I love reading the work of Jenny Mackness. She is an independent researcher, who blogs about many topics that aligned with areas that are of great interest to me. Her most recent post was called “New Metaphors for Learning“, and it got me thinking about how much we rely on metaphors for understanding, and how the metaphor has come particularly alive now that we are all able to create and share visual and multimedia to express ourselves online. Jenny observes that once you begin thinking about metaphors for learning, you realise they are everywhere. She points to this fantastic presentation by another guru, Caroline Haythornthwaite, who suggests that we need new metaphors for networked learning, as we try to “explain new and abstract experiences through established and concrete experiences”.
This got me thinking about my recent reading about networked learning and the internet – and of course, the first metaphor that popped into my head was the spider’s web. Not particularly innovative or surprising, I suppose, but one that is capable of lots of flexibility and depth.
There were a number of reasons the spider’s web appealed to me as a metaphor for networked learning. The first, is that in my research, I am taking an egocentric view of networks, seeing the network from the perspective of the individual who created it. Therefore, the spider, sitting in the middle of the web it has created is a great way to visualise this approach.
The web is constructed of some very strong threads that stabilise it, and also has lighter threads, reaching out in different directions. These are the strong and weak ties of a learning network. Strong ties are typified by frequent relations which are reciprocated, and where there may be a level of self-disclosure and trust (Haythornthwaite & De Laat, 2010). Strong ties are seen within the whole network when two connected nodes are also tied to others in the same network (Granovetter, 1973).Weak ties are characterised by incidental, serendipitous or infrequent relations, that provide diffusion, fresh contributions and a rich source of perspectives (Dron & Anderson, 2007; Haythornthwaite & De Laat, 2010; Jones, 2004; Wenger et al., 2011). Weak ties may link clusters of otherwise unrelated networks, acting as a “bridge”, and introducing a new channel for information (Granovetter, 1973, p. 1364). We use both when we navigate our networks, just as a spider uses both to provide stability and yet to extend their web as far as they can to ensure the greatest chance of catching that prey.
Every web is unique; and each web a spider creates is also different, depending upon a number of different factors. So too are our learning networks. We create them how and when we need them. Unlike spiders webs however, our learning networks are borderless (Dron & Anderson, 2015) – they are not independent entities that exist separately from each other. Our networks connect us in ways that we may not even realise. This is a key part of a learning network – and allows for the serendipity and element of chaos that enables the most amazing learning to take place.
So when the insect finds itself entangled in the sticky web, its frantic struggles signal to the spider, no matter where it currently is located on the web, that there is a meal awaiting. How often have you unexpectedly discovered a learning when traversing your network, one that you had never even considered previously? Is it the random tweet that alerts you to its presence, or the email from the RSS feed you subscribe to that tells you a great article has been written? What are the signals that great learning is available to you on your network?
I believe that this is one of the reasons so many play with networked learning and then give up – their networks lack the stickiness and the ability to convey vibrations right to where they are located. Setting up a learning network takes time, but one of the most important aspects is to nurture both strong and weak ties, and to have tools set to alert you to when those ties have captured something wonderful. I use lists in Twitter, I curate resources using Pinterest and Pocket, subscribe to RSS feeds within Outlook and have a few alerts on Google for keywords such as “networked learning” and “personal learning networks”. I use these strategies to ensure that when something rich is shared within my network, I have a greater chance of feeling the vibes it sends out (so to speak) and seeing this within the stream of information that my network creates.
So next time you see a spider’s web, check it out a little more closely! It may inspire you to begin your networked learning journey. If it does, include me on the ride!