A More Reserved Look at Networked Learning

I want to begin by saying that I think networked learning is largely a good idea. Providing the ability for people to share ideas, knowledge basis, and perspectives is inherently a good premise. Educational materials such as Khan Academy or the blogs identified in in Tim Hitchcook’s piece  have had large, tangible, and positive impact on numbers of people and helps to bridge the gaps that sometimes a more conventional educational system fails to do.

However, giving everyone a platform does bring with it some unique problems that need to be addressed both in concept and in the practical application of a networked leaning based system. The reality is, not all ideas are good ideas. Some reinforce ignorance, spread bias, promote hate, and create division which contributes to the erosion of an inclusive society. Though bringing groups of people together and allowing them to interact with other like-minded individuals can be a good thing, it can also promote protected circles that are hard to penetrate with reason or evidence; if you need an example look no further than the anti-vax or flat-earth movements and how, even in the face of insurmountable evidence that disputes their claims, continue to grow and impact our society, not always for the better.

These networks and connections can be used to spread hate, lies, manipulation the same as they can be used to spread knowledge, inclusivity or the like. The reality is that if someone wants to find reinforcement for an idea they have, regardless of how narrow-minded or destructive, these connections can allow it. I remember back to an interaction I had on Facebook a few years ago where someone shared an inappropriate, shopped photo of President Obama fondling Melania Trump. I remember commenting multiple links to the original video showing very much that interaction never occurred and the only reply that came was “I like my version better”, essentially saying that this individual choose to ignore the truth even when it was right in front of them.  This interaction highlights one of my only hesitations with the greater idea of networked learning and how social media and the World Wide Web are changing how people interact. It gives everyone a podium, regardless of if their idea or thought or take is based in truth or has merit. Jon Udell  acknowledges that everyone should have their own space in the web for themselves to control, and I agree to an extent, but to the average citizen reading something in print (regardless of if it is peer reviewed, supported by fact, or not) carries with it a level of authority that can be leveraged to further a cause – regardless of that cause’s intent.

In the same vein, I admit that the same platform can be used to tear down the walls of ignorance and expose radicalism. I think the key is to recognize networked learning for what it is — a tool. It is not a cure all, and in my opinion shouldn’t always be the correct course of action, but its merits do warrant its implementation into our society, and educational practices. However, much like any tool, its correct application will decide how much value it can add. Recognizing that this type of interaction can be susceptible to manipulation, group-think, and the like brings with it the need to promote the development of critical thinking, (cautious) open mindedness, and the ability to recognize motive/intent throughout our society NOT just in academia. I think the last bit is extremely important, because in my opinion we usually see through the world view that we have and contextualize life in the way that makes sense to us and our experiences, but academia (as Dr. Michael Wesch  points out) is not always representative of the ‘real world’ and the overarching implications the connections that networked learning makes possible may manifest themselves very differently in each environment. Not everyone tapping into the World Wide Web has a primary agenda focused on informing the public of their life’s work in a purely enlightening way, some’s motivations might not be as pure.







Twitter and blogs are not just add-ons to academic research, but a simple reflection of the passion underpinning it.



14 Replies to “A More Reserved Look at Networked Learning”

  1. You make a really great point here. Networks are a tool and can be used for good or for bad. I’ve been struggling with the question of whether to “unfollow” some friends on facebook who consistently share posts that are simply not based in fact. While I have tried to engage with them through comments and links to real statistics, they refuse to accept the facts because they prefer their own narrative. I want to unfollow them because I know that their posts will frustrate me, but I also don’t want to create for myself a “bubble” where the only posts I see will agree with my own viewpoints. I worry that if we fail to engage with those posts, we’ll stop thinking critically or considering new ideas.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I think most of us struggle with these type of interactions. I know personally I go through the same back and forth as you do when I see a poorly fabricated political meme disguised as fact. The way I see it (as you said as well) even though it is frustrating I think creating that personal bubble where you only see and hear things that you agree with is much more dangerous and can easily lead to becoming out of touch with other types of people. People often talk about academia’s ivory tower and at face value I agree how in theory it can be argued that networked learning helps to break down those walls. My concern is that networked learning doesn’t just allow you to get into touch with the person you should talk to (someone with the information or complementary knowledge base to help you or people outside of your ‘inner circle’) it allows you to get in touch with anyone. We may pretend ‘we’ as individuals are different, but it is human nature to want to be agreeable and interact with people of similar mindsets and networked learning makes it just as easy to surround oneself with those people as it does anyone else. For the academic, that can mean reinforcing the seclusion and separation from the practicalities of the real world that define the ivory tower under the guise of public outreach IF we fail to actually bring in the public or the naysayer in addition to our colleagues.

      1. Hi,

        I really appreciate the back and forth about the isolation of the academic or the unchallenging nature of surrounding ourselves with people who think like us. I think this is a valid point. On the other hand, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the structure of social media is set up such that it amplifies voices pandering to unreason and rash emotions. And by that, I mean mostly negative emotions. It promotes rage, shock, and extremity and buries the calm and sober thoughts as “boring” and “un-intertaining”. I don’t think the academic has shut herself in the ivory tower, but that there is no other place that she will be received. It is almost as if we are experiencing an era of online illiteracy where reading, writing and opinionating is subsumed by liking and “ratio”ing.

