Growing networks of learning – part one

I’ve been thinking and studying networked learning since last December, when I stumbled into the world of educator personal learning networks, spread across the world. From my first blind stumbles across the edges of various twitter PLNs, to discussions and thinking with Kelly Tenkely about the Learning Genome, to witnessing connected learning courses with MOOCs like Stephen Downes and George Siemens’ CCK11, to building my own PLN and contributing in collaborative efforts like the Reform Symposium.

(Note: there are lots of links referencing deeper material in these posts. All of them will open an external window to avoid continually hitting the Back button in the browser. Apologies if you find this annoying.)

At the back of my mind are some primary concerns as we create learning environments from Being Prudence:

    • what does the topology of a network of learning look like?
    • are there benefits to network learning over individual learning experiences, and why?
    • how do we (can we?) explicitly architect these networks with the best chance of propagating learning for children & youth?
    • do these networks exhibit characteristics of complex adaptive systems? Affinity spaces? Can we implicitly design for serendipity and discoverability to engender forms of salience, bridging principles from interaction design? How do we privilege agency within such networks?
    • what theories or evidence can we observe that create this situation? Where are we trending? Where do we want to head? Why?

This will be a series of ongoing posts, detailing my research and thinking in cross-disciplinary fields and how I’ve been synthesizing my ideas. I’d be very grateful to my PLN to contribute with comments, showing me your own views and challenges to holes in my thinking, to build a better overall collaborative understanding.

Part 1: What does the topology of a network of learning look like?

If we were to map a network of learning among multiple participants, what would it look like? I sincerely doubt it would look like this:

A typical corporation's org chart model

 Recently a satirical view of org charts of various prized 21st century organizations popped up via John Gruber’s Daringfireball blog. Original source.

From - The comic is a set of 6 organizational charts, edges with arrows show who reports to whom. Amazon's is very traditional, each manager has exactly 2 people below her. Google's is colorful (nodes are colored red, green, yellow, blue) and is extremely messy. Edges are overlapping all over the place, it's unclear who reports to whom. Facebook looks like a social network with bidirectional arrows and a distributed structure. Microsoft's is divided in three sub-structures that are pointing guns at each other. Apple's is a circle with a large red dot in the center, and everyone around it reports to that red dot -- the arrow heads are particularly large and even the people two levels away from the center red dot also have arrows point at them coming directly from the red dot. Oracle's is divided into two sections, the first section is labelled 'Legal' and is huge, the second section is labelled 'Engineering' and is tiny.

These simplified charts reflect how we perceive different types of groups “learn” from their leadership down.

These organizations are prized within the western world because they embody “innovation” and “success” on a massive, commercial scale. As of August 2011, Apple is flipping between being the first and second most valuable company in the USA. Although they’re all tech companies with different focuses ranging from social networking to consumer goods, one could argue that each of these groups has a core business principle of establishing network platforms – that is, the infrastructure or ecosystem that drive and attract more people towards the hyper-connectivity we live in at 2011. Although Apple can be viewed as a hardware/software or retail business, depending on your lens, it’s also accurate to view their entire business as an integrated ecosystem tying in consumers and 100,000+ 3rd party “publishers” with their products. Apple’s integrated network of iTunes, iPhones, iPads and ongoing products is fundamental to the success of their business. As a privately owned website that launched in 2004, active users of Facebook increased from a million in 2004 to over 750 million in 2011. Google’s YouTube launched in 2005 and is currently the 3rd most popular website according to Alexa and the busiest global broadcaster of video content with over 3 billions views per day, the majority of its content crowdsourced by volunteer participation.

Clearly, something dramatic has been occurring within the last 10 years, driving societies and markets globally to tipping points and major disruptions of traditional 20th century industries and models of citizenship.

Let’s return to examining the org charts. It’s interesting that half of them don’t resemble a traditional approach to org charts, and even in drawn in jest – there are nuggets of truth in how accurately they resemble reality within these organizations.

Here’s another chart of a highly successful 20th century business famed for creativity and innovation. Walt Disney Studios released their own org chart in 1943, outlining their then model of process and production. Source

Disney's Org Chart from 1943

This is a company that demonstrated an ability to create new products and technology (the films, the theme parks, their retail products integrating their multiple franchises) that never existed before. They learnt by making, iterating successively, building upon that learning as they went. Again, their mapping of their learning/making network is very different to a traditional org chart.

Org charts are idealised representations of groups. What does real learning within a network look like?

