What is “netgl” and how might it apply to my problem

At least a couple of the students in a course I help out with are struggling a little with Assignment 2 which asks them “to develop a theory-informed plan for using NGL to transform your teaching (very broadly defined) practice”.

The following is a collection of bits of advice that will hopefully help. Littered throughout are also some examples from my own practice.

NGL != social media

Network and Global Learning (NGL/netgl) should not be interpreted to mean use of social media. In the course we use blogs, Diigo, feed readers etc as the primary form of NGL practice and in the past this has led folk to think that NGL equates to use of social media.

Just because we used blogs, Diigo, and feed readers, that doesn’t you should. You should use whatever is appropriate to your problem and your context.

What is NGL?

Which begs the question, “what is NGL”? If not just social media.

As I hope was demonstrated in the first two-thirds of the course there is no one definition of NGL. There are many different views from many different perspectives.

The first week’s material had a section on networked learning that included a few broad definitions. I particularly like the Goodyear et al (2014) quote that includes

learning networks now consist of heterogeneous assemblages of tasks, activities, people, roles, rules, places, tools, artefacts and other resources, distributed in complex configurations across time and space and involving digital, non-digital and hybrid entities.

The course material also covers more specific conceptions of NGL. e.g. connectivism gets a mention in week 1, as does public click pedagogy.

Week 3 mentions groups, networks, collectives and communities; the idea of network learning as a 3rd generation of pedagogy; and some historical origins of network learning.

What’s your problem?

It’s all overwhelming, is a common refrain I’m hearing. Understanding that there is a range of different views of NGL probably isn’t going to help. That’s one of the reason why Assignment 2 is intended to use a design-based research approach i.e. (emphasis added)

a particular approach to research that seeks to address practical problems by using theories and other knowledge to develop and enhance new practices, tools and theories.

At some level DBR can help narrow your focus by asking you to focus on a practical problem. A problem near and dear to your heart and practice.

Of course, the nature of “problems” in and around education are themselves likely to be complex and overwhelming. The example I give from my own practice – described initially as “university e-learning tends to be so bad” or “a bit like teenage sex” is a big complex problem with lots of perspectives.

How do you reduce the big overwhelming problem to something that you can meaningful address?

This is where the literature and theory(ies) enter the picture.

What might “theory informed” mean?

First, go and read a short post titled What is theory and why use theories?.

Adopting this broad and pragmatic view of theory, there are many ideas and concepts littered throughout this course (and many, many more outside) including, but not limited to: connectivism; connected learning; communities of practice; group, networks, collectives, and communities; threshold concepts etc. In understanding your problem, you are liable to draw upon a range more.

As per the short post theories are meant to be useful to you in understanding a situation or problem and then as an aid in formulating action.

Combining theories from NGL and your “problem”

The theories for assignment 2 aren’t limited just to theories from NGL. You should also use theories that are relevant to your problem.

You look around for how other people have conceptualised the problem and the approaches and theories that they have used. Do any of those resonate with you? Can you see any problems or limitations with the approaches used? Are there other theoretical lenses or just simple ways of understanding the problem that help narrow down useful avenues for action?

In terms of my problem with the perceived quality limitations of university e-learning, I’ve been using the TPACK framework for a while as one theoretical lens. TPACK is quite a recent and broadly used theory for understanding the knowledge teachers require to design technology-based learning experiences. (Since all models are wrong, it has it’s limitations)

Drawing on TPACK I wonder if the reason why university e-learning is so bad is because the TPACK (knowledge) being used to design, implement, and support it is insufficient. It needs to be improved.

Not an earth shatteringly insightful or novel suggestion. But by focusing on TPACK that does suggest that perhaps I focus my attention for potential solutions within the TPACK related literature, other than elsewhere. Almost always there is more literature than any body (especially in the context of a few weeks) can get their head around. So for better or worse, you need to starting drawing boundaries.

Now with a focus on TPACK it’s time to combine my personal experience with the theory and associated literature. My personal experience and context may also help focus my exploration. e.g. if I were working in a TAFE/VET context, I might start looking at the literature for mentions of TPACK in the TAFE/VET context (or just at TAFE/VET literature). Again, narrowing down the focus.

I might find that there’s nothing in the TAFE/VET context that mentions TPACK in conjunction with e-learning. This might highlight an opportunity to learn lessons from other contexts and test them out in the TAFE/VET context. Or there might already be some TPACK/TAFE/VET/e-learning literature that I can learn from.