        1. You make an interesting point, and one that I don’t disagree with. I think social media, especially the negative aspects you identified represents a decent snapshot of my point about the issues that Networked Learning can bring up by allowing people to group together in ways never before seen. It allows for the creation of echo chambers with a few clicks where ideas can be created/fostered/supported and then with a few more clicks you can immediately find the exact example or person or group that ‘proves’ your idea and galvanizes your cause. The ease at which the sensationalized can be used to model the whole, in my opinion, is a symptom of what networked learning can be if used incorrectly.

  2. First, I just wanted to say that I appreciate you taking the time to consider the potentially less savory aspects of networked learning! While I was reading though, all I could think about was an interaction that occurred at the Women in Science Education luncheon I attended at the Society for Psychophysiological Research’s annual meeting. The focus of the luncheon was building your own online brand as a researcher. One researcher, who studies brain activity patterns associated with obesity shared how a journalist misconstrued one of her studies that used doughnuts as a stimulus and published an online article “This is your brain on doughnuts.” This wasn’t what the researcher was studying at all, but it’s what the public now associated her with. However, if she had had her own online platform, she could have had better control of what the public knew about her research. Publishing in academic journals takes a long time and only reaches a select amount of people; the internet reaches almost everyone. So while there are going to be inaccurate and malicious postings on the internet, I think we owe it to ourselves as researchers to make our voices heard to the public, because otherwise, there are going to be people who are ready to tell our story for us.

    1. Thank you very much for your comment and your example! I totally agree, there are significant benefits for having your own space and in this case a researcher attempting to control the way in which her research was sensationalized for the public to see. I think its a partially interesting case because it represents the duality of what networked learning is or can be (a tool for either side). You arguing (rightly so!) that this researcher could have used her own space to provide her own take on her own work in a more public friendly way than the conventional publishing which would have prevent her work from being misrepresented (this is an excellent point! I personally think the conventional publishing mechanism is terrible for public engagement and we, as researchers, need to do better at disseminating our work for a number of different audiences). On one side, networked learning can provide the researcher the ability to fix the problem of misrepresentation…. but I want to point out that networked learning is also the reason we had this problem in the first place. The same circles that can be used to circulate her take are essential the same units used to circulate the tabloid/sensationalized/diluted version; her space existing does not prevent the others from existing and giving their take regardless of what she says.
      I think this leads to a part I didn’t really touch on in my blog, but one that Arash (above) brings up. When you have all of these circles or paths or avenues and no structure to help inform that selection it largely comes down to choice, at the user level. In my opinion, I think the average person is more likely to read or share or discuss the article ‘This is your brain on doughnuts’ than the authors unaltered take. On the other hand, the academic or ‘us’ more broadly will for sure go for the original source because that importance is not lost on us, and in fact is engrained in how we access value. In this scenario (granted, it’s based on some of my own assumptions) you now have the original researcher interacting with her circle of academics thinking she has used networked learning to bridge the proverbial gap while the people she thinks she is reaching are prescribed to Buzzfeeds ‘This is your brain on doughnuts’, because why wouldn’t they be?

  3. You make some really good points. I believe there has been this change going on in our society that has divided the political parties, much of which comes from people putting themselves in an echo chamber of their own thoughts. This phenomenon has been furthered by technology such as Twitter and facebook, showing users what they want to see. In addition, a number of people exhibit cognitive bias, where they only accept the views that fit with their pre-existing views. Both of these combined has given truth to anti-vaxxers and flat-earthers because they can find more and more information that fits with their pre-existing viewpoints.

    1. Thanks for your comment! I tend to agree. There are a lot of cognitive biases out there and in my opinion the way we are able to interact with people (literally so many people) makes it all to easier to reinforce pre-existing views, whether positive or negative.

  4. I really appreciate your critical analysis of network learning or social network interactions as a whole. It is often difficult to tear down the sugar-coatings and view things objectively when you have vast majority of opinions in a particular direction. I agree, network- learning is just a tool which has the potential to aid and harm as well. Keeping the “learning” part aside, I have always felt social network has distanced humans more, while trying to bring ideas and thoughts together. It has increasingly disconnected them from their immediate surroundings, from the physical world around them.
    And then of course there is the big downside of spreading lies and negativity. The biggest challenge is when people realize they won’t be held responsible for their opinions, they are seldom careful of what repurcussions their words or opinions may have on others. People are constantly letting their minds become vulnerable to manipulation and propagandizing.

    So while in general the concept of networked learning is good, we need to really careful of what it exactly entails.

    1. Thank you for your comment! I agree, the networking part (whether social or learning — where is the line?!) really does present some unique challenges. Throw in how sitting at a screen and typing removes a lot of the humanistic aspect of conversation and its easy to forget what good public discourse looks like.

  5. I completely agree with your concern on the side effects of a web-based information system. As blogging and any social media have been more powerful and influential to the public, you really need to be responsible for what they write. I found out that some researchers, journalists, and bloggers themselves began to think about ethical issues of blogging. I would like to introduce a set of code of ethics that Martin Kuhn came up with; accountability, accuracy, independence, and tone. It is important for bloggers not only to be transparent, honest, and critical of the information they interpret and publish but also to be respectful of others’ opinions.

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