Networked Learning: Education in distributed networks

by Stephan Ridgway, eLearning Cordinator, TAFE NSW - Sydney Institute
A presentation as guest speaker for the Digital Media Components & Products course, Randwick College, 21 August 2007

Touchgraph image of a network

image by TouchGraph


In this session participants will gain an understanding of:

  • An historical overview of the shift from distance learning, online learning through to eLearning
  • Overview of the emergent web2.0 and it's defining characteristics
  • Networked Learning model

Session Recordings

A brief history of eLearning

Distance Learning

Sometimes referred to as correspondence learning, this involved the distribution of print based material to students, typically by mail with phone contact to individual learners. OTEN and numerous universities still deliver in this fashion although it is often supplemented with some form of online presence, typically a Learning Management System. It tended to be very disengaging for the learners, requiring them to be very self directed and disciplined in their learning styles. There was no group activities or social dimension to the course delivery with learners mailing back assignments and ringing their lecturer for support. In a VET connect it could also involve a form of block release where students had a series if intensive f2f sessions combined with distance learning.

Computer Based Training

The proliferation of desktop personal computers in the workplace and to a lesser degree in homes in the late 1980's ushered in the phase of Computer Based Training or CBT. The emergence on the market in the mid to late 90's of cheap read only cdrom drives meant that organisations could deliver large amounts of content to learners via crdom disk. Initially there was a mad rush by organisations to place entire courses into electronic format to circumvent the constraints of low bandwidth and limited multimedia capacities of the early web protocols. While some of this learnigware may have used the www it served a secondary function such as contact details, email or support/promotion website. The shift here was primarily from print to screen based content.

The content of this CBT phase had the following characteristics
  • Lock step where the user simply clicked next to move onto the next phase of the content.
  • unfacilitated, the learner is seen as a passive absorber of content.
  • self paced and not customised to an individuals learning style
  • very expensive to produce and dated quickly
  • clip art era of learningware where content was very generic and lacked localised relevance
  • offered self paced flexible delivery where the student cold learn any time at their own pace.

Online Learning

With the emergence of the networked pc and the birth of the web browser and the World Wide Web WWW in the late 1990's individuals and organisations began to utilise the potential of the Internet to distribute learning material across networks. Initially this meant simply emailing or hyperlinking soft copy versions of resources which would have previously been mailed to students. Given that bandwidth was very low, dialup 33 Kb/sec and the multimedia capabilities of most personal computers very rudimentary most of these resources were text based with static images.

As the www and the browser/browsers matured and more bandwidth became available this offered up the possibility of placing entire courses online. Many educational institutions from 2000 onward adopted Learning Management Systems and began either uploading existing course materials or embarking on the creation of expensive learningware. This is the point at which TAFE NSW launched TAFE Online stage 1, a 3 pronged strategy to produce learningware, upskill staff and improve network infrastructure to support online delivery. This phase was all about content and delivery platforms or learning management systems LMS.
The prevailing idea here was get as much content up online as possible and if possible whole courses needed to be online.

This early online learning phase had the following characteristics

  • Existing content was simply placed online - shovelware
  • largely unfacilitated, focus was on content, especially glitzy flash or Java based content
  • Educational institutions spent a lots of money on resource development with the view that "if we build it they will come" eg. open university in the UK
  • Few if any standards, so little interoperability between delivery platforms
  • Educational administrators assumed that online learning would save money in delivery, they were wrong!
  • LMS's replicated the traditional teacher centred class room environment


The term eLearning itself has it's origins in the corporate literature of Computer Based Training in the 1990's (wikipedia entry: electronic learning) however in more recent times has come to encompass a broader array of delivery strategies. For example in it's "Practical Guide to eLearning for industry" the Australian Flexible Learning Framework defines eLearning as ..

"At its simplest level, e-learning is defined as the use of computer technology to deliver education or training courses to learners. Such courses may be studied online, off line, by any mixture of these modes, and may also involve blended modes where there is interaction with a live or virtual teacher or trainer. E-learning gives the learner choice of what, when and where they study. That is, it is flexible learning." Practical guide to e-learning for industry

Elsewhere in a more contemporary vain the Australian Flexible Learning Framework defines eLearning as ..

"the use of technology in the delivery of education and training. It includes the use of web resources, wikis and virtual classrooms as well as MP3 players, mobile phones and personal digital assistants (PDAs) to create more flexible learning options." (

The emphasis here is not on the technology used to deliver, although clearly it should involve some form of electronic technology, but rather flexibility for the learner, any time, anywhere, any place. Increasingly learners live busy lives and have less time for formal class room training so require flexible, individualised training delivered in the workplace rather than at a dedicated educational facility. The notion of "Just in time training" encompasses this idea of embedded learning. Technology can assist in facilitating flexible outcomes for learners.

