Researching and Understanding Educational Networks

flickr photo by ianguest http://flickr.com/photos/ianinsheffield/22211175143 shared under a Creative Commons (BY-NC-SA) license

Based on the Learning How to Learn project, this book explores the issues around how networks can help improve teacher learning and practice.

The authors seek to distinguish between communities, which are useful in knowledge creation, and networks which have the power to share knowledge more widely. The intent was to shed light on factors such as network technologies and infrastructure, policies and practices, teacher capability and confidence (in using networks), whether new forms of networking are driven by the demands for knowledge sharing and if new networking practices reflect current patterns of collaboration.

They employed a hybrid model of analysis, assembled using concepts/interpretations such as social network analysis (SNA), social capital, small worlds, actor-network theory (ANT) and in so doing, sought to determine whether it is appropriate to use networks as analytical tools or simply as metaphors. Participants in the project were invited to illustrate how they visualised the project-related networks in which they were involved. The diagrams generated provided the initial data for analysis. Despite being widely disparate in form, the illustrations lent themselves to being interpreted largely as ego-centric networks in which certain individuals are key. Although SNA would seem to be the most obvious lens to bring to bear, the authors drew from it only those terms and concepts which proved more informative, leaving behind the more quantitative elements which were felt to be less revealing.

After remarking on the network morphologies, one is then drawn to the main structural features of most networks; their nodes and links. In the participants’ maps, nodes weren’t always individuals and were sometimes groups or organisations (the Local Authority), or even roles (LA Advisor). Rather than using a quantitative approach where centrality, betweenness and degree are measures of how nodes control access to transfers between each other, a more qualitative approach was chosen, using those concepts merely as descriptive reference points. There were two types of actor/node which emerged as particularly significant: brokers and experts. Brokers bridge structural holes in networks, linking individuals or clusters between which connections don’t otherwise exist. Enjoying access to different information centres, brokers can be said to possess a ‘vision advantage’ (Burt, 2005) and are able to serve the following functions:

  • foster awareness of mutual interests between groups
  • facilitate the transfer of best practice
  • draw analogies between groups that may seem irrelevant to each other
  • synthesise elements from groups to generate new insights.

They are well-connected, have high social capital, build bridges, are sense-makers, translators and filters. Although brokers are invariably discussed as entities, it proves in fact that it is their relationships which prove more valuable and significant.

Experts are those with specific or advanced knowledge or capabilities. In the context of the project, they were referred to in terms of where they operated, the basis and nature of their expertise, their reputation and the impact they had. Experts were often members of the school staff, rather than being drawn from a wider pool, whether nationally or from other associated schools. However where advice is needed, the better connected the expert is to the whole network, the more valuable they are perceived to be. Consequently, these ‘expert’ nodes are actually being described as links.

Looking in turn now at the links between nodes. Firstly, three indicators of their strength drawn from the literature (physical nature, frequency and directionality of communication) proved rather challenging to evidence in the data and in fact strength was a somewhat inadequate dimension to attribute to links. Value on the other hand, in terms of quality, satisfaction, relevance and impact, were articulated much more clearly. Rather than a relationship, interaction might then be a more appropriate description for links. A line drawn on a concept map can represent a variety of interactional processes in which transactions take place, however, the outcomes of those transactions are more difficult to establish from a static network image.

A distinction needs to be drawn at some point between the formal and the informal aspects of these ideas. i.e. meetings between individuals and organisations with agendas and minutes, as opposed to chance encounters in corridors and school yards. Which interestingly touches on the idea of space as a contributory factor in support networks; some locations (again, both formal and informal) are valued and meaningful places through which interactions are enabled. Others might be restrictive or constraining.

When considering networks, it would be remiss to neglect the online world, however much of this study was conducted at a time prior to the widespread emergence of social media. Those instances where connections and networks were formed online, were largely through email, websites and to a lesser extent, videoconferencing. Rather than established offline networks simply transferring across to the online world, the study revealed a more complex relationship between the two. The maps the respondents drew were quite heterogenous, referring to both human and non-human actants, operating within online and offline spaces. Networking ignores any boundaries between the world mediated through technology and the one free from it.

The study drew heavily on SNA, although acknowledges that it is inadequate for explaining many of the features found in networks from educational contexts. Whilst it may inform our interpretations of structure of networks, groups within them and to some extent the connectives, it struggles when we need to consider educational issues other than mere exposure to other ideas. For example development and sharing of practice. To offer alternative explanations and insights, ANT is occasionally used, however this is never fully exploited. This is partly because ANT constitutes a methodology, rather than a theory, but also simply because ‘it does not provide easy guides to action.’ (And here I thought it was just me!) The authors do conclude however, in noting the absence of ANT studies which uncover teacher learning in knowledge creation networks, that ANT might offer an important approach. (Ah! So I’m not off the hook!)

Perhaps the message from the book can be distilled down to this; whilst the possibility of knowledge creation is adequately described within communities, where that knowledge needs to be shared beyond the community, then we have to turn to networks.

Observations

One point which stood out for me was when the authors contended that:

Even with the newest developments of Web 2.0, and the increase in use of social networking by teachers, the nature of teaching as a form of production does not lend itself to well to a role for ICT in knowledge creation and sharing in relation to practice. If teaching and learning were indeed transformed by ICT, as we have long been promised, then this might change its potential for teacher learning.

I wonder if their first point has been somewhat undermined more recently, with new technologies which are more conducive to the sharing and discussion of practice. The emergence of MOOCs and learning opportunities like the Khan Academy are revealing different pedagogical approaches which have sparked heated discussions and strong opinions. We also have tools with which teachers are more easily able to record and distribute (limited?) examples of their practice; screen-capture/sharing applications (Screencast-o-matic), apps like Explain Everything and whole-lesson capture/observation software. The second point above is perhaps still valid though?. The evidence to back up a claim of the transformative power of ICTs for teaching and learning remains less than conclusive and indicate they currently only deliver minimal gains. As Higgins et al (2012) noted:

It seems probable that more effective schools and teachers are more likely to use digital technologies more effectively than other schools.

So innovation can be found in pockets; perhaps then the improved capability to share what these individuals and schools are doing might begin to have more far-reaching effects.

Burt, R. S. (2005). Brokerage and closure: An introduction to social capital. OUP Oxford.
Higgins, S., Xiao, Z., & Katsipataki, M. (2012). The impact of digital technology on learning: A summary for the education endowment foundation. (PDF) Durham, UK: Education Endowment Foundation and Durham University.

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