4 November 2012

About 'setting up' a learning network

Kinds of learning networks 

Learning networks come in a variety of different kinds. First, there is the personal variety, the personal learning network or PLN, which the individual person sets up and maintains, and provides him or her with  a view of or a lens on the outside world (cf. Rajagopal et al., 2012). In social network analysis, this is called an ego network for the obvious reason that the individual is taken as the network's focal point. Although a PLN is a collection of people with whom (or with their content) you want to interact, access to them is mediated through tools. Examples are the well-known social media such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, or more specialised social media, tied to your specific needs. An apt example of a specialised tool for a researchers is Mendeley, which is used for keeping your references to the scholarly literature in order, but is also very good at organising groups - private or public - of people around subsets thereof. I, for example, maintain such a group on networked learning. It is used not only for broadcasting relevant literature I found, but people also post requests for participation in a survey on networked learning or ask for help choosing an appropriate platform for hosting their portal.

The second kind of learning network takes the opposite perspective, not from the inside out but from the outside in. They are organisational learning networks and they try to cater for a more or less well delineated group of users. I call this variety outside-in, because, typically, they are set up to draw users into the network and then use all sorts of tools to connect them with each other. Not everybody gets connected to everybody else, of course, but only those who may have something meaningful to tell each other. Another way to put this, is to say that weak links are turned into strong links, in reference to the now famous papers by Granovetter (1973, 1983) and discussed by, for example, by Chris Jones et al. (2008) in the context of learning networks (see the Mendeley group mentioned for details). I will not go into this topic any further, what are desirable patterns of connections and how to make sure these emerge is a large research area of its own.

Organisational networks come in different kinds, depending on the nature of the organisation that acts as the network's sponsor. To mention a few cases:

  • an association of public libraries in the Netherlands wants to involve its employees in thinking about the change of their business, from lending books to being an information broker
  • a school wants to provide a social portal to its students, rather than just a VLE
  • a company wants to involve its customers in, say, product design (cf. Von Hippel, 2005
  • a group of people who share a specific interest, say the linux operating system, want to share knowledge on the topic of their interest.

In  all these cases, there is a  portal that acts as the focal point. The portal acts as the lens on the network and those who visit it often have to register before they can join in. Such portals are managed, certainly in the case of organisations that have a vested interest in the network's existence (the first three cases), but they may also self-organise as often is the case with 'user groups' (with self-organise I do not intend to say that an organisation somehow magically emerges, but rather that there is no hierarchical chain of command at the outset, although one may arise on the users own initiative, cf. Steven Weber, The Success of Open Source, 2004 for a further explanation of this point).

Does it make sense to set up your own portal?

It is these portals I want to say a little more about here. It seems that a dedicated portal for organisational (learning) networks is the only way to go, but a blogpost by Kirsty Newman has invigorated the doubts I already had. Although Kirsty talks about portals in general, what she says applies to organisational learning networks as well. She gives four reasons for why you should think twice about setting up a portal. The first question is whether the lack of a portal is the problem. In my own experience with EU-funded research projects, routinely portals are set up for knowledge sharing and the EU officials even demand that the portal is maintained for some time after the funding stops. But typically, such portals do not work as there is nobody out there who has a demand for it. Only if nothing exists and there is a genuine demand, it makes sense to add yet another portal to the welter of existing ones. The public library example seems to be a an example of where it is needed, at least so far.

An example where it did not make sense was a large international organisation which needed to disseminate knowledge about operating particular medical equipment to developing countries. They developed courses for this purpose. Not only did they not want to consider using existing materials that were available on for example iTunesU, Wikipedia and Wikiversity ('my boss insists I write this myself and be recognisable as its author'), they did not want to use those platforms for disseminating their home-grown course materials either. Their superiors required them to set up their own portal, even if it were a VLE, because only then the organisation's involvement would stand out sufficiently. This example also speaks to the second question Kirsty is raising: is someone else already doing it? Clearly in this case, someone else is, and it would make sense to consider what are first priorities (disseminating effectively) and what aren't (being easily identifiable as the sponsoring organisation).

Kirsty's third question is whether the portal could just as well be hosted on Facebook. This is a variation of the second question, but draws attention to specific social networking sites. I would be reluctant to host a learning network on Facebook, not so much for its possible lack of functionality, but more for its miserable track record in privacy matters. LinkedIn would be another option, although if you are principled about privacy, it has the same problem that learner's private data are entrusted with a company that has advertising in mind, not the learner's best interest. But students at least don't seem to mind. At my own university a Facebook group that psychology students run themselves attracts much more traffic than does the official VLE. If anything proves this third point, this does.

Finally, Kirsty wonders whose one-stop shop the portal really is. "A common argument is that setting up a one-stop shop will save people time since they only need to go one place to find everything they need", Kirsty says. The Facebook case just mentioned illustrates the attractiveness of a one-stop shop, but Kirsty's argument is that the assumption that many people have overlapping shopping list simply isn't true. The case of the EU research project portals illustrates this point quite well (Kirsty gives other examples). The participants in the projects do, but the rest of the world needs to be convinced that the research reported solves some genuine issues they have (and not: are supposed to have in the eyes of the project). A strategy that ensures that the research results somehow enter into people's personal learning networks would make a lot more sense. This applies more widely, to lifelong learners in general, and the courses that educational institutions want to interest in them. The problem is that it is rather difficult to target those unknown 'customers'. But, of course, setting up a portal only seemingly avoids that problem. What it takes in either case is that you as a disseminator take a genuine interest in those 'customers', make the efforts to chart them out and approach them on their terms.

In conclusion then, whenever the idea comes up to set up a dedicated portal to serve an organisation's needs, ask yourself whether a portal is the right way to go. It could, as with the libraries, but likely, more often than we care to admit, it does not. In the latter case, look for ways to engage with people's personal learning networks, try to get the individuals to interact with each other on your topic and have them build mutual links. Even though from the individual's vantage point we are still are still dealing with a set of ego networks, the collective of those ego networks qualifies as an organisational learning network. It only is a little harder to put your finger on it.

Acknowledgement: thanks to @SebSchmoller for twee alerting me to Kirsty's blog post via a Tweet.