Book review: The Design, Experience and Practice of Networked Learning

Review of Hodgson, V, de Laat, M, McConnell, D, & Ryberg, T. (eds) The Design, Experience and Practice of Networked Learning
Springer, Heidelberg, 2014.
DOI: 10.1007/978-3-319-01940-6

Note: this is my pre-publication version of this invited review, which appeared in the journal Technology, Knowledge & Learning in Jan 2015. (

The review is structured according to standard sub-headings used for book reviews in the TKL journal. Unfortunately, the published version of the review omits the final word of the book’s title. The journal published an erratum to this effect ( ). To help make up for that, I’m posting the pre-publication text here too.

Author(s) and Contents of the Book

This book draws together a selection of outstanding papers from the 8th biennial Networked Learning Conference, held in 2012 in Maastricht, The Netherlands. The editors – Vivien Hodgson, Maarten de Laat, David McConnell, and Thomas Ryberg – are well known, within Europe and more widely, as leading figures in the field of research and development that has emerged in the last 15 years or so under the name ‘networked learning’. Indeed, Hodgson and McConnell are among the originators of this field, which focuses on researching situations in which people learn in collaboration with others, with much or all of their interaction being mediated through network technologies (Steeples & Jones, 2002; Goodyear, 2014).

Conference proceedings can be of uneven quality and sometimes offer an unsatisfactory sampling of contemporary work. This is not the case here. The editors have been able to select from among strong papers, which authors have revised in light of feedback at the conference itself and from the editors. Overall, this makes for a good representation of the field, with contributions from a number of its best-known researchers and educational innovators. The coherence of the book emerges from several sources, in addition to the editors’ judgement and commentary. This is quite a tight-knit area of work, with substantial overlaps of interest, not just in substantive issues but also in terms of theoretical perspectives and pedagogy.

The book contains 12 main chapters preceded by an editors’ introduction. They are grouped into three sections: “Networked Learning Spaces and Context: Design and Practice”, “Networked Learning in Practice: The Expected and Unexpected” and “The Practice of Informal Networked Learning”. It should come as no surprise to hear that many of the chapters take a practice-based view of learning: there is not much here that reflects cognitive psychological perspectives. Moreover, the book includes a number of contributions that are influenced by socio-material theorizing, with more than a smattering of Actor Network Theory. It would be unfair to some of the authors to try to capture the flavour of the book in a single sentence, but the essential elements that come together here are: learning as engaging with others in substantial projects of shared concern, drawing together and held together by complex assemblages of people, digital and material tools and other artefacts. Teachers’ work then becomes a matter of designing for such learning, guiding and facilitating some of the activities that unfold, and promoting reflection on the shared experiences and their outcomes. Dewey, Illich, Freire and Schön meet Latour, Schatzki, Hutchins and Orlikowski.

This book will, of course, be read by researchers who already identify with the Networked Learning conferences and with the spin-off book series in which this volume sits (see also Dirckinck-Holmfeld et al., 2009, 2012; Goodyear et al., 2004). It should also be required reading for other researchers who are serious about the broader field of computer-supported collaborative learning (CSCL). One can still see the joins between European and North American traditions of research in CSCL. The latter still appears to be mainly concerned with small group learning, by school-aged students, in formal educational settings, using framings that mainly derive from educational psychology and/or sociolinguistics. The European tradition in CSCL is more diverse, with a wider range of interests, drawing on a richer set of theoretical and methodological resources. This book sits closer to that tradition: indeed there is some overlap in personnel between the networked learning and European CSCL research communities, and naturally enough some shared interests in adult learning, informal learning, practice theory and socio-material studies.

For example, the last four chapters in the book are all concerned with networked learning to which the label ‘informal’ can be applied. Two are concerned with continuing professional development, one with investigating the ego-networks of school age children and one with serious hobbyists. Most intriguing of these is Steve Wright and Gale Parchoma’s chapter, based on Wright’s PhD research, which uses Actor Network Theory (ANT) in a careful tracing of the network of interacting entities (human and not) implicated in the practices of home-brewing.

“we follow non-human actors, tracing the movements of recipes through two different breweries, enmeshing and assembling a network of actants including a brewer, brewery equipment, an iPhone, apps, podcasts, YouTube videos, grains, yeast, hops and more.” (Wright & Parchoma, 2014, p247)

The authors acknowledge Steve Fox’s seminal contribution to the use of ANT in networked learning (e.g. Fox, 2002) and take this much further by giving us an exemplary illustration of the power of ANT in helping identify how people assemble and hold together learning networks. In formal education, it can appear that learning networks are defined by educational providers – as if they can be brought into being by fiat. Wright & Parchoma’s example shows how ‘informal’ learning networks need to be mapped empirically. The additional step that needs to be taken is to assert that all learning networks need this kind of scrutiny – the network which is defined by the educators organizing network learning is usually only a part of the network experienced by participants, whose learning activities and other life projects extend the network into areas that may be invisible to the providing educators (Goodyear & Carvalho, 2014).