In my case, as someone with relatively high TPACK I get really annoyed when people think the main challenge is “low digital fluency of faculty” (i.e. teaching staff). This gets me thinking that perhaps the problem isn’t going to be solved by focusing on developing the knowledge of teaching staff. i.e. requiring teaching staff to have formal teaching qualification isn’t (I believe) going to solve the problem, so what is?

You want digitally fluent faculty?

This is potentially interesting because a fair chunk of existing practice assumes that formal teaching qualifications or the “right” professional development opportunities will help teaching staff develop the right TPACK and thus university e-learning will be fantastic. Being able to mount a counter to a prevailing orthodoxy might be interesting and useful. It might make a contribution. It might also identify a fundamental misunderstanding of a problem and a need to read and consider further.

In my case that led to an interest in (seeing a connection with) another theoretical idea, i.e. the distributive view of learning and knowledge. I do recommend Putnam & Borko (2000) as a good place to start learning about how the distributive view of knowledge and thinking can help situate teacher learning.

The combination of TPACK and the distributive view of learning appears to be useful. So we ended up using it in this paper to explore our experience with university e-learning. That work lead to questions such as

  • How can institutional learning and teaching support engage with the situated nature of TPACK and its development?
  • How can University-based systems and teaching practices be closer to, or better situated in, the teaching contexts experienced by pre-service educators?
  • How can the development of TPACK by teacher educators be made more social?
  • How can TPACK be shared with other teacher educators and their students?
  • Can the outputs of digital renovation practices by individual staff be shared?
  • How can institutions encourage innovation through digital renovation?
  • What are the challenges and benefits involved in encouraging digital renovation?

Most of these are questions that could be good candidates for a design-based research project. i.e. can you use these and other theories to design an intervention or change in practice?

Designing an intervention

This recent post is my attempt to answer at least this question from above

How can institutional learning and teaching support engage with the situated nature of TPACK and its development?

It takes the distributed view of TPACK, the BAD mindset, and tries to envision some changes in practice/technology that might embody the principles from those theoretical ideas.

The idea is that being guided by those theoretical ideas makes it more likely that I can predict what can/should happen. I can justify the design of the intervention. I might be wrong, but it will hopefully be a better reason for the specific design approach than “because I wanted to”.

The ultimate aim of a DBR approach is to design, implement, and then test this design to see if it does achieve what I think it might.

Don’t forget the context. Don’t focus on the technology

My example above is very heavy on in terms of technology and requires fairly large technical expertise. That’s because it is something that I’ve designed for my specific context. It makes sense (hopefully) within that context.

If I were someone else working (with less technical knowledge) in a different context (e.g. an outback school with no Internet connection), then the solution I would design would be different.

Putnam and Borko (2000) give a range of examples around teacher learning that aren’t heavily technology based. If there is no Internet connection, there might be a high prevalence of mobile phones. If not, I might need to become a little more creative about using low levels of digital technologies.

In fact, if I were in a very low technology environment, I’d be actively searching the literature for insight and ideas about how other people have dealt with this problem. Almost certainly I wouldn’t be the first in the world.


Putnam, R. T., & Borko, H. (2000). What do new views of knowledge and thinking have to say about research on teacher learning? Educational Researcher, 4-15.

How NGL can inform my role as teacher

The students in a course I’m teaching are asked to reflect on their own work and respond to the question embedded in the title to this post. What follows is mostly a test post to illustrate how it will all work, but also captures some of my views.

My own learning outside of the institution.

This is currently the primary influence. To teach I need to learn and the vast majority of my learning is enabled through various aspects of NGL. This occurs largely outside of the organisation. The better I adopt NGL practices, the better my learning, and the better my teaching.

Limited steps (and barriers) around my learning within the institution

Principles and practices from NGL are almost entirely absent from institutional approaches to staff development and teacher learning. These practices are still largely stuck in objectivist and cognitivist approaches to learning.

What attempts are made toward adopting NGL are constrained by the underlying hierarchical mindset that infects the institution. This includes the fundamental organisational structure; how technology is selected, supported, and configured; and, how learning is organised into hierarchical structures consisting of faculties, schools, programs, and courses.

