Social Network Informed Design for Learning with Educational Technology

Social Network Informed Design for Learning with Educational Technology

Caroline Haythornthwaite (University of British Columbia, Canada) and Maarten De Laat (Ruud de Moor Centrum, Open Universiteit Nederland, The Netherlands)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61350-080-4.ch018


This chapter discusses and illustrates how knowledge of social networks can be used to inform social and technical design for learning and teaching in higher education. The chapter introduces the social network perspective and how this can be used to explore learning. It shows how a relational approach can be used to explore the basis of learning ties, uncover social roles and positions, and form a basis for a network’s social capital. This is followed by a discussion of current research directions illustrating how this approach can be applied in education. This research indicates how knowledge of informal learning networks can facilitate informed design for learning, teaching, and professional development.
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A Social Network Perspective On Learning

There are two features that distinguish the social network approach to the study of social phenomena. The first is that the unit of analysis is the interaction between actors, rather than an aggregate of actor behavior; and the second is that attention is given to the network structures that emerge from interactions among actors. Social network relations (i.e., interactions, transactions, communications, collaborations, etc.), are the basis for ties between actors in a network (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). The principles of social network analysis derive from graph theory, which looks at patterns of relational connections between nodes in a graph. The nodes in a social network graph are the actors, who can be individuals or collective units such as teams or organizations. In learning and education settings, the actors may be teachers connected to each other within a school; teachers and students in a class; schools connected as part of a district school system; departmental connections across a university; or universities connected through inter-university course sharing. In contemporary settings, these connections are as likely to be accomplished through technology as they are through face-to-face contact.

The network approach draws our attention to the way patterns of interaction provide an environment for exchange of resources (Wasserman & Faust, 1994). Such resources include tangible goods and services, and intangibles such as communication, social support, information, knowledge and learning. From a design perspective, data on social network patterns can be used to provide an understanding what kinds of information, objects, communications, etc. are exchanged among network actors, and how the flow of these exchanges supports overall goals. Systems can be designed to facilitate such flows, and to correct or adjust existing flows.

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