Fortunately, we now have the technology and research to analyse real world connections, whether virtual or face-to-face. Organizations like Google, Facebook and Twitter spend much of their resources focusing on realtime analytics of the “social graph”. Strikingly, the same technologies are also being used on real-life (non-virtual) social relationships and social networks. Nicholas Christakis performed a longitudinal study mapping the spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years. Using computation techniques and a range of cross-disciplines, his continuing papers argue that nodes (the influential people within the network) can affect and propagate obesity through a face-to-face social network, and also other health states including smoking, drinking and happiness. Here is an excerpt from his TED presentation on the “Hidden Influence of Social Networks” where the topology of an observed social network within a real-world distributed community is mapped, building upon data recorded from his 32 year study.

The dots represent people. The lines connecting the dots represent relationships between each person. As the connectedness and social influence of obesity (or ‘the learning to be obese’) grows, the yellow nodes correspondingly increase in visual size. Note that this network of learning/influence doesn’t resemble a traditional org chart relationship at all? Instead, it bears very strong parallels to rhizomatic learning, as described by Mary Ann Reilly and Dave Cormier.

This animated “social graph” demonstrates real learning of human behavior spreading by the network. The behavior is real. The effects are real. Yet the majority of the study occurred before the last decade, and the focus of the study was on participants who interacted in a face to face relationship. How would the networked technologies of the last 10 years, in a hyper-connected world alter learning in this next decade?

Part 2 will focus on ideas related to theories related to connectivism, participatory culture, and ongoing trends in mass culture technologies including video games and other forms of digital media.

I look forward to discussing with you about the ideas above. Thank you.

  • Interesting. If you mapped out the traditional organizational structure of a school, you’d see something like the Amazon model, but with more nodes at each level, or the Microsoft model in some schools.

    I think only the Democratic schools have a similar organizational structure as Facebook.

    It would be an interesting piece of research to examine the organizational structures (as you point, how these structures are related to learning) and compare these structures to the success of the students learning in those schools.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks David. I think another compelling theme to consider is that as we increasingly move to a virtual or blended learning model over the next 5-10 years, there will be increasing tensions and conflict between the traditional org model that kids encounter within a traditional school, intersecting with the opportunities around them that the blended (or augmented) technologies will create. 

      As we’ve discussed, these changes are being driven by economic realities, particularly in the US and the UK with the major crises in funding public education. We’re already “reaping” the consequences of overlapping networks (traditional intersecting with online) right now, if you consider the intersection of both the benefits and damage that happening with the lack of digital literacies – children using Facebook without being guided into responsible, digital citizenship, and the big rise of sexting. Success needs be viewed from many different angles.

  • I’ve written (very briefly) about this in relation to school leadership as well. See 

    • Anonymous

      Hmm, that’s incredibly ironic when the children and youth already live here (image attached). Source:

      More about that in the coming posts here (and probably my first Coop Catalyst post.)

  • Ramblingteacher

    Fascinating post, Ian. Let me tell you something that happened to me recently. As you know, I have been learning Corona SDK slowly. My connection, by email and Twitter, with people like yourself has been invaluable in getting ideas and learning tech. Lately, I was invited by someone I follow on twitter to attend a Corona workshop and relate what I’m doing at my school. From there, I met a lecturer whose colleague wants to get AppInventor into schools. I am now part of her list of people to work with and my junior students may be learning to develop Android Apps in Inventor. None of this would have eventuated had I not been using social media to connect with Corona developers. Sorry for length of comment.

    • Anonymous

      Hi Ziad. Welcome to my PLN! 😀 Your comment’s length is nothing to worry about, and I’m glad that the social web has proven the strengths of connected learning already to you. 

      But I will point out that Google recently discontinued App Inventor. Did you know that? It’s being moved back to MIT as part of the mobile learning group. I pointed a few related things in a comment on Google+ here:…

      • Ramblingteacher

        I read about Google discontinuing AppInventor and I was a little alarmed by the news. When I learned that it was going to be looked after by MIT people, including Mitch Resnick, I felt it was in the best of hands.

  • Mary Ann Reilly

    I am reminded of Habermas whose communication theory told us that in order to critique one needed a metalanguage.  In some ways I think this is what you are attempting here. How do you describe that which you are a part of? Habermas o would say that only through a metalanguage and in fact without one, you can’t adequately be critical. So I am wondering what drawing you might render to describe a learning network?  Would it be rhizomatc? Would it be that which continues to form and reform, making difficult a single rendering?