Blended Learning

This leads us to the predominate model which is used today which recognises that flexible delivery can involve a range of delivery strategies.

Often termed Blended learning it refers to the integration of CBT, online e-learning technologies with face to face learning methods.

eLearning + F2F = Blended Learning

A rough evolution of eLearning

Figure 1 was prepared in 2007 by NSW LearnScope through an examination of the team focus of funded projects under the NSW LearnScope eLearning grants program.

image by NSW LearnScope

Networked Learning or eLearning 2.0

Web 2.0 defining characteristics

  • the Web as a platform, web services which use the browser, easy to use
  • The web is changing from a document delivery system to an application platform
  • User generated content the driving force
  • Easy to create, distribute and share content, often collaboratively via RSS
  • The "Network Effect" - services improve the more people who join - e.g, flickr
  • Distributed content via RSS
  • Folksonomic content classification using TAGS
  • Makes it easy to find other users with similar interests and form online communities – Social Software
  • Paradigm shift, web 1.0 to web 2.0 - Read Write web

Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0

  • Web 1.0 was about reading, Web 2.0 is about writing
  • Web 1.0 was about companies, Web 2.0 is about communities
  • Web 1.0 was about client-server, Web 2.0 is about peer to peer
  • Web 1.0 was about HTML, Web 2.0 is about XML
  • Web 1.0 was about home pages, Web 2.0 is about blogs
  • Web 1.0 was about portals, Web 2.0 is about RSS
  • Web 1.0 was about taxonomy, Web 2.0 is about tags
  • Web 1.0 was about wires, Web 2.0 is about wireless
  • Web 1.0 was about owning, Web 2.0 is about sharing
  • Web 1.0 was about Netscape, Web 2.0 is about Google
  • Web 1.0 was about web forms, Web 2.0 is about web applications
  • Web 1.0 was about dialup, Web 2.0 is about broadband
  • Web 1.0 was about hardware costs, Web 2.0 is about bandwidth costs


Knowledge Sharing in collaborative networks

"organisations are becoming more networked, which is weakening traditional management hierarchies and potentially opening up new capacity for continual learning, innovation and adaptation" - Senge, P. 2006, The Fifth Discipline, Doubleday, New York

Network learning is all about the connected information flows between distributed networks and online communities, characterised by a willingness to share, mix and feed.

Characteristics of collaborative learning networks

  • Always on connectivity to the global network eg. mobile web
  • Tendency for information to become viral, if it emerges in one location it appears everywhere instantaneously
  • move from expert to learner led collaborative process
  • democratisation of ownership and control over content eg. citizen journalism, blogging, youtube
  • Information is shared and knowledge derives from the network rather than individuals or institution

  • Moving from control to connectivity, partnership and participation - Collareda J & Waters J, 2007, Life Based Learning
  • Boundaries between leisure, work, learning, personal become blurred
  • Learning occurs everywhere not just in the classroom, Life based Learning

RSS – The distributed model
  • RSS is the connecting fabric of web2.0 services, providing the conduit for information flows between distributed networks.
  • Means to subscribe, syndicate and remix (mashups) ie. start pages like protopage or pageflakes
  • All about the connected information flows between decentralised nodes, characterised by a willingness to share, mix and feed.

external image 62142614_5bb5726f91_m.jpg

image by Dion Hinchcliffe

For many of us, our first step into the world of networked learning is subscribing to an rss feed, probably using a web based aggregator like bloglines. RSS is the connecting fabric of networks, providing the conduit for information flows between distributed nodes. Content syndication or the re-use of information from others on the network, often characterised as mashups, is what sets web2.0 services apart from the preceding phase of the web, comprising static pages linked by url’s.

“The new era is also creating a realm of endless mix and match: Anyone with a browser can access vast stores of information, mash it up, and serve it in new ways, to a few people or a few hundred million.” – Erick Schonfeld, Om Malik, and Michael V. Copeland, The Next Net: 25 startups that are reinventing the web, (2006)

Network learning is all about the connected information flows between decentralised nodes, characterised by a willingness to share, mix and feed.

RSS is intrinsically collaborative as it allows information to be endlessly re purposed anywhere on the network. As educators within learning networks we need to learn how to utilise the power of rss to connect and collaborate with our learners. Let’s have a look as a few ways we can utilise rss to enhance the information flows between networked learners.

Tagging: user classification of user based content

Tagging is a method of categorisation whereby key words are assigned to web based resources by users of social software services such as social bookmarking or photosharing sites. Each user "tags" the resources arbitrarily according to their own personal preferences. Items may have multiple tags which may or may not correspond to other users tags. Because users assign their own tags, which may not necessarily correspond to other users, the system is potentially ambiguous and anarchic. For example I may tag “apple” for a resources related to a brand of computer however another person may be assigning it to a type of fruit.