The institution does have a Yammer group that appears essentially dead. Recently some of the more technically minded staff have started using Slack and that appears to be a little more active. Whether that’s the initial novelty or something more about those involved being much more familiar with the type of NGL practices Slack encourages, it’s too soon to tell.

My last post before this one outlines a “system” that I’d like to implement that I think is more likely to embed NGL principles into how teachers learn how to teach. Whether it does or not is the $64K question. It is this “system” that would form my focus for Assignment 2 in the NGL course.

My students’ learning

Students in the courses I’m involved with are required and support to engage more in NGL than almost any other course I’m aware of. This is only possible because I’ve developed software to support it; leveraged externally available tools for student learning; and, ignored institutional policy around where courses and their content may reside. And with all of that, the engagement of these students in NGL is still only scratching the surface of the possibilities.

I can see some glimmer of possibilities for the “system” outlined above for helping with this. But time will tell.

Visualising locations of students etc

I’ve been set a task (asked nicely really) by my Head of School if it is possible to produce a map that will allow all and sundry to see the geographic spread of our students.

I vaguely remember doing something like this previously with Google maps, but I didn’t think it “visual” enough. @palbion identified a couple of GIS experts in another school who could probably do it. I still don’t know whether I can do it, but I’m using this as an opportunity to test the adage from Connectivism that

The capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known (Siemens, 2008)

Can I use my “capacity to know” to solve this problem?

Making a connection

Just over an hour ago I tweeted out a plea

Within minutes @katemfd tweeted and introduced me to “the Fresh Prince of Visualisation of Things on Maps”

Who replied very quickly with this advice

Making many more connections

Now all I have to do is to grok @cartodb and produce a map.

But first, perhaps check pricing and functionality. Looks like the free version will work. The small wrinkle is the absence of “private datasets”. In the last week we’ve had a couple of serious emails make the rounds about student privacy. Will have to keep that in mind.

I should filter the data a bit more, but let’s give it a go.

  1. Drag and drop data onto the page
  2. Nice interface to manipulate the data once uploaded.
  3. First problem is geo-referencing the data.
    Postcodes are in the data, but not sure if this is sufficient. Need to look at the support. Looks like I might need to add country details. That’s it.

First version done. Time to filter. At this stage, I’m not going to show the visualisations given the worry about privacy.

Oh nice, the platform automatically creates different visualisations including a heat map and has wizards to modify further.

That’s produced a reasonable first go. Will need to refine it more, but enough to send off to the HoS.

That took no more than 20 minutes.

So which is more important?

The original quote is

The capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known

The above experience is actually a combination of both. The network I’ve built on Twitter – especially the brilliant @katemfd (performing as what Barabasi would call a network hub) – has provided the “capacity to know”. It helped me access someone for whom @cartodb was “actually known”.

But wouldn’t Google have worked just as well?

A couple of weeks ago I had performed a quick Google search and didn’t find @cartodb. I didn’t “actually know” about it and so I had to spend too much time figuring out how “to know”.

But even making the connection with @cbhorley wasn’t sufficient. In order to use @cartodb effectively I used a range of stuff that I already “know”.

Why should a teacher know how to code?

The idea that everyone should know how to code is increasingly dominant and increasingly questioned. In terms of a required skill that everyone should know, I remain sitting on the fence. But if you are currently teaching in a contemporary university where e-learning (technology enhanced learning, digital learning, online learning, choose your phrase) forms a significant part of what you do, then I think you should seriously consider developing the skill.

If you don’t have the skill, then I don’t know how you are surviving the supreme silliness that is the institutionally selected and mandated e-learning environment. And, at the very least, I’ve been able to convince Kate

Which means I think it’s a good step when Alex and Lisa have decided to learn a bit of “coding” as the “as learner” task for netgl. I might disagree a little about whether “HTML” counts as coding (you have to at least bring in Javascript to get there I think), but as a first step it’s okay.