    I did some additional thinking about learning networks here:

    • a rhizomatic-ish network in perpetual beta… most definitely not contained in a single rendering. 
      my mind is playing to Deb Roy’s visuals in the birth of a word.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks Monika. I keep meaning to watch that whole video. Will add more after I’ve done so. 

        I think the “perpetual beta” is not a great label though. Real communities don’t exist in beta. They just are, and they learn both individually and cooperatively as a group. I think of my life in phases – I certainly still feel the incredible delineation with before having children, and the huge change days after my first daughter was born. I think a strong learning network needs to accommodate people at a range of phases – be welcoming to newcomers while offering the experienced a chance to build a common legacy.

        • perhaps the word beta isn’t playing out the same in our minds. no doubt my rendering is the more distant from a standard definition. 
          here’s more of my thinking (and as always – looking for feedback/pushback) .. i’m different now than yesterday. and will also be in the next few minutes. networking exponentiates those differences. in my thinking, a rhizomatic network takes into account different phases, but not in a label sort of way. not in a schooling sort of way. you are just you and you just are. ie: Ellen Langer in Mindfulness writes, prejudice decreases as discrimination increases. like a thumbprint.. none are the same. makes it difficult to label/categorize/phase. i’m so very curious if focusing more on life, and what you learn by just living, wouldn’t behoove education, health, budget, poverty, etc. 

          curious what you mean Ian when you say real communities don’t exist in beta. your next sentence… they just are – is what i think of as beta. if people just are – everyone is changed… every second. thinking of the Tom Shadyak’s film, I Am, just now.

          • Anonymous

            Hi Monika, very interesting input.

            My problems with the term “beta” comes from my software dev background. Alpha=buggy as hell and getting there, Beta=”feature complete” but not bug free, and Release is … well, getting it out the door in whatever stage. Different companies have different ideas of beta and release. Apple typically doesn’t reach release until it’s a work of art (however flawed and still patched sporadically going forwards), Google ships regardless and keeps things released and in beta and much less polished. (Like Gmail was for years). Perhaps you’re right. I definitely feel like I’ve shipped myself into the public arena but still have bugs. Perhaps I’m version 2.0b3 of myself. (-;
            I really liked the idea that you’ve brought from Ellen Langer. It reminds me of Kathy Sierra’s concepts about motivation *by design* in her talk on Creating Passionate Users at the O’Reilly Tools of Change conference. She gives a similar speech for the Gov 2.0 and her terms is about providing participants with the skills to see “at a higher resolution”. She gives the example of how a photographer would see a photo compared to a non-photographer. I think your hunch about being “discriminating” is absolutely part of it. My gut feeling is that it’s tied to Zoe Weil’s ideas about creating “solutionaries” as well in her TEDX talk. By providing avenues to engage with relevancy, we hope to engender mindfulness. How to leverage individual engagement and mindfulness into collaborative learning networks is the big magic trick. I believe it’s one we need to find ways of approaching in order to solve “wicked problems”… in the long term.

          • i’m thinking the more we can get out of the way.. the more magic just happens. we’re wired to learn. people crave hard work – wicked problems – that matter. collab is a natural result of work that is too hard for an individual.

          • Anonymous

            And the people said “amen.” Right there with you, Monika. Thank you.

    • Anonymous

      My reluctance to put this down in writing for months has been that I’ve felt inadequate in articulating what is a very complex subject, as I’ve gathered more and more research in different domains. My personal belief is that there is no one “meta-language” to describe a learning network phenomenon (something that you and I’ve discussed before on the  “Not your father’s PLN” post ( 

      My humble perspective is that it can become a self-defeating practice if one was to view the network from a preferred discipline – it’s a bit like the parable of the blind men & the elephant (link for those unfamiliar with it: – hence my attempt to gradually unravel the knotty threads of cross-disciplinary ideas over the coming days & weeks, with the power of our collaborative imagination and thinking.

      A fixed drawing is probably the wrong media to create a “map”. Perhaps a better approach would be to distill core principles that aid us as map-makers, and road builders. I see my own personal contribution as a builder – I just want to build *useful* things to last and be of benefit to those in greatest need.

      For me, a rhizome analogy is useful in that it exhibits organic, emergent behavior that we witness within our PLNs. But I in my thinking, a few other ideas from computer sciences and behavioural sciences and economics also intersect. My observation that we’re in the midst of a dramatic transformation as the technological, sociological and economic barriers to “connectedness” becomes “invisible” means that principles from those domains also shape the growth of a network.