This practice of social groups collaboratively categorising resources is known as folksonomy and differs from the more formal model of a predefined hierarchical model of classification know as taxonomy such as the Dewy Decimal system used in library's.

Taxonomy - The science of classification

  • From the greek verb:
  • Taxis = "to classify"
  • Nomos = "law, science, economy"
  • Hierarchical-enumerative top down tree like structure
  • Hierarchies designed and maintained by experts
  • Repositories cataloged by experts eg. libraries
  • Structure imposed on the world of objects
  • Centralised classification

Folksonomy - Social classification
  • Folk + Taxonomy meaning that it emerges from the people
  • Open democatic system
  • Constantly evolving based on user interactions and consensus
  • tags capture the social fabic at that moment in time
  • Structure is an emergent property
  • Well suited to rapidly changing heterogeneous information sources such as the internet and social networks
  • Distributed classification

Emanuele Quintarelli, Folksonomies: power to the people, 2005

Social Software & tagging

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external image 4921613_e07c9d03d7_m_d.jpg

Photo by jbum

Tagging or the folksonomic process of assigning keywords to items has become synonymous with what is referred to as social software. Social software are web based services which allow users to form social networks online. Although heterogenous in their service provision they all have some common charateristics.

Social software has some or all of the following characteristics:
  • Easy content creation
  • Collaborative content creation
  • Ability to share content with others (often via RSS feeds)
  • Makes it easy to find other users with similar interests
  • Tools for forming online communities

Examples of Social Software

Three of the best known examples of social software using folksonomies are probably Flickr, and Technorati.


Blogs are one of the most commonly utilised tools for educators to communicate with their learners. In many ways web2.0 emerged out of the blogging phenomenon and the so called “blogosphere” is testament to the power of blogs as a social networking tool.

The most common way to syndicate content in blogs is to modify the publishing template so the feeds are displayed in the columns along the side. Most of the social software services offer a way to achieve this and there are numerous services which exclusively cater to taking a feed address and outputting code to directly paste into a blog template. Some of the apps whose feeds are commonly seen on blogs are blog rolls from bloglines, RSS headlines, lists of tagged urls from, Flickr badges, Frappr Maps, calendars etc. the list is endless. If you are blogging as part of a networked learning community this is a great way to forge connections between learners.


wikis represent one of the most salient example of collaborative tools used by learning networks.

A wiki is a website that can be easily edited from within a web-browser. They are especially suited for collaborative authoring of documents. This resource is on a wiki.
  • Can be edited by anyone on the network or by members of a defined community
  • All edits are archived and can be rolled back to at any time
  • Wikipedia - the free, collaboratively built online encyclopaedia - is the best known example of a wiki.

Some common platforms in use
  • Mediawiki - used by wikipedia, open source
  • wikispaces - web based wiki used by many educators, free with ads, has range of paid services including private networks
  • pbwiki - free web based wiki
  • Confluence - Often used for intranets


Australian Flexible Learning Framework, (Script v1.12), Practical guide to e-learning for industry

Michael Coghlan, 2007, "eLearning - the Big Picture", Podding Downunder

Sean Fitzgerald, 2006, Creating your Personal Learning Environment

Jenny Ambrozek, Victoria Axelrod and Kiki Mulliner, 2007, "Learning and participation through connecting intelligence: experimenting with a wiki to co-create an article", Edition 14, The Knowledge Tree: A e-journal of innovation

Danah Boyd, 2007, Social Network Sites: Public, Private, or What?, Edition 13, The Knowledge Tree: A e-journal of innovation

Danah Boyd, 2007, Generation MySpace - Social networking and its impact on students and education, podcast

Tim Berners-Lee, The WorldWideWeb browser

Copacetic, 2006, Web 1.0 vs Web 2.0

Online Resources

Learning to change - Changing to learn

Designing e-learning
This site shows the many ways you can use e-learning to engage learners, provide flexibility and improve quality in vocational education and training (VET). It can be used as an individual guide, or as a resource for professional development and training sessions.

E-standards for Training Reference Site
This site is maintained by the Australian Flexible Learning Framework to support the developing national infrastructure for managing electronic learning resources in the training system.

M-learning Standards - April 2007
The Australian Flexible Learning Framework E-standards for Training and New Practices projects have developed a set of recommended standards for mobile learning (m-learning) content in the VET system:

E-portfolio report - June 2007
The E-standards for Training project has released a report on e-portfolio systems in the VET system. This report specifically focuses on e-portfolios to support transitions between training, other forms of learning, and employment. The study shows the potential for e-portfolios to provide a systematic, electronic method for learners to record and control access to evidence of their learning.

Showcasing eLearning in practice
Australian Flexible Learning Framework, 2006 Networks Online Conference

NSW LearnScope
LearnScope is a project of the Australian Flexible Learning Framework (Framework). LearnScope focuses on professional development to enhance the skills and understanding that underpin e-Learning and e-business.

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