Why should a (e-)teacher know how to code

(Sorry for using “e-teacher”, but I needed a short way to make clear that I don’t think all teachers should learn to code. Just someone who’s having to deal with an “institutionally selected and mandated e-learning environment” and perhaps those using broader tools. I won’t use it again)

What reasons can I give for this? I’ll start with these

  1. Avoid the starvation problem.
  2. Avoid the reusability paradox.
  3. Actually understand that digital technologies were meant to be protean.
  4. Develop what Schulman (1987) saw as the distinguishing knowledge of a teacher,

The starvation problem

Alex’s reasons for learning how to code touch on what I’ve called the starvation problem with e-learning projects. Alex’s description was

our developers work with the code. This is fine, but sometime…..no…often, when clients request changes to modules they have paid tens-of-thousands of dollars for, I feel the developers’ time is wasted fixing simple things when they could be figuring out how to program one of the cool new interactions I’ve suggested. So, if I could learn some basic coding their time could be saved and our processes more efficient.

The developers – the folk who can actually change the technology – are the bottleneck. If anything needs to change you have to involve the developers and typically most institutions have too few developers for the amount of reliance they now place on digital technologies.

In the original starvation problem post I identified five types of e-learning projects and suggested that the reliance on limited developer resources meant that institutions were flat out completing all of the necessary projects of the first two types. Projects of types 3, 4, and 5 are destined to be (almost) always starved of developer resources. i.e. the changes to technology will never happen.

# Description
1. Externally mandated changes.
2. Changes arising from institutional strategic projects.
3. Likely (strategic) projects that haven’t registered on some senior managers radar
4. Projects that only a sub-set of institutional courses (e.g. all of the Bachelor of Education courses) will require.

How can we be one university if you have different requirements?

5. Changes specific to a course of pedagogical design.

For a teacher, it’s type 4 and 5 projects that are going to be of the immediate interest. But these are also the projects least likely to be resourced. Especially if the institution is on a consistency/”One University” kick where the inherent diversity of learning and teaching is seen as a cost to be minimised, rather than an inherent characteristic.

Avoid the reusability paradox


The question of diversity and its importance to effective learning (and teaching) brings in the notion of the reusability paradox. The Reusability Paradox arises from the idea that the pedagogical value of a learning object (something to learn with/from) arises from how well it has been contextualised. i.e. how well it has been customised for the unique requirements of the individual learner. The problem is that there is an inverse relationship between the pedagogical value of a learning object and the potential for it to be reused in other contexts.

The further problem is that most of the e-learning tools (e.g. an LMS) are designed to maximise reuse. They are designed to be used in many different contexts (the image to the right).

The problem is that in order to be able to maximise the pedagogical value of this learning object I need to be able to change it. I need to be able to modify it so that it suits the specifics of my learner(s). But as we’ve established above, the only way most existing tools can be changed is by involving the developers. i.e. the scarce resource.


Unless of course you can code. If you can code, then you can write: a module for Moodle that will allow students to use blogs outside of Moodle for learning; a script that will allow you to contact students who haven’t submitted an assignment; develop a collection of tools to better understand who and how learners are using your course site; or, mutate that collection of tools into something that will allow you to have some idea what each of the 300+ students in your course are doing.

Understand the protean nature of digital technologies

And once you can code, you can start to understand that digital technologies aren’t meant to be Procrustean tool that is “designed to produce conformity by violent or ruthless methods”. But instead to understand the important points made by people such as the gentlemen to the left – Doug Englebart and Alan Kay. For example, Kay (1984) described software as the “most protean of media” and suggested that it was obvious that

Users must be able to tailor a system to their wants (p. 57)

The knowledge base for teaching

Shulman (1987) suggested that

the key to distinguishing the knowledge base of teaching lies at the intersection of content and pedagogy, in the capacity of a teacher to transform the content knowledge he or she possesses into forms that are pedagogically powerful and yet adaptive to the variations in ability and background presented by the students (p. 15)

If the majority of the teaching you do is mediated by digital technologies, then doesn’t the ability to transform the digitial technologies count as part of the “knowledge base of teaching”? Isn’t coding an important part of the ability to perform those transformations? Shouldn’t every teacher have some ability to code?

I’m not ready to answer those questions yet, still some more work to do. But I have to admit that it’s easier (and I believe effective) for me to teach with the ability to code, then it would be without that ability.


Kay, A. (1984). Computer Software. Scientific American, 251(3), 53–59.

Shulman, L. (1987). Knowledge and teaching: Foundations of the new reform. Harvard Educational Review, 57(1), 1–21. Retrieved from http://her.hepg.org/index/J463W79R56455411.pdf

Understanding learning as network formation

This is a follow on from yesterday’s post weaving in a few posts from netgl participants.