      Thank you for your paragraphs Mary Ann, it’s already helping me define some map-making principles. (-:

      • Michael Josefowicz

        For whatever it may be worth, the intellectual sources for “nemetics” include biological, computer science, social science and economics.  If you would like me to unpack, please just ask.  I get email notifications of the comment thread…

        To give a taste.. A wooded plant can be considered growing “nemiTubes” that take their shape from neme Exchange. At that scale nemes are the chemical exchange that are happening at the granular level.

        The extended root is a well bounded nemiTube that enables internal Free Neme Exchange.

        As far as we can tell so far, this kind of parsing seems to be able to describe many complex adaptive systems.

        • Anonymous

          Thanks Michael. I shall ponder more. 😀 I’m still unsure how it maps, but I’ll read Sean’s blog to get a better feel for it.

          Thank you also for letting me know that you get email notification of replies. The comments are on the disqus platform, and I haven’t dug much into that. It’s just such a relief that the authentication stops the spambots. (;

          • Michael Josefowicz

            for the email notification to work, folks have to click on the email subscribe button to activate.. I’m eager to see where your journey will take us all… 🙂

  • Michael Josefowicz

    You might be interested in a language some of us have evolved on twitter, with blogs and now on G+.
    We’re calling it nemetics. The name comes from the notion that communication can seen through the lens of biomimicry. We’ve taken the ‘neme” is an information token that is meant to capture the gene, meme and something we called a lumene ( to capture the emotional component of information exchange.

    @GraingerEd:disqus  has adopted this framework in the service of an education thought model with a focus on  
    Resilience and Health as the desired end state. Many of his posts unfold the idea, but is a good place to start.

    I’m looking forward to following the posts to come. From what I’ve seen the complex adaptive system approach is the most fruitful. The notion behind nemetics is take insights from any complex adaptive system to clarify the mechanisms of any complex adaptive system of interest.  Based on the conversations among me, @ddrrnt on twitter and Sean @graingerEd:disqus 
     it seems to be working pretty well so far.

    If you are curious you can take a look at @edkare where I have been tweeting from the Kindle to explore how the code works to parse intellectual history and non fiction.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Michael. I’ll take a look at the information above. I’m a little wary of adding even more ever-evolving terms. (-; 

      Have you considered the field of psychographics in psychology and if that overlaps with your ideas of the “emotional component of information exchange”?

  • I am a particular fan of the thinking Robert Sylwester contributes to this realm. Networks are about movement… humans have a need to be in motion; physically, sociall, mentally, cognitively… that’s in many ways what sets us apart from other living things, but not entirely from all other biological beings. Networks are evident in other biological beings in nature too. Packs of animals, flocks of birds, growth of particular plants are examples of networks in one form or another, but it’s our human tendency to emote, use reason and notice, think and engage on a higher intellectual level that puts us out there in a unique way, and what makes our “motion” (networks) considerably more complex and requiring an adaptive system of organization.

    I have added your blog to my blog roll and look forward to the evolution of this stream of posts. As Michael (#ToughLoveforX) mentioned above, he,  Daniel Durant (@ddrrnt) and I have been thought-evolving together (with supporting others) for a good while now on the topic of complex adaptive systems for education, social evolution and the betterment of society. Something is drawing us all toward this realm of thinking, and alas, I think I see an uber-network forming;o)

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Sean for all this information. I first started thinking about the idea of complex adaptive systems when I observed the magnificence of educator PLNs – I was a twitter newbie and then got inserted in the midst of all these great minds – as others have observed, it can be like a firehose. Then my friend Esa sent me a document from Finland outlining a Finnish approach to working on the world’s “wicked problems” ( over the next decades. Once I understood that the term was not referring to evil, but rather a systems theory term for approaching complex problems, I began to think more from the systems theory approach. ( I think a systems theory approach is a good one, because there are many factors coming to bear. I hope to examine and discuss them over this series of posts.

      It also helps that my brilliant wife is a social worker, well versed in systems theory. 😀

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  • Hi Ian,  Who wrote the Affinity Spaces paper?  Thanks for this.  I’m mulling.


    • Anonymous

      Professor James Paul Gee. The URL is linked to the document on his website here  and more context about his work here: 

      His book and research on videogames and learning ( has been highly influential in the “game based learning” movement, of which I am deeply interested in (a long time ago, I was a teenage hacker, then video game programmer and still a software developer). We (Being Prudence) plan to build out some of these learning experiences using the ideas being discussed here as “games” (though game is not exactly the right word). Making something new. 😀

      Jane McGonigal’s recent book “Reality Is Broken” is also a good book on the subject. I found the title very off-putting but when I read it, I found it to be a very cogent, well research book covering ideas of agency, motivation and of course, documents and discusses the rise of massive gaming networks.

