds like playing Build a Bear in the dark with total strangers #moocmooc

What and how am I going to learn? Will I be able to make interesting contributions? How am I going to manage all the amount of  information? Probably the first step to overcome this impasse is to fight the feeling and fear of uncertainty that the participatory attribute brings. There are learners that have no problem in sharing their thought with the world, they can make amazing contributions to a conversation and work actively from the beginning on collaborative tasks. There are other learners, defined as “introverts“, that may take more time, observing, analysing the environment and finally deciding if they feel confident enough to jump into the dances. Here is a situation where teachers/trainers/mediators have an important role. Not only in trying to make the educational environment as friendly as possible but also observing the group’s dynamics and communication, intervening when needed in motivating participation and critical self-reflection.

After all online participation can be a power, as dialogue is power in Democracy. Participation suppose a democratic attitude to dialogue, listening and respect, and the ability to critically reflect on owns and others behaviour. Learning happens here, too, situated in the social and historical environment where the communicative process itself is happening.

This is one of the reasons becuase participant pedagogy needs to be critical, too.

I will finish off here with this wishful thought by Pamela Hieronymi

“Technology can make education better. It will do so, in part, by forcing us to reflect on what education is, identify what only a person can do, and devote educators’ time to that.”

…and finally… This was really only an attempt to discuss today’s topic. I don’t quite feel my knowledge enough to write a blog post on pedagogy (plus, in English) but this is the challenge! I hope my thoughts will provoke some reactions, positive or negative,I would be really interested in having some feedback.