Learning as a (common) journey

Rebecca uses emojis to illustrate a fairly typical journey through netgl (and a few of the other courses I teach). As is confirmed by the comment from another Rebecca (there are 8 participants in the course and 3 of them are Rebecca’s).

One of the turning points for Rebecca (who wrote the post) was a fairly old-fashioned synchronous session held in a virtual space

But then I attended the online chat session, clarified where I was supposed to be heading

Rebecca links this to

when things are deemed too difficult, people tend to revert to coping strategies. In this case, it was good ol’ face to face talking (OK…admittedly online and not in the ‘true’ sense…) to achieve direction out of the online maze.

Aside: I’m wondering if the journey metaphor is just a bit to sequential. Perhaps it’s illustrative of our familiarity and comfort with the sequential, rather than the complexity and inter-connectedness that arise from a network view.

The problem of being disconnected

I think there’s some connection between Rebecca’s struggles with something new and the experience of Lisa’s 11 year-old during a blackout

I found myself with a crazy bored eleven-year-old on my hands who was pacing the house saying ‘when’s the power coming back on, when’s the power coming back on’. His level of anxiety at being disconnected was incredibly sobering.

I also wonder whether the relief Rebecca got from “good ol’ face to face talking” is related to Lisa’s experience of the blackout

It was lovely, not just to switch off from the noise and chaos, but from the words as well – as you say, time for the diffuse mode to kick in and allow moments of quiet reflection

Learning as network formation

As mentioned in yesterday’s post, at some level networked learning is about the idea that what we know is actually (or at least fruitfully represented as) a network. Yesterday’s post pointed to brain research that is based on the brain being a network. It also drew on Downes’ writing on connectivism which has the view

learning is the formation of connections in a network

From this perspective, you might suggest that Rebecca and Lisa’s 11 year-old have already formed networks (learned) how to cope with certain situations like a face-to-face session or spending Saturday with electricity. But they haven’t yet formed networks to deal with the new and unexpected situation. Meaning that they have to start forming that network. Starting with their existing networks, they need to start making new connections to different ideas and practices. Figure out if any existing connections may need to be questioned as not necessarily the only option (e.g. spending all day on the computer, learning via traditional modes). Test out some of the nascent connections and see if they work as expected.

This type of network formation is hard. Especially when the number and diversity of the new connections you have to make increase. Learning how to learn online in a xMOOC which consists of lots of small video-taped lectures, with a set, sequential syllabus that is stored in one place. Is a lot easier than learning how to learn online in a cMOOC that isn’t taking place in one place and expects you to figure out where you want to go.

How do I know? How do I keep up?

In the midst of getting their head around the different approach to learning taken in netgl quite a few folk have raised the question of “how do I keep up”? I saw it first in another of Rebecca’s posts in the form of this question

how, once I graduate from being a formal student and progress into the world of teaching (in whichever form that may take), on Earth do I keep up with all the new programs, networked learning, social media hookups that seem to pop up hourly that I need to contend with?

Charm has shared via the netgl Diigo group a link to and some comments on Kop and Hill (2008), which includes this on connectivism

Connectivism stresses that two important skills that contribute to learning are the ability to seek out current information, and the ability to filter secondary and extraneous information. Simply put, “The capacity to know is more critical than what is actually known” (Siemens, 2008, para. 6).

Rebecca, I think this quote gives you a “network” answer to your question. Your ability to “keep up” (to know, to learn) is what is important, not what you know.

I should also mention this next point from Kop and Hill (2008) which I think is often overlooked

The learning process is cyclical, in that learners will connect to a network to share and find new information, will modify their beliefs on the basis of new learning, and will then connect to a network to share these realizations and find new information once more. Learning is considered a “. . . knowledge creation process . . . not only knowledge consumption.”

“To know” versus “actually known”

In responding to Rebecca’s post, Alex asks

So, given the population is ceasing its reliance on fundamental knowledge and increasing its dependence on immediate information, do you think field-specific academics will remain a valuable entity, as they hold deep information on specific areas?

Touching on the debate between those who believe “to know” is more important and those who believe that “actually known” is still important. A debate that is on-going (for some) and for which I have to admit to not having any links for. My inability to provide links to the “actually known” folk is perhaps indicative of my own networks and prejudices.

Implications for teachers?