      I look forward to hearing your ideas Kirsten. Thanks for reading.

  • Wow, what a great post!  I can’t wait to continue to read your follow up thoughts.  While I still need time to digest everything, the first thing that popped into my head was “oh…our school looks like the traditional top down model, not the new innovative ones!”  Hmmm.  That has certainly got me thinking about looking into our structure and seeing how we can modify our processes to encourage more 21st century organisational design to support our emerging beliefs in 21st century learning.  Thanks for provoking my thinking!

  • I feel that before affordable/throwaway technology learning was very much isolated. I can’t remember any teachers of mine wanting to ring the other side of the world to have a chat about education.

    Yet this is where we find ourselves now, in an instantly connected world, where opinions, fact, ideas and thought are readily available, 24/7/365-as long as you’re connected.

    Some of this stuff is way over my head but I think I get the gist and I enjoyed reading it-so I’ve posted some further reading for you Ian!

    So here’s a handy list of Personal Learning networks/environments visualised

    Is a great post here about connected companies

    The University of Wollongong is researching ‘Visualising Student Networks’ which links very neatly .

    • Anonymous

      Brilliant range of links Julian. Thank you very much!

    • Michael Josefowicz

      Yes. A brilliant set of links indeed. Thank you.

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  • Hey Ian, thanks for inviting me to comment on your post.

    My jumping point is your final question about how networks might alter education in the years ahead.

    Being reasonable, I’ll start by saying “I have no idea.” The educational industrial complex is only now beginning to collapse and networks have yet to truly take over  how we actively go about teaching.

    But the early signs are here, and with it some clues. Facebook shows us how information spreads. Khan Academy is an example of the new “textbook.” Edmodo is linking up classes in a school graph. The iPad has become an almost perfect information appliance. Etc.

    All of these platforms and interactions are adding themselves to an increasingly dense but elastic network that resembles (unsurprisingly) our brains: an always on, electric system that is slowly approximating thought. I think it and there it is.

    In such a supersaturated information space, access is no longer a primary issue. And access is what schools (and teachers) have been focused on managing (as have media companies, and we’ve seen what’s happened to them).

    Instead, context is the new educational frontier. Making sense of the mass of information to draw insight and relate it to the world around us. 

    Teachers have always been in the context business, but the context shifts to new systems and tools. Algorithms, visualizations, data interpretation—these have to be wrangled and used as a new kind of humanities. 

    Steve Jobs said Apple lives at the intersection of liberal arts and technology and created the world’s most valuable company by finding the context in-between those two worlds. I think the same opportunity is there for teachers: to find the right “interface” to make sense of the noise and create patterns that help us learn.

    • Anonymous

      Thank you Mark for coming and offering your perspective. Huge fan of Storybird and what you’ve been doing!

      My approach to make it a realistic and manageable task about “growing networks of learning” is to consider discrete networks that overlap each other, rather than some global kitchen-sink network. As folk get more savvy about the social web, we’re beginning to leverage the various pipes to cross-connect/amplify ideas (eg. applications that connect to Facebook and Twitter and Google+ etc.) 

      I think a useful discussion at this initial point is to think about networks that we are building or have some degree of control over. For example, for you – it would be the Storybird network. For me, it would be the MMOs we’re working on, or connected “textbooks” like I Live Over Here (

      The context problem is a big one because the issue doesn’t lie just at the teacher level. I believe that it’s a systems problem, ranging from the education publishers, the edu-industry, the policy makers (the move to Common Core in the US or the coming National Curriculum in Australia), school districts, school administration, the individual teachers as well as the individual learners as we trend towards personalized education.

      Mark Pesce gave an excellent keynote yesterday in Australia for the national “Leading a Digital School Conference” called “Hyperconnected Education” and his thinking is right on the money. (It should be given his background Lots of deep thinking about the consequences in the very near future. Well worth reading about the deep impact of mobile adoption.

      IMHO, if we’re creating new networks of learning, the context problem won’t be just solved at a teacher or student level. I think we’ll be working on various blends of algorithmic tools, as well as social curation – I hope to explore these ideas in discussion when I get to the post about “designing for serendipity” – lots to think about in terms of discoverability and relevance in an endless sea of information.

      Thanks for your comment – greatly appreciated. I hope you stick around and offer your perspective from time to time.

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