In many of the early writings in what has become the networked learning field, there was a strong focus on online facilitation – how to provide guidance in online discussions, for example (Mason & Kaye, 1989; McConnell, 1994; Salmon, 2000). More recently, there has been something of a swing towards design, with less attention, relatively speaking, being paid to understanding the tutor’s role. So the chapter by Hilary Periton & Mike Reynolds, in Part II of the book, is a welcome corrective. Their focus is on ways in which networked learning tutors can collectively tackle emerging difficulties in online groupwork. They don’t offer tips and tactics. Much better than this, they offer some productive ways for teachers to think about, and discuss among themselves, the dilemmas that it is sensible to expect in collaborative learning. They do this using an imaginative methodology – one in which a group of experienced networked learning teachers react to a fictionalized online discussion among students. Anyone with teaching experience in this field will smile with recognition at the contradictions that emerge between our idealized and embodied ‘pedagogical selves’.

The final chapter I want to pick out in this review is by Janne Gleerup, Simon Heilesen, Niels Henrik Helms and Kevin Mogensen, in Part I of the book. It is concerned with the use of networked learning approaches in the education of apprentices, with the express goal of strengthening connections between learning and work. Gleerup et al (2014) can be recommended as a compelling example of how to analyse needs and design for vocational learning in a way that reflects the best of what we know about learning in practice, learning with others, and learning as authentic engagement in innovation. It builds on activity theory and the Scandinavian tradition of participatory design. It offers a compelling picture of design for learning as a learning activity.

I have picked out a favourite chapter from each of the three parts in the book. There is much more to be enjoyed in this collection. Nina Bonderup Dohn offers a beautifully constructed lesson to those among us who are not so careful in our use of theory – pointing out how ‘practice’ is an ill-used construct in much of the networked learning literature, and how we are prone to favour explicit over tacit knowledge, and to work with very hazy images of how learning matters in our students’ lives. Bart Rienties and colleagues give us a nice analysis of ‘knowledge spillovers’ in networked learning, showing how a construct from regional economic development, combined with empirical research using network analysis tools, can illuminate some valued learning processes: collateral benefit, when it works well.


It should be clear by now that I like this engaging, useful book. Its contributions are well-written and well-judged. They are cautiously positive, which I find refreshing when contrasted with the self-promoting salesmanship or jaded critical analysis of much of what one finds in today’s ed. tech. literature.

That said, I think it would be fair to make the following remarks, particularly as there are likely to be more books in this series, and book editors and conference organisers have a responsibility to offer some leadership to a dynamic field.

First, it is clearly time to make a rapprochement with psychologically-informed accounts of human action, competence and learning. Some of the most interesting research and writing about these complex phenomena is drawing on recent developments in grounded and distributed cognition as well as on ideas about materials and materiality (e.g. Clark, 2003, 2008; Clark & Chalmers, 1998; Hodder, 2012; Hutchins, 2010; Ingold, 2011, 2013; Kirsh, 2013; Malafouris, 2013; Malfouris & Renfrew, 2010).

Among these insightful thinkers, Tim Ingold is particularly insistent on the need to take materials seriously. So my second, future-oriented, point is that networked learning researchers should be taking a few more gambles about the likely nature of the tools and artefacts that will be bound up in networked learning in the next decade or so. There has been too much (premature) fuss about the ‘the internet of things’, but we do need some strategies to ensure our research methods and problems aren’t locked to technologies that were new in the 1980s. David Kirsh puts this very nicely, if provocatively, writing about the ‘magical future of interaction design’:

“Good design needs good science fiction; and good science fiction needs good cognitive science” (Kirsh, 2013, p2)

The surge of interest in materiality across the social and human sciences has not been accompanied by (a) a proper interest in the importantly different qualities of materials (Ingold, 2007), or (b) convincing treatment of the qualities of complex digital-material objects in human activity (Faulkner & Runde, 2011). Archaeologists and anthropologists have been developing some useful ways of framing relations between tools, human cognition and collaboration, but (understandably) have not paid much attention to the digital (Malafouris, 2013, Sterelny, 2012). Some of the French ergonomists have been finding interesting ways to trace the coupled evolution of (digital) tools and human capabilities, but are not much interested in education (Rabardel & Bourmaud, 2003; Lonchamp, 2012; Ritella & Hakkarainen, 2012).

An obvious opportunity for networked learning researchers is to make some significant contributions to this space – for once, adding to theoretical developments in the human/social sciences and not merely drawing on them.

Summary Statement

This is an invaluable overview of research in the field of networked learning. It’s a very accessible introduction to the mix of theory, pedagogy and experimental practice that characterises this field. I recommend it highly to all researchers interested in contemporary developments in educational technology, collaborative learning, and the entanglement of digital tools and resources in human activity.


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Gleerup, J., Heilesen, S., Helms, N. H., & Mogensen, K. (2014). Designing for learning in coupled contexts. In V. Hodgson, M. de Laat, D. McConnell & T. Ryberg (Eds.), The Design, Experience and Practice of Networked Learning (pp. 51-66). Heidelberg: Springer.

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Wright, S., & Parchoma, G. (2014). Mobile learning and immutable mobiles: using iPhones to support informal learning in craft brewing. In V. Hodgson, M. de Laat, D. McConnell & T. Ryberg (Eds.), The Design, Experience and Practice of Networked Learning (pp. 241-261). Heidelberg: Springer.

Peter Goodyear

University of Sydney



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