It is a debate that raises questions about the role of the teacher. Lisa’s search for a metaphor for the teacher role had her pondering: sage, guide, or grandmother. Grandmother being a link to the work of Sugata Mitra (in a comment I pointed Lisa to a critique of Mitra’s work).

IN terms of “guide on the side” Lisa writes

the role of the guide on the side becomes less about “being the facilitator who orchestrates the context”, as Alison King described in the nineties, and more about helping students to develop the tools and skills needed to hear and decipher a coherent message from the cacophony of information available to them.

Personally, I have an affinity for McWilliam’s (2009) concept of the “meddler in the middle” which points toward a more

interventionist pedagogy in which teachers are mutually involved with students in assembling and/or dis-assembling knowledge and cultural products

Which could perhaps be re-phrased as “mutually involved with students in the formation of their networks”.

I’ll end with Downes’ slogan that describes what he sees as the teacher and learner roles which seems to align somewhat with that idea

To ‘teach’ is to model and demonstrate. To ‘learn’ is to practice and reflect.

There’s more to it than the Internet and social software

The following is a bit of reflection and curation of various posts from participants in the netgl course. There’ll be a few of these coming. The aim for this post is to suggest that there might be more to the “networked” part of Networked and Global Learning than just the Internet and social media. This is an important point to make because the interventions design by the folk from last year’s offering of the course were a little too limited in their focus on the Internet and various forms of social media.

At some level, the argument here is similar to the one from this post titled “Why everything is a network” i.e. not that everything is a network, or that a network is the only metaphor by which to understand a whole range of situations. It is to suggest, however, that a network is a useful model/metaphor through which to understand and guide interventions in a range of situations.

And this is a view that can trace its origins beyond just learning, teaching and education. Barabasi (2014) writes

Networks are present everywhere. All we need is an eye for them.

and then goes on to show how a network perspective provides ways to understand as diverse topics as: the success of Paul in spreading Christianity; how to cure a disease; and, the rise of terrorism. Leading to the

important message of this book: The construction and structure of graphs or networks is the key to understanding the complex world around us. Small changes in the topology, affecting only a few of the nodes or links, can open up hidden doors, allowing new possibilities to emerge (p. 12)

Changes in purchasing books

For example, in thinking about the future of Tertiary education Lisa talks about changes in the publishing industry, including her own behaviour around purchasing books

as this industry seems to be floundering and I only have to look at my own behaviour as a consumer to see why. As a book consumer, I can say I do still read, but I get my books from the places that are cheapest and easiest for me – Amazon and Audible (owned by Amazon). Why would I spend $45.00 on a hard-copy book from a shop when I can listen to it on the way to work by paying an audible credit that costs less than $13.00? Why would I order a book from a retailer that may take months to arrive that I can download to my Kindle app instantly – and cheaply?

Changes that I observe in my own practice. But also more than that. The Barabasi quote from above is from the Kindle version of the book I purchased. I read that book mostly while traveling to and from Wagga Wagga using my phone. Highlighting bits that were relevant to me and making annotations as I went. In writing this post, I’ve started up the Kindle app on my Mac, synced with Amazon, and was able to view all my annotations and highlights. Not only that, I was able to also see the popular highlights from other people.

The experiences of both Lisa and I illustrate how digital books are making it easier to create links or connections between nodes. Both Lisa and I find it much easier to “connect” (i.e. buy) a book via the combination of Amazon and the Kindle apps. Not only in terms of price, but also in terms of speed. Having the content in a digital form that can be manipulated also helps make links to specific parts of the book.

Barabasi (2014) writes

Nodes always compete for connections because links represent survival in an interconnected world.

Amazon is currently winning a large part of the publishing “war” because it is making the ability to “link” to a book or other publication much easier. The more links it is able to create, the more likely it will be able to survive.

What if there isn’t a network?

Angela ponders “The challenge of networked learning when there is no Network…” as she enjoys a weekend away from Internet connectivity and apparently no ability to engage in netgl. Of course, Angela has forgotten that she had taken along one of the most complex networks we currently know, her brain.

The Connected Brains website makes prominent use of this quote from Tim Berners-Lee

There are billions of neurons in our brains, but what are neurons? Just cells. The brain has no knowledge untill connections are made between neurons. All that we know, all that we are, comes from the way our neurons are connected.

The website then goes onto to trace some of the history and research going on that seeks to understand the brain as a complex network.

In a post title “Connectivism as a learning theory” Stephen Downes makes the connection between the view of the brain as a network, a weakness in other theories of learning, and how connectivism addresses this by viewing learning as “the formation of connections in a network”.

In closing

…much more to come, it’s been a fruitful week for netgl blogging.

But the point here is that the “network” part of netgl is much more than just social software and the Internet. This is perhaps the most visible parts of netgl to the participants, but these aren’t the only examples of, nor are they required for netgl.

Changing “as learner” focus – analytics to “chamber music”

A much delayed blog post that I’m getting out in a hurry now.

A few weeks ago I started yet another MOOC with the intent of it being the demonstration of “as learner” for the Network & Global Learning course. As with all other attempts to start a MOOC, it was a failure. Mostly due to my own time constraints and unexpected time sinks. But also because the content and the approach used in the MOOC didn’t fit and I wasn’t motivated enough or have enough time to bridge the gap.

Time to change focus and approach. Rather than a formal course, the next attempt “as learner” will be to engage with the network and the communities it contains around a particular topic. Walking my own path through the network(s) associated with the topic, rather than following the path laid out by someone else. An approach that will have it’s own challenges.

The topic (purpose is perhaps a better descriptor) this time will be “chamber music”. Actually, that’s just a highfalutin way of saying that Mr 10 and I are going to try and play a some duets. He’s learning oboe and clarinet, while I’m trying to get back into the alto saxophone (not the most traditional of combinations, but you make do with what you have). Playing together seems a good way to motivate both he and I to play more, and also to provide an activity we can undertake together. Plus, if it all comes off, Mr 8 is going to picking up an instrument next year. The Jones trio may not be too far off.

How to go about it?

The purpose of the “as learner” task as part of netgl is to provide participants with a practical experience to which to apply the literature they are reading. In theory, the literature around netgl should help them reflect and perhaps plan how they go about their “as learner” task. I’ll try to demonstrate one particular approach to doing this.

The readings for next week have a focus on community. The CLEM framework (adopted from another context) talks about looking for

  • Community – folk getting together to share ideas and experience of a practice
  • Literature – ideas and experience around the practice formalised into published forms
  • Examples – examples of others engaging in the practice
  • Models – the terminology and schema associated with the practice


Let’s start with models and in particular terminology. You can’t search effectively unless you know the commonly accepted terminology.

Chamber music, duets, trios etc are some of the terms I believe apply, but as I’m not really a member of the music community/set, I can’t be sure.

Community music is a new term found whilst searching. Defined as

Community music is music played in communities. It can be recreational, cultural or religious and can embrace any genre, from classical to popular to traditional music from diverse cultures. Community music is generally practiced on an amateur and non-profit basis, although there are professional musicians who work in communities.


Search for “music community” reveals an interesting collection of sites

  • Creative Commons – Music communities;

    A list of “exemplary music communities” put together by the Creative Commons folk. Includes a range of sites for finding CC licensed music and platforms for sharing music. Most of the sites appear aimed more at more advanced musicians, but I assume many can be be used to advantage by us novices. Most do seem aimed at sharing performance, rather than actual sheet music and aiding learning.

  • Music in community from the Music Australia site.
    Which links off to Music in Communities network. These appear to be more “portals” to existing music communities etc, rather than network-based communities to get playing. Including a directory of Australian music groups to join.



Have decided that both sheet music and performance can be classed as examples for my purposes.

Using 8notes

I ended up paying to join the 8notes community. This granted access to some sheet music that Mr 10 and I have started playing. It’s probably too complex. I need to explore a bit further and find something simpler for our earlier forays.

The rest of this post is a collection of summaries and thoughts from the netgl literature used in the course. It’s an attempt to use this literature to frame what I’m doing in this task. It’s something that I haven’t finished. But points to further exploration

  1. What type of community is 8Notes? What other types of sources of learning/networks do I need to engage with?
  2. How do Mr 10 and progress through our relationship with these networks? What impact does it have on our learning?

I have to admit that part of the cutting off of this post arises from the fact that I found myself pondering too much the theoretical side of this (trying to understand what I was doing through the netgl literature). As a result I wasn’t spending enough time actually engaged in playing with Mr 10. A feeling made worse by some additional workload and other factors.

Types of community

The other reading for next week – Riel and Polin (2004) identify three types of learning community

  1. Task-based learning communities – come together for a certain time to produce a specific product.
  2. Practice-based learning communities – larger groups with shared goals that provide support. Apparently, where a CoP fits.
  3. Knowledge-based learning communities – much like a CoP but focused explicitly on the formal production of external knowledge about a practice.

I’m not convinced that Riel and Polin’s three learning communities capture the full breadth of possibilities. But then that may simply be my on-going distrust of the CoP approach. But it’s also indicative of the perceived misfit between this type of conceptualisation and what I experience when engaging in learning on the Internet.

Perhaps that’s because when engaged in learning via the Internet it’s about traversing a huge network that consists of many different communities. Perhaps so much so that the desire to identify, classify, and enumerate what communities are out there says more about our desire to put stuff in boxes and not wanting to admit it’s way more complex. Perhaps so complex that any attempt to put in boxes loses more than it gains?

This is where I think Dron’s and Anderson’s (2014) identification of groups, networks, sets, and collectives does a better job of capturing the full spectrum of what happens in terms of learning on the network.

The communities Riel and Polin (2004) identify perhaps largely fit within Dron and Anderson’s (2014) notion of groups. The distinguishing factor being that the membership of these communities/groups are listable. For example, the Research Supervisors CoP at USQ fits within Riel and Polin’s (2004) practice-based learning communities category and its membership is listable through the attendance records at meetings. Dron and Anderson (2014) actually identify CoPs as an intersection of Group and Net, and I think this perhaps highlights the source of my bias against CoPs. The theoretical form of CoPs as discussed by proponents is perhaps what fits at the intersection of Group and Net. However, the implementation of the CoPs that I’ve observed tends to be learn much more toward the Group, than the net aspect. Perhaps this is because of how I’ve engaged, or perhaps due to the technologies they’ve used (almost entirely synchronous meetings).

**** I need to read and write more about collectives, maybe later ****

Identity transformation

Riel and Polin (2004) also talk about the focus of CoP and Activity Theory on learning being “a process of identity transformation – a socially construct and socially managed experience” (p. 19). A transformation that is evolves along with the individual’s journey through the community…….this unfinished thought and idea is something to be picked up later.


Dron, J., & Anderson, T. (2014). Teaching crowds: Learning and Social Media. Edmonton: AU Press. Retrieved from http://www.aupress.ca/index.php/books/120235

Riel, M., & Polin, L. (2004). Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments. In S. A. Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (Eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning (pp. 16–50). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Does learning about teaching in formal education match this?

Riel and Pollin (2004) talk about a view of learning that sees learning occurring

through engagement in authentic experiences involving the active manipulation and experimentation with ideas and artifacts – rather than through an accumulation of static knowledge (p. 17)

They cite people such as Bruner and Dewey supporting that observation.

When I read that, I can’t but help reflect on what passes for “learning about teaching” within universities.

Authentic experience

Does such learning about teaching occur “through engagement in authentic experiences”?


Based on my experiences at two institutions, it largely involves

  • Accessing face-to-face and online instructions on how-to use a specific technology.
  • Attending sessions talking about different teaching methods or practices.
  • Being told about the new institutionally mandated technology or practice.
  • For a very lucky few, engaged with an expert in instructional design or instructional technology about the design of the next offering of a course.

Little learning actually takes place in the midst of teaching – the ultimate authentic experience.

Active manipulation

Does such learning allow and enable the “active manipulation and experimentation with ideas and artifacts”?


Based on my experience, the processes, policies, and tools used to teach within universities are increasingly set in stone. Clever folk have identified the correct solution and you shall use them as intended.

Active manipulation and experimentation is frowned upon as inefficient and likely to impact equity and equality.

Most of the technological environments (whether they be open source or proprietary) are fixed. Any notion of using some technology that is not officially approved, or modifying an existing technology is frowned upon.

Does this contribute to the limitations of university e-learning?

If, learning occurs through authentic experience and active manipulation, and the university approach to learning about teaching (especially with e-learning) doesn’t effectively support either of these requirements, then is there any wonder that the quality of university e-learning is seen as having a few limitations?


Riel, M., & Polin, L. (2004). Online learning communities: Common ground and critical differences in designing technical environments. In S. A. Barab, R. Kling, & J. Gray (Eds.), Designing for Virtual Communities in the Service of Learning (pp. 16